A view of downtown San Francisco from Tank Hill
apasciuto/Flickr A view of downtown San Francisco from Tank Hill

Years ago, I lived in San Francisco, in a modest row house in an unfashionable part of town. These days, online real estate database Zillow tells me that humble abode would set me back somewhere over a million dollars. I could not afford to live in the Bay Area anymore unless I was willing to make extreme sacrifices in terms of either space or travel time. The cause, or so the common wisdom goes, is all those successful tech companies that have swarmed out from their Palo Alto nests and are drawing overpaid yuppies from around the world.

The obvious solution would be to ban all such startups—or to force Facebook to move to the Midwest. That is, of course, absurd. The real answer is that we have to figure out how to make room for everybody who wants to be in the Bay Area. The question is where and how to do it.

Many people want to live in San Francisco, where the natural setting is at its most beautiful, with a plethora of restaurants, shops, and many of the area’s cultural anchors. Yet the city sits on a peninsula, and so it has no place to go but up. The problem here is that San Franciscans are incredibly NIMBY. Mission Bay, which was once the largest and most promising undeveloped area in any American city, is being filled with mid-rise lab towers and four- to five-story buildings instead of the skyscrapers that might have fit there because a few neighbors complained that they would lose their views of the Bay. Recently, the city stopped a modest development around the bend on the Embarcadero Freeway. Fifteen years ago, I proposed ringing the waterfront with Vancouver-style sliver towers, designed to preserve view corridors. When I asked one of the powers-that-be, who enjoyed a sweeping vista from his hilltop aerie, if he was upset at my proposal, he shrugged: “It will never happen anyhow, so why bother?”

A rendering of the proposed future Apple headquarters
City of Cupertino A rendering of the proposed future Apple headquarters

The latest proposal

is to export the problem: build dense clusters of residential high-rises near the Googleplex and the new Apple Donut. That would mean no Google buses hoarding the public bus stops (such an inconvenience, you know) and the implementation of the kind of dense urbanism in sprawl for which many planners have been calling. I doubt, however, that it would do much to depress housing prices.

Aside from the fact that this idea has no more of a chance of coming to realization than my proposal did—as NIMBY-ism is as strong down the Peninsula as it is on the tip—this is a bad idea. It would only create more places where nobody wants to live. The renderings make it look like a bad version of the kind of instant cities China has been building to deal with its rapid growth, and the last thing we need is monocultures that further divide different social groups.

The real answer would be to bring a bit of San Francisco to San Mateo and Burlingame, Calif., and a little of Facebook to the waterfront. If I were Mark Zuckerberg, I would invest my billions not only in a new building, but in creating housing, retail, cultural centers, and schools in, around, and on top of my headquarters. If I were Tim Cook, I would bury the Apple Panopticon with a human-made mesa of terraces. If I were Larry Page, I would let fingers of shopping and living extend out from the Googleplex. If I could, I would also build skyscrapers in San Francisco with plenty of open space around them, where it is needed. I would make sprawl urban and the city more varied.

I know how absurd this all seems, but a man exiled from the Empire of Fog can dream, can't he?

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Image courtesy of Flickr user apasciuto, via a Creative Commons license. 

Note: We changed the lead image in this story from the aerial photo of the Bay Area, because the perspective proved to be confusing.