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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Class Lenses: A Few Thoughts on Planning and Development in San Francisco

Last week I went to the Principals’ Roundtable sponsored by furniture dealer SideMark in the beautiful all-white Teknion showroom high up in 88 Kearny. The speaker was the director of city planning, John Rahaim. He was informal, accessible, friendly, but not slick. He doesn’t have the Gavin Newsom charm, smile, or hair.

Downtown from the Teknion Showroom at 88 Kearny Street

One of the things that Rahaim said was that since the passage of the 1985 downtown plan, the focus of downtown development has been largely South of Market, and most of the development battles are now in the neighborhoods. (555 Washington Street, next to the Transamerica Pyramid, is a recent exception.) In other words, they are low stakes. He also said that a lot of these battles were class-based, especially in the Mission District, where he lives.

I am the kind of person who is apt to see most struggles through class lenses. And while this kind of conflict may have been true in the past, I think it is less and less true in the gentrified city. The narratives are more nuanced.

Marxist Lenses

Let’s take last week’s planning hearing for 8 Washington. Some folks tried to suggest that it was a case of condos for the wealthy versus an almost-public pool and tennis club. But that’s not true. It was a case of a relatively expensive private tennis and swim club versus the folks slightly higher up on the food chain, i.e. the lower end of the one percent. (The really rich aren’t leaving outer Broadway.)

Eight Washington Street
courtesy som.com

More and more planning battles are between different strands of the middle class. The North Beach branch library fight was highly politicized, but what was it really about? While the original architects, Appleton & Wolford, designed some competent mid-century work, this branch was, by far, their least significant work.

The fight wasn’t really about preserving mid-century architecture. It was about the ability to wage a public fight in a highly participatory political environment (created by district elections). The proposed library by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects provides more accessible space and closes off a small portion of street, a generally sustainable idea. (Given the rancor from the opposition, it’s amazing that the North Beach Pool ever got renovated!) I think the larger narrative in what I call “tiny turf land use wars” is actually an existential response to the Internet age.

The Internet and all these blogs (including mine I suppose!) make us feel smaller and smaller, while at the same time offering each of us an opportunity to have our say and maybe get a second of recognition. Although planning hearings can go on for hours (that feel like days to the participants), it is the Internet that helps create the frame. The blogosphere gets the turnout and generates the buzz that the Bay Guardian used to.

North Beach Library
courtesy lmsarch.com

What’s happening in San Francisco is the collapse of the far left because they can’t afford to live here anymore. That is not to say that several cranky types who bought early, have an independent income, or are protected by rent control won’t be staying on and sending out missives on an hourly basis. Join the fun!

The class-based narrative is the easiest one to grab—branded, as it were. My first participation in a planning battle was the downzoning of Nob Hill in the late 1970s. This was when there were still Republicans on the board of supervisors! A group of middle- and working-class neighbors came together under the umbrella of something called the Nob Hill Neighbors to fight for open space and against new high-rise development.

To be honest, there were a few parcels on Jones Street along the crest and one along Sacramento that could have handled high-rises without disrupting the quality of life while following the excellent principles put forth in Allan Jacobs’s urban design plan. But you know, young Marxists don’t give developers an inch.…

I wondered how this ragtag band of neighbors was going to fight the wealthy interests and the more conservative neighborhood group, the Nob Hill Association. This was a narrative that would be repeated several times in the coming decades—the upper class aligning with the working class to meet their own objectives. (Think Warren Hellman.) Our side’s rich benefactor owned one of the penthouses at 1170 Sacramento and didn’t want his view blocked. And he paid for a lobbyist who got the ear of the conservative supervisor Quentin Kopp, who switched to our side.

The owner of one of the penthouses aligned with
his poorer neighbors to stop more high-rises.

