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INSIGHT: RINCONoitering: How Vancouver Ideas Do - and Do Not Help - in Shaping San Francisco's First High Density Neighborhood - Part I

by Trevor Boddy
January 22, 2004

 [To pontificating jerk in movie line-up:]

“I just happen to be Marshall McLuhan,

and I heard what you said –

you know nothing of my work.”

- Herbert Marshall McLuhan, b. Edmonton, 1911, d. Toronto, 1980

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, 1978


While the San Francisco Planning Commission’s December 4 public hearings on the proposed Rincon Hill Plan had fewer one-liners than a Woody Allen movie, the meeting had – to my surprise – the same tone of angry ennui. After listening to a dozen citizens spout off about the similarities/differences between what is planned for the Transbay and Rincon Hill districts south of Market(1), and my own town of Vancouver, I just had to get up and say something. This is how I ended my short undercover career as a Vancouver architecture critic in San Francisco.


Everyone who took to the podium that long afternoon had something to say about whether British Columbian-style, tall, skinny high rise towers set on townhouse podiums are the best prototype to create San Francisco’s first high density downtown neighborhood. As each speaker rattled through their allotted three minutes, landowners, developers, and their architects generally thought the Vancouver direction would be a horrible mistake, while citizens, city planners, and San Francisco designers without pending commissions in the area all thought this direction just right, the bees’ knees. My opinion in a minute.


As I got in the speaker’s lineup for my own three minutes of SF Planning Commission ear time, I flashed on that Annie Hall scene where my cultural hero and fellow native Edmontonian, Marshall McLuhan, was gang-pressed by Woody Allen into playing himself. Suitably rumpled and 1970s-mustachioed, McLuhan professorially corrects a pretentious pseud in a movie line-up who is loudly spouting a Cliff’s Notes version of his communication theories.


Marshall McLuhan developed his ideas on how contemporary media shape the way we think and live from the edge of empire – Edmonton and Winnipeg. These two then-remote cities were McLuhan’s ideal perches, because they were places of cultural consumption, not cultural production, where the power of radio, movies and magazines was all the more apparent. Similarly, it may at first seem arbitrary for me to insert my Vancouver perspective into a debate on how to shape the futures of two near-downtown San Francisco neighborhoods. As will be seen in my conclusions about the global importance of the Vancouver innovations versus the vastly over-hyped second hand ideas of the “New Urbanists,” there may be advantages to being out of the closed loop, which is present-day discourse in city-building.


Here are some of the propositions about Vancouver(1) I overheard spectators and speakers make before taking the podium myself:


·        Vancouverites have always preferred smaller, higher apartments than close-to-the-ground, ever-sprawling, gas-guzzling, free-marketeering San Franciscans.

·        Vancouver city planners have more sweeping powers than San Francisco’s, combined with a passive populace that likes being told what to build, and their regulations have shaped innovative downtown architecture.

·        Regarding built form, Vancouver has a Marine-style “Flat-Top” skyline hairdo, while San Francisco prefers a sculpted Pompadour, “Big Hair” look that instead amplifies the curves of its hills (think of Divine in any of John Waters’ Baltimore movies).(2)

·        Current plans for $600 million worth of housing in four towers – designed by the San Francisco architectural firm of Heller-Manus- – are a direct application of Vancouver innovations to South of Market.

·        For projects in the current planning “pipeline” for Rincon Hill like this one – schemes that do not conform with most of the new plan’s urban design principles – approving them immediately will only make it harder to bring in Vancouver-style innovations later.

·        San Franciscans need lower buildings along Bay Bridge ramps in Rincon Hill to provide “buffers” and “transitions” to Vancouver-style high-rise blocks.

·        Paying a tiny percentage of construction costs in Vancouver-style development levies to fund improvements in these new neighborhoods’ public realm are so onerous, they will kill all new future housing in Transbay/Rincon.

·        Bulkier buildings than Vancouver’s are mandated by San Francisco’s building codes, which ban scissor stairs (Vancouver, and virtually all other cities in the same seismic danger class as SF have long permitted them), and everyone knows they are the products of the engineering thinking of the 1950s, and can never be changed in the current political climate “because of public safety paranoia after 9-11.”

·        The current developers in Transbay/Rincon are the only ones who will build there, and if we do not make them happy by scuttling most of the principles of the Rincon Hill Plan, the area will spend decades more empty and bleak. This is because SF architects and developers are so slow and stupid that they will never make the shift to new building forms, so the housing crisis necessitates okaying anything big and apartment-y, right now.


