Why SF’s City Planning Department doesn’t get it

The Mission District and the SF of the future that planners are endorsing is not what San Franciscans want. Spirit matters

 

There is no designated Sociologist position on the 200+ staff of ’s City Planning Department. And a bachelor/masters degree in Urban Planning can be received from many universities throughout the nation without any requirement to take even an Introduction to Sociology 101 course. This explains a lot.

The inculcated dismissal of human social behavior and how it shapes cities came to mind once again as I read the department’s quibbling on the question of whether new development causes community displacement in the Draft Mission 2020 Action Plan released last week:

“The forces of displacement are varied and complex and the key is to deploy strategies and investment now to stabilize the neighborhood for decades to come … The city acknowledges displacementis real but believes the causes of displacement are complex and tied to larger [unnamed] systemic issues beyond development.”

For the metrics-oriented approach that dominates much of the national urban planning community and our local department these days, the conceptual problem is – despite a litany of statistics that document the widespread low-income resident and small business displacement that is actually happening now in the Mission District – missing data:

“The city also feels research on effects of market rate development will be inconclusive but is nevertheless scoping out a way to further study the nexus between development and displacement to determine what it is, if one exists.”

The problem with relying on metrics is that they can show what is happening – retrospectively – but not intrinsically why. Adding economic analysis, which the department superficially attempts to do by relying on input from other city agencies, can explain the immediate motivations of economic actors – property owners, businesses, developers, and nowadays “investors” – but still fails to capture the overall cultural and social dynamics of how cities evolve and change due to the collective behavior of large discrete population groups. That’s Sociology. And over time it is most of all those cultural and social dynamics that actually drive and determine the course of events. Urban economics follow the values they reflect, not the other way around.

Walk the talk. Donate $10 to MEDA to provide affordable housing in San Francisco

Analysis of the cultural and social change of cities can be framed from many various different perspectives. Allow me to summarize with this one: a (much over-simplified) generational timeline framework for ’s transition from a working class industrial city of the mid-20th Century (with a concentrated bourgeois elite of global industrialist/financiers/hosts) to today’s white-collar/services/lifestyle city (with a much larger bourgeois elite of global tech industrialist/financiers/hosts).

The Generational Eras of Modern

  1. The great Post-World War II out-migration (1945-65). Following universal national trends, the city’s population dropped from 800,000+ in 1945 to 675,000 in 1980. Working-class and professional households of the World War II Generation moved to affordable new single-family-home suburbs easily accessible by car thanks to new bridges and freeways. Industry followed to build modern production facilities near Interstate highways.

A counter-trend, filling in vacant housing left behind, was the Great Migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to northern and western cities nationwide, notably ’s Western Addition and Bayview neighborhoods. And in the Mission District, Latino households moving from California and Western States, and Mexico if possible, replaced departing Italian-American and Irish-American families [including my own Italian-American relatives], establishing an authentic Latino community.

Mission Street, 1957
Mission Street, 1957

A small but seminal new sub-culture also took root in the emptying-out Italian-American North Beach neighborhood – the bohemian Beats, members of the much smaller transitional Silent Generation.

  1. The great Baby Boom in-migration (1965-85). Beginning in the 1960’s, signified by the legendary “Summer of Love” (whatever that reality actually was), became a prime national destination for [my own] massive Baby Boom Generation. Whether it represented a true counter-culture or just a new bourgeois life-style, it took root filling in the cheap rental housing widely available throughout the city, first in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and then expanding to other city districts. In North Beach it merged with the still-present Beats into an urbane “Café Society” of the 1970’s-80’s [including myself]. The Castro was transformed into a nationally-significant gay neighborhood. South of Market became a focus of the Boomers’ arts community with also a gay leather sub-culture.

As overt racism in the New South diminished, the growth of the city’s African-American population slowed and then stopped. But thanks to the opening-up of national immigration laws following the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, large numbers of Asian and Latin American immigrant households also began to come to . Chinatown began to grow rapidly and then spread to other city neighborhoods, and the Latino population of the Mission swelled. A vibrant Latino neighborhood with a full range of small businesses and community services plus dynamic cultural organizations was created from its own energies and vision.

