San Francisco is a self-consciously civilized place, pleased by its reasonable scale and unreasonable hills, proud of the slightly loopy beaux arts buildings and the great swaths of pastel houses, altogether seduced by its own fey charms. It follows that San Francisco has a powerful sense of how San Francisco ought to look, and the new ungainly downtown skyline offends that civic vision.
Townspeople elsewhere merely carp about glass boxes and pine for the architectural past. San Franciscans have taken action. Earlier this month the board of supervisors passed an elaborate set of rules governing development in the 470-acre urban heart. The new code, sponsored by Mayor Dianne Feinstein, is more prescriptive and restrictive than any other ever adopted by an American city. At once radical and conservative, the Downtown Plan will permit only a couple of new towers to be built in the dense center of downtown. It will limit large-scale building citywide to an annual aggregate of 950,000 sq. ft., the equivalent of two or three medium-size office towers a year, and push the locus of that new development southward into a shabbier quarter. Most intriguing are the provisions that will halve the bulk of new buildings and essentially require that every new skyscraper have stepped setbacks, surface ornament and a decoratively tapered top. Barring an unlikely reversal at the final vote next month, modernism is about to be outlawed in San Francisco.
In ideology the Downtown Plan is sensibly deferential to the existing warp and woof of the city. In ambition, however, it is reminiscent of the Olympian urban-renewal texts of a generation ago, when planners presumed to know how to recast cities from scratch. It puts the city on record against unnecessary shadow and wind and disapproves of mirrored windows (visually off-putting), big street-level airline ticket offices (too boring for pedestrians) and the profusion of newspaper-vending machines (inconvenient for pedestrians). No San Franciscan, the plan continues, should have to walk more than 900 feet to find a sunny, comfortable place to sit and muse.
Yet the plan is not gratuitous Utopian tinkering. There was plenty of provocation. After two drowsy decades when the city escaped the depredations of bargain-basement modernism, growth came all at once. Between 1965 and 1981, office space downtown more than doubled, to 55 million sq. ft. During the past three years alone, an additional 10 million sq. ft. of high-rise offices were finished. The result was flat gray street walls hundreds of feet high, darkness, traffic clots, noise: "Manhattanization," as the locals call it.