Urban planners brainstorm in SF

Friday April 19, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) - Urban growth experts speaking Tuesday in San Francisco said cities and counties need economic incentives from the state before they will adopt smarter building plans for urban areas. 

Heller-Manus Architects Principal Jeffrey Heller and Gary Binger, director of the Urban Land Institute's California Smart Growth Initiative, said at a San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association meeting that smart development will be a key factor in managing the Bay Area's future growth but a nonexistent top down strategy makes it difficult to implement. 

“There is no reward for cities and counties that practice smart growth,'' Binger said. “Certainly not from the state.'' 

Associates with Heller-Manus Architects performed case studies on five San Francisco districts and developed placards, complete with black-and-white aerial photos, that explain why some places are better to live and work in than others. 

North Beach is cited as an excellent example of how urban growth can be successfully managed because the buildings, beautiful as some of them are, are not the focal point of the neighborhood. The buildings might be built right out to the sidewalk but the numerous alleys promote foot traffic and open up the interior of blocks. Landmarks like Coit Tower make orientation easy and Washington Square provides much needed green space. 

A poor example of urban planning is the Western Addition, according to the case studies. Geary Boulevard, a major transportation corridor for the western part of the city, split the neighborhood and the planning that occurred south of the boulevard is proving to be unsuccessful. 

“Urban renewal in the 1960s, modeled on the ill-advised dictates of the European International style, destroyed the fine-grained pattern by eliminating streets to create superblocks and introducing out-of-scale streets and buildings,'' the study said. 

A couple of suggestions made by the study to fix up the Western Addition would be to tear down traces of the Central Freeway ramps and to build housing that better matches San Francisco's style. However, this presents a problem that is central to what Binger and Heller said is wrong with the ways cities are being built. 

Cities and developers need economic incentives and direction from the state to shape growth that is not only profitable but also intelligent from an urban planning perspective. 

A good way to do this, according to Binger, would be for the state to redistribute its transportation monies so cities and developers have a reason to incorporate intelligent public transit systems in future developments. The case studies cited North Beach's solid public transportation system as a reason for its success and plans to expand underground subways into Chinatown and North Beach as proof that the area will be strong in the future.