Once the Baby Boomers inevitably “mainstreamed” and settled down, they began to buy homes at still-affordable prices in the 1980’s, focusing on character-rich neighborhoods like Noe Valley, Duboce Triangle, Inner Sunset, and others – including the West of Mission/Dolores area [where i moved from North Beach in 1986].

That marked the acknowledged beginning of ’s “gentrification” process. But because affordable rental housing was still available, especially in Southeast , the displaced residents of those locations could relocate within the city. The 1980’s also marked the beginning of visible homelessness in the city, resulting from the shrinkage of the city’s cheapest housing supply, its residential hotels, due to the South of Market and Western Addition redevelopment projects, combined with the new presence of severely distressed and destitute baby boomers due to addiction and mental illness.

  1. The quiet arrival of Generation X (1985-2005). Similar in some ways to the Silent Generation, the much-smaller and culturally transitional Generation X came to beginning in the 1980’s during an era of economic flux. The city’s former corporate headquarter economy was shrinking, but its many institutions and nationally popular lifestyle-based economy were growing. And significant international immigration to the city also continued. By 1990 the city’s population had grown back to 724,000, and then to 776,000 by the year 2000.

 

As a result, existing gentrification trends were reinforced and expanded economically to more neighborhoods. Most notable was Generation X’s focus on the North Mission district and Valencia Street Corridor as a cultural focus that changed in character from a cheap hotel/public housing neighborhood and nondescript commercial thoroughfare to a hip intersection of Gen X artistes and the Mission’s vibrant Latino culture. Even then, this was recognized as a possible precursor to the gentrification of the North Mission.

Another outcome of Generation X’s social locational priorities was the slow decay of North Beach’s distinct lifestyle. Without their interest, Broadway became economically moribund, longtime icon businesses closed, and its character shifted to the more tourist-oriented identity still prevalent today.

The dramatic escalation of city housing prices began in the mid-1990’s thanks to all these new arrivals combined with the steadily growing purchasing power of the many baby boomers. This continued until runaway financial speculation crashed the national economy with the Great Recession of 2008. The pre-WWII rental housing of close-in neighborhoods like Hayes Valley, Lower Haight, and South of Market [where I have lived since 1996] nearly all gentrified. Their former African American and immigrant households were steadily displaced, moving either to Southeast or the East Bay.

The 1990’s also saw the birth of the city’s 21st Century new Tech Industry, first located in the then-cheap warehouse district surrounding SOMA’s South Park – dubbed “Multi-Media Gulch” at the time. It grew rapidly with the globally booming Internet and breakthrough spread of digital technology until the city’s First Tech Bubble that peaked in 2000 before bursting precipitously the following year, followed by only modest growth until the end of the Great Recession.

  1. The Millennial transformation (2005-today). In sheer national numbers, the Millennial Generation is even bigger than the Baby Boom Generation was. Attracted by the city’s now-booming “soft” Tech Industry (web services, social media, etc.) and easy “Google Bus” access to Silicon Valley jobs, it is visibly transforming old and new city neighborhoods with its own very recognizable contemporary lifestyle. This includes the Western Addition and NOPA and – thanks to substantial amounts of new apartment/condo construction – SOMA and Dogpatch, where gentrification is now virtually complete except for the subsidized affordable housing built since 1970. And most controversially it is changing the fundamental social character of the Inner Mission district east of Valencia Street, rapidly displacing Latino families and longtime businesses, paradoxically resulting in visible retail disinvestment near the 16th Street BART station but the hip Valencia-zation of 20th

 

The "Beast on Bryant"
The “Beast on Bryant”

 

In 2010 the city’s population totaled 805,000, and then just five years later 865,000 – of which a 167,000 are adult millennials between 18 and 30 years of age. The impact of these generally above-average-paid Millennials on the city’s housing market since the end of the Great Recession in 2010 has resulted in skyrocketing rents throughout the city, while the buying-up purchasing power of mid-career Gen X and empty-nest Baby Boom households have likewise driven condo prices to new records (along with diversion of much housing to non-residential use). This has generated widespread displacement of lower and middle income households throughout the city, which has been well documented. International immigration has continued as well – but recently much more weighted toward Tech Industry workers.