About ten years ago, I got drawn into a tiny turf land use battle. A carpenter and two architects wanted to save a piece of significant mid-century architecture, the Daphne Funeral Home at One Church Street, designed by A. Quincy Jones. Bridge Housing, an admirable nonprofit housing developer, thought the move to save the building was just an effort by NIMBYs trying to block a new project for low-income people. In other words, a classic class confrontation.

Bridge misread the narrative. Indeed it was a left-leaning motley group of folks, including some prescient mid-century preservationists and low-income neighbors, who wanted to save a piece of history, albeit modern history. Bridge’s misjudgment resulted in long delays to their project. Design writers from all over the country started to cover the story, and later a resurgence of interest in Jones’s work took place. Even the estimable former UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design dean Richard Bender took a swipe at Jones during a public hearing, saying something to the effect that “he was no Richard Neutra.”

The reappraisal of Jones and the recent reopening of Sunnylands in Palm Springs prove Bender and Bridge were both wrong. What was really happening was that the same classes were fighting each other over their perception of what San Francisco needed. The middle- and upper-middle-class employees of Bridge were fighting on behalf of low-income residents, while a group of middle- and upper- middle-class architects, historians, and design writers, led by a working-class carpenter, were fighting for preservation and open space. And both groups were right. San Francisco needed more low-income housing, and San Francisco needed to respect its modernist heritage as much as any other.

Daphne Funeral Home by A. Quincy Jones
photo: Donna Kempner

During that particular battle, a few of us called for Bridge to explore the design ideas that Jones had originally employed (even if some of them were auto-centric) and use the best ones to develop a scheme that related to nature, which was his great accomplishment. But the Bridge design was set, and we all got an ugly, cheap historicist building that probably won’t last three decades. (Interestingly, Bridge finally got on the quality architecture bandwagon and hired the same architect who designed the new North Beach library.)

The point here is that we should probably admit that in San Francisco, gentrification has, with the exception of Hunters Point and Bayview, pretty much happened. The narratives underlying most of the development battles are not off-the-shelf rich versus poor. The development fights are now mostly among various members of the upper-middle classes. But each one has a different flavor. Some are worth fighting, but many are a waste of the city’s resources.

I am getting less tolerant of rich folks suing each other over their views and fear of diminishing entitlement. Perhaps they should look for a deeper narrative, blog about it, let it go, and advocate for taxing themselves. Think Warren Buffet.

Buffet Lenses

Friday, March 9, 2012

Postcard from Palm Springs: Tailfin Modernism

Modernism may have saved Palm Springs. Well, modernism embraced by a lot of gay folk. This turn of events is a victory for those of us queer Baby Boomers who endured so much bullying and also loved the modern buildings that went up during our lifetime. A bittersweet victory if you will or may be I am just be nostalgic for lost glamour. But I like Palm Springs because it has civic pride, vibrancy, and some coherent design, and everybody is on vacation all the time!

Since modern Palm Springs was connected to Hollywood, the architecture there often had some excess or at least an extra fillip. Look at the Alexander homes as compared to the Eichlers. Their angles and eaves are just a little more exaggerated, a little more dramatic. You could call it the Googie influence.

A few Alexanders in Twin Palms

As gay men collect these modern houses and repair them, they also seem to be collecting vintage cars. It’s no mistake that a car auction was going on at the conclusion of Modernism Week. Drive around the Alexander subdivisions and you will see some 1950s and 60s classic cars parked in the driveway. Palm Springs is fast becoming home to what I call “Tailfin Modernism.”

The tailfin autos serve as a symbol of the era in Palm Springs.

