Rebuilding Faster by Going Slow
Cities are rushing to reinvent themselves to get an edge, but San Francisco's 40-year revitalization program proves that time is a necessary cost of urban renewal.
Rebuilding Faster by Going SlowBy Hsiang-yi Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 502 )
Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. – Jane Jacobs, "Death and Life of Great American Cities"
A 9-hectare expanse of green stretches before the eye. Neighborhood residents and visitors are lying on the ground, basking in the afternoon sun and enjoying jazz performed by a band on the park's small stage.
Across the street, throngs of people pack into the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To one side of the park is the city's biggest convention facility, the Moscone Center, famous for hosting Apple's Worldwide Developers Conferences.
Public museums, small and medium-sized art galleries, chicly decorated restaurants, and coffee shops blanket the area. On the upper floors of many buildings are luxury apartments that sell for the equivalent of more than NT$600,000 per square meter. But head a few blocks away from this prime piece of real estate, and you'll see apartments similar in appearance that hundreds of middle-class households can actually afford.
This is Yerba Buena Gardens, a development in the SoMa (South of Market) area in San Francisco that has emerged as one of the world's best-known examples of urban renewal in recent years.
The SoMa area covers roughly 5.18 square kilometers, about the size of Taipei's smallest administrative area – Datong District. The SoMa redevelopment project has earned countless awards and been included as a required case study in university urban planning courses the world over.
At first glance, SoMa lacks the stylishness of Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, the extravagance of the Waitan area in Shanghai, or the shock factor of emerging cities like Dubai. But spending some time there reveals a pleasant and natural ambiance.
In the 1970s and 1980s, this area was the poster child for urban decay, known as the most dangerous part of the city. It was pockmarked by derelict factories and warehouses and dark streets, shunned by most residents.
The area was later transformed by an urban renewal project that turned it into San Francisco's new downtown. But that, in and of itself, would not have been sufficient to attract global attention.
Beyond giving the area a facelift, San Francisco used urban renewal to solve the economic woes faced in that part of the city, creating 3,300 long-term jobs and 1,000 affordable housing units, while also spurring industrial reengineering.
The project has also had a wider-ranging impact on the city as a whole. Over the past 40 years, SoMa has been the site of many of San Francisco's most representative large scale redevelopment initiatives, including the mid-Market Street revitalization and the Mission Bay development.
Those and other projects essentially reversed the fate of the 160-year-old city that had appeared to be in steady and permanent decline, restoring it to the status of one of the world's most renowned urban landscapes.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, hordes of residents left San Francisco, but the urban renewal initiatives launched in the early '90s brought people back in. As redevelopment projects were completed, the city's downtown area saw its GDP soar by more than 30 percent over the past decade when the United States as a whole struggled economically.
To be sure, progress has never come easily, because over the past four decades, San Francisco has made its share of mistakes. But it has learned from them, and by ensuring that the end results of urban renewal satisfy the needs of the majority, the city has engineered a comeback.
Efficiency Not a Factor in Urban Renewal Success
"Twenty or 30 years may seem like a long time, but if you can exchange that for 50 years of stable urban development, it's much more worth it than completing (redevelopment) in two to three years without changing much or even making things worse, right?" San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tells CommonWealth Magazine with a laugh in his first interview with Taiwanese media.
"We've learned from experience that time is a price that sometimes has to be paid."
In the 1970s, San Francisco was on the decline. It had been replaced by Boston as America's biggest commercial port, and by New York as the country's most important financial center. An exodus of major companies and average residents occurred, and the city's downtown area took on the trappings of a ghost town, peppered with empty buildings and homeless people.
As the situation grew untenable, the city government decided to hastily initiate several urban renewal projects, based on the urban renewal law in effect at the time, which allowed the city to expropriate blue-collar dwellings and land with vacant factories to build high-end apartments. The goal was to draw back the middle class that had fled to the suburbs or neighboring cities. But the luxury apartments that were built drew little interest and even stirred up a popular backlash because they destroyed existing communities.
"In the 1970s, the term 'urban renewal' in San Francisco had the same controversial, even negative, connotation that it has in Taiwan today," said Jack Chiang, a veteran diplomat and director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco.
San Francisco's fiercely independent citizens even filed class-action lawsuits against the city and developers and successfully halted all urban renewal projects, including in the SoMa area where land had just been expropriated.
A 3,000-page Social Contract
The city government, developers and social leaders all had vastly different stances on the issue, but their city was in crisis and they decided to take on the problem by sitting down at the bargaining table. In the end, they came up with an innovative approach never before seen in the United States and possibly even in the world – having the city, developers and city residents participate in urban planning together. Once the three sides reached this consensus, urban renewal began in earnest.
Forging a future together represented a new model of urban renewal, but the practical difficulties of the approach quickly became apparent. The three main parties to the consensus had conflicting interests and widely varying levels of specialized expertise, resulting in discussions that often led nowhere.
