Eyes on the Street: The Mean Sidewalks of San Francisco

IMG_3842.jpgThis home's beauty, like most in the city, is not on display for pedestrians, those most likely to look at it.

San Francisco is renowned for the beauty of its its Victorian homes almost as much as its rugged seaside setting. But with most buildings in the city, the architectural grace starts at the second level. For pedestrians walking down the street, seeing buildings the way most people actually see them, the view is not always so pretty. The main culprits, as the photo above illustrates, are garages and curb cuts.

As we've written about before, curb cuts cost the city dearly in both meter revenue and public parking spaces, and a comprehensive study by Mary Brown showed that barely half of all garages in the Mission District are even used for parking: 49 percent are used for storage. Preservationists have been up in arms about the impact garage additions have on historic homes, pushing to institute stricter requirements for moving additions through the planning approval process. At the same time, most new homes in San Francisco are still required to be built with garages.

Perhaps the greatest cost, however, is not the sum of individual architectural maulings, but the collective impact of an endless garagescape on the pedestrian realm. Buildings new and old in San Francisco are often not designed with the view from the sidewalk in mind, and, collectively, the result is a city of houses best viewed from afar. Perhaps most emblematic of this is the famous "painted ladies" of Steiner Street on Alamo Square, which are nearly always photographed with a row of delicately-placed trees obscuring their garage doors. Walking down Steiner, the immediate view of each house is dominated by their gaping garage cuts more than what is stacked above.

As a consequence, San Francisco's sidewalks often feel hostile to pedestrians even when there aren't any automobiles zipping past. Massive, faceless garage doors, sunken driveway entrances, and neglected remnants of front gardens are the norm.

I went out in search of homes that still have their front gardens intact, and was struck by how humanizing this ground-level landscaping makes the street for the passerby.

IMG_3788.jpgPhoto: Michael Rhodes

Like the rows of gardens and trees in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I also found that the pedestrian-friendly effect of front gardens and garage-free facades achieves its strongest effect when it's uninterrupted for several houses in a row, or even the whole block. At present, of course, this is almost never the case in San Francisco.

The political battle to stop new garages will be a difficult one, requiring both incentives and restrictions. Even if a new garage is never built again in San Francisco, the city will already have to deal with 200,000 existing garages and curb cuts. So, I also went out in search of houses that have found creative ways to make their existing garages less inimical to pedestrian comfort. While most buildings make no effort at all, and those that do often use ugly, too-tall gates that are generally not closed anyway, I did find one elegant, impressive example that nearly made its garage seem to disappear:

IMG_3783.jpgA cleverly obscured garage. Photo: Michael Rhodes

The home pictured above used to have an uncovered gaping garage entrance, but a gate was installed that greatly improves the home's appearance and maintains neighboring houses' row of gardens and gates. It doesn't address the sidewalk curb cut, which still leaves the pedestrian without a barrier from the street and makes it harder to plant trees, but it undoubtedly makes a big difference.

IMG_3799.jpgOnly by peering over the gates is the home's garage visible. Photo: Michael Rhodes

This treatment might not work for all homes, but for home owners who don't use their garages for parking, or who don't use their vehicles daily, it could provide some guidance. It also has the advantage of providing better protection from water seepage, a common problem for homes with garages that were hastily added in the 1920s and 1930s.

Such an elegant treatment might be too much to ask for from most houses, but at the least, it's important that architects and home owners start thinking of the street level as the real perspective from which most people see houses and apartment buildings. Perhaps then we'll stop seeing new ("green") buildings with such utter disregard for the pedestrian realm.

For now, pedestrians in San Francisco have to enjoy well-loved front gardens, gates, and stoops for the rare commodities that they are.

IMG_3822.jpgA once-typical San Francisco sidewalk-scape. Photo: Michael Rhodes