This isn’t the taut modernism of Mies (or his LA disciple Craig Ellwood), this is a modernism intended for the middle class and brought to fruition in tract homes, coffee shops, and hotels. An architect friend of mine suggested that these Alexander tracts sprinkled throughout a variety of Palm Springs neighborhoods might have led to the town’s demise as well as its revitalization. Palm Springs had been the exclusive getaway for Hollywood royalty, and the introduction of the middle class to neighborhoods like Las Palmas pushed the elites down the valley to Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. Better stores such as I. Magnin, Saks, and Bullocks Wilshire followed them. Eventually, with articles about Palm Springs in magazines like the New Yorker, and an early biography of Albert Frey by Joe Rosa, the city got back on the map, and gay men from LA seeking weekend homes bought up these very same Alexanders for little money and refurbished them, often improving on their modest bones. Now even a new KFC took its cue from Albert Frey’s Tramway gas station.

The new KFC refers to Frey's Tramway gas station.

In the wake of gay revitalization followed the successful cultural tourism program called Modernism Week (now more like Modernism Week and a half). The program’s organizers are happy to celebrate a broad range of mid-century structures. This year, the highlight was the preopening tours of the famed Annenberg Estate, Sunnylands, by architect A. Quincy Jones, decorators Billy Haines and Ted Graber, and others. There was also a serious symposium with talks by historians, architects, and landscape architects about the history and restoration of Sunnylands and the legacy of Jones. (I’m working on a longer article about this for the Architect’s Newspaper.) At the other end of the spectrum was a bizarre presentation at the Ace Hotel of mermaids and their cocktail lounges, including a demonstration by a mermaid in one of the pools. The wonderful mix of programs and tours fills up shortly after they’re announced around Labor Day—as do the hotels and vacation rentals.

Even mermaids go mid-century during Modernism week.

Speaking of the Ace, those hospitality folks who specialize in turning around run-down properties took an unremarkable Howard Johnson and turned it into something quite festive. The big surprise was how many tattooed hipsters have kids! The service is sometimes indifferent, sometimes cheerful. The food in the remodeled Denny’s is pretty good. The macramĂ© elephant is the coup de grace.

What is amazing about Palm Springs is how many of the modern landmarks are not hidden behind enormous hedges or gates. From the street, you can see portions of Neutra’s Kauffmann house, Williams’s Edris house, Ellwood’s Pavelsky house, and Wexler’s steel houses.

Palevsky House by Craig Ellwood

Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra

Edris House by E. Stewart Williams

On the south side of Palm Springs, there isn’t much of a fine-grain “urban fabric,” but many of the modern condos are not hidden behind gates, although the grounds are private. Two worth checking out are Country Club Estates by A. Quincy Jones on La Verne Way and the more fanciful Royal Hawaiian Estates by Wexler and Harrison near the Ace. Quincy’s little concrete block buildings look rather like the guest houses at Sunnylands.

Country Club Estates by A. Quincy Jones.
Other than the color they look like the guest houses at Sunnylands.

Annenberg guest house looks like a
darker version of the Country Club Estates

Royal Hawaiian Estates by Wexler and Harrison

In town along Palm Canyon Drive, there is a lot more foot traffic than there was ten years ago. The new Lulu restaurant, with its outdoor patio open to the passing parade of the street, was packed. More good news on Palm Canyon Drive was announced at Modernism Week. The Palm Springs Art Museum has taken over the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan building that E. Stewart Williams designed. Marmol Radziner (the architects who restored the Kaufmann house for Brent Harris and Beth Edwards Harris) will renovate the building into the Edwards Harris Center for Architecture and Design. This means more pedestrian traffic on the street, more awareness of the Palm Springs modern legacy, and one more rescued bank building (Palm Springs has an amazing collection of mid-century banks).

Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan, 1960
courtesty psmuseum.org

On the not-so-good downtown news front, rumors are that the Desert Fashion Plaza won’t be modern after all but more Spanish Med dreck. The renderings on the developer’s website are so small as to be unreadable. The idea of a standard shopping mall turning its back on the street was always a dumb idea, and the building has been vacant forever. It’s hard to think of a retail strategy that would work here. Big boxes are at the edge of town, and high-end retail decamped for Palm Desert years ago. A voter approved sales tax increase is going to help pay for this redevelopment so I hope it looks forward and not backward. Might be time to occupy Palm Canyon Drive!

