January 14, 2008
JustQuotes: What's/Who’s To Blame For “Bad” Building Design In SF?
“What is it with San Francisco and bad design? I just finished reading the article on the condos by Lorcan O'Herlihy in the NYTimes that were built in West Hollywood, and THIS project on Corbett is the SAME PRICE as those units which are amazing? San Francisco really needs to "get out" more and see what the rest of the design world has been up to. The poor product we are expected to buy at top dollar is insulting when compared to what designers are giving buyers in Los Angeles and Chicago in this same price range.”
∙ A Peek Inside Three New Condos In Twin Peaks: 950 Corbett Avenue [SocketSite]
∙ Remaking the Condo With Light and Air [New York Times]
∙ Habitat825 (West Hollywood) [habitatgroupla.com]
First Published: January 14, 2008 12:59 PM
Comments from "Plugged In" Readers
I agree that it's more innovative than Corbett, but that acid green color is going to look very dated in just a few years. This city is littered with entryways done up in the color du jour.
Posted by: jlasf at January 14, 2008 1:14 PM
Here's who to blame for essentially very bad design, especially residential in SF:
1. The SF Planning Department is literally stuck in a time warp preferring ONLY cheap imitations of Victorian or Edwardian architecture. The planning code is a nightmare to navigate. The so called "design guidelines" are tools used arbitrarily by any of the planners to approve or disapprove a design.They are already speculating about adding Historic Districts throughout neighborhoods such as Noe Valley and Glen Park, making it virtually impossible to add on or do any exterior renovations to any house older than 50 years.Much of the planning department is provincial, narrow minded and bureaucratic beyond reason.
2. There are, in fact, some talentless architects who will bang out any cheap, crappy design for a buck. They will suck up to the planning department in any way they can to get a permit thru quickly.
3. Last but not least, there are also lots of unscrupulous builders and developers who will completely support what goes on in item no. 2 above.
Posted by: noearchSF at January 14, 2008 1:19 PM
they may be the same selling price, but land in SF is of a much higher value than LA or Chicago.
Posted by: sf_housedude at January 14, 2008 1:34 PM
" but land in SF is of a much higher value than LA or Chicago."
Not so. Land adjacent to Beverly Hills in a location like Kings Road is just as expensive as most parts of San Francisco, if not more. As for Chicago, like the Bay Area, it depends where. The West Hollywood Project is near some of the best shops and restaurants on the West Coast, and I doubt the land was any less than most of Soma, the Mission, or even parts of Pacific Heights or Noe Valley.
Posted by: anonandon at January 14, 2008 1:39 PM
I don't want to get into "Who's More Expensive" but you can't compare apples to oranges.
Posted by: Mike L at January 14, 2008 1:58 PM
"but you can't compare apples to oranges"
I think you are missing the point in trying to justify poor design in San Francisco because land costs may be higher in certain locations. This does not explain projects such as some that are mentioned in the article in N.Y.C. and Chicago, and PLEASE understand, that psf costs in PARTS of those towns are just as high as here. Twin Peaks and living on Kings Road next to Beverly Hills are two completely different lifestyles, but the costs for land and construction are not that different, so why did Corbett end up begin grey stucco with a bunch of exhaust vents stuck on the sides? We really need to stop accepting the poor construction I am seeing on many new projects in this city and high land costs are no excuse for builders in N.Y., Chicago or L.A., so it should not be here either. Since L.A. always causes instant animosity here, read the part of the article that talks about other designs for condos in N.Y.C. and Chicago and how good design sells and buyers now demand it. (Though not here)
Posted by: whatever at January 14, 2008 2:18 PM
I have posted this sort of thing before, but as an architect working in San Francisco, the "input" of the Planning Department is as scary as it is depressing.
No fooling: On the initial meeting to present a new 9 story medical office building, the first comment from the planner was "have you considered bay windows?".
Posted by: redseca2 at January 14, 2008 2:23 PM
Land costs have absolutely nothing to do with design quality. Blame the lack of quality urban residential design on the planning department.
Posted by: noearch at January 14, 2008 2:23 PM
Land cost is a red herring with respect to rationalizing why we don’t have better design in San Francisco. It might explain why a 800 square foot condo in San Francisco costs the same as a 1,600 square foot condo in Chicago, but it doesn’t explain why those two condos can’t be of a similar quality of design.