Here is the bad news: from my Vancouver viewpoint, almost every statement on this list is wrong, or at least partially wrong. The good news is that these misapplications from the Vancouver experience to San Francisco are almost evenly spread amongst the city’s developers, their architects, the leftist rent-a-crowd who inhabit SF public meetings, urban planners, lobby organizations such as San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), and the concerned general citizenry.


“You, sirs, know nothing of our work.”


Having said this, I feel the proper application of the Vancouver experience to its near-downtown neighborhoods is the best possible solution to San Francisco’s pressing housing and livability issues. This makes it all the more important to not only set the record straight, but also for San Francisco to avoid some of our mistakes, even do us one better to regain its status as the West Coast’s most enlightened center of city-building.



Why Two Side-by-Side Double Tower Projects on Folsom Street – Plus the Two Side-by-Side Urban Design Studies That Shaped Them – Need Re-Thinking


Rather than elucidate a comparative theory and practice of urban design in our sister cities, I will get strategic and pass right to the crux of things. The crux of things turns out to be a zipper, if that is not too mixed a metaphor. Folsom Street was blighted for many years by traffic carried on raised ramps to the north, as part of the Embarcadero Freeway – one of the most hated segments of the entire Interstate Highway System. With the removal of the Embarcadero after earthquake damage (Seattleites also pray for a non-life-threatening earthquake to compel officials there to demolish their analogous waterfront-walling Alaskan Way/Highway 99), the barrier became a link, the “zipper” to bring together the Transbay and Rincon Hill mini-neighborhoods, the subjects of simultaneous but separate urban design plans.


I rush into this debate about alternative urban futures at some peril, but the stakes are too high to stay silent: literally San Francisco’s last best chance to shape a lively high-density neighborhood right next to downtown. If these issues are decided right, the city can enliven streets, save commuter’s energy, increase the supply of housing, and, more than any of these, shake this city out of a decade of self-obsessed, eminently provincial urban solipsism. The haste is prompted because the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is poised to make key decisions for this area.


Folsom Street is universally agreed to be the most important street in this reviving portion of the city, immediately south of the financial district. It is also the somewhat strange dividing line between two urban plans awaiting approval and implementation. The north side of Folsom Street is covered in the October 2003 report entitled “Transbay Redevelopment Project Area Design for Development”(3) produced by Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s local franchise along with specialist consultants for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and city Planning Department – so many “developments” in an 80 page study – you would think these guys are developers!


The future of the south side of Folsom Street is the subject of a somewhat more timid urban design document, authored by the city’s staff planners themselves. This second study came out just a month later, and is entitled “The Rincon Hill Plan: Draft For Public Discussion.” The Heller-Manus Architects-designed Folsom/Spear towers (201 Folsom and 300 Spear) have evolved in tandem – but not in agreement – with planning thinking for this area over the past half decade, its developers and designers exerting their political will to get this version built before urban design rules are amended.


One street, a different urban design plan on each side – what gives? While architects at SOM and city planners recognize this contradiction, and have invested a lot of time in talking to each other (not to mention the architects Heller-Manus), it is difficult to surmount these facts of provenance for these two adjacent and competing plans. Given how close SF’s planners, consultants, and architects all are – in urban theory and practical city-building practice – clarification of the Vancouver models everyone is quoting just might turn the trick in bringing things together. Here goes.


The situation is worse than just a pair of architecturally weak, urbanistically-challenged proposals from the office of Heller-Manus. God knows, San Francisco and every other city have survived bad projects before. The situation is more complicated here because of what can only be called “cross-contamination”: as it was written, the Rincon Hill plan was adjusted to accommodate some of the fundamentally-questionable qualities of these two pending projects on Folsom Street.


A close reading of the Rincon Hill Plan reveals that the pair of Heller-Manus double tower projects at Folsom and Spear are the source of some of its weakest ideas, especially those dealing with built form, public space, and sunlight on public spaces. Worse, these two proposals and related flawed plan are but a hair’s breath away from being approved; the architect’s tail is wagging the planning and political dog.


Here is my own Cliff’s Notes version: weak development proposals by two developers using the same architect are improved somewhat in dialogue with city urban designers, but at the expense of the Rincon Hill Plan bending itself far too much in order to accommodate the flaws of the original architectural schemes. Got that? Please understand that this pretzel logic of planners trading urban design principles for political success is the dirty secret of a once-idealistic profession. In other words: bending over backwards when redevelopment pressure is on, is surely not the best form of urban aerobics – and no way to make a civic body beautiful.


