The Persistence of the Past

If you aren’t familiar with the San Francisco of forty years ago, the city planning battles that play out at City Hall and in the press might seem baffling. A look back at that period is helpful.


Planning decisions made from the mid-70s to mid-80s led to radical and traumatic changes in the City’s landscape. I had the luck to participate in many of the events I describe, first as an activist, and later as a Planhnning Commissioner and as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development.

In this piece I’m going to focus on land use battles – conflicts over housing and historic preservation, “Manhattanization” and competing visions for the City. But it’s important to look at other events of that time.

On November 18, 1978 in Guyana, Reverend Jim Jones and almost a thousand members of Peoples Temple killed themselves and others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in a mass suicide. Jones had recently moved his primarily African-American flock to that jungle camp after having become politically powerful in San Francisco. I worked closely with Jones when he was Chair of the City’s Housing Authority and I have to admit that I saw no charisma. Probably a good thing.

Less than two weeks later, on November 27, 1978 Supervisor Dan White gunned down Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. The city was shaken by these events to an extent that I can’t describe.

It was a terrible, shocking time.

Three years later, in 1981, San Francisco saw its first diagnosed AIDS case, and within a few years sick young men were everywhere – newly blind, stick figures, with purple splotches. Nobody knew at first how it was transmitted and there are no cures.
Everyone lost friends and I had friends who lost all their friends and then died themselves.

The landscape and demographics of the City were changing. In 1975 old time San Franciscans voted for Republican mayoral candidate John Barbagelata. And they voted for Dan White, for Supervisor. His slogan: “Unite to Fight With White”. Moscone barely beat Barbagelata (by 4,315 vote out of 200,000). At the time, pollster Melvin Field described Barbagelata voters as “those with property interests to protect, older people, the educated, pessimistic, frustrated by events, the white middle class.” They felt under siege by newcomers, many of them Chinese, or hippies, or gay.


The earliest of the land use traumas discussed here was the destruction of the Fillmore and South of Market neighborhoods by the City’s Redevelopment Agency. The demolitions pre-dated the mid 1970s, but for much of this period there were many acres of empty lots.

During World War II, European cities suffered bombings and civilian casualties on a scale never before seen. After the War, European planners had to rebuild bombed-out central city and American planners were envious of their blank slates. So, in cities across the country, urban leaders bombed our own central cities, particularly those neighborhoods populated by low income, elderly, and minority residences and the businesses that served them. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency leveled 60 blocks in the mostly African-American Fillmore, taking out not just housing but also thriving businesses and an entire local culture of extended families, churches, shops, and nightclubs.



South of Market, Redevelopment wiped out a community to make room for the Moscone Convention Center, Yerba Buena Gardens, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and, after years of lawsuits, both market rate and low-income housing.

Third Street before Redevelopment

Third Street for a decade

These sweeping interventions were not undertaken by conservatives – but by well-intentioned liberals, as part of an effort to address blight. Blight is messy, an infection, unsanitary. Redevelopment is clean.

But it wasn’t just slummy buildings that were removed.


These people lived in the International Hotel, on the edge of the Financial District in what was left of Manilatown. His name was Wahat Tampao.

The Hotel was not just cheap housing; it was also the heart of a community, with restaurants, a barbershop, and a nightclub. A Thai whiskey magnate named Supasit Mahaguna bought the Hotel to demolish and replace with a highrise. The campaign to save the Hotel was the largest housing struggle of the mid 70s in San Francisco with regular demonstrations that circled the entire city block. Advocates pushed for the City to take the Hotel from the developer, had it declared a National Landmark, and fought in court. Defying an eviction order to clear the building, the Sheriff himself went to jail.

That’s Peoples Temple Reverend Jim Jones in the center.

We lost, and on August 4th, 1977 the police cleared the street of demonstrators and the sheriff emptied the building. I was in the building, with a pass issued by the Sheriff.

Adding insult to injury, the replacements for lost buildings were typically Brutalist.

Here’s what replaced the International Hotel:

This department store on Union Square:



This was the old Courthouse, formerly across the street from the International Hotel.

It became:


And this:



Not all of these were public action by the City and not all were downtown. The character of the neighborhoods flanking Golden Gate Park was changing too. The Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods were seeing new Chinese neighbors – in 1970 the City was 8.2% Asian, in 1980, 22%. They were often housed in boxy multifamily buildings that replaced Victorians.

They were known as Richmond Specials and they triggered a backlash that led to a designated priority policy in the Planning Code (one of 8, along with earthquake preparedness):” Conserve and Protect Neighborhood Character. “

When I hear that term I recall what President Jimmy Carter said in April 1976 in an interview with the New York Daily News. He said he saw “nothing wrong with ethnic purity” being maintained in urban neighborhoods.


