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INSIGHT: San Francisco's New Vancouver-Mania - Part II

by Trevor Boddy
February 24, 2004

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to Boddy’s (illustrated) INSIGHT: RINCONoitering: How Vancouver Ideas Do - and Do Not Help - in Shaping San Francisco's First High Density Neighborhood posted in January.


The last thing I expected at a meeting of the Planning Commission here in Baghdad-By-the-Bay was an obsession with Vancouver. Yet, our city was mentioned – often glowingly – by every one of the 22 witnesses I listened to, as each speaker at a public hearing got their allotted three minutes of ear time, appearing before the august committee that shapes their city’s urban development. The issue at hand was propositions for Vancouver-style high-rise downtown residential districts, the first in the Bay Area. 


These Vancouver-praisers were not just insiders – city planners, architects, developers and their lawyer-lobbyists – but more impressively, ordinary San Francisco citizens, Baptist church committees, environmental groups, and members of the leftist rent-a-crowd who inhabit public meetings there (as they do here). Nearly everyone was buzzing about the bold new urban ideas first given form on our very own downtown peninsula. 


My equivalent on the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle – urban design columnist John King – has written of his city’s “Cult of Vancouver,” currently dominating the minds of city-builders there. This group has come to a near-consensus that high-density, socially-mixed communities of tall, skinny towers on townhouse bases are the way to go. Sound familiar?


That afternoon I first saw a colorful rendering produced by the local franchise of the multi-national architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, illustrating their propositions for San Francisco’s Transbay neighborhood. The drawing looks like a few blocks of Vancouver’s Downtown South, tractor-beamed to a perch in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid.


We Canadians are globally renown for our inability to accept praise – tied to a linked and similarly congenital resistance to tooting our own horns – and I will admit to squirming a bit while listening to so one-sided an account of urban design here.


That afternoon before San Francisco’s planning commission was the best proof I have ever seen of the wisest description ever made about the mutual conceptions of our two nations: Americans have a “benevolent ignorance” of things Canadian, while Canadians – perhaps necessarily – have a “malevolent knowledge” of what is really going on in the United States. As comedian Rick Mercer so mercilessly demonstrates, Americans know little about Canada (read Vancouver), but those things they do know are at least positive. At the same time, Canadian identity is too often propped-up by us Canucks cataloging every possible evil to be found south of the 49th.


I am troubled by San Franciscan perceptions of Vancouver. Current plans for $600 million worth of housing in four towers on block-wide 85-foot high bases – designed by the San Francisco architectural firm of Heller-Manus – are the direct application of Vancouver innovations to the emerging Rincon Hill neighborhood, south of Market Street. The massive Heller-Manus Rincon Hill Plan came before a crucial January 28th vote at San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors (equivalent to our city council), and San Francisco’s Vancouver-mania is now at a fever pitch [the towers prevailed].


In an interview in his office overlooking San Francisco Bay, designer Clark Manus argued his project was deeply influenced by Vancouver models, and the 1,600 condominium apartments it will provide are essential to a city where – like our own Lower Mainland – everyone wants to live these days, job or no job, high tech boom, or high tech bust.


When I looked at his scheme later in side-by-side comparisons with same-scale drawings of analogous Vancouver projects, differences were immediately clear. Unlike Vancouver, the base of the S.F. proposals are largely without our continuous street-oriented townhouses, and worse, their podia are twice as high, depriving sunlight and amplifying winds on streets all around. The Heller-Manus high-rise towers are much “fatter” than Vancouver’s, and the four towers visually come together to wall off views to and from the adjacent Bay Bridge to Oakland.


I mentioned the ungainly squat-ness of these and other recent San Francisco high-rises to a Vancouver architect. He spends frequent weekends night-clubbing there, and warned me against getting involved with that city’s high-rise built-form debates, 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!”


There are more lessons – both positive and negative – from San Francisco’s recent city-building experience. Vancouver-mania is not just limited to California, but has recently spread like some architectural virus to the United Arab Emirates, of all places. It is a bizarre tale of how some ex-Vancouverites have designed and built an artificial body of water shaped like False Creek on the Arabian desert outside of Dubai, and are now lining it with a seawall and $2 billion worth of Concord-Pacific-style tall, skinny towers on townhouse bases – an exotic tale of a “Very False Creek.”


A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2004 issue of The Vancouver Sun as “San Francisco obsessed with Vancouver.”


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.

© 2004 by Trevor Boddy

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Courtesy of San Francisco Planning Department)
Skyline view of San Francisco with the towers (in pink) in place and the Rincon Hill and Transbay Plans built out.

© 2003