In addition to dozens of new in-fill housing developments throughout all the inner-city neighborhoods, one important new feature of these years is the emergence of all-new city master-planned neighborhoods that will house tens of thousands of future households. Mission Bay is the first, having begun slowly in the late-‘90’s and now nearing completion. The equally-large Shipyard/Candlestick and Treasure Island projects will follow over the next 25 years, along with several Central Waterfront complexes.

As this transformation unfolds the sense of loss of character and identity of many city neighborhoods and cultures is very real. The Castro is no longer a “gay mecca.” Visibly African-American neighborhoods like Divisadero Street have largely disappeared. Japan Town is a relic. Soma is homogenizing. And almost everywhere, “upscale” is the new scale. Even the Tenderloin is now becoming today’s newest “1990-era 16th/Valencia” hipster spot – a precursor of its future gentrification?

And more than ever, the Central Bay Area – especially Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda – is congealing as both their housing markets and social group identifications merge into a single trans-Bay central city, with former city small businesses, artists, and service workers being widely displaced to less costly East Bay locations.

The Bottom Line Outcomes

This timeline only scratches the surface of the city’s cultural and social dynamics of the last 70 years. But it is clear the evolution of the city has been driven by shared values and priorities – the cultures and sub-cultures – of large population groups that come to or leave in significant concentrated numbers, in waves, within given time frames. Urban economics follow these social dynamics and amplify them rather than determine them. The forces of national/global market capitalism of course can overrule any and all of these factors at any time, but and the Bay Area’s intrinsic economic diversity and high-added-value economy have demonstrated a long-term stability that has insulated the region from severe or prolonged social disruption due to economic decline. Instead it now faces very consequential social disruption due to its prosperity.

All three existing generations – Baby Boom, Gen X, Millennial – participate to varying degrees in today’s Tech Industry and the lifestyle economy it supports, plus provide housing and services it needs. Collectively, this is the city’s new Tech Generation without age limits – the “winners” from today’s social and economic change, today’s prosperity.

So to the question posed of whether new market-rate housing and upscale commercial developments in the Mission district generate broader displacement of its existing residents and small businesses beyond the extent of their actual site, the Planning Department will likely conclude from some analysis akin to the above that, No, that displacement is a result of overall macro social and economic forces first, with the neighborhood’s new development at most just a symptom, a result, of those inevitable changes.

But that fails to recognize the power of symbols and the role they play in such social/cultural dynamics of neighborhoods and cities, their importance to all concerned. Just as the city’s new downtown skyscrapers symbolize its emergence as a 21st Century globally-significant metropolis, so do the Mission district’s new apartment/condo blocks and upscale restaurants symbolize and celebrate a de-facto conquest of a vibrant Latino community by the generally white (plus Asian fraction) Millennial transformation of their community – thanks to property law and the sheer buying power of these new arrivals.

Symbolically, just as once before, 240 years ago, the royal land grants, guns, and cannons of the 1776 European settlers of Mission Dolores that seized the bountiful Mission Bay Estuary from its thousands of indigenous native peoples doomed and supplanted their rich pre-technology culture.

 

Mission Dolores around 1800 (Mission California)
Mission Dolores around 1800 (Mission California)
Proposed project at 338 Potrero
Proposed project at 338 Potrero

It is this symbolic power of “the new” that validates the “conquest of the existing” in the perception of the newly arrived who have no prior experience or interaction with, and thus no appreciation of the threatened , their society and their culture.

And having so perceptibly ratified their loss in the interests of “progress” or “increased housing supply,” this symbolic statement directly accelerates the very rate of change itself by enhancing the market value – the urban economics – of that change in a self-reinforcing loop. Once a critical mass of such symbolic “newness” is reached, a “tipping point” is passed, and any meaningful alternative future – any sufficient intervention to achieve the “stabilization” the Planning Department presents as the 2020 Action Plan goal – becomes impossible. This is the sociological/economic “nexus” the Planning Department is blind to.