Posted by: Michael at January 14, 2008 2:56 PM
Let's not muddy up the topic. The original posting was about "san francisco and bad design.." Land costs have nothing to do with design quality. Land costs certainly may be a factor in construction costs and selling price, yes. A flat site is cheaper to build on than a sloping site.
We are not a very progressive, or open minded city when it comes to urban design, especially small scale residential design. Design excellence comes from the architect foremost. It should. But planning codes play a large role in allowing or not allowing good design. As I've said, and others also have said; The SF planning department is scary, depressing, provincial and closed minded.
Posted by: noearchSF at January 14, 2008 3:41 PM
We're comparing an unexceptional building in San Francisco with an exceptional building in West Hollywood. If you walk up and down Kings Road in West Hollywood, you'll see that most of the architecture (O'Herlihy and Schindler excepted) is as mediocre as in San Francisco, if not more so. Kings Road is lined with large, bland '80's stucco apartment complexes. LA has much more exceptional modern architecture than SF, but also more awful, awful dreck. When I lived in LA, I remember LA Weekly doing an article asking why LA was so ugly. When I last lived in LA, I lived in a beautiful apartment building designed by Ray Kappe (founder of SCIArc). But most of the beautiful small apartment buildings surrounding mine were torn down and replaced by huge stucco condo monstrosities. Rather than walking past front gardens and yards, one walked past ground level parking garage after parking garage, as every shred of green was replaced by concrete and stucco.
Posted by: Dan at January 14, 2008 4:14 PM
I currently live in L.A. (use to live in S.F.0 and I have to completely agree with Dan on this one. I live in an ugly apartment in Los Feliz that, for the most part, is surrounded by other ugly apartments. You see wonderful architecture in L.A. in select places usually standing on it's own, on a small scale. (not including the Historic Core of Downtown).Overall the city is pretty bland.
I would go on to say quality architecture of any category is much more abundant in San Franisco. L.A. has better examples of what we would call modern architecture, and less conservative in design. But then again it's not of a traditional urban fabric which SF is. I hope the situation changes in San Francisco.
Posted by: LALAladdy at January 14, 2008 4:38 PM
I thought this was about condos priced above 1 million and what buyers should expect in the way of good design, not whether or not San Francisco is prettier than Los Angeles. The point I believe was at what price should someone have to pay before getting good interesting design? Let's please not have this turn into another "my city is better than yours" contest. I give credit to the builders of the West Hollywood project for taking the risk to build something that is different and having it turn into a success. There are many in-fill locations in San Francisco where similar steps could be taken, and where buyers such as myself would jump at the opportunity to live in such an enviroment.
Posted by: anonandon at January 14, 2008 5:15 PM
You're missing the point. The question was why SF design is mediocre, compared to LA and Chicago, with the West Hollywood condos in the NY Times article as an example of LA architecture.
If fact, there is a lot of bad architecture in other cities as well. The West Hollywood condos in the NY Times article are not representative of condos in LA, or even on Kings Road, unfortunately.
Perhaps in the tougher climate for condo sales in the months or years to come, there will be a lesson for builders, as units in well-designed buildings will sell better than those in poorly designed buildings.
Posted by: Dan at January 14, 2008 5:41 PM
Here is a thought....let's not use high land costs, or ugly buildings in Los Angeles or Chicago as an excuse for our own poor designs. Lorcan O'Herlihy did not look at the ugly buildings on Kings Road as an excuse to put up another mess, but instead chose to build something that is creative, modern and different. We do have some firms in the city that are trying to do the same, but I think the San Francisco market would be very interested in high quality design projects such as this. I still think someone could have taken a "sub-optimal" location like the Soma Grand, and built something that was more careful and creative in the design, and there would have been no need for signature cocktails or umbrellas as people would have started buying just for the design alone. I know I would.
Posted by: whatever at January 14, 2008 7:47 PM
I guess nobody listens here.
The San Francisco Planning Department, in my opinion, is the primary obstacle to good design, even great design in our city. Provincial. Closed minded. Bureaucratic. Dull.