The mid 70s saw a boom in highrise construction (In the years from 1965-1981 the square footage of office space more than doubled, from 26 million to 55 million). The backlash ended with the 1986 passage of Proposition M, a cap on highrise growth (and the establishment of the Priority Policies).

There was a religious fervor to the anti-highrise campaign:

The Tower of Babel, by Peter Bruegel the Elder

There were many arguments against highrises: they don’t pay enough taxes to cover the public burden; they create shadowed canyons and block views; they spread into Chinatown, South of Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods,

A lot of these objections were lumped together into the term Manhattanization. It’s useful to look back at what Manhattan represented then: anarchy, crime, graffiti, and bedlam:

The best case against highrises was made in a coloring book.

coloring book

It is a tale of innocence lost and hope in an uprising.

It was a postcard town and romance was everywhere:

postcard png


Until the developers came along:


But by banding together, the little guys were able to beat the big guys:

fight back

And how decisions about the City get made would change too:


It’s a great story. And in my experience, a good story will beat a terrific study or report any day. The plucky insurgence against the developers – Jane Jacobs as David against Robert Moses as. Goliath. God punishing the hubris of the builders of Babel. And we had perfect villains: Supasit Mahaguna, the Redevelopment Agency, and the King Kong developer shown above.

In the highrise battles there were two competing narratives, different visions of the role of the city – and of how the future should be determined. On one side, developers, Mayors, and planners envisioning a regional job center in the International style. On the other, the Bay Guardian newspaper, San Francisco Tomorrow, and neighborhood groups keen on a city that primarily serves existing residents. At issue: the idea of Progress.

The City went through a lot.
These battles of the ‘70s and ‘80s echo today and they shape the decisions we make and how we make them. The events of those times were traumatic and the City has responded to them as an individual would.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about trauma:
“Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person’s familiar ideas about the world and their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is also seen when institutions that are depended upon for survival, violate, humiliate, betray, or cause major losses or separations.“

In response three changes came about: laws were passed, decision-making authority was diluted, and we have embraced a planning culture that accepts gridlock.


Overall, I think the City did a pretty good job of legislating solutions to the problems of that period. Tenants are well protected and so are historic buildings. Another International Hotel eviction could not happen. New buildings contribute toward offsetting their impacts.

• The Residential Hotel Ordinance mandates that residential hotel rooms must be preserved or replaced.
• Office developers must pay into funds for affordable housing and transit and either fund or provide childcare.
• Significant new shadows on parks are prohibited.
• In the Downtown area, historic buildings are preserved and owners can sell development rights.
• Community – initiated plans adopted by the City help protect Chinatown and the Tenderloin from office and hotel development.


The planning blunders of the ‘70s and ‘80s led to changes in how decisions get made. Power and decision-making authority have been diffused.

• The City went from an at-large system of electing members of the Board of Supervisors to an 11-member Board elected by numbered districts. The effect is that each supervisor has de facto veto power over developments or plans in his or her district.
• Previous Planning Commissions were composed of 5 mayoral appointees and two representing City departments. (For about four years I was a “permanent alternate ex officio” member of the Commission.) Now, the Commission is made up of a handful of appointments from the Board and a handful of Mayoral nominees, who must also be Board approved. They tend to vote along those lines.
• Proposition M the anti-highrise proposition, was the finale to a series of efforts to manage growth at the polls. Since then, “Ballot Box Planning” has really taken off. Affordable housing percentages, disposition of City surplus properties, AirBnB controls, building heights, market rate housing moratoriums, protection for legacy businesses, increased voter controls over waterfront planning, and individual projects have all been decided by the voters in recent years. And it is not only opponents who have brought their case to the electorate. So have developers, including Lennar, the SF Giants, Forest City, and Pacific Waterfront Partners.


Legislation is difficult and the dilution of decision-making authority has made it harder. But I believe that it’s not the challenge of crafting and implementing laws that stymie the City’s planning and development. The impediment is our unique culture.

In reaction to the top-down, autocratic plans of the ‘70s and ‘80s – the hollowing out of entire neighborhoods, the widespread loss of historic buildings and the poor quality of the replacements, the downtown boom that nibbled at Chinatown and other adjacent neighborhoods – San Francisco has adopted a conservative planning culture. We just don’t like change.