And for the city as a whole it poses the question of whether the social and cultural homogenization of represented by this market-driven transformation of the Mission and other /neighborhoods citywide into a generic Liberal-White upscale mainstream culture – combined with several large Asian-American districts – with just a few “heritage districts” to commemorate our other by-gone cultures’ and sub-cultures’ vibrancy is the best we can do as a body politic – as city builders.

In June of 2016 TODCO contracted for a poll of city voters to research public attitudes on the general issue of the city’s “Character.” This is the result:

  1. Do you believe that has a special character and spirit that is different from other cities?

 

YES

91

NO

8

PREFER NOT TO SAY

1

 

 

[ASK IF ANSWER TO PREVIOUS QUESTION IS ‘YES’]

  1. And how important is it to you that ’s special character and spirit is maintained into the future—is it very important, somewhat important, not very important, or not at all important?

 

VERY IMPORTANT

69

à95%

SOMEWHAT IMPORTANT

26

NOT VERY IMPORTANT

3

à4%

NOT AT ALL IMPORTANT

1

DON’T KNOW

1

 

PREFER NOT TO SAY

 

 

Now I’m going to read some characteristics that some people say describe . After each characteristic that I read, tell me how important this characteristic is to you personally—is it very important, somewhat important, not very important, or not at all important? If you think that this characteristic does not describe , just say so and we’ll move on

 

RANDOMIZE.

Very Important

Some-what Impor-tant

Not Very Impor-tant

Not At All Impor-tant

Does Not Describe

Don’t Know

Impor-tant

Not Impor-tant

3.                    

Has ethnic and cultural diversity

75

19

1

2

2

1

94

5

4.                    

Has vibrant immigrant

58

31

5

3

1

2

89

9

5.                    

Values open-mindedness

73

18

1

3

3

2

91

7

6.                    

Has a wide range of income levels

53

32

5

5

3

2

85

13

7.                    

Is welcoming to new residents

47

34

8

5

4

2

81

17

8.                    

Is welcoming to new generations

51

34

5

4

4

2

85

13

9.                    

Values the legacy of older generations

53

31

5

6

4

1

84

15

10.                 

Values dreamers and those who march to their own drummer

46

35

8

5

3

3

81

16

11.                 

Is passionate about civic issues

58

29

5

4

1

3

87

10

12.                 

Is frequently a starting point for national social change

55

27

8

6

1

3

82

15

13.                 

Has high environmental quality

72

21

2

2

1

2

93

5

14.                 

Has great natural beauty

81

16

2

1

0

0

97

3

15.                 

Has great wealth

26

40

17

11

2

4

66

30

16.                 

Is a city of innovation and entrepreneurship

53

32

7

4

1

3

85

12

 

The clear message of this survey is that the Mission district and of the future that our city’s residents overwhelmingly want is not the Mission district and that is being planned by our city Planning Department and built by market forces today. It’s more – Spirit matters.

Adding a token Sociologist to the Planning Department staff will not solve the problem. But for the director, the Commission, and all the Department staff to begin thinking like sociologists would be a start.

  • FunnyBecauseItsTrue

    Mr Elberling, before they add a sociologist to their staff, they should add an auditor to confirm that the money given to affordable housing developers is spent on housing, not on political campaigns.

    https://medium.com/@MarkFarrellSF/progressive-campaigns-bankrolled-by-taxpayer-funded-affordable-housing-scam-ad46c833cb1d#.phuwawdz2

  • Charlain

    The article is interesting, but it offers no solutions for the claimed problem. There is only the proposal to add a sociologist to the staff of the Planning Department, and this proposal does not provide a concrete explanation of the role the sociologist would have in the Planning Department. Furthermore, the author makes an outright admission that adding, as the author says, a “token” sociologist to the Planning Department would not solve the identified problem.