Posted by: noearchSF at January 14, 2008 8:05 PM
On the whole, I find San Francisco to be a mind numbingly provincial place that spends an inordinate amount of time congratulating itself on the uniqueness of practically every single blade of grass in the city. Every 50 feet of sidewalk has its own neighborhood association dedicated to preserving the uniqueness of its own 50 foot stretch from the onslaught of outsiders and corporate interests.
I vaguely expect this from the local populace, but i unfortunately expect more from officials who are expected to have the cities overall interests at heart.
Posted by: joe at January 14, 2008 8:08 PM
my thoughts on blaming the Planning Dept for conservative design is similar to blaming the Board of Supervisors for bums; over time if things don't change that is a reflection of the desires of the residents of the city
City planning is not autonomous or autocratic
Posted by: Zig at January 14, 2008 9:15 PM
"I vaguely expect this from the local populace, but i unfortunately expect more from officials who are expected to have the cities overall interests at heart."
We live in a democracy; a particularly direct one in California and San Francisco. Officials are a reflection of all of the interests out there and San Francisco. Your interests aren't others. Some people obviously dislike or don't value "good design"
Posted by: Zig at January 14, 2008 9:22 PM
My point is that a large percentage of the people in SF (who have tons of time to spend complaining to their supes) would rather there be NO design - NO new buildings. It should be up to the government to see past selfish and short sighted interests and PLAN for growth - NOT find new ways to prevent it.
I find it ironic that the people who appoint themselves the arbiters of all things San Francisco, the ones who make sure nothing gets approved that the dont personally approve of, are the ones who are singlehandedly ensuring that SF becomes a stale shell of what it once was.
Posted by: Joe at January 14, 2008 9:48 PM
It seemed to me the point of the NYT article was that this particular development was an exception to the LA norm. Now I am not saying that all is well in San Francisco, I watched them put up a new victorian around stanyan and frederick a couple of years ago and I have to admit I am perplexed as to why somebody would want to build fake victorians, or why city planners would think a hyper-real city of disneyfied pseudo-victorians is desirable (Perhaps Umberto Eco could write an essay on this, or maybe he all ready has).
Now if I were a developer, why would I go down that bland path? Because it is the path of least resistance and least expense. Newer designs cost the money of hiring a real architect (I'd like to see somebody from the planning department ask I.M. Pei to think about bay windows) and risk getting rejected or lingering before endless public reviews.
Realistically, we cannot expect to have a city filled from end to end with staggeringly original and beautiful architecture. Much of what is out there will be ordinary or f'ugly (I hope that contraction is allowed here). Of course, anti-urban ideas like the "great room" which you can find in many SF condos, would never fly in NYC. What I do see in NYC condos is some great floor plans that really make good use of limited space, of course open floor plan advocates would probably be appalled but I have been in 500sf apartments in New York that felt more like 1500sf because of the floor plan.
I am still waiting to see that house or condo in SF that is in a style completely new and unique that fits into our city. How about an adventurous new building in Haight-Ashbury at least? Maybe a wall with a paisley tiled mosaic and round windows to revitalize the streetscape.
Posted by: joe shmoe at January 15, 2008 12:42 AM
Joe is precisely right on this one. It never ceases to amaze me, whether out on the streets or at a Planning Commission hearing, how many San Franciscians tout themselves as SF lovers and then petition for a status quo that is ruining this city.
My only 2 cents on the whole land cost debate: SF has less people, less culture, less job opportunities and less good design, yet still has higher land costs. Baffles me every day. And don't start that "they're not making new land!" excuse. Until we have the density that NYC has, that's not a legitimate reason. Guess people here are just more gullible.
As for noearchSF's blame-game, don't drink the Kool-Aid! I'm FAR from complimentary when it comes to the Planning Department's pathetic staff, their own pass-the-buck mentality, and a Planning Code that restricts you to the most banal of building forms. And as for that pre-school picture book they call the "Neighborhood Design Guidelines" - can't get much more short-sighted than that! However, just in the past year I have gotten a cutting-edge, mod, glass box of a house passed through the Dept. without a single blink. Maybe it was because I didn't walk into the office biting my nails and quivering over the SHOCKINGLY modern design I was submitting. Listen, my client wants a glass box, I'm a very modern architect, what else should the planner expect from me? Do I expect them to approve ripping the Victorian details off a house and cladding it in lime green plastic? Of course not. But will they approve a well-designed modern building that works within the context of the street? Yes. Planners don't even have a say in your design unless it has been opposed by a neighbor through the 310/311 notification (which I disagree with btw). And then they are only trying to mediate, you have no responsibility to follow their recommendations if you can get your neighbors to accept a "better" solution. They can say "bay window" as many times as they want with me, but I'm going to just laugh back at them.
