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
  • ZA

    Michael Rhodes, you make a fair observation about the adverse pedestrian environment in San Francisco, however there are a few more variable we should consider:

    1. With the loss of a lot of the streetcar network that sustained hilltop communities, the car has become an unfortunate necessity. Concurrent road paving sometimes lead to garages, sometimes not.

    2. Many of the ‘garages’ are coal basements, and even the most aggressive automotive suspension can’t cope with those drops. A realistic in-house garage would mean converting the basement into living space, and the living room into an on-street garage…beyond the means of many home owners.

  • Kimi

    Valencia Gardens public housing in the Mission is a nice example of how to take apartment garages out of the equation and make a visually pleasant and very practical method of addressing the residents’ need for cars. There’s a middle road, Rosa Parks, that runs from Valencia to Guerrero and assigned parking spots for apartments so residents don’t need to compete as much with others for street parking. Rosa Parks Street has very little traffic and children often play there, and it’s a very nice space to walk through.

  • jwb

    I’d like to nominate the 1900 block of Webster St. as a study in garage contrast. On the west side of the street, a row of nicely maintained homes, all with sunken garages. Their stoops are the most prominent feature of these homes, and it’s nice to walk by, except for the car sometimes parked on the side walk.


    On the east side of the street, you have a row of houses all with huge, hulking loading docks. Even though the quality of the houses on the east side is similar to the west side, the presentation for pedestrians is lifeless.


  • MJ

    One disadvantage for San Francisco is that it has scarcely any service alleys between blocks. I don’t know *why* it doesn’t–other neighborhoods built in the US at the same time have them, and I don’t think topography was a barrier.

  • Jym Dyer

    =v= The city’s policies generally leave no option for the ground floor other than conversion into a garage. Conversion back from a garage to living space is disallowed, based on obsolete thinking that having off-street garages somehow improves on-street parking. (There are decades of evidence to the contrary, of course.)

    There are tens of thousands of San Franciscans living in perfectly habitable “unwarranted” units. These are ground floor in-laws that could instantly become “illegal” units if somebody has a petty grudge. It’s high time the city legalized these units, especially along transit corridors.

    Otherwise there’s really no option except ripping out street trees and front gardens, putting in garages, and waiting for your soft storey to fail when the Big One hits.

  • jwb

    I don’t know if I’d describe Rosa Parks as a nice place to walk through. It’s just a parking lot to my eye. And SF public housing has always been a huge abuser of the parking lot. I would say the majority of city-owned property in the area bounded by Geary, Haight, Franklin, and Divisadero is paved over for parking, much to the detriment of the neighborhood. At some point in the foggy past, some bureaucrats decided that the most important thing for poor people in public housing was to have tons and tons of parking. As a result those neighborhoods are practically devoid of retail outlets and services.

    Witness the almost maniacal devotion to parking in this area of the Western:


  • marcos

    @jwb, interesting case study.

    Aside from the apartment building (1924), most of both sides of the street were build in 1900, according to assessors records.

    The apartment building is on the east side of the street, has three 10′ stories over a 15′ ground floor and is built out to the lot line as a solid, flat undifferentiated mass as was common at the time. The cornice line along that side of the street comes close to that 45′, three stories of set back Victorian over a service basement.

    The Victorians across the street, including some really sweet Italianates, are two story walk ups plus a partially sunken ground floor access making for 25′ height, plus or minus some change. The cornice line appears to be

    The east side of the street is upslope, houses buttressed into the hillside and west side downslope, probably with very nice gardens and rear views.

    The sidewalks on the east side are about 15′ wide according to GoogleEarth.

    Sidewalks on the south side are 19′ wide.

    The width of the street is about 35.5′

    Total ROW is about 76.5′ without the garage add ons, but 88′ with them.

    The east side has 3 street trees, the west side more than 5, this at the north end of the block.

    I don’t think that the stark difference between urban tone of the two sides of the streets is solely dependent upon the design of the garage. The west side of the street is more inviting and human scale in several dimensions, sidewalk, height and trees. The heights are instrumental, because if one took two triangles, one from each side of the street:

    88′ x 28′ x 92.5′ = 17.65°
    76.5′ x 28′ x 81.45 = 20.1°

    88′ x 40′ x 96.6′ = 24.44°
    76.5 x 40′ x 86.33′ = 27.6°

    So adding the garage structures on the east side narrows the ROW and pushes the pedestrian out further and makes a larger apparent angle.

    I’d wager that this angle limits amount of morning sun and the tree options for the east side and makes an already poor situation worse.


  • “for home owners who don’t use their garages for parking”

    Newsflash: in large parts of SF, these people park on the sidewalk. See, I’m all for front gardens and other niceties, and I agree that they lend a very civilized look to houses (and I am in the process of planning to put one in as well), however there are much more fundamental issues the city is facing here.

    Let’s not forget that the prime reason for the disappearance of the (once very popular) front garden was the desire of homeowners to pave them over, to (illegally, I might add) park their cars in that space, whether the reason is that they own more cars than garage, or that they converted the garage to an (illegal) in-law, or that they started using their garages for storing all their crap, or a combination of all these.

    The simple fact is that a lot of people in this city care more about having the public space in front of their building be their own private parking and car-wash, than to have something you can call a “sidewalk” or a building that is pretty to look at. All of these are very important to me, and I would love to mandate beautiful streets, but until the city starts enforcing what is already the law, I don’t have a lot of hope that they would enforce those new mandates or incentives…

  • I’m a lot more worried about getting hit by some knucklehead trying to do an end run to the Bay Bridge 1st Street entrance by zipping down Folsom, right on Main, and right onto Harrison than I am the blocks and blocks of walls built as part of buildings pre-Loma Prieta in the RIncon Hill neighborhood … then again, our neighborhood plan for high-density housing close to the transit hub of the Bay Area and jobs center attempts to make sure we never, ever look at the god awful blocks and blocks of garage doors and curb cuts that I see when I venture out past West Portal.

  • stefan

    Since we’re stuck with all these garages fronting sidewalks, any good ideas on how to pretty them up? Make them more ped-friendly?



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