At that point, an independent think tank called SPUR (the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association) came to the rescue, pulling together the opinions of the three parties and injecting its professional judgment.
The association, organized by urban planning specialists, is San Francisco's biggest and most authoritative nonprofit organization. Because it is supported by donations from individual and corporate members, the group's finances are independent.
Involved in everything from urban renewal and mass transportation planning to San Francisco's business and economic policies, SPUR acts as a consultant to the city government and developers but is also their toughest overseer.
"Nobody had ever tried this," said Helen Sause, who has been involved in the SoMa redevelopment project since nearly its inception, gathering community opinions on behalf of SPUR in the 1970s and serving as the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency's project director for Yerba Buena Gardens between 1980 and 1997.
Sause, now in her 60s, sits on the board or serves as a consultant to many international urban planning organizations and is widely known in urban planning circles.
Plunging into the urban renewal field in her 20s, Sause recalls the difficulties in coordinating a wide diversity of opinion that almost pushed her to tears more than once.
At that time, Sause remembers, she would leave at the crack of dawn to visit each household in the area and record and compile their opinions and demands. Then it would be off to the developer's office to listen to their briefings and offer suggestions. At night, she would bring city officials, developers and elected representatives together for more discussions.
After a full 10 years of deliberation, the major stakeholders finally signed the first contract for the renewal of the SoMa area.
The 3,000-page contract covered the overall redevelopment plan and defined who would be responsible for building and maintaining the project's public facilities. It also covered such details as where lights and surveillance cameras would be installed in parks, the jobs the developers would directly or indirectly provide, and the pay scales for those jobs.
"In many countries or cities, urban planning and urban renewal is generally the business of the government and big developers. In such a complicated and specialized field, however, it's hard to account for everything. But by drawing on the city's collective wisdom and constantly revising the plan, San Francisco made it work," says urban planning expert Chi-hsin Shao, president of San Francisco-based CHS Consulting Group, a full-service transportation planning and energy consulting firm.
"San Francisco's urban renewal approach did not simply involve giving old buildings a facelift or beautifying the city. It also considered employment, education, disadvantaged groups, and even the future transformation of different sectors."
Shao, a Taiwanese native who once served as the deputy head of the Boston Transportation Department, is now also a member of SPUR's board.
"In the urban planning field, the size of street blocks, public transportation facilities, and whether to integrate or separate commercial and residential areas all influence the direction of a city's development," Shao says.
The SoMa development is a case in point. Except for such big structures as the Moscone Center and the Museum of Modern Art, the city opted to build small street blocks and combine commercial and residential areas.
"This shows that 30 years ago, San Francisco already envisioned the city as evolving into a hub for startups in the service, cultural and creative, and technology sectors. As a result, it had to create an environment that would be attractive to these businesses," Shao observes.
Thirty years later, 85 percent of San Francisco's companies are startups with fewer than 10 employees. The SoMa area has become home to innovative social networking or application software enterprises.
San Francisco residents no longer even use the phrase "urban renewal" to describe new development projects, preferring "urban revitalization" instead. Though the terms may sound similar, the latter implies going beyond replacing old structures with new ones and encompasses redefining, reconsidering and rekindling businesses, employment and even new lifestyles.
Restoring Greatness through Collective Wisdom
At noon on a day at the end of May, Shao leads the way to SPUR's headquarters on Church Street with a sandwich and a cup of coffee in hand. He walks to the building's second floor and into an office of barely 60 square meters, where a big screen asks the question: How should the 5M area be revived? 5M refers to the corner of 5th Street and Mission Street.
Some 80 people have gathered below a makeshift podium formed by a row of tables. Among them are gray-haired urban planning professors, smartly dressed financiers and investors, graduate students, and housewives living in the 5M area, along with a city official wearing glasses with heavy frames busily taking notes.
This disparate group of people has only two things in common: they all live in San Francisco and they all brought a simple lunch and coffee with them.
Arguments erupted within 10 minutes after the meeting began. After a developer first gave a simple briefing on the project, the scholars launched an attack, criticizing the plan as poorly thought out, in part for not considering the issue of relocating neighborhood merchants once the project is completed.
Then others in the group spoke up, with one questioning the developer's finances, another suggesting adding more public space, and still another asking that the educational and day care needs of the area's children be incorporated into the plan.
At that moment, a completely new urban renewal project had arrived at its cacophonous beginning, much like the SoMa project decades earlier, with local residents invited to attend the informal public hearings held every day at lunchtime.
Over time, diverse opinions will slowly move toward consensus, and countless suggestions will be reviewed with only the best making the cut. Formal hearings and an environmental impact assessment will then be conducted, before the city government and city council formally authorize a developer to start construction. Based on past experience, it will likely be at least 20 years from now before work begins on the 5M revitalization project.
But San Francisco can, and is willing, to wait. That ultimately is why the city is truly great.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier