Fifty Years of Redevelopment

Lessons for the future

Urbanist Article

The Federal Era

Redevelopment in the period from 1948 through 1973 was characterized by a reliance for funding on the federal government - first the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA), then the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This was the era of big government, big redevelopment, big programs, and big changes to San Francisco's cityscape. The person most closely associated with redevelopment in that period is M. Justin Herman. Mayor George Christopher recruited Justin Herman to head the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. As former regional director for the HHFA, Herman was extremely effective in obtaining federal funding for redevelopment. His twelve-year tenure lasted through the mayoralties of George Christopher, John Shelley, and into the term of Joseph Alioto. His time at the Agency also coincided with the most activist period in the nation's history for federal involvement in urban renewal. This era began with the establishment of HUD as a cabinet-level department and the plentiful flow of federal dollars to cities for urban renewal. The flow would last into the 1970's.

Golden Gateway and Diamond Heights: The Earliest Years

San Francisco's urban renewal projects undertaken during the 1950's and 1960's were aimed at wholesale change in their environments. Diamond Heights, the Agency's first project, sought to use redevelopment powers to assemble land in the center of the city so it could be developed with, rather than against, the topography. With few existing residents needing to be relocated, the redevelopment program included housing for a range of incomes, churches, schools, parks, and a commercial center.

Another early project was the Golden Gateway project. In Golden Gateway, the city used Agency powers to acquire property in the old produce district on the edge of downtown. The Agency obtained federal funding not only to acquire the property for redevelopment, but also to relocate the produce market to the Islais Creek area. In its place, a "new town in town" was developed, combining residential, retail, commercial office, and open space in the heart of the city. Golden Gateway was an important project in that it established a residential character in the downtown of a major American city - something that was rare in its time.

Western Addition A-1

At the same time, the Agency began work on the first of two "slum removal" projects. The use of urban renewal to "improve" conditions in the city's "slum" neighborhoods would prove controversial. What resulted was not only the dislocation of some 4,000 individuals, but a final design in which the various churches and schools and residential towers seemed strangely aloof from their surroundings. The project also saw the construction of the Geary Expressway, which transformed a busy surface arterial roadway into a limited access highway through the Western Addition but improved access into downtown from the West Side. Geary also acted as a moat that separated the city's largely Black Fillmore District from its recently reestablished Japanese community and the wealthy enclave of Pacific Heights. Echoing another contemporary project, it seemed a case of "Brasilia-by-the-Bay."

Yerba Buena: Beginnings

While the Yerba Buena project was not adopted until 1965, and not implemented until a series of lawsuits were settled in the 1970's, it was conceived of early in the 1950's. Yerba Buena grew from a concern over having a skid row dotted with parking lots, junkyards, bars, and residential hotels on the edge of downtown. From the earliest days of Mel Swig's vision of a civic arena and convention facilities in Yerba Buena, to the present day completion of hotel, museum, and residential development in the heart of downtown, Yerba Buena has provided an almost metaphoric view of the evolution of redevelopment in San Francisco. In the course of implementing a plan for Yerba Buena, the Agency built a considerable amount of low and moderate-income housing, instituted a successful employment assistance program, and found itself dealing with social and public health issues to a greater degree than had ever been anticipated. Yerba Buena had its origins as a federally financed slum clearance project. It evolved into a project that embodied the replacement of federal funds by private sector and local monies, with consequences on the very shape of future redevelopment projects.

Western Addition A-2

The other large project that began during the 1960's was the Western Addition A-2 project. The A-2 project had an unusually short time of advanced planning. In what was innovative for the time, the A-2 project saved a percentage of the area's Victorian homes, targeting them for restoration. These were the same buildings that had once been declared "blighted" resulted in the original tenants' removal; housing new, more affluent residents compounded the ill feelings generated by the project. Where land was cleared, the private market was slow to redevelop. The unusually long time taken to redevelop vacant property and the Agency's misjudged "voucher" program, added insult to injury for remaining members of that community.

The Agency built a number of housing complexes under HUD Sections 220, 231, and 235, for those of low and moderate income. The Agency is still working to reestablish the vitality of the Fillmore commercial core, returning to its history as a "jazz district" for inspiration. The process of restoring the positive qualities of the community has been difficult, but will prove to be ultimately rewarding.

