Defying the Growth Gods

Cityscapes, San Francisco Focus, October, 1986

Urban growth is a four-thousand year old habit that's harder to kick than cocaine. That is why, if San Franciscans vote in November to curb their own city's growth by initiative, they will make history and send a message to the world far louder than when they stopped the freeways twenty-seven years ago.

Second-guessing the mind of God is always dangerous, but it's unlikely that He meant humanity to wreck His creation when He told it to be fruitful and multiply. Ingeniously, the second generation of man invented population control — Cain's dual role as first murderer and first city builder lends biblical support to urban historian Lewis Mumford's belief that war and the city were born together. Ever since Cain killed his brother, urban humanity has rushed on to perfect the ultimate in population control. The boys at Livermore are working on it today.

The city is, with language, man's most brilliant invention, yet its essence is a paradox. Mumford observed that cities "combined the maximum amount of protection with the greatest incentives to aggression." Preying on one another to sustain their growth and their rulers' glory, cities exploded from the Middle East a few millennia ago and seeded the continents. Reaching out, they took the slaves, timber, gold, guano, bananas, whatever was needed to maintain the urban show at home.

Well, plus ça change. As so many other potentates have remarked before Mayor Feinstein said it, a city that isn't growing is a dying city. Thanks to the mayor's zeal, the city of St. Francis will soon get its own thermonuclear attack fleet. Positioned off the coast of Bananaland, those big sticks on the Missouri should be powerful persuaders for our erring brown brothers south of the border. The tools and euphemisms are new, but the ends are as old as Pharaoh, harrowing the nations.

Then why do I not feel proud of my city?

Because some things do change. The flash over Alamogordo on July 16, 1945 altered everything save man's way of thinking, observed Dr. Einstein, and "thus, we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." That conclusion should be superfluous for anyone who ponders the consequences of aggressive urban expansion on a finite ball trip-wired for doomsday. Yet the old thinking and rhetoric have continued unchanged for the past forty years. To study that process in local detail, you can do no better than to read Chester Hartman's 1984 book The Transformation of San Francisco.

Hartman, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., detailed the little-known but deliberate experiment in social engineering that transformed San Francisco into a highrise corporate and convention center with metastasized suburbs, a headquarters city for US interests in the postwar Pacific. Manifested most forcefully by a radically coarsened skyline, clogged arteries, extortionate housing costs, and homelessness, the change proceeded swiftly despite the repeated warnings of New Yorkers and the numerous attempts by alarmed San Franciscans to stop it. The San Francisco CAP initiative is only the latest of these attempts.

Hartman tells a fascinating tale, rank with the fabulous promises and lies that become so especially imaginative whenever a growth control initiative threatens the interests of those pulling the strings. Yet he fails to reckon with the traditional popularity of the growth ethic. Only recently has its excreta become so noxious and unavoidable that voters have begun to register their disgust at the polls. Strangling suburbs around San Francisco have begun to apply the brakes. Growth revolt has become to the 'eighties what tax revolt was to the 'seventies.

The Transformation of San Francisco leaves other fields virtually unplowed. For example, Hartman only hints at the city's aggressive impact on the entire Bay Area. A 1969 internal study by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency recommends that a proposed 30 percent expansion of the crowded Highway 101 corridor in Marin County be increased tenfold. The expanded capacity, according to the author, would stimulate the suburban development of all the farmland in Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties for the use of San Francisco commuters. It is as nice an example of self-fulfilling prophecy — and colonialism — as one could hope to find in the grey literature of bureaucracy.

Like the New York Times, the two San Francisco dailies have been eager midwives to the birth of the beast. The editorials periodically scourged the "no-growth extremists" while praising a moderation that was anything but. Yet in June, the San Francisco Examiner broke tradition by publishing a remarkable four part series by reporters John Jacobs and Gerry Adams. It was twenty years too late, as the Bay Guardian observed, but it scooped the Chronicle.

Appropriately entitled "Inner Circles," the Adams and Jacobs series profiled the institutionalized corruption that pervades municipal government and shapes the city's skyline. As the clumsy term "political contribution" has replaced the simpler word "bribe," developers and their attorneys have maintained "access" to the highest levels of City Hall denied the common citizen. The investigation revealed that favored lawyers have hidden exemptions for specific highrise projects in planning legislation that they've drafted. Supervisors have dutifully carried the exemptions. The mayor and her point men have lined up planning commissioners' votes prior to public hearings. It's nothing that experienced observers hadn't suspected; Adams and Jacobs give the specifics and the cash totals.

While I have known prominent downtown attorneys so toxic with greed they can corrupt you with a handshake, the transformation of San Francisco was not, I think, wrought by a cabal of wicked men. The growth ethic has, until recently, been universally accepted and obeyed as Holy Writ. Highrises have become our modern cathedrals, temples of our most sacred rites of exchange and speculation. Highrise skeptics suffer public anathema. For architects, tall buildings confer all the glamour and publicity so lacking in the affordable housing that proliferating highrises demand. For architectural critics who take these buildings seriously, the provide endless brie and power.

