Interview: John Hirten

SPUR's first Executive Director

Urbanist Article February 1, 1999

In January of 1999 SPUR's deputy director, Gabriel Metcalf, interviewed John Hirten to talk about the first decade of SPUR's existence and, more specifically, about urban renewal. As SPUR's first executive director, John Hirten was a national spokesman for enhancing our cities, through the federal urban renewal movement, and was one of the key actors behind San Francisco's programs. This candid interview between two generations of SPUR staff provides a unique glimpse into the thinking that went into San Francisco's urban renewal programs. Mr. Hirten's comments reflect a lifetime of world-wide urban planning experience and study by someone who made history, as people always do, in conditions not always of their own choosing.

METCALF: Is it fair to say that the primary reason SPUR was formed out of the San Francisco Planning and Housing Association was to jump-start urban renewal programs?

HIRTEN: The primary reason SPUR was formed was to support the new Redevelopment Agency and its director Justin Herman, to get the urban renewal programs going. There were projects which weren't moving: the Diamond Heights Redevelopment Project and the Embarcadero were dormant; there was only a little action in the Western Addition, and the reputation of the Redevelopment Program in San Francisco was considered one of the worst in the country. However, I think it is also true that, along with urban renewal, people like Dorothy Erskine and others who were involved in forming SPUR had a larger planning agenda which included environmental issues like saving the bay, open space, and planning issues such as height limits. These came to the forefront pretty quickly as we started to organize into working committees.

METCALF: Can you define what the term "urban renewal" means? I think it would be helpful to start out by clarifying what exactly we're referring to.

HIRTEN: The term "urban renewal" was basically a federal legislative term. "Redevelopment" referred to specific projects to rebuild a part of a city. "Urban renewal" was a broader term, which included a variety of programs and projects designed to help renew or revitalize an urban area. In Little Rock [where Mr. Hirten worked for the Housing Authority as assistant director for urban redevelopment from 1955-1957], we had an approach which was designed to maintain the neighborhood without total clearance. It included moving houses to better lots and financial aid for rehabilitating homes. That was easier to do in an urban area of less density, but nevertheless, the point was to use any kind of tool or action which would help renew the neighborhood. There were redevelopment projects with total clearance, like the Embarcadero, and there were "General Neighborhood Renewal Projects" which covered a larger area with a new plan and a code enforcement program, combined with spot renewal and new public facilities. Originally, the whole South of Market area was designated as an urban renewal area, but there was no action and no plan. SPUR recommended a nine-block redevelopment project to get something started. Unfortunately we should have included a broader neighborhood renewal plan of which the redevelopment project area was only a part.

METCALF: Do you believe urban renewal was necessary? How successful was it at solving the problems it was intended to solve?

HIRTEN: I think the problems that redevelopment was and is intended to solve are numerous: one is obsolete land use; two is obsolete public facilities and private housing; three is tawdriness and slums; and four is a change of character, economically, culturally and otherwise.

I believe urban renewal was necessary, and, frankly, I participated in some very successful projects in Little Rock, and again in Stockton [where Mr. Hirten was the first executive director of the Stockton Redevelopment Agency from 1957-1959]. I believe that the Golden Gateway has made a huge contribution to the city's future, both economically and culturally. I think that project was necessary because of the dramatic change in the role of the central city. What was then an old produce area because of its proximity to the waterfront had become obsolete and therefore needed to be relocated. The question was, 'What do you put in its place?' I personally believe the Golden Gateway was an extremely successful redevelopment project.

The Western Addition, I believe, was partially successful. I think it should have been designed to retain more characteristics of the old neighborhood. There were too many houses cleared, and some of the old Victorian houses should have been kept and remodeled. And of course, there were unanticipated social impacts of the clearance.

With respect to the South of Market area, I believe again that it was a necessary project, and that its future is still to be seen and determined. Without the public redevelopment effort to assemble land, there would have been piecemeal development or maybe none at all.

I believe that more attention should have been given to replacement housing in all of these cases, and my model is Little Rock, Arkansas, where the Redevelopment Program and the Housing Authority were under one jurisdiction. This helped very much in terms of delivering both end products: sensitive re-housing of the urban poor coupled with more new and better housing.

METCALF: What are your most important criticisms of urban renewal in San Francisco?

HIRTEN: As I mentioned before, there was significant criticism of urban renewal in the Western Addition. It was viewed as "urban removal."

In Little Rock and Stockton, we treated redevelopment projects and the housing relocation as a combined activity. So we relocated and kept track of every family that was moved out of a slum area to assure and demonstrate that they moved into better housing. We put tremendous emphasis on the relocation and the housing end of redevelopment.

There's also criticism about the design of some of the structures, and that some of the housing has not been good, that it sort of reverted back into a ghetto. I think part of that problem was that the public housing projects in the area needed much more attention. And, as I mentioned previously, if there were a closer working relationship between the Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Authority and a stronger commitment to re-housing project tenants, I think the urban renewal programs in San Francisco would have been more effective.

I would also have liked to have seen more integration of housing and commercial development in the South of Market area, but as I mentioned, originally, the South of Market project was too large to handle, and nothing was happening. Then when we settled on the smaller nine-block area, I think the pendulum swung in the other direction to single-use planning, where it probably should have had a combined re-housing/commercial/convention center development. Hindsight is 20-20. On the other hand, that's what this interview is about, right?

METCALF: Can you talk a little bit about what you see as some of the major problems with the way public housing has been handled?

