As part of our series, Boomtown, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. Our second one comes from Dave Taylor, who is not impressed by the new buildings going up in San Francisco. He asks:

Dave Taylor. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
Dave Taylor.

“Why are the new buildings so ugly?”

The economic boom has brought a surge in construction projects to San Francisco — particularly in the city’s emerging Mid-Market neighborhood.

But not everyone is pleased with what they’re seeing built.

“We are at the corner of what I consider the most atrocious buildings in the entire city,” says Dave Taylor, who has lived in the city for more than 20 years. “This corridor of shame that I call Van Ness and Market is just a spectacular example of failed urban planning.”

Taylor works as a media services technician — “I play with toys that gather light and sound” — and describes himself as “a very opinionated closet architect.”

He did not hold back as we walked down Market Street from 11th to Eighth, pointing out the buildings that most offended him.

There’s 1455 Market: “A glorified parking structure with windows.”

Across the street: “We won’t even talk about Fox Plaza. We won’t even go there.”

And then, the brand-new NEMA apartments: “This gigantic black prison complex.”

Everyone has an opinion, so we asked someone who has looked at the city’s buildings for a while: San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King.

“I share the listener’s dismay,” he says. “A lot of what’s being built in S.F. right now really feels like product.”

He says many of the buildings going up have one particular consumer: The 29-year-old who just got the IPO and can afford a $4,500 rent payment or mortgage.

Market’s Come a Long Way

For a long time, this area was the dumpy end of Market Street that nobody cared about, King says.

Taylor calls 1455 Market St. a "glorified parking structure." (Katie Brigham/KQED)
Taylor calls 1455 Market St. a “glorified parking structure.” (Katie Brigham/KQED)

Back in the ’70s, it was essentially storage space for a lot of Financial District firms — the place they parked their giant computers.

But now those dumpy buildings have flashy neighbors: tech companies and luxury apartments.

People are paying attention — and griping. King says that part at least isn’t new.

“The whole point of being a San Franciscan is never to like what’s happening right now,” he says. “… to resent the fact that the city’s not exactly like it was when you moved there, and you discovered Utopia.”

Who’s in Charge?

But Dave Taylor says his issue isn’t about nostalgia. It’s about taste —  and pride.

“You have to feel a little despair when these monoliths go up, because these things are going to be there for 50 years,” he says. “It makes you wonder who’s in charge. Does anybody care anymore?”

There are a few answers to this question. First: Yes, someone is in charge. Actually, a lot of people.

“There are plans aplenty,” says King. “The list of who’s responsible is endless, and it gets a little different with each building.”

Permits and approvals can be costly and time-consuming. And behind every construction project is a complicated marriage of planners, neighborhood groups, developers and architects — some who want to make their mark and others who just want to make a profit.

Taylor says these people don’t have San Francisco’s best interests at heart.

“When you see people walk by City Hall, they take pictures, they stop, they smile,” he says. “From here all the way to Powell, they look down, they don’t stop.”

A City’s Autobiography

“In the built environment, as one writer puts it, all our warts and our glories are there,” says Paul Groth, an architectural historian at UC Berkeley. “You can tell how we’re treating our fellow humans in the built environment. It really is an autobiography.”

So, what does Groth think our current architecture says?

“Greed.”

Fox Plaza is another offender to Taylor in his so-called "corridor of shame." (Katie Brigham/KQED)
Fox Plaza is another offender to Taylor in his so-called corridor of shame. (Katie Brigham/KQED)

Big buildings, glass boxes, dark materials, pools and plazas on the inside — all those elements are just today’s trend in luxury living, Groth says. You can see it the most in New York, Miami and San Francisco. It speaks deliberately to a kind of exclusivity.

And it’s that — as well as the design — that makes Dave Taylor want to get away from the corner of 11th and Market as soon as he can.

“I’ve got an artistic soul. That’s why people used to move here. It was a place, not a sanctuary, but a place where we could be and belong,” he says. “As an artist, beautiful things speak back to me.”

Unlike other art, say, a dance performance or a painting, you can’t avoid the buildings where you live or where you work. Taylor says that when he’s walking by Western Addition Victorians or the Transamerica Pyramid, buildings he loves, he feels like he’s having an experience — like he’s part of the city’s story.