Architects and designers in this city simply don't TRY anymore. (No one tries LESS than Heller-Manus and Gary Gee!). That's our problem. Our other large problem is that fewer and fewer projects are being done by design professionals. Go to the Building Dept. any day and you will find 95% of the people there are contractors and homeowners themselves. On residential projects, people are often foregoing architects all together, which results in poor design. On the commercial side, developers are in control of everything that happens these days, which results in cheapening designs for the bottom line. It's a really horrible progression. What do I blame for it? Pure greed. When people started paying more for housing (and no one started paying more than San Franciscans), everyone and their uncle wanted a piece of the pie. People with no construction experience studied for their contractor's license so they could go get jobs and ask insane prices yet do a shitty job. People paid the insane prices speculating that they could get an even insaner resale price. And even more people bought at insane resale prices figuring that they'd do another cheap, IKEA remodel and resell at an even higher price. Same goes for lots of developers who have no desire to develop SF into a better, more beautiful place, they only care about the profits. While it all worked for awhile, it left us with more and more ugly, poorly built buildings, which, in turn, somehow earned a "value" in SF's market. But, mostly, that "value" only came from greedy speculation. No fundamentals at all. Hopefully, that party is over and we can start to pick up the pieces.
Posted by: rg at January 15, 2008 3:08 AM
Architects and designers don't try anymore, because they've been beaten over the head by the planning process and NIMBY neighbors.
We're finally under construction on our tiny Victorian cottage, but it took 2-2.5 years to get permits -- and that's with keeping the look and doing everything by the book. Of course I would have preferred to mow the old house down -- it was in terrible condition and has no real historical value other than a facade -- and put something striking to live in (glass box > double parlor for me), but I didn't want to go through 5-10 years of pain. 2 years is bad enough as it is.
Architects and designers aren't to blame. They just go to where the market is going. And the market says it doesn't want 5-10 years of getting a stupid building permit.
Its ironic that the self-proclaimed most progressive and liberal big city is so damn conservative.
Posted by: Usually Named at January 15, 2008 7:01 AM
Anybody who settles for bad design is to blame.
Posted by: amused at January 15, 2008 9:20 AM
To me it seems that the vast majority of the people in the city don't really care either way about 'design'. There is a very vocal minority that wants to keep the city frozen in time so they end up getting their way because no one pushes back. The majority doesn't care and a lot of the developers will take the path of least resistance, so the minority gets it way.
Posted by: Rillion at January 15, 2008 9:31 AM
Residential is residential. Commercial commercial, and public, well, you get the drift. Maybe more contractors should read socketsite.
Posted by: fluj at January 15, 2008 9:59 AM
San Francisco is the natural result of unjustifiable civic narcissism. That's all.
The only pretty nice thing around here is the views. And to get those, you have to step on top of a filthy stinking rotting bum/junkie.
Chicago has always had great architecture and many very nice neighborhoods.
FYI. the cost of a "typical" Chicago lot (25X125 ft) in a decent north/northwest side 'hood is $475K, give or take. The cost of a modest, 3 BR 1200 sq house in a very nice neighborhood (easily as nice, walkable and family friendly as Noe valley, with a public school that is actually good and without bums) is ~$600K for a house that probably needs some updating, $700K for an updated, but still modest house, to $800K+ for a 2000 sq ft house that still has a backyard, to $1M+ for a McMansion that gobbles up the whole lot.
Yeah, I used to live there. Unfortunately had to come back to this hole for a job.
Posted by: David at January 15, 2008 4:22 PM
gee david, how do you really feel?
Chicago has horrific weather, pedestrian topography, a stark socioeconomic divide on the south side, and funny accents. Really funny accents. Other than that it is a great city. You are definitely right about the architecture. SF has some good architecture too tho. Let's be real.
Posted by: fluj at January 15, 2008 5:23 PM
Horrific weather? Only if you dislike winter more than you like summer (summers here are awful, but winters are fine, vice versa in Chicago--me, I'd rather have nicer-warmer-weather with daylight).
