Byline: Howard Ellman, Esq.

In land use planning, as in other fields that respond to developing trends, yesterday’s truth becomes tomorrow’s heresy.  Housing and development trends often exemplify that truth.

Congress enacted the first housing bill in the late ‘40s declaring as its goal provision of a “decent home in a suitable living environment” for every American family.  The then current aspiration translated that concept into single family residences each on its own quarter acre lot.  That type of development inevitably consumed acres of open land, pushing housing further away from places of employment, caused long commutes in single occupant automobiles and the other trends that we now condemn as “sprawl” and with other pejorative terms.

In addition, the growth of suburbs had the effect of “hollowing out” the central cities from whom the occupants of the new suburbia migrated, leaving a necklace of poverty, crime and decay around urban centers.  Worse in some places than in others, the deleterious nature of the trend became painfully apparent in the urban riots of the ‘60s.  Those who initially attributed that phenomenon to reaction against the Vietnam War did not discern the wider cause or identify properly the nature and grievances of those actually rioting.

It is not the place of this article to recite that history in detail but only as a preface to where we are today, recognition that a vibrant, healthful and environmentally sound urban society requires development of mass transit, with the transit hubs strategically located with reference to urban jobs – connecting those jobs to residential concentrations.  Achieving that goal should ultimately reduce traffic congestion, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and contribute to commercial vitality by creating centers of activity in urban areas in existing city centers or within the near periphery.

The Transit Center in San Francisco is just such a development.  It represents the centerpiece of an urban plan that contemplates a concentration of high-rise office and other development immediately adjacent to the Center and in the immediate vicinity.  The plan includes residential development as well, designed to capitalize on the synergy of mixed uses, with the residential component creating activity that extends well beyond business hours, thus avoiding the sense that urban centers often become deserted wastelands when the commuters go home.

The Transit Center is currently under construction and planned to serve local, regional and statewide transportation facilities – high speed rail included.  The Plan contemplates that the Center, located two blocks south of the traditional downtown core, will be flanked by the tallest buildings in the City, specifically including the Transit Tower identified in the Plan as the “crown” of the San Francisco skyline, an iconic building designed by renowned architects Pelli, Clarke Pelli.  Barring unforeseen events, the plan seems destined to achieve its goals, given the vitality that already exists in the area, close to the Convention Center, the Giants’ ball park, robust housing development and the synergy the San Francisco economy derives from the bio-tech and high tech enterprises that have settled in the Mission Bay development a few blocks to the South.

It may well be that San Francisco provides uniquely fertile ground for such a “smart growth” example.  In today’s development and urban climate, however, it is an example that could very well exemplify tomorrow’s truth, as well as today’s.  I submit that its evolution is worth watching and may prove to be the bellwether for the best of future urban planning.  “Smart growth” indeed.