“It allows you to go deep places and start to think and start to grow,” he says. “This isn’t a commodity, this is a way of living, that you should be surrounded by beautiful things.”

There are new construction projects all over the city right now. And he’s hoping some of those buildings will be the kind that speak back to him.

Submit a question you’d like us to answer as part of our Boomtown series.

  • Guest

    1455 Market St. was built in 1977.
    Fox Plaza was built in 1966.

    Mr. Taylor seems to just hate all architecture from the last 50 years.

    Perhaps if he dislikes San Francisco’s architecture so much he should consider moving somewhere else.

  • francisco

    I agree with some of these buildings. I live one block from Van Ness and Market and have always found a lot of these buildings on this block to be pretty terrible. The older windowless 1960s and 1970s ones are the worst, so uninviting and cold. The newer ones are somewhat better but still sterile and generic. The Dolan Law building is pretty cool though. Oh and the Twitter building…umm…I mean Furniture Mart building is of course rad. I’d be nice if more effort/design/thought/style/openness was put into some of the new ones that will be going up in the next couple years.

    • Sanfordia113

      Berlin, Copenhagen, Shanghai, and may other cities are welcoming of world class design. Because of the politically powerful NIMBYs in SF, the only thing that gets built here is design-by-committee mediocrity. If the Planning Commission required designers to submit projects for review before an anonymous panel of international design experts (from other cities, without financial ties to the local builders, developers, or real estate developers), then we would be getting much more inspiring architectural products here.

  • sebra leaves

    bad taste is too kind a description of these stack and pack lego-esque monoliths.
    As Candace Roberts puts it in her song, the is “Not My City Any More.” http://www.candaceroberts.com
    It is more of a bad dream or nightmare that I hope to wake up from.

  • Zephyros California

    These new “buildings” are an absolute abomination. It’s bad enough this city is being inundated with nothing but “luxury apartments” that only douchebag, techie, IPO brats can afford but the architecture is the most hideous, cold, lifeless glass and concrete monstrosities I’ve ever seen… completely devoid of style and warmth and anything inviting. Who’s building these eyesores?? It’s cookie-cutter crap. It’s the big city equivalent of tract homes in the burbs. Thanks Ed Lee you asshat and the building department for approving all of this junk. It’s bad enough San Francisco culture is being destroyed day after day, but now we have to put up with these eyesores for decades to come. That one on the corner of Market and Octavia is a prime example. Do they even teach “design” in architecture school anymore? Ugh.

  • jeffJ1

    This is a pretty incoherent piece. Pointing out a bunch of ugly buildings that have been built over the course of 50 years, and then trying to draw some kind of conclusion about techies and gentrification?

    Also, what is up with this?
    “Big buildings, glass boxes, dark materials, pools and plazas on the
    inside — all those elements are just today’s trend in luxury living,
    Groth says.”

    Big buildings that involve glass and dark materials? Indoor pools? These are “today’s trend?”

    This entire thing reads like it was written by a college freshman in an intro to urbanism course.

  • frenchjr25

    The saddest thing for me is seeing culturally important structures like the St. Francis Theatre being demolished just to be replaced with giant glass buildings. It’s also alarming how many new buildings look nearly identical. Architecture was once an art form here in San Francisco.

    • Sanfordia113

      When? The 40,000 identical Victorian single family residences? The 100,000 identical 1960’s era RIchmond District Victorian knock-offs? I would agree that some buildings are being built with little eye to world-class design, but it seems that most of the curmudgeons opposed to development site “design standards” when they really mean “we don’t want any change because we are stagnant progressives from a bygone era.”

      • frenchjr25

        I want change and progress. I believe buildings need to be built higher. But I believe new buildings should be unique and fill in areas that are underutilized. Destroying historic resources shouldn’t be an option, especially when there are already plenty of spaces available for redevelopment.

        • Sanfordia113

          Historic as in “Janis Joplin once smoked a joint on the stoop of this dump,” or “An immaculate example of architecturally significant BauHaus design?”

        • Sanfordia113

          If you want higher buildings, then advocate for the end of the practice f allowing developers to build up to 6 story tall multi-unit buildings out of wood. In Scandinavia, multi-unit buildings over 2 stories must be built with steel, which by default incentivizes developers to build either 2 stories, or more often, 8-12 stories tall (or whatever zoning will allow).

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