Pedestrian topography? What is that? Chicago's flat. But you have nice buildings to look at rather than water/hills. You also have nice neighborhoods (outside of the southside wasteland ex-Hyde Park, but it's not like SF doesn't have its own pedestrian wastelands). Real neighborhoods where you can drop into a half dozen bars AND another half dozen restaurants in about 2 blocks. Never mind the shops. And there's more than a few of them. The entire Northside of Chicago is covered with those kinds of 'hoods (probably twice as many people as SF).
Funny accents? heh. California has a very noticeable accent to anyone not from here. "Hella?" etc.
SF would be really cool if the residents got over themselves (kind of like NYC, except, well, NYC actually IS the center of the world, SF is, well, maybe the 5th coolest city in the US. if that, and yes I'm ranking LA above SF).
That's SF's major downside (and the expense of buying a house, however renting here is cheaper than renting a decent spot in Chicago).
Thankfully there are enough transplants that you can hang out with them and laugh at the people who bought into the big lie that SF is the best place in the US.
Don't get me wrong, I don't hate this place, or I wouldn't be living here, no matter what the job situation (why I'm not in, say, Houston), but the idea that so many residents have that SF is the best place not only in America but the world, is, well, provincial at best, and just plain wrong. It's a decent place to live. Pretty (except for the bum stench). Too expensive. Decent restaurants, decent job opportunities if you're in certain fields, and ample recreational opportunities. But the best? No way.
Posted by: David at January 15, 2008 7:56 PM
@ David - I'm sorry, I have to chime in here on this one. For many if not most of us, San Francisco is the greatest place in the world to live. There is no need for me to try and explain to you why - you simply would not get it. But having lived in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Miami, and Munich, Germany over the relatively short span of my life thus far, I have moved back to San Francisco to stay because I find it to be the perfect place to live. Beauty, beasts, bums and all. You could not pay me enough money to ever live in Chicago again - the winters are simply too miserable, and I don't find the people too terribly tolerant either. Sorry, just my 2 cents worth.
Posted by: movingback at January 15, 2008 8:52 PM
I will never understand why good weather should have anything to do with a discussion about architecture. This may come as a shock, but people do not move to New York or Chicago for the weather! City lovers want to live in a real urban, walkable, dynamic and interesting city. I think the current success of Chicago is that it is attracting large corporations and young professionals because it is not selling it's weather, but instead it is selling city living, and they sell it well with their safe & clean downtown, large diversified public transportation, affordable housing, and great civic institutions.
How is it that whenever any building that is going up in another city is posted here, it is immediatly shot down because it is in a place that does not live up the our smug San Francisco standards? I would love to see a project like the West Hollywood condos somewhere in SOMA, and I would love to see some of the interesting highrise architecture Chicago has in our city. There is a lot San Francisco can learn from other urban areas who may not be perfect, but do some things better than we do.
Posted by: anoncannotsleep at January 16, 2008 2:59 AM
"and I don't find the people too terribly tolerant either." re: Chicago.
News to ya here -- people here in SF aren't too tolerant either. It's just that people here are more hypocritical here than anywhere else.
The intolerance manifests itself differently. But it's pretty obvious.
Posted by: annnnnono at January 16, 2008 7:05 AM
Yeah, well, anoncannotsleep, I acknowledged that Chicago has SF beaten on architectural terms. But I countered on his other points. Aint no thing. Again, it isn't as if LA is all Dwell and Gehry on every block. LA has its fair share of "yuck."
Posted by: fluj at January 16, 2008 10:23 AM
"This may come as a shock, but people do not move to New York or Chicago for the weather!"
You are right. But people move to California for the weather.
Posted by: Dan at January 16, 2008 12:03 PM
"You are right. But people move to California for the weather."
I assume you are not talking about San Francisco when making that statement? In fact I am not sure climate was ever a driving force in the development of the Bay Area. Southern California is a different story however. I am a sun lover, and that means getting out of San Francisco as much as possible to places like Palm Desert and La Jolla.
Posted by: anon at January 16, 2008 1:13 PM
Yes, many people do move to the Bay Area for the weather, including myself. I like the weather to not be hot and not be too cold all of the time. The only place that gives me that is the Bay Area - So Cal is too hot during the summer and everywhere else gets too cold during the winter.