Redevelopment: Keep it Small or None at All

During the 1960's, there were signs that "urban renewal" was not universally welcomed as a tool for improving the quality of life in the city's neighborhoods. During that period, the Agency took part in a number of studies that ended in decisions not to go forward on a redevelopment proposal, or which would result in the Agency undertaking a very limited - project specific - scope. A Chinese cultural center and Holiday Inn were built on the site of the old Federal Office Building at the edge of Chinatown. The project had specific objectives, a limited scope, and implementation was achieved in five short years. The Agency also participated in a multi-department study of development potential along the proposed BART right-of-way. This culminated in the Agency making the Mission Corridor - from 16th to 24th Streets - a survey area. Neighborhood opposition defeated the proposal.

The Positive Results of Community-based Projects

Under John Shelley's mayoral tenure in the mid-1960's, studies for two new projects began. The first was a study to replace "temporary" wartime housing on Hunters Point Hill with a modern "new town" specifically designed to house the very people that it replaced. Unlike the Western Addition projects, where the city imposed "slum improvement" on a community, members of the local community provided the impetus for the project, and helped design and implement it. The second project was to replace the outdated "Butchertown," the former slaughterhouse district in Hunters Point that had become obsolete, with a modern "industrial park." India Basin Industrial Park, as it became known, was an acknowledgement that providing housing, as on Hunters Point Hill, needed to be matched with economic development projects.

Urban Renewal and the Civil Rights Struggle

If the decade of the 1960's was a time of federal urban "largesse," it was also a period of national turmoil. The Civil Rights Movement, long simmering out of view of much of the country, burst into the national consciousness. The human dimension that was concealed from the eyes of middle-class America in the "slums" of the cities became apparent. The shock waves were especially strong in the arena of urban renewal, for it often was concerned with "slum removal." Officials from the city up to the federal government would begin a long and painful learning process. They would learn, among other things, that "slum removal" had implications far deeper than the replacement of substandard buildings. "Slum removal" also meant disturbing communities of people. Healing communities of people demanded an approach beyond that offered by real estate. The urban renewal model needed to be changed.

The Alioto Era - Activist Redevelopment and Federal Change

Against the backdrop of, perhaps, the most turbulent year of the decade, the 1968 mayor's race saw the election of Joseph Alioto, a former Redevelopment Commissioner. Mayor Alioto was interested in seeing an "activist" redevelopment agency. Under Mayor Alioto's tenure, both the India Basin and Hunters Point projects were adopted and implementation begun. Also in 1968, under the Johnson administration, Congress passed the Federal Civil Rights Act. It outlawed discrimination in most types of housing. Ongoing work on the Northeast Waterfront planning project - a multi-agency effort involving the Port, the Planning Department, and the Redevelopment Agency - culminated in the formulation of a Survey Area for Rincon Point South Beach. This project would come to define an entirely different approach to urban renewal - one not based upon federal money.

The Close of the Herman Era

During the Alioto tenure, Justin Herman, the person responsible for guiding the Agency during its early years, died. A summary report on Agency activity, written almost entirely by Herman and published just weeks after his death, gives a rare glimpse of the man and his era. As Executive Director of the Agency from 1960 until 1971, Herman oversaw the construction of a number of schools, playgrounds, churches and low-income apartments. He was the architect of much of the changing face of San Francisco at that time. But for all of the benevolence he bestowed, "redevelopment" remained highly controversial. Much of the reason lies in the fact that urban policy in the 1950's through the 1970's was distributed in a top-down fashion. It was formulated and implemented by "experts" who knew what was "best" for cities and communities - even in cases where the cure might seem worse than the problem. This professional detachment was to be incendiary when applied to the simmering unease that existed in the many communities of color in San Francisco at that time. Even the subsequent projects in Hunters Point and India Basin, begun during the tenure of Herman, would not automatically erase decades of bad feelings. Slower Going in the Post-Herman Years.

With the passing of Justin Herman, the Agency spent the next fifteen years rarely taking on new projects, Robert Rumsey assumed the directorship of the Agency. His tenure saw only the Stockton-Sacramento residential project adopted and implemented. The Regal Pale Brewery reuse project - the conversion of an industrial property for residential use in the Northeast Mission - was adopted but not implemented, due to a lack of funds. A project labeled the Old Main Post Office, which was an area along Market and Mission Streets between Fifth and Seventh Streets - forerunner to the present day's Mid-Market project - was studied as a survey area but not adopted as a project area. Robert Rumsey served as director for three years and was succeeded by Art Evans, who also served for three years. Evans' career at the Agency also focussed on implementing adopted plans rather than pursuing new ones.

Twilight of the Feds: A Blessing in Disguise

In 1973, President Nixon placed a moratorium on all federal housing and community development assistance. In 1974, legislation passed under then President Gerald Ford that brought most of the categorical federal grants for urban renewal under the umbrella of Community Development Block Grants. From then on, rather than money for redevelopment projects going directly from HUD to the Agency, federal funds would go directly to the city - the Mayor's Office. Urban renewal had to compete with a number of other local programs for limited federal funding. "Up-front" funding for wholesale land clearance no longer existed. Nearly a decade and a half of federal policy regarding urban renewal had been reversed.

The common wisdom is that this "de-funding" of urban renewal projects was bad for cities. In retrospect, however, given the excesses of federally-driven urban renewal projects in the 1960's and their traumatic effects on communities, the scaling-back of federal involvement in urban renewal might be one of the most beneficial policies that the Nixon-Ford administration bestowed on America's cities.

The Post-Federal Era

This period of urban renewal began in the early 1970's under the Nixon presidency and has continued into the present day. Long standing urban problems of environmental degradation, poverty and racism persist. But as our understanding of them grows, the complexity of their solutions mushrooms. And redevelopment must be approached with less federal funding than in previous years. This has been an era that demands creativity.

The Hamilton-Moscone-Feinstein Years - Doing More With Less

In a very close election, San Francisco elected George Moscone as mayor. He brought traditionally progressive issues such as environmentalism, growth control and equal employment opportunity into the mainstream of political discourse. He increased the diversity of the city's commissions and employees. Shortly after taking office, San Francisco was stunned by the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. The killings galvanized progressive forces in San Francisco to such a degree that the political landscape of the city would be altered forever.

Among the appointments that George Moscone made during his term was the appointment of Redevelopment Agency Deputy Director, Wilbur Hamilton, to the position of Executive Director. Wilbur Hamilton served in that position for ten years, second only to Justin Herman in length of tenure. In many ways, just as Herman had shaped the Agency during the years of federally driven urban renewal, Hamilton guided the Agency into a new era of urban renewal without federal largesse - and he guided it through a period of unparalleled political turmoil in San Francisco.

After the assassination of George Moscone, Mayor Dianne Feinstein retained Wilbur Hamilton as Executive Director of the Agency until his retirement in 1987. Feinstein's tenure is most noted for the growth in the city's downtown, the enactment of Proposition M's Downtown Growth Controls and the adoption of the acclaimed Downtown Plan. While few new projects began during the Feinstein-Hamilton years, it was an important period for urban renewal and redevelopment.

Yerba Buena - Part II

In the early 1980's, San Francisco settled the lawsuits that hobbled the Yerba Buena project for nearly a decade. The lawsuits helped make the Yerba Buena project more responsive to the needs of the community. Shortly into project implementation, the master developer, Olympia and York, declared bankruptcy. This might have scuttled the project that had been so hotly contested and molded by public pressure. However, negotiations conducted with Olympia and York under the skilled eye of Mr. Hamilton and Agency staff resulted in the payment to the Agency of millions of dollars. This money provided a needed windfall and was used to jump-start several public projects, such as the Center for the Arts facilities and the Museum of Modern Art, that would come to define Yerba Buena. In another action that would require a change in strategy for the project, newly-elected President Ronald Reagan curtailed all federal funding for urban renewal projects. The final federal urban renewal money to make its way to the Agency went to purchasing the old GSA site at Fourth and Mission Streets. The Agency signed a long-term ground lease with the Marriott Corporation to build and operate a high-rise hotel, creating a funding stream for Yerba Buena.

Rincon Point South Beach Becomes a Project

Another major accomplishment during the Feinstein-Hamilton period was the adoption and implementation of a redevelopment plan for Rincon Point South Beach. Planning for Rincon Point South Beach began in the Alioto-Herman era, in 1967, as the Northeast Waterfront Plan. Development involved the demolition of most traces of the area's past as a port and warehouse district (some were deliberately maintained as architectural elements) and the construction of a major interceptor sewer on the Embarcadero, as well as the extension of a light-rail line south towards Third Street. The project achieved developing a mixed-use community of market-rate and subsidized housing, special needs housing, and commercial and recreational endeavors.