• Rather than providing leadership and skill, planning has become an exercise in consensus-seeking. And that means that an unsatisfied individual or group can exercise de facto veto power.
• Preservation, of “neighborhood character” or of individual, often nondescript, older buildings, has assumed a higher value than competing interests for housing, jobs, urbanism, innovative design, or other social goods.
• Fortunately we no longer have the brutal drama of events like the International Hotel eviction or the destructive scale of the scooping out of the Western Addition or South of Market. We lack colorful villains like Supasit Mahaguna or the Redevelopment Agency bulldozers. What we get is vicious infighting among people who generally agree within a narrow spectrum of views. And hyped up crises like the 5M project, a proposal for 40% permanently affordable housing that led to the shut down of the Planning Commission, with speakers calling the proposal “genocide” Or the bogus Wall on the Waterfront campaign – successful opposition to a housing development that was neither a wall nor on the waterfront.
• Planning resources are focused on procedures, bulletproofing proposals from environmental appeals, discretionary review of small projects, and second-guessing design.
• Real issues – like the change of the City’s role in the regional economy, changing transportation patterns, and the housing crisis – have slipped by without serious planning.
• There is no real constituency for effective planning. The sheer inefficiency of planning, with multiple redundant reviews, easy appeals of even fully Code compliant projects, and CEQA review of modest infill projects serve as a de facto drag on change. It is like driving with the parking brakes on.

And after the planning blunders of the past, we settle for this.


David Prowler ( arrived in San Francisco in 1974. Since then he:

• Served as Housing Specialist at the City’s Human Rights Commission, focusing on saving the International Hotel;
• Worked as Planning Director at the Chinatown Community Development Center;
• Served as Special Assistant to the City’s Chief Administrative Officer and as a Planning Commissioner;
• Served as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and managed the creation of Mission Bay and the Giants Ballpark;
• Founded Prowler, Inc., a planning and development firm whose clients have included City agencies, SFMOMA, SF State University, SF Zen Center, and One Rincon Hill
• Lectures in the Urban Studies Program at Stanford University.


Souvenirs of Japan


From our hotel room

I had read statistics about Tokyo – for example that metropolitan Tokyo has more people than California or Canada.   That the City has a municipal budget equal to that of India.  That one train station serves 3.5 million people a day.

But I wasn’t prepared. All our time in Tokyo I felt like a country mouse. In a cab we’d drive through a Times Square, then another, then another. A half-dozen high-rise financial districts. Trying to grasp the layout I’d unfold a big map, to find out it covered just one neighborhood. Our sense of scale was so off that we’d find a destination that looked near and head out to walk before realizing we were miles away.


Often I didn’t know where we were, or going, or coming from (and hardly cared.)

It’s hard to imagine how such an enormous city can “work”, but it does, and without the ad hoc, patched together feel of New York. It is famously spotless, everyone is polite, the trains run on time, there is very little graffiti, no smashed car windows, nobody high or drunk, bicycles unlocked, no honking or raised voices.

On our return I was reminded what an advanced civilization Japan is, compared to our primitive one – litter thrown  everywhere, smashed car windows, people raving or lying on the sidewalks. Someone has even spray painted a graffiti tag on our street tree.

I was amazed that a big global capital city could have such a homogeneous population: just about everyone you see is Asian.  San Francisco, New York, Paris, London are all diverse, with Asians, black, brown, and white people. Not Tokyo. The only other city I’ve visited with such homogeneity was Buenos Aires, where every one is white pretty much.

Right off its broad freeway streets, Tokyo everywhere has more intimate, alleys and streets, perfect for getting lost.


And on those streets, more restaurants per capita than any other city. Many of these seat only a handful of patrons and the economics of such small places consistently puzzled us.

Because there is so much competition and because of the Japanese pride in work and attention to detail it would be hard find a bad meal. Ours ranged from good to beyond great. And not just the Japanese cuisine.  A Japanese friend told us how disappointed she was when she ate in French restaurants – in Paris.

I read that so many Japanese eat out because the price of restaurant meals isn’t much more than the cost of groceries. And we saw very few grocery stores.

kimono 711

The big shopping hot spot is 7-11, which is a Japanese corporation and sells everything.

Maybe it’s not all so sweet under the surface. There are special “women only”cars during rush hour for those who want to avoid groping.



If you are a Japanese college graduate and a man you are expected to become a salaryman and if you don’t it’s a shame on you-  and your parents. You get a job in the April after you graduate (that’s when corporations hire) and you stay at that job until you retire. You don’t leave, you don’t get laid off or fired. After work you are expected to dine and drink with your colleagues. Everyone dresses the same: dark suit, white shirt, dark tie.

It sounds miserable and many salarymen commit suicide. The popular spot is the Chuo subway line, paralyzing the commute.


