Planet SOMA

In his column in today’s Chronicle, C.W. Nevius suggests that gentrification finally won the game in my old neighborhood, that it’s not a bad thing, that the results “don’t frighten anyone,” and that it “may be most vibrant and attractive neighborhood in the city.” He even goes so far as to argue that the new South of Market might provide a template for all future urban development in San Francisco.

I humbly disagree.

First, his definitions are blurry. Is Nevius talking about the new development in the eastern part of the district near the Financial District? If so, there may be some merit to his assertion that the area was something of a blank canvas, at least with respect to residential development. Indeed, very few residents were displaced here. Even so, I don’t find the results especially distinctive. But for the occasional obscured view of the water or the Bay Bridge, this high-rise jungle of sparkling new million dollar condos and big box retailers could be in just about any larger North American city. Granted, it’s perhaps a little more transit-oriented than it might have been in, say, Charlotte, and I suppose it’s not particularly unpleasant. But it’s also not particularly unique, except maybe in scale and price.

That said, the King Street/AT&T Park corridor is only part of the South of Market Area. Nevius states that “as the area fills in” that “surely residents in those areas can see that the specter of gentrification isn’t that bad.” The section west of Moscone Center, though, hasn’t been a blank slate since about 1906 when it all burned down. It’s pretty darned full already. There are, and always have been, people living there, and prior to the 1990s, many of these people were of rather modest means. Since the 1990s, a large number of these people (not to mention small businesses) have been displaced. These folks might have a slightly different perspective on the effects of gentrification in the area.

I don’t live in San Francisco anymore, and I’m not directly affected by any of this. But I do care about urban development, and I also recognize that many people look to San Francisco for a model of how their own cities might evolve. If there’s a model to follow here, though, I’d prefer that it not be this “slash and burn” style of development that erases everything (and everyone) that was there before. It’s one thing to do this to an area where there wasn’t all that much to begin with, but to superimpose this model onto an existing neighborhood seems to me the antithesis of urbanity, whether it’s done in the name of “slum clearance” in 1959 or “transit-oriented development” fifty years later.

Nevius closes by saying that he’ll “be interested in what the rest of the city looks like (in ten years). And how much it resembles the new gentrification.”

For San Francisco’s sake, I’m hoping there won’t be much resemblance at all.