The Rincon Point South Beach project constitutes an excellent example of "post-urban renewal" redevelopment. The Rincon Point South Beach project was the first major urban renewal project done in San Francisco without the direct use of eminent domain. Rather, it employed the Owner Participation Agreement (backed with the imminent threat of eminent domain) to get individual property owners to participate in the re-assembly and redevelopment of their property in accordance with the redevelopment plan. The Rincon Point South Beach plan proved flexible and amendable to allow it to respond to changing conditions in the local economy and shifting city priorities, including the new GAP headquarters building, new high-rise residences, and the Giants Ballpark currently under construction.

Premature Beginnings at Mission Bay

The Mission Bay project involves the redevelopment of over 300 acres held initially by the Southern Pacific Railroad and now owned by the Catellus Corporation. During the 1980's, the city Planning Department guided work on the project. The Mission Bay project, first planned at the same time as Dearborn Park in Chicago and Battery Park City in New York, was to be the most dramatic and extensive case of urban reclamation in the city's history. After several false starts, a development agreement was finally signed between the developer and the city. Emboldened by the success of the Downtown Plan and the Prop M Growth Cap, the city and "slow growth" advocates created an intricate system of development fees and exactions intended to make Mission Bay not only a dramatic physical presence, but a momentous social undertaking. When the economy took a downturn, the Plan foundered. Subsequently, it resurfaced at the Redevelopment Agency during the Brown administration, when a new plan was developed, entitlements granted, and construction is expected to begin within a year.

Into the 1990's: Housing Writ Large

Wilbur Hamilton retired from the Agency in the final months of Mayor Feinstein's tenure and a nationwide search for a new director began. Ed Helfeld was recruited from the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles. Art Agnos, a former State Assemblyman and social worker by training, succeeded Mayor Feinstein. The downtown building boom was drawing to a close. The Agency had not undertaken any new projects since 1979. Mayor Agnos and Helfeld together formulated a new course for the Agency. That course was, in a word, housing. In 1991 the voters authorized a bond issue to build affordable housing. At the same time, the Agency lifted restrictions on building housing outside of its project areas. The Citywide Tax Increment Housing Program saw the dedication of a portion of the Agency's tax increment revenues to be spent anywhere in the city for the construction of affordable housing. Rather than developing the housing directly, the Agency used the money to subsidize development by not-for-profit housing corporations. Later, in 1992, the federally-subsidized Housing for People With AIDS (HOPWA) was initiated and also coordinated through the Agency. In design terms, the focus on individual buildings rather than areas resulted in projects that were compatible with their surroundings in terms of scale, massing, and affordability.

Loma Prieta and Its Offspring

An event that would shape the Agnos years would arrive on October 19, 1989 - the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The city's South of Market District was hard hit. The South of Market area was mostly comprised of low-lying land or unconsolidated fill. It also housed a number of Single Room Occupancy Hotels (SROs), much like those that had been demolished during the early years of the Yerba Buena project. Under emergency powers delegated by the State, a South of Market Earthquake Recovery Redevelopment Project was adopted without a prior study period. It was adopted for the express purpose of replacing the SRO units that had been lost. In the first of many situations that would smack of irony, the Agency was being asked into an area, populated largely by poor people, many of whom were relocated there as a result of redevelopment (at Yerba Buena) to replace affordable housing. This time, however, many of the players in South of Market had been involved in Yerba Buena. The Agency was restricted to assisting in the development of affordable housing and public institutions, not to bring wholesale change to the community, as it had in Yerba Buena.

The early 1990's: The Panacea of Redevelopment?

Frank Jordan, a former Chief of Police in San Francisco, succeeded Mayor Art Agnos. The Agency underwent a strategic planning process to define a role for itself in the future. Except for Rincon Point South Beach (and the emergency South of Market project), the Agency had not started a major new project since 1972. Its existing projects were nearing completion. City Hall attempting to reinvigorate the Agency recruited Cliff Graves, a native of San Francisco to head the Agency.

The Agency embarked on an unprecedented effort to adopt plans in seven new survey areas simultaneously - the Transbay area, the Bayview Hunters Point area, the Mid-Market area, the Federal Office Building site at Seventh and Mission Street, the Treasure Island Naval Station, and the Hunters Point Shipyard. Some of the projects were thrust upon the city as a result of natural disasters (Transbay and South of Market) or by military base closings (Treasure Island and Hunters Point Shipyard). Two projects - Mid-Market and Bayview Hunters Point - like the Hunters Point Project twenty-five years before, were initiated by the local communities. Like the Western Addition projects, they represented an attempt to improve conditions in an existing, populated community. Employing hard-learned lessons from the past, the Agency worked with community members to prepare a concept plan for each area. This effort built both community awareness and consensus. Working from "the ground up" was time consuming, but necessary. The ambitious agenda remained unadopted in 1996.