Now there are barriers that only open when the train has arrived

For such a dense city, Tokyo has a surprising number of single-family homes in the center of town:



I liked the humble buildings.  Here, a park restroom:


I even like the ugly buildings:


You might not expect it, but Japanese buildings are not built to last.  They are replaced every 30 years or so.  As in Israel, buildings are either very, very old or young.

Nearly two million buildings occupy the central 23 wards of Tokyo.  About a quarter of these were built since 1990. According to Botond Bognar,quoted in Zen Places and Neon Places by Vinayak Bharne, “In 1997 the annual degree of change within Tokyo’s densely built urban zones was about 30% (encompassing facade improvements to entirely new structures).  The average life span of a building was around 26 years.  Virtually any new building had a zero value after three years, even if built of reinforced concrete, the true value of the property lying in the ground below”.

In Hiroshima I saw the most lamentable, misbegotten building I’ve ever seen.

Hiroshima has a Peace Park with memorials to the atom bomb and a peace center where the G7 foreign ministers convened a couple of days after we left.


There is the famous ruin of the bombed out building and when we got there an opera singer was singing to a group of school kids who later turned out to be a chorus. It was very moving.

The Peace Park’s memorials are lined up toward this shell, with an eternal flame and an arched monument leading up to it, all on an axis. And then this office building:


What a blemish.

One more shot, with the G7 ministersg7

In any town you can’t get far without coming across a shrine (those are Shinto) or a temple (which are Buddhist).

And not just in town. Check out this unmarked shrine we stumbled across on an equally unmarked trail near Hakone:

IMG_0306 (1)

Often there’s a garden that will change what you think a garden can do. To me, their beauty was a type of transcendental transportation.

IMG_0327 (1)

This one, in Kyoto, was designed in the 14th century.


This one is in the heart of Tokyo.

Nature is a big deal. Especially cherry blossoms and we were there for the week or so that they are in full bloom. Japanese love to photograph the blossoms and I loved to photograph the photographers:



And they like to picnic under them.

Shinto is the state religion; you’ve got to be Japanese to get in, there’s no founder and no big book, and the Emperor is a deity. Deities also manifest in rocks and trees and animals and holiness is everywhere and worthy of respect. So the whole Japanese attitude is one of respect. It really comes through. There is a lot of bowing.

Shintoism and Buddhism are ambient, not just in the gardens and temples.


Hotel night table


Japan opened my eyes to another way of living. I’m not an expert and maybe I saw what I wanted to see. But everyone recognizes the sense of mutual respect, attention to details, non-competitiveness, regard for the environment and for oneself and others.

Rather than just tourist sites, it was the culture that we came to see. The gardens, the blossoms, the trains, the enormity of Tokyo, the meals, and the landscape: all worth the trip.

But the air of civilization, that’s my favorite memory of Japan.

Four Poles in Five Blocks

On a short walk in my neighborhood this morning, I must have passed hundreds of poles: Light poles, utility poles, sign poles.

They do their jobs of holding up stuff but I noticed that they can do a lot more.

Here in just a few blocks, some upgrades:

knit pole

This Stop sign pole is across from a yarn store.

no more evictions2

Light pole as soap box.


This memorial pole shows up on my corner every year around this time.

It is for young Emily Dunn, hit by a bus at this intersection.

I’ve posted about it before: ad hoc monuments

pole dancers

These pole dancers are in a series of guerrilla pieces in the neighborhood. Bravo, somebody!


You can tell a lot about a city by its layout.  The arrangement of streets tells the history of a place.  If you look closely, you can see the story of slow growth from cramped forts to booming modern cities.  Or the evidence of evolution from farmland or prairie to grid.

There are the medieval European cities with their high walls and twisty narrow streets.  You can tell they grew organically, the buildings huddled together, defended by the ramparts.  They were designed by fear.


And not just in Europe: look at the Wall Street area in Manhattan:1847_Lower_Manhattan_mapWall Street’s wall was built in 1653, by African slaves, to keep out Indians.

As these towns grew, the modern parts became more open, optimistic.  B GRID

  It’s easy to pick out the romantic European patterns and the pragmatic American ones.urban-form_layout2-eSome people say that San Francisco is the most European of American cities.

It would be even more so if the post Earthquake plan by Daniel Burnham had been adopted: mission_burnham_close San Francisco’s layout ignores the hills and even water.1851MapThe heart of the Financial District was under San Francisco Bay.

The city exploded during the Gold Rush, and its exuberant disregard of obstacles is reflected in the streets.  And its culture to this day.

The patterns of our streets are our cities’ tree rings.  They are the fingerprints of the urban past.

