Friday, January 1, 2016

San Francisco's Lessons for Los Angeles Plus Critique

A four-story apartment building with ground-floor shops at Chestunt and Divisidero in San Francisco.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days as a tourist in the San Francisco Bay Area, so of course, I'm bursting at the seams with things to say about urban design!  San Francisco is an awesome city to explore on foot.  There are a few things that give San Francisco a really strong and coherent visual identity.  One is that, with some exceptions, there is a really consistent pattern of attached buildings that range from two to four stories.  This is a mixture of rowhouses and apartments, some with ground floor shops, as shown above, and most others with ground floor single-car garages.  Coming from LA County, this is really striking, because these building types that are ubiquitous in San Francisco are not that common down here, where detached houses, strip malls and short, detached apartment buildings are much more common.  This coherence is there regardless of the architectural style of the buildings, which are varied, and sometimes exquisite.  Another difference: while townhouses and apartments down here often have balconies, in San Francisco, balconies seemed rare and instead there are lots of bay windows (also visible in the above photo).  The third element of visual identity is the hilly terrain, which rewards you with spectacular views.

As LA is becoming more urban, it seems like we don't have the same sense of coherence in our visual brand.  The new urban developments are a crap shoot on height.  One building might be seven stories, the next 30, the next four.  While it's good not to be overly prescriptive and mandate that everything be the same, I really was struck by San Francisco's narrow range of building heights.  In Downtown SF, which has taller buildings, you are really struck by the lack of sun, yet beyond, the neighborhoods were still very urban with a density level that clearly supports convenient transit service, which is largely based on buses.  In a place like LA, which as deeper suburban roots, the San Francisco height range of two to four stories probably has a better chance of not freaking people out than taller buildings.

Speaking of transit, SF has some cool things going on:
  • Electric trolleybuses with overhead wires provide zero emissions at the vehicle, are pretty quiet and are much cheaper than building light rail (awesome!).
  • Some bus stops have shelters that let you press a button which will audibly tell you when the next bus is coming (awesome!).
  • BART provides a grade separated transit trunk line that connects San Francisco to a lot of the East Bay and San Francisco International Airport (gasp!) with short wait times.  Robotic-voices say things like "8 car Millbrae-bound train arriving in five minutes" (awesome!).
  • The rides are more expensive than LA County transit.  SF Muni buses cost $2.25 for 90 minutes of riding and BART has distance-based fares.
  • There are ferries that are convenient to BART and Downtown SF.
  • BART seems to be grade separated through a lot of the East Bay (I haven't ridden the system enough to know if it is completely grade separated).  Elevated tracks can be found in more suburban areas, which I think is a good model for LA.  Elevated tracks are cheaper than tunnels and lend themselves well to the more suburban stations.  I would be stoked to see the Red Line extend into the San Ferndando Valley towards San Fernando this way.
The El Cerrito Del Norte BART station is a good example of a suburban grade-separated heavy rail stop with a bus station and parking.  Not everything has to be underground!
Some things about San Francisco's form weren't so great.  There are a lot of one-car garages.  For a townhouse this would probably mean one off-street space (or maybe two tandem off-street spaces per house).  For some apartment buildings, you'd be able to park several cars off street, but it would probably be less than one car per unit (at least if we're talking about a parking arrangement where you could get a car out easily), even for a four-story building.  My sister has lived in the city for a while and got rid of her car pretty quickly, opting for walking, biking, transit and Uber instead, due to the difficulty of parking.  Sometimes, there is a row of one-car garage doors along a larger building.  The frequency of one-car garage doors combined with narrow lots can kill off large areas of street parking (which would otherwise buffer pedestrians from traffic) and requires a lot of driveway aprons.  All of the aprons make it hard to plant street trees, which can make the streets look stark and barren (although the colder weather makes you appreciate the sun).  It seems like SF goes though a lot of trouble to accommodate garages that don't even provide very much parking by LA standards.  SF is in a weird middle ground between a city like New York that has large swaths of buildings with zero off-street parking and LA, which has a lot of apartment buildings that provide at least one space per unit.  This issue has not been lost on the locals (as shown in this excellent critique which recommends converting garages to more housing or shops).

SF should definitely eliminate its off-street parking requirements citywide and limit the percentage of lot frontage that can be occupied by garage doors (50% max I would say, so you could at least do street trees).  But then again, they're much farther along towards being a pedestrian-oriented city than LA as a whole.  For that, and for giving me an enjoyable trip, I tip my hat to the city by the Bay.

No comments:

Post a Comment