A few weeks ago, two old buildings spanning a block on 4th street (from Townsend to Bluxome) were demolished. A new building with some ground-level retail and live/work space will be built on the now vacant lot. Neither building was of historical significance, one was a run-down, wood frame building; the other, an old Pitney-Bowes building of poured concrete. One block away, on the corner of 3rd and Townsend, there stands a two-story brick (yellow brick) building that contained a bar on the ground level and a seafood restaurant upstairs. Two days ago, I walked by and noticed it's slated for demolition in a few weeks. Again, not a particularly distinct or unique building, nothing for the historical preservationists to defend. Further down the street, as you near the Embarcadero, you can see all new buildings, a giant condo complex across the street from the ball park is nearing completion, units start at $700,000 (yes, *start* at nearly three-quarters of a million dollars). And as you look across the skyline, the street is cast in shadows from the looming construction cranes above.
I guess this is progress. I guess this is the result of the economy. But it makes me sad. What kind of neighborhood will this be in a few more years? A homogenous zone of live/work lofts, hip with metalwork and quirky angles, bright with the trendy colors of the 00s? How long will it take before everything looks the same? Before SOMA becomes another generica neighborhood, replete with buildings designed to house Starbuck's and GAPs and foosball-filled offices? What ever happened to renovations or rehabs? Being surrounded with buildings from different eras gives one a sense of context. I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but what about the march of time? Walking past buildings, you realize: things were here before me, this City existed before I did, and will continue to survive after I am gone. Why do people love the painted Victorians that line the City's streets? Because they represent a different era, a different level of craftsmanship. They're warm and welcoming and we relate to them as "homes." They are charming. And people like charm. (think Martha's Vineyard, the New England countryside in autumn, coastal Carmel or Mendocino…)
Of course, SOMA has never been a truly residential neighborhood in the past hundred years; its history is tied to its location: close to the water, close to the rails, removed from downtown. And the buildings that remain reflect this history: lots of brick warehouses with big windows and planked floors. Renovating these buildings maintains a connection with this past, rather than obliterating it. Urban renewal doesn't have to start from scratch, if we work with the existing environment, we can create spaces that are functional and aesthetically pleasing; we can surround ourselves with buildings that are distinct yet modern.
San Francisco isn't the South Bay, but it sure's trying damn hard to look like it.