And somewhere, on them: you.

Tell Me a Building

“The book will kill the building”.

That’s what a character says in Notre Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It takes place in medieval France and he is talking about how printing will replace the storytelling role of the cathedral. Cathedrals were pretty much the architecture – and the literature – of the day. They taught the illiterate masses the dogma of the Church through form and iconography.


holy cow


The whole buildings were designed to tell a story.

Of course, the book didn’t kill the building.  Books and buildings actually get along pretty well. In my office, I have stacks of books about buildings:

shelves 3

Books about individual buildings like the TWA Terminal or Pan Am building in New York, or the Chicago Tribune Tower, or groups of buildings like Rockefeller Center

I’ve got books on ruined buildings in Pompeii and Detroit, guidebooks to the architecture of Havana and Pyongyang, books about buildings by architect or by style.

secret lives

The thing is, by and large they aren’t really about buildings; they’re story books.

They tell about the people who had the ideas, took the risks, hit roadblocks and overcame them. Or about how a building was first used, then about what it became.

You can see every week in the real estate ads the stories brokers telll about buildings, how glamorous and carefree your life would be if only you lived here or there.

But the best stories about buildings are the ones we tell:

My parents were married in that hotel.

I had my first job in this building.

I met _____ in that building.

Zen and the Art of Billboards

Walking home from a class at the San Francisco Zen Center, I noticed this billboard.


And then this one:

breathe 2

They’re not like most billboards, whose job is to convince you of how much better your life would be if you drank this or went there or wore that.

My friend Felipe Dulzaides and I were able to put up a series of eight billboards, briefly, a few years ago, each with the intent to make the passerby pay attention to the location.

Each one featured some aspect of its site, suddenly huge: basketball backboards, parking lot stripes, surveillance camera, overhead wires.   They looked like these:




(These photos by Felipe Dulzaides)

In Zen practice there is something called a Koan, which is a question that you can’t answer using your everyday mind.   You ponder until something clicks.

This billboard, until recently at the corner of 17th and Mission Streets, is a good example:

17reasons w

Later it lost its “why” and became just “17 Reasons”.

Then it was taken down, as shown in this film: .

Now, the 17 Reasons and the Why have gone their separate ways. Maybe some day they will be reunited.

Here, perhaps the most Zen billboard of all:


The Client

Here is a salute to clients.   The ones who care about how a building works and what it looks like.

Image Clients like Eusebi Guell (1846 – 1918), who hired Antoni Gaudi to design his house:

ImageGuell owned a ceramic tile company, hence the skin.

 Or, closer to home, Phyllis Lambert (nee Bronfman), the daughter of the scion of the Seagram company who, at age 26, took charge of the design and construction of their landmark headquarters on Park Avenue.

ImageShe was living in Paris, studying sculpture, when she stepped in to hire Mies Van der Rohe and his sidekick Philip Johnson, to design the company’s new headquarters.   Then she moved back to NY and took a desk in their office.


 Her dad might have preferred something more baronial, old world and gentile.

Image Seagram Headquarters, Montreal

 From Paris she wrote:

 “You must put up a building that expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.  You have a great responsibility and your building is not only for the people of your companies, it is much for all people in New York and the rest of the world.”

ten-buildings-changed-america-7With its popular plaza, exquisite detailing, and public art, the Seagram Building is a landmark of modern architecture and urbanism.

Five years later came the Pan Am building, the largest commercial structure to date:

ImageThe client wasn’t Pan Am; they came in after construction had begun.  The clients were Grand Central Railroad (and its shareholders), the Diesel Construction Company, and twelve banks (six American and six British).  The design was by Emery Roth and Sons, with respectability provided by the more prestigious Walter Gropius and Pietro Bellushi.  Everybody hated the building, then and now.

Guell and Lambert were wealthy individuals, like Frank Woolworth, who famously paid out of pocket for the 1913 Woolworth building. They didn’t cut corners on costs: the Seagram building’s skin is bronze and it was at the time the most expensive skyscraper ever built.  Their buildings represented them to the world.

There is no more Seagram company, no more Woolworth’s and certainly no more Guell. But there are still clients.  Like Steve Jobs, who famously obsessed on the design details of Apple devices, Apple stores, Apple headquarters, and Pixar studios.

Most clients default to a handful of safe architects, the ones who can work with the neighbors and the planners and the investors and lenders and the clients to bring in safe buildings.

But I have seen mediocre architects do good buildings for good clients – and good architects do crappy buildings for bad clients. But it is the architect who gets the credit or the blame.

 So a toast to the client – the bold ones, the brave ones, but most of all the caring ones.

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