    Also, I am not sure what the author thinks is accomplished by citing the results of the registered voter poll (and I will not even address the fact that the pool of registered voters does not necessarily accurately reflect the community at large). The poll finds that most registered voters think San Francisco has a “special character and spirit” and it is important to maintain this “special character and spirit.” So, what? What does asking voters vague and ambiguous questions determine? I am sure that in most cities a poll of registered voters would find most residents think their city has a “special character and spirit” that should be maintained. You would probably find these views shared by registered voters in New York, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Houston and Miami. Most people care about where they live and want to keep it a nice place to live in. Also,for the specific characteristics surveyed in the poll, every single characteristic was ranked as at least important by approximately 2/3 of the respondents or more, even the characteristic “has great wealth.”

    The author needs to sharpen his argument and fill in the details of his proposed solutions.

    • Don Sebastopol

      The analysis is good but I agree about the solution. But Maybe urban planners do need to consult with social scientists, demographers, and statisticians to look at some of their underlying assumptions. Altering the environment may not do anything to change human behavior. Assuming their grand plans and designs can, is delusional.

  • Don Sebastopol

    A very good analysis. I agree urban planners are not very good at predicting the future and cannot change human behavior. My only observation is that most of what we see is replacement rather than “displacement.” Obviously, economics plays a role when people choose where to live, but a small percent are displaced. Regarding the Mission, like all ethnic enclaves there needs to a steady supply of fresh blood or it will disappear. It does take some ethnic groups longer to assimilate but they eventually do.

    • sebra leaves

      Stealing the future is like stealing the soul: I reserve the right to plan my own future and I reserve the right to change my mind as I go along. A lot of people and circumstances change throughout our lifetimes and that is why living in the future is futile. Right about now there are a lot of people who are incredibly inconvenienced by a government that put off fixing a major problem that was pointed out over a decade ago. How many more of these are out there, ignored disasters, waiting to happen because fixing them did not fit the plan du jour?

      The planning departments (every department has one) do nothing about
      solving current issues. SFMTA can’t figure out how to handle traffic
      work today or even count it, but they claim if we give them 10 or 20
      years they will have it all worked out. They can tell you the traffic
      counts for 20 years from now. Really? Sorry, but I don’t believe the
      parties who destroyed a functioning traffic and transit system are the
      ones to fix it. We need a system that works for the residents who
      are here now. Not a future perfect plan for a future no one can predict
      and will probably never happen.

  • goodmaab

    Drove down mission on the 49 muni today, plenty of permits and development occurring question is for whom… Without a city agency working for the publics benefit we only get for profit development. We need essential housing built to keep not just to developer and bank driven interests. THe funds should be local and stay local under our terms. A developer stated clearly “land is cheap in SF” vs east coast cities therefore we will continue to be the feeding grounds of bigger sharks…

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  • wakey wakey

    Great, concise article. One edit i’d suggest is in section 2, regarding homelessness: the HUD budget cuts to section 8 housing between 1978-1984 were/are a significant contributing factor to homelessness in San Francisco and nationwide. Also, maybe checking college/university degree types over the last 70 years and correlating any increase in ethnocentricism. A city flush with Business Admin/CS degree holders may influence city planning and its discussion away from diversity by default because they have a college degree, and because they specialized away from social sciences, not to mention the arts & humanities.

    • goodmaab

      Institutional Growth has not been placed in “check” by the planners

      AAU, CCAC, SFSU-CSU, UCSF, CCSF

      so family and senior housing has been pilfered (ex: stonestown and parkmerced) by SFSU-CSU, caused a lot of families and seniors to move out….

  • Hexagon

    What makes the author think anyone there cares about solving or anticipating problems, let alone working for what regular people want or value?

  • Porfirio666

    John, how are the investigations against you for giving taxpayer funds to political campaigns you like by the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the San Francisco Ethics Commission proceeding? I assume you have hired legal consul (NOT using tax money this time) for your defense. Please keep us posted.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Another 48 Hills essay that mischaracterizes the ethnic and racial changes happening in San Francisco. The White percentage of San Francisco is *not* increasing, it is stagnant. How are whites driving displacement if their population is not increasing?

    Both Asians and Latinos have been steadily increasing both in numbers and as a percentage of the overall population. The Black population has been dropping precipitously.

    This can all be gleaned by looking at the Census and ACS data. One would think that a Sociologist would know how to look at primary sources.