By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer
For many transplants– and so maybe most residents – the City should look pretty much as they found it, because that is how they came to love it.
They fear that the City’s character, which in some neighborhoods arises primarily from single-family homes, and in others from the limits that wood-frame construction and traditional lot sizes place on multi-family homes, is about to disappear.
This fear can puzzle some of us who have lived all our lives here. The way the City looks has changed constantly, and even historic structures can have competing histories.
I recall the Victorians of my childhood as painted white, with asbestos shingles or aluminum siding often replacing the detailed original millwork. The coloring of Victorians that began in the 1960s has restored the millwork, but its decisions on color must be as much guesses as acknowledgements of history. Are the guesses at color that we prize now any more historic than the white that marked Victorians for decades?
And those who claim to value at once the environment and historic preservation – among other “Progressive” values – can also puzzle us.
We recall that the Sunset, whose homes preservationists now deem historic, covered an ancient dune complex. What environmentalist would now accept developer Henry Doelger’s profitable work there, the last great flowering of middle-class housing in the City, and one that employed thousands of Building Trades workers? What preservationist would demand that it be returned to dune?
But we in the working class need much more new housing if we are to stay in the City, and in a City largely built out this housing will not roll over ecosystems, as did the Sunset, but instead replace existing buildings.
Much of the more public opposition to new housing has been to high rises.
Some of this opposition has been on aesthetic grounds and is understandable. Like every generation of structures, the current class of San Francisco high rises include some that are handsome, some that are bland, and some that are worse than bland.
Some opposition responds to a common challenge in high rises that must be addressed through creative design: By drawing residential doorways away from the streets and upward, high rises can have the effect of deadening pedestrian activity on the streets, through which a city really lives.
But most opposition to high rises comes instead either from those living close by who will lose their views to them, or from those living farther away for whom they stand for change unacceptable in almost any form.
High rises will not spread throughout the City. The real fight over development will ultimately be not over high rises, but over mid-rise housing built out into the neighborhoods along transit corridors. Such housing will not be built, sold, or rented at the price points of high rise construction in the South of Market and Market Street and Van Ness corridors. Much of it should actually be attainable for middle-income working-class buyers such as ourselves.
This is the expectation for the Schlage Lock project in Visitacion Valley, for example.
The neighborhoods around Schlage Lock were convinced to support it through careful work and listening by the developer and the City. Other neighborhoods will likely be more resistant even to such care.
But midrise mixed-use buildings along transit corridors, which will largely replace small commercial buildings, will not alter the character of neighborhoods of single-family homes such as the Sunset and Outer Mission.
And they will fill a housing need.
The argument of need must be used honestly. Its recent use to justify the construction of 4000 square foot homes on Corona Heights – for the needs “of families,” supposedly – is dubious at best to those of us who have raised families in barely a quarter that space.
We should be honest, too, and admit that changes in City’s look can also affect its social makeup. Seemingly contradictory principles apply: To repay their construction, new structures can require higher rents or sale prices than structures long ago built and paid for. Once the market for such prices is demonstrated, owners of existing buildings will often respond by increasing their prices. At the same time, and despite the claims of some, market forces do continue to operate here, and to resist new construction while new residents continue to arrive – or to be born – is to restrict supply in the face of increasing demand, and so to accelerate increases in rents or sale prices.
The San Francisco Building Trades have therefore continued to advocate new construction, but to stand against residential evictions and for tenant protections in existing structures.
We want no displacement of existing residents, but we also want homes for our daughters and sons. To provide them, San Francisco cannot look just the same as now.