Entry gate to Sunnylands on Frank Sinatra drive

The canopy and front doors.

Canopy looking toward front drive.
The main living space with the Billy Haines/Ted Graber interior.

The game room in the guest wing. 

Bertoia sculpture outside the dining room

The guest wing looking towards the main house.

The main house.

The best news for modernist fans of all stripes is the reopening of Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage. In 1963, media billionaire Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore commissioned what is essentially a one-bedroom 20,000-foot house with a 200-acre golf course. In March of 1966, they welcomed President Dwight Eisenhower as their first guest. After the deaths of the Annenbergs in the 2000s, the home was to be turned into a retreat center, primarily for small groups of people trying to tackle large problems, although also open by reservation to the public. Compared to Downton Abbey, the place is informal. But compared to how most of us live, it is still spellbinding and stiff. A. Quincy Jones was able to deliver a very grand space for socializing and smaller-scaled spaces for intimate gatherings. This is probably the grandest example ever built of high Hollywood Regency combined with sprawling California modern ranch. The weird juxtaposition of styles was popular with movie moguls and tycoons in Southern California. Anybody interested in the influence of California culture, especially the Reagan Republican kind, will want to check it out. I think of it as San Simeon for the jet age. Tour tickets for the estate are released in two-week increments on the 1st and 15th of each month and cost $35 each.

Fisher's trellis relates to the trellis outside the house at Sunnylands.

New garden was by the Office of James Burnett was
inspired by the Annenberg's impressionist collection. 

The Sunnylands visitor’s center by Frederick Fisher and Partners with gardens by the Office of James Burnett will appeal to design types as well as the white-trouser yellow-golf-shirt crowd. Fisher reflects on Jones’s modernism in a comfortable but modest pavilion in the desert landscape. The trails on the 15 acres will make for a healthy 1.25-mile walk. Sustainability was key in the development of the complex, which has been certified LEED Gold by the USGBC. The visitor’s center and garden will be open to the public free of charge. There is also a modest cafĂ© and gift shop.

New Visitor Center by Fred Fisher and Partners

On the way back to Palm Springs from Rancho Mirage, there is fun group of stores in the most unlikely place—a row of tilt-up warehouses on Perez Road in Cathedral City. My favorite of the group is Hedge, because it had so many things I would buy if I owned a house in Palm Springs, and because the two guys who run it are funny and hospitable. Elsewhere in the center is a beautifully curated shop called Colin Fisher Studios. In between, you can see Danish modern and a few stores stuffed to the brim with who knows what. Well worth a detour.

Hedge in a tilt-up in Cathedral City
has some great mid-century decor.

Colin Fisher Studios in the same
complex is even more curated.

If you are looking to spend too much for a simple lunch in a lovely setting, drive up to the Parker Palm Springs, give your car away to the valet, and walk through 20-foot tall doors. Jonathan Adler has taken the thrift store aesthetic to new heights at the former Merv Griffin/Givenchy/Gene Autry hotel. The complex’s Frenchified portions from the Givenchy era have been thankfully covered by plantings and accessorized by Adler’s Blenko glass aesthetic. Weirdly enough, it works. But the highlight here is the grounds, which are wonderfully overgrown and mysterious. If you are too old or not tattooed enough for the Ace, this is a good alternative.

The mid-century thrift store aesthetic reaches
 new heights at the Parker Palm Springs.

See you next year at Modernism Week, which will be held February 14 to 24. Perhaps by then I will have my dream car from the 60s. Less fin, more substance, please. I figure if Jessica Mitford could have one, I can too!

My preferred finless transport from the '60s.

Special thanks to architect Ken Lyon for driving me around to so many of these highlights!

For further information:

Sunnylands Center & Gardens

The Palm Springs Modern Committee

Modernism Week

Palms Springs Art Museum