Based on our Vancouver experience, if San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approves the Folsom/Spear towers in their present form in January, they might as well junk the many other positive features to be found in the Transbay and Rincon Hill Plans while they are at it. This is because these approved buildings will become the development template for the area, setting a low standard of public amenity, urban design, and architectural quality that will continue into all subsequent proposals – no matter what some planning department document or talented consultants say. These projects – not the published plans – will set urban land cost expectations, shaping future development patterns for the entire neighborhood.


Now with the political landscape set, here are some specific details on why these proposals (and the flawed plan which tries to accommodate them) are pastiches of Vancouver ideas of high-density living, not exemplars of them. The two massive projects proposed for Folsom Street together will create 1,600 units of much-needed housing, but this is not reason enough to approve them. (In light of this, I was disappointed to read a letter of support for the Folsom/Spear towers from Gabriel Metcalf, deputy director of SPUR – an organization that was once associated with progressive and innovative urban ideas.)


The same organization’s November 2003 newsletter features some informative but uncritical articles about Vancouver innovations. Particularly problematic is “The Vancouver Style,” an interpretation of the Vancouver story by former city councilor Gordon Price, who is virtually a full-time lobbyist for his particularly self-serving take on what has happened here, as he prepares for a run at provincial or federal office, and eases into urban planning academe. SPUR, like every planning and urban lobby group on the continent, has had a fly-by tour of downtown Vancouver, inevitably hosted by Price and the director of central planning for the city of Vancouver, Larry Beasley.


Marty Dalton’s Union Property Capital is proposing 300 Spear Street(4) (at Folsom), which will see up to 820 units averaging 1,150 square feet and up to 139 units of family-oriented affordable housing averaging 1,400 square feet. It is worth nothing, to start, that average housing unit sizes here are very large compared with similar projects in Vancouver, Chicago, or San Diego. This could mean a very high-end target market, inefficient floor plans that need tuning and tightening, or both. Most of this housing will be in one 400-foot tower and one 350-foot tower set only 83 feet apart at the east and west corners of their floors.


Some housing will be in the 80-foot base that rings the site, but it is unclear if one of the most successful aspects of Vancouver’s new downtown streetscapes – continuous townhouses with stoops and Jane Jacobsian “eyes on the street” – will be incorporated here. Without such a commitment up front, it is unlikely this will happen. Downtown Vancouver developers also resisted mandated townhouse-configured housing on streets at first, largely because these corporations had built concrete and steel high rises downtown, and had limited exposure to this scale of building.


Ten years later, these same Vancouver developers can hardly imagine building any other mode, especially since zoning amendments permit live-work arrangements in many of the townhouses. Be forewarned: this is something that will happen increasingly in San Francisco, no matter what official land use policies say. The absence of discussion of live-work possibilities is a weakness of both plans, the result of stifled SF political debate on how most of us actually live and work today.


One block west is 201 Folsom, currently a U.S. Postal Service parking lot, the powerful international developer Tishman Speyer proposes what – in urban design terms – is a virtual clone of the previous project, except that it is even bulkier at its base. An underground post office parking facility is to remain underneath the new building, meaning that the base – or podium – for this development is fatter still, an 80-foot-high platform covering almost the entire site.


These podia(5) are twice Vancouver’s mandated height, and will have unfortunate negative wind and sunlight impacts on Folsom Street, lying in its shadow immediately to the north. This widened and tree-bedecked street on the former axis of the Embarcadero is envisioned by city planners as the key street for the entire new neighborhood of Transbay-Rincon Hill, and renderings show it heavily peopled and lined with cafes; unlikely in the permanent dark and occasional amplified wind. Shadows from this overly high base will sabotage attempts to make an urbane boulevard all along the three crucial blocks running inland from the Bay.