HIRTEN: I think public housing got a justifiable bad reputation back in the '60s and '70s. These high-rise towers were almost prison-like in terms of low-income people. It was an architectural mistake in my judgment, and it came at a time when the people were saying that the cities ought to have more open space and not be crowded, and people believed then in the opposite of the Jane Jacobs theory. Jane Jacobs was more right than she got credit for, that the old style of housing, walk-ups with a combination of commercial at the ground floor and housing on top of it, did more to protect the neighborhood than these isolated towers of housing-only, surrounded by lawns, which didn't offer anything.

So I think there was an architectural error that was pervasive in the public housing projects. The designers tried to get the maximum number of units at the cheapest cost and still have some open space.

Subsequently, places like Toronto demonstrated that you should not be afraid of mixed commercial and residential development. That's what I like about the Embarcadero Center, with housing next to major commercial and office development. Ironically, the criticism of Chinatown in the 1960s is really one of the strengths of Chinatown, that people still live in the same neighborhood as they work.

It's not generally understood, but originally the public housing projects in Chinatown required special dispensation from the Federal Housing Authority, which at that time was called HHFA [Housing and Home Finance Agency], to build housing in an existing commercial and high-density area without big open space.

So Chinatown's public housing in some people's judgment, including mine, is one of the best models for public housing.

METCALF: I want to try to get at the causes of the decline of neighborhoods that made people turn to urban renewal. In other words, why did urban renewal become necessary, in your opinion?

HIRTEN: Ironically, I think it goes back to why the San Francisco Housing Association was originally formed as a result of shoddy rebuilding after the earthquake. Also, until very late in this country's history there were very few opportunities for people to acquire their own home or their own apartment, especially in cities. You either had to have enough money to buy a place, or else you had to rent. So people with money built houses and rented them, and ultimately they fell into slum housing - which was abhorred by reasonable people, but there wasn't that much choice. The GI Bill after World War II showed that the federal government could stimulate home ownership by certain kinds of loans. But the GI Bill was directed towards the suburbs.

METCALF: Based on what you learned at SPUR - and your thirty years of planning experience since then - what might you (and SPUR) have done differently in your efforts to improve San Francisco?

HIRTEN: This is the most difficult to answer. First of all, one always likes to think one did the best job that they could, and that it was correct and helpful. I think on the plus side, we were very effective in pushing new ideas, new concepts, and new projects, and by taking action to make things happen. Consequently, there were accomplishments that could be directly traced to this citizen organization, an organization that had no powers of public authority, but was able through its ideas, determination and tenacity to make things happen. So that's the good news.

One place where we didn't succeed might be regionalism. But San Francisco was very provincial in the 1960s and still is. My favorite story refers to the newspaper headline, "SPUR-head booted out of mayor's office," because I was trying to get the city to support a regional transportation planning program, and San Francisco was always afraid of losing its autonomy by getting involved in regionalism. I think the whole Bay Area has suffered in that respect.

Regaining control over the Port opened up another opportunity for regional planning. Probably what we should have supported was a regional port authority, like the New York Port Authority. We should have had Vallejo, Richmond, San Francisco and Oakland all under one port authority. This is probably true for our airports as well.

The trouble is San Francisco probably wouldn't have supported that. The shock of the Embarcadero freeway, where a regional or state agency undertook a project so damning to the environment and urban design of the city, was enough to make San Franciscans very wary of losing any authority or control over our own destiny.

METCALF: How do you think San Francisco, as a city, changed as a result of urban renewal. If you take a step back and look at the city as a whole, how would it have been different had there not been urban renewal?

HIRTEN: To start with, I think the impact of the Golden Gateway Redevelopment Project was enormous in terms of making available some very high quality office space to reinforce the so-called Financial District, and at the same time integrate some outstanding retail establishments.

Secondly, I believe the introduction of the Golden Gateway housing confirmed the need for and the willingness of people to live in the downtown and enable a living, walk-to-work community to really survive. It also reinforced the North Beach/Telegraph Hill residential neighborhoods.

The relocation of the produce market might not have happened as effectively as it did, and if it did, it would have left a vacuum in that waterfront area, which might have been developed on a piecemeal basis, with conflicting activities rather than a more integrated plan.

I think that's true also for the Western Addition. In spite of some criticisms, I think the housing there is more integrated with the community and the commercial activities than it would have been if it happened by itself.

I would have preferred to see more of Geary Boulevard underground so that we could have integrated the whole Western Addition area a little better.

METCALF: With the Embarcadero Center and the Western Addition, why would piecemeal development have been not as good? Why was it better to have it on a larger scale?

HIRTEN: Using the Embarcadero as an example, I think it's not likely that you would have gotten housing in the area. The plan forced housing. If it would have gone piecemeal, it would have gone pretty much commercial.

METCALF: And then the Western Addition, why would piecemeal development not have been as good?

In retrospect, some people might argue that piecemeal development would have been better so you would have kept more of the old Victorian homes.

I'm not sure, but I think the variety of housing there, from the high-rise semi luxury apartments to the townhouse walk-ups, combined with the partly subsidized housing, helped to keep some of the neighborhood characteristics of middle income and supplied low and middle cost housing, which might not have happened the other way around. If major developers came in and started buying up everything, very little low- or middle-income housing would have been preserved.

METCALF: That's interesting. So in that way urban renewal was a strategy to allow poor people in the Western Addition to not get displaced as much as they would have been displaced by the private market.

HIRTEN: Right. That was definitely our idea at that time. I mean one can argue with the execution, that we didn't accomplish everything we hoped for, but the intention and the policy of the Redevelopment Agency at that time was to maintain a sufficient range of housing prices so that you wouldn't rule out the people who were already there.spur logo

About the Authors: Gabriel Metcalf

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