Too many big buildings

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Housing is now being stuffed into downtown blocks, more than 7,000 units in the stretch running from Market Street to the Bay Bridge. This means less driving, less subdivision sprawl and fewer car-dependent office parks in the outer 'burbs, all worries that older high-rise foes had.

"A Skyscraper Story," by Marshall Kilduff, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/29/07

EDITORIAL Actually, no.

There are indeed a lot of new housing towers under way in San Francisco, some of them soaring to heights that will block the sun and sky and wall off parts of the city from its waterfront. But there's not a lot of evidence that they're doing much to cut down driving and office parks.

In fact, when we went and visited a few of these spanking new buildings a year ago, we found that few of the residents actually worked in downtown San Francisco. They were mostly young Silicon Valley commuters who slept in their posh condos at night but got up in the morning and drove their cars (or in some cases, rode vanpools) to jobs at office parks or car-dependent corporate campuses 20 to 30 miles south.

There were a few former suburbanites around — but again, they weren't San Francisco workers. They were retired people with plenty of cash who wanted to move back to town after the kids left home.

As Sue Hestor reports in "San Francisco's Erupting Skyline" on page 7, the Planning Department is quietly but aggressively moving to raise the height limits around the edges of downtown, particularly in the South of Market area. There's been little protest, in part because so many of the new towers are largely for housing, not offices.

Some of the giant new buildings are very much the same sort of projects we — and much of progressive San Francisco — have been fighting against for 30 years. The Transbay Terminal will be anchored by a 1,000-foot-high commercial building that will soar far above the Transamerica Pyramid. But somehow activists seem willing to accept high-rise housing in a way they would never tolerate offices — if it's presented as a cure to sprawl.

But that requires a big leap of faith: you have to accept that San Franciscans who will walk or take transit to work are going to wind up living in those buildings. And since much of the housing is going to consist of very high-end condos — in the million-dollar range — that almost certainly won't be true.

The new wave of development has tremendous problems and needs far more careful scrutiny than it's getting. The Planning Commission ought to demand a demographic study to determine whether this housing actually meets the city's needs — and put a halt to it if it doesn't. *