The Close of the Millennium: Progressive but Pragmatic Policy

Willie Lewis Brown Jr., succeeded Frank Jordan as mayor of San Francisco. Mayor Brown had been a member of the State Assembly elected the Western Addition. As an Assemblyman and Speaker of the House, he helped craft the very legislation that enabled and limited the powers of redevelopment. Mayor Brown appointed James Morales, a Redevelopment Commisioner and former Planning Commissioner, as Agency executive director. Mr. Morales concluded that the plan adoption agenda he had inherited was fiscally unworkable. The schedules for Mid-Market, Bayview Hunters Point, and Transbay were relaxed to allow more analysis of both their policy and fiscal implications.

Under Mayor Brown, redevelopment plans have been adopted to date for the Hunters Point Shipyard, the Federal Office Building, and both the Mission Bay North and South projects (i.e., north and south of China Basin Creek). Mission Bay was reinvigorated by a commitment on the part of UCSF to occupy a large portion of the development. The Agency will bring special value to the projects by virtue of its abilities to fund public improvements and approve development expeditiously. The involvement of other city departments, notably the Planning Department, will improve the implementation of those projects. The incorporation of applicable existing land use and design controls, and the use of Planning Department staff, will help these projects meld "seamlessly" into the cityscape.

In addition, the Agency has adopted a number of "project specific" plans and plan amendments. In response to policy decisions originating in other areas of city government, the Agency assembled and conveyed land and provided financial incentives through tax increment financing to assist developing specific projects. In this vein, the Rincon Point South Beach plan was amended to allow for site assembly assistance in the development of Pacific Bell Park. The Agency also is considering amending the Yerba Buena Plan to assist Bloomingdales develop at the old Emporium building.


Throughout the past fifty years, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has taken on a number of different projects against a backdrop of broad changes in legislation, planning and design, urban economics, and technology. Those projects where land had outlived its use for transportation or industry, and had the potential to be developed in a more "urban" manner, have generally met with success. These projects include the Golden Gateway, the India Basin Industrial Park, Rincon Point South Beach, and, potentially, Mission Bay. Where areas of the city have outlived their former uses, and both city policy and public consensus favor transformation, the Redevelopment Agency has provided a valuable set of tools for assisting that transformation. The Agency often coordinates the efforts of other public agencies, provides essential financial and regulatory tools, and guides these changes in a way that is coordinated and achieves broad social objectives.

Projects concerned with implementing a specific development project, such as Stockton-Sacramento and the Chinese Cultural Center have gone smoothly. Recent activities concerning the development of affordable and special needs housing, citywide, are an excellent example of using the of Agency to meet the needs of San Francisco's less affluent residents. Projects that involved the dislocation of a substantial residential population have proved, not surprisingly, to be the most controversial. The projects undertaken in the Western Addition are examples of the disruption and sheer force that redevelopment tools, when powered with federal largesse, bring to a community in the implementation of city policy. But even work in these projects has evolved over time to reflect a more community-based approach.

As funding became less a matter between the federal government and the Redevelopment Agency, and more a matter of local priorities informed by the community, redevelopment became a far more sensitive, focused force. As redevelopment came to become a "self-funding" operation, the Agency became a much more creative and valuable partner to assist the city in achieving its goals.

Projects such as those in Mid-Market and Bayview Hunters Point are challenging. In these communities, the objective is to improve the neighborhood without displacement or gentrification, and to provide solutions to problems that are essentially social or economic in nature (and have been traditionally beyond the scope of the Redevelopment Agency to positively effect). Concerned with holistic community revitalization, these projects represent a departure from past redevelopment projects. The Agency is poised to play a role in that revitalization, but the need for someone to fill an "omnibus" role, enlisting the Redevelopment Agency as one of many tools at the city's disposal, is clear.

As San Francisco enters the new millennium, the problems and opportunities confronting it require a flexible in approach, coordination of public and private resources, and creative solutions. The Redevelopment Agency offers unique tools to assist the city achieve broader community revitalization goals. Redevelopment is important and necessary. But so is the public policy that must be in place in order to give redevelopment a proper context. Past experience teaches us that redevelopment makes a poor master, but an excellent servant.

David Habert is a long-time SPUR member, and member of SPUR's Urban Policies Committee. He is a Senior Planner at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. He has worked in community revitalization in both the public and private sectors in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.