Only when the Heller-Manus schemes are compared at the same scale as the Vancouver projects they superficially resemble does it become apparent just how bulky and clumsy they actually are. Their towers are too fat and too close together, and the four of them taken together will create an unfortunate wall. The Transbay Plan compiled by SOM and the SF Planning Department’s Rincon Hill Plan demonstrate the unfortunate impact on views, light, and streetscapes of bulky towers like those already built in the area. A Vancouver architectural colleague, who flies down for frantic weekends nightclubbing in Baghdad-by-the-Bay, warned me frankly about getting involved in this debate, putting it in the form of a joke: “Trying to get San Franciscans to opt for ‘tall and skinny’ over ‘short and thick’ will only result in a lot of ‘phallacious’ arguments!”(6)


There is a single, deadly, urban design confusion for both Heller-Manus Architects and the city planners who compiled the Rincon Hill Plan. Both groups feel that 7-9 story, European-style “perimeter blocks” can be combined to form a base for high-rise towers. Sorry, guys, it is either one or the other of these two mutually exclusive block-form typologies. I know of no project anywhere which has successfully combined the two without compromising its surrounding streets utterly. We all love the urban mattes of central Paris’ block forms, but to stick a “Plan Voisin” tower in each compromises the strengths of both. Planners and architects tend to know and love Paris, Barcelona, or Berlin. They know Vancouver only superficially, and thus misapply its block typologies with continuous high podia that will only kill light and street-life.


Starting, for argument’s sake, at Vancouver’s suggested podium datum of 40 feet above grade, there is no reason why massing could not then be cut back along the northern end of both San Francisco Heller-Manus projects.(6) This would be made even easier if the city were to enforce its mandatory parking reduction policy here – a Dr. Atkins regime for its sunlight-robbing bulk. Once demanding more than one parking stall per unit, Vancouver developers now happily provide less than half this rate – in a city with a weaker public transportation system than the Bay Area. The same developers now enthusiastically support shared car co-operatives as alternatives to the extremely expensive (for everyone!) parking spaces, costing up to $20,000 each for land and construction.


There was not much argument at the December 4th SF Planning Commission hearing that the two massive projects designed by Heller-Manus will set the tone for all subsequent developments in Rincon Hill. There was, however, considerable discussion on whether the current designs – already approved by the Planning Commission, and going to the Board of Supervisors for a final decision soon – should continue to be “grandfathered” into premature birth, or whether their design should be amended to concur with the urban design principles set forth in the Rincon Hill Plan.


This unfortunate and contradictory metaphor should give away the game: who could argue that grandfathered births are not some freak of nature? While they have different developers, the two projects are designed by the same firm, aggressively promoted as a single project, and a widespread campaign of building support through endorsements and op-ed articles. Despite slightly different corporate parentage, the two projects are siblings – two sets of dumpy fraternal twins, to put it bluntly. Vancouver has learned the hard way that if the quality of architecture is not good at the beginning, it never gets better. The Heller-Manus architecture here is uninspired at best, and will set a standard of mediocrity that will prevail for years. Do us one better, and demand better architecture and more enlightened urbanism – right now.



TREVOR BODDY is a recovering McLuhanatic and architecture critic for The Vancouver Sun. A native of Edmonton, he has taught architecture and urban design at the Universities of Oregon, Toronto, Manitoba, and British Columbia, and lectured and served as a design juror globally. His critical monograph The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal was named “Alberta Book of the Year” and short-listed for the International Union of Architects prize for best book of architectural criticism. He contributed a chapter on “The Analogous City” to the collection Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, named one of the most important books of 1992 by the Voice Literary Supplement.


Trevor Boddy welcomes feedback at

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Courtesy of San Francisco Planning Department)
(1) Vancouver housing towers (as referenced in the Rincon Hill Plan)

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(1) Transbay (left) and Rincon Hill Plan areas (201 Folsom/300 Spear fall outside the latter)

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(2) The Rincon Hill Plan proposes to continue to amplify the city's hills

(Rendering by Michael Reardon, courtesy SOM San Francisco)
(3) High-density downtown redevelopment envisioned by SOM for Transbay area

(Photomontage by Peter Bosselmann/Urban Explorer, courtesy SOM San Francisco)
(3) Transbay Redevelopment area with SOM's proposed tower placement

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(4) View looking north of the Folsom/Spear (201 Folsom/300 Spear) towers

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(4) View looking south of the Folsom/Spear (201 Folsom/300 Spear) towers

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(4) Skyline view from Bay Bridge: Rincon Hill Plan in pink, Transbay in brown, Folsom/Spear towers (201 Folsom/300 Spear) - between them - in white

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(5) Block development concept as proposed in the Rincon Hill Plan

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(6) Avalon housing towers as actually built

(Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department)
(6) Simulation of Avalon housing towers showing effect of Rincon Hill Plan guidelines

© 2003