Moderation in temp is what I (and hundreds of other people that I know) love about the Bay Area.
Posted by: anon checker at January 16, 2008 1:22 PM
Wait a minute, are you saying you moved here for the weather? Why not Santa Barbara? It is more temperate than here, and less homeless and trash.
Why not Carmel, or Pebble Beach or Santa Cruz? We have a place in Laguna Beach where it is 75 in the Summer and 71 in the Winter. (Coastal Southern California is as moderate a climate as Noe Valley)
I and everyone I know moved to San Francisco for a job opportunity, aka, the money. I love it here, but I always thought the driving forces behind the Bay Area developing were; 1.) Gold, 2.) The best natural port on the West Coast, 3.) Lumber and Agriculture, 4.) Defense and G.I.'s returning from WWII, and 5.) The Technology Boom of the Bay Area.
Posted by: anon at January 16, 2008 1:47 PM
Of course it's a combo between opportunity and weather. As far as urban lifestyle cities with walkable neighborhoods, SF and parts of the East Bay have the most temperate weather. If I could live in Carmel or Laguna Beach and still walk to work, I might. Unfortunately, Carmel (and some of the other cities you mentioned) are basically resort areas and Laguna Beach is auto-oriented suburbia.
Posted by: anon checker at January 16, 2008 2:09 PM
As much as we like to talk about the weather, let's get back to a discussion about who (or what) is to blame for "bad" design in San Francisco...
Posted by: SocketSite at January 16, 2008 2:13 PM
One comment re: Chicago tolerance--yeah, they're way more tolerant. Try saying that you voted for Bush in a bar in SF. Just try it.
As to who's to blame for architecture here, it's obvious--it's the people who hold power who are products of the '60's who want to keep SF crystallized in the same form it was in, about, 1972.
Chicago--all you have to do is bribe your local alderman, and preso! you have permits. One (recently arrested) alderwoman even had a price list essentially posted ($5000 for an addition permit, etc). First come, first served. Classy, but at least you can get things done for what is actually a minimal price compared to the time you waste here with the bureaucrats.
anoncantsleep has it right. If you want real city living, you should live in NYC or Chicago. Seriously. SF has a few walkable 'hoods that are small and overpriced and none are really family friendly (unless you can afford a $1.5M house). NYC is not affordable. Chicago has a ton of walkable neighborhoods, basically everything NYC has, but at 50% of the cost. SF could have more walkable 'hoods and better buildings if the bureaucrats would get fired, to circle back to "why" that socketsite asked.
Posted by: David at January 16, 2008 2:46 PM
It ultimately comes down to individual preference. David could have found some sort of employment in Chicago, if at a lower salary, but he made the choice to move here. San Franciscans rumbling about how much better Chicago is reminds me of a group in LA called Disgruntled Ex New Yorkers (DENY), who meet at the Stage or Carnegie Deli in LA to bitch about living in LA.
If one thinks Chicago is where one was meant to be, life's too short to be wasting one's life in this hellhole we call SF. Move back, and free up your square footage for someone who is happier here. Or stay and work to make SF a better place.
About the architecture, I think we're agreed that Chicago has one of the finest collection of modern towers anywhere, and that SF politics has hampered the production of modern towers that can compete with Chicago.
Posted by: Dan at January 16, 2008 4:54 PM
I think that the planning department is the worst. They are the most inconsistent group of people I have ever come into contact with. I approve of rules and the city need some rules to go by or it would look even worse. The city planners all have some personal need to be booty kissed by every individual that wants to make a change. I have been though the process and was lucky to get out easy but it is a nightmare for most people. This is true what the people are saying about the department being closed minded. We should be the most progressive city in the states. We have some wonderful houses and some awful ones. We should be able to make changes to our million dollar homes as long as they stay within the boundaries or style of city. Many people have bad taste and build ugly stuff and do it all the cheap way. It makes me sick!!! Changes need to be approved quicker. They need to make the standards higher and not let people build cheap things if they are going to build.
Modern architecture needs to be done right and they should stop approving these cheap condo buildings that are going to look like hell in a couple of years.
What is the problem!!!! People pay a lot for these homes and need to have some rights. Gavin needs to get this department
straightened out if anyone would let him.
Posted by: Belinder at January 17, 2008 3:26 PM