It was over dessert at a power lunch for the Urban Land Institute at the Bohemian Club that I was graced by an epiphany. The Institute is aptly named, for it is composed of Realtors, developers, lawyers, architects, bankers — all those well-tailored individuals who live off the rising value of urban land. Urban design is the garnish to such banquets, the dressing that keeps the values inflating. These are not people overly vexed by the estimated 27,000 evictions that took place in San Francisco last year. The topic under discussion was the city's nationally acclaimed Downtown Plan, and the panel included the standard mix of leading architects, developers, and Planning Director Dean Macris discussing the plan's implications.

The problem, I thought, busily spooning creme caramel to keep my mouth occupied, was that these worthies were discussing a radically incomplete city, a flat city of paper values from which so many others had been extracted. Great power is usually two-dimensional — it can exclude what it does not want to hear, what will not bring profit — and such banquets are object lessons.

There were no neighborhood leaders to give their opinions. There were no seismologists, medics, or fire chiefs to tell the audience the likely consequences of the Downtown Plan. There was no synthesist to put it into any larger perspective. It was a genteel discussion, but as always, you could hear the snarling of social darwinism behind the politesse, the piranhas in the tea cups.

For the transformation of San Francisco has been all about land values, and it has paid off like a busted slot machine for landowners and their dependents. The highrising of downtown has sent a shock wave of speculation through the Bay Area, ramming housing costs into realms of the ludicrous and pushing transit toward tilt.

Quietly, Victorian houses are again being bulldozed. Quietly, the farmlands vanish. Quietly, old businesses and middle-class families are shoved out of the city; the poorest are shoved into the streets. And very quietly, the most valuable land passes to offshore and multinational investors. What Virginia City once was to San Francisco, San Francisco has become to far-flung outsiders: a bonanza mine for the looting.

The incomplete city of paper is diverging further from those complex human goals that ideally make urban life so fulfilling and liberating. The role of protection is succumbing to that of aggression. That is why city planning increasingly resembles the antics of spoiled children rather than sober adults. That is why the city is being paralyzed by animosity and distrust. And that is why a broad coalition of San Franciscans, tired of occupied status, have sponsored an initiative to take back their city.

There have been four serious growth control initiatives in the past fifteen years, each one drawing increased popular support until the last one, three years ago, lost by only .6 percent after a media saturation barrage against it. But since that defeat, conditions have only worsened, and it is now clear to many that the Downtown plan is so riddled with loopholes that it resembles a moldy Swiss gruyere. The Downtown Plan, by demanding fees from developers for housing, transit, and other public services, is itself a tacit admission that highrises, in the post-Prop. 13 era, don't pay their own way.

The San Francisco Campaign for Accountable Planning (CAP) initiative is far more sophisticated than previous measures. It requires that future growth and development be made in accordance with a consistent master plan that includes goals more multidimensional than the construction of highrise buildings. It limits growth by closing loopholes in the Downtown Plan and eliminating exemptions granted by the Board of Supervisors. And it attempts to correct a situation in which 70 percent of all new jobs go to commuters by requiring the creation of job training and a placement service for San Francisco residents.

I do not claim that the CAP initiative is perfect; its opponents will say that it is too complex (whereas the earlier initiatives were "too simplistic"), though it is simplicity itself in comparison with the Downtown Plan. I worry about overregulation, and the wisdom of those doing the regulating.

Yet endless growth creates the need for ever-greater regulation to delay total ruin. Local growth control initiatives are only a beginning, for that economic boom recently predicted for California by Wells Fargo and hailed by editorials will, in fact, create insoluble crises. The solutions being proposed are piecemeal, exorbitant, and ineffective because the growth they encourage will overwhelm them all. No public agency is looking at the true and long-term costs of growth — locally, statewide, or globally. It is expedient not to do so.

What we need, globally, is a form of population control kinder than famine, poison water, Star Wars, and the weapons carried by the USS Missouri. We simply can no longer afford to ignore what humanity has exceeded the carrying capacity of earth and is breaking it.

What we need, locally, is an understanding of what a great city is all about, and its responsibilities to its hinterland. Explaining those responsibilities was the lifelong work of Lewis Mumford, a brilliant generalist who was once required reading for urban planners and who now seems to be required amnesia. In one of the most perceptive essays ever written on San Francisco, Mumford warned in a 1963 New Yorker:

"A city that has no use for its waterfront, no use for its beautiful skyline, no use for its aquatic recreational facilities, no use for the apricot orchards and the vineyards of the surrounding countryside, has in fact no use for variety and contrast of any kind, and eventually it will have no use for itself, for when it looks in the mirror, no expressive, identifiable face will be reflected there."

The CAP initiative is an attempt to save what is left of the Bay Area's remarkably expressive face. Next month's Cityscapes will explore how we can go on to build a noble city worthy of its incomparable site.

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