High rises a looming topic once again 

People are again worried about high-rise buildings. A little history about the San Francisco movement for and against high-rise buildings is in order. First, there were the Fontana Towers, located between Russian Hill and the Bay. To this day they block views and generally brutalize their surroundings. The Fontana Towers got through the approval process but produced enough opposition to bring about the enactment of the 40-foot height limit that to this day continues to protect many San Francisco neighborhoods.

Then, in the late 1960s, a group of influential developers proposed to cover the northern and eastern flanks of Telegraph Hill with an International Market Center that would have covered 13 blocks and been the fifth largest building in the entire world. It got blocked. Later came a spate of high-rise proposals that would have shut off San Francisco from its eastern waterfront. They too were blocked.

During the same general period there were plans to expand the Downtown Districtnorthward into North Beach. Back in those days San Francisco’s city planners and politicians were talking of filling the valley between Russian Hill and Telegraph with 65-foot (six story) buildings all the way to St. Peter and Paul’s Church. Reacting against this threat, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Russian Hill Association and many other neighborhood groups fought the Transamerica Tower, not because it was high but rather because they saw it as ushering in a development push that would have destroyed a vibrant and much beloved part of San Francisco. With the help of San Francisco’s compliant politicians the Transamerica Corporation bulled its way through the approval process, but not before stirring up a hornet’s nest. By the end of the Transamerica campaign, the residents were organized, and the northward march into North Beach stopped.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the pace of downtown high-rise construction quickened, to the point where it threatened The City’s ability to accommodate all the new occupants of all the new buildings. When San Francisco’s politicians predictably ignored this new threat, dress designer Alvin Dustin, San Francisco Tomorrow, Citizens for Reasonable Growth and many other groups sponsored a series of ballot propositions designed to slow down and otherwise control commercial development.

Now, 20 years later, people are again worrying about high-rises. However, newcomers to the fray might not realize that even back in the 1960s it was recognized that clustering new development near the Lower Market Street subway and the many other downtown San Francisco transit lines would be better than sprawling it throughout San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area. For this reason, the neighborhood activists who fought high-rise development along the waterfront and in the Columbus Avenue corridor consistently pointed to Market Street and the area around the Transbay Terminal as the appropriate location for clusters of large buildings.

Assuming effective controls designed to limit the amount of automobile traffic in downtown San Francisco, it makes eminently good sense to locate well-designed high-rise buildings along lower Market Street and in the vicinity of the new Transbay Terminal.

As indicated, good design is essential no matter where a building is located. Exactly the wrong kind of development has just been revealed as a candidate for the long under-utilized southeast corner of Eighth and Market. The huge and blocky Stalinist style apartment complex being touted for this important location is not the way to go.

Gerald Cauthen is former president of Telegraph Hill Dwellers and San Francisco Tomorrow.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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