Of Buried Creeks and Thwarted Plans

Urbanist Article July 1, 2006

History is cluttered with paths not taken. One of San Francisco’s most amazing unfulfilled dreams can be glimpsed in the 1905 Burnham Plan, a vision of an imperial city bedecked with monuments, buildings and plazas worthy of ancient Rome or Greece. Allusions to grandeur notwithstanding, the Burnham Plan has influenced San Franciscans well beyond its original publication, not just for its vision of marble athenaeums and flattened hilltops, but for its 19th century vision of a city harmoniously integrated with its underlying natural terrain.

Burnham's Islais Creek Park.

San Francisco’s history is also rich with failed plans, wild visions and absurd development schemes that have been thwarted by concerted citizen opposition. From halting the quarrying of Telegraph Hill contemporaneous to Burnham’s Plan, to derailing the Reber Plan to dam the north and south reaches of San Francisco Bay to create freshwater lakes (and later to stop altogether the unregulated filling of the bay), to the mid-20th century rejection of the infamous Freeway Plan(s), San Francisco has struggled with a political process that in fits and starts has produced the city we have now. We can be proud of our predecessors’ initiatives that preserved open spaces, held back the wrecking balls to save neighborhoods and historic buildings, and created a sophisticated culture of urban appreciation.

The Burnham Plan was sponsored by the private Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco, one of whose leaders was former Mayor James Phelan. The role Phelan played in post-quake San Francisco has recently come to light, gaining control of relief funds and using his own and other private monies to fund the investigation and prosecution of the sitting mayor and Board of Supervisors (see Philip Fradkin’s The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906). The graft trials distracted and divided San Francisco during a period of historic upheaval. Class conflict pitted gunslingers and strikebreakers against streetcar men, laundry workers, ironworkers and more. Much of that era’s corruption was focused on gaining control of San Francisco’s basic infrastructure, from the new electricity and gas, to water and rail transit. Decisions made during this period still shape our urban life today.

In spite of the preponderant vested interests that commissioned the Burnham Plan, it was never implemented. A plan of this scale would require someone or some group capable of overriding entrenched interests of city government needing property tax dollars, merchants and businesses wanting to reopen and property owners wanting to rebuild , but able too to present that as in the larger public interest. The first decade of the 20th century did not produce a local version of New York’s Robert Moses, San Francisco’s Justin Herman or Napoleon III’s George-Eugène Haussman in Paris  ruthless autocrats who used their power to level whole neighborhoods and redesign the urban fabric, and to destroy communities resistant to capitalist control.

The extension of the Panhandle to Market Street and Van Ness Avenue, and the addition of a half dozen radial boulevards from this city center, never came to pass. A brilliant idea for Capp Street to be a car-free “park or market-way,” centering the whole Mission-South Van Ness corridor as a central district of city life never materialized. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the unrealized Burnham Plan would have made Islais Creek the central natural feature of a long linear park stretching from the upper reaches of Glen Canyon all the way to the bay; today the water runs in culverts buried under the bleak interstate freeway, one of the few that overcame citizens’ opposition in the 1950s and ’60s.

Several hundred copies of the Burnham Plan itself were destroyed in 1906, but a few survived to be reprinted in the early 1970s at a different juncture of public discussion over the future of the city. In an introductory essay to the new edition, James R. McCarthy  a former San Francisco planning director speaks for the planning thought of that era when he states that Burnham’s focus on open and efficient roadways had been stymied but would “inevitably be implemented in some way at some time when the freeway phobia of the [’60s] gives way to rational unemotional evaluation of circulation needs.”

Instead, we’ve moved toward a more convivial and ecologically aware city since that time. Freeways have been removed, we’ve seen an enormous increase in bicycling and an ongoing expansion (or actually, re-establishment) of light rail lines, and local planning processes seek to include citizens in ways unimagined in previous eras. In spite of this, planning remains a specialized pursuit of paid professionals. Having exhausted my own limited patience in public planning processes for the citywide Bicycle Plan, the Mid-Market Redevelopment Zone, and the Better Valencia “Great Streets” plan, the shortcomings plaguing our efforts at participatory planning are all too apparent. Long, poorly conducted public meetings to solicit “input” from citizens seem like performances  rather than the real thing. When some people are employed to attend public meetings while others are expected to participate in their “free time,” inequitable imbalances are unavoidable. “Credible” ideas become those put forward by the monied institutions that can send professionals to meeting after meeting over years.

Beyond the earnest gadflies who hang in there, other citizens tune out and find ways to shape their environments through local and direct activities. A burgeoning ecological consciousness drives many of these initiatives. Old-timers and newbies alike are re-engaging with the city’s underlying nature, reclaiming open spaces for native habitat, restoring native plants on hilltops, working on restoration projects in the Presidio, fighting for the health of Lake Merced, seeking to close more of Golden Gate Park to automobiles, working in community gardens and local parks, and enlivening a bay shore that was lost to commerce for most of our city’s history. All of these efforts interact with city planning and private developers to give a different shape to our future city.

Perhaps some day in the not-too-distant future, we’ll bring our entombed creeks and ponds back to the surface as part of a general reconnection to bay and ocean life. As I bicycle past the Water Department’s efforts to repair the sewage system near 18th and Shotwell streets, at the bottom of the historic lakebed, I can already imagine them undoing that work in future years as they open up Mission Creek and we build a new parkway on the long-forgotten riparian corridor that is still there, just waiting for us to re-imagine and re-engineer our city with its natural features instead of against them. Burnham would approve.

About the Authors: 

Chris Carlsson is a San Francisco writer. He has edited four books and has written a novel of a future San Francisco called After The Deluge. He is a director of CounterPULSE and makes his living from book and magazine design and production. His Web site is www.chriscarlsson.com.

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