If you aren’t familiar with the San Francisco of forty years ago, the city planning battles that play out at City Hall and in the press might seem baffling. A look back at that period is helpful.


Planning decisions made from the mid-70s to mid-80s led to radical and traumatic changes in the City’s landscape. I had the luck to participate in many of the events I describe, first as an activist, and later as a Planhnning Commissioner and as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development.

In this piece I’m going to focus on land use battles – conflicts over housing and historic preservation, “Manhattanization” and competing visions for the City. But it’s important to look at other events of that time.

On November 18, 1978 in Guyana, Reverend Jim Jones and almost a thousand members of Peoples Temple killed themselves and others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in a mass suicide. Jones had recently moved his primarily African-American flock to that jungle camp after having become politically powerful in San Francisco. I worked closely with Jones when he was Chair of the City’s Housing Authority and I have to admit that I saw no charisma. Probably a good thing.

Less than two weeks later, on November 27, 1978 Supervisor Dan White gunned down Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. The city was shaken by these events to an extent that I can’t describe.

It was a terrible, shocking time.

Three years later, in 1981, San Francisco saw its first diagnosed AIDS case, and within a few years sick young men were everywhere – newly blind, stick figures, with purple splotches. Nobody knew at first how it was transmitted and there are no cures.
Everyone lost friends and I had friends who lost all their friends and then died themselves.

The landscape and demographics of the City were changing. In 1975 old time San Franciscans voted for Republican mayoral candidate John Barbagelata. And they voted for Dan White, for Supervisor. His slogan: “Unite to Fight With White”. Moscone barely beat Barbagelata (by 4,315 vote out of 200,000). At the time, pollster Melvin Field described Barbagelata voters as “those with property interests to protect, older people, the educated, pessimistic, frustrated by events, the white middle class.” They felt under siege by newcomers, many of them Chinese, or hippies, or gay.


The earliest of the land use traumas discussed here was the destruction of the Fillmore and South of Market neighborhoods by the City’s Redevelopment Agency. The demolitions pre-dated the mid 1970s, but for much of this period there were many acres of empty lots.

During World War II, European cities suffered bombings and civilian casualties on a scale never before seen. After the War, European planners had to rebuild bombed-out central city and American planners were envious of their blank slates. So, in cities across the country, urban leaders bombed our own central cities, particularly those neighborhoods populated by low income, elderly, and minority residences and the businesses that served them. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency leveled 60 blocks in the mostly African-American Fillmore, taking out not just housing but also thriving businesses and an entire local culture of extended families, churches, shops, and nightclubs.



South of Market, Redevelopment wiped out a community to make room for the Moscone Convention Center, Yerba Buena Gardens, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and, after years of lawsuits, both market rate and low-income housing.

Third Street before Redevelopment

Third Street for a decade

These sweeping interventions were not undertaken by conservatives – but by well-intentioned liberals, as part of an effort to address blight. Blight is messy, an infection, unsanitary. Redevelopment is clean.

But it wasn’t just slummy buildings that were removed.


These people lived in the International Hotel, on the edge of the Financial District in what was left of Manilatown. His name was Wahat Tampao.

The Hotel was not just cheap housing; it was also the heart of a community, with restaurants, a barbershop, and a nightclub. A Thai whiskey magnate named Supasit Mahaguna bought the Hotel to demolish and replace with a highrise. The campaign to save the Hotel was the largest housing struggle of the mid 70s in San Francisco with regular demonstrations that circled the entire city block. Advocates pushed for the City to take the Hotel from the developer, had it declared a National Landmark, and fought in court. Defying an eviction order to clear the building, the Sheriff himself went to jail.

That’s Peoples Temple Reverend Jim Jones in the center.

We lost, and on August 4th, 1977 the police cleared the street of demonstrators and the sheriff emptied the building. I was in the building, with a pass issued by the Sheriff.

Adding insult to injury, the replacements for lost buildings were typically Brutalist.

Here’s what replaced the International Hotel:

This department store on Union Square:



This was the old Courthouse, formerly across the street from the International Hotel.

It became:


And this:



Not all of these were public action by the City and not all were downtown. The character of the neighborhoods flanking Golden Gate Park was changing too. The Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods were seeing new Chinese neighbors – in 1970 the City was 8.2% Asian, in 1980, 22%. They were often housed in boxy multifamily buildings that replaced Victorians.

They were known as Richmond Specials and they triggered a backlash that led to a designated priority policy in the Planning Code (one of 8, along with earthquake preparedness):” Conserve and Protect Neighborhood Character. “

When I hear that term I recall what President Jimmy Carter said in April 1976 in an interview with the New York Daily News. He said he saw “nothing wrong with ethnic purity” being maintained in urban neighborhoods.


The mid 70s saw a boom in highrise construction (In the years from 1965-1981 the square footage of office space more than doubled, from 26 million to 55 million). The backlash ended with the 1986 passage of Proposition M, a cap on highrise growth (and the establishment of the Priority Policies).

There was a religious fervor to the anti-highrise campaign:

The Tower of Babel, by Peter Bruegel the Elder

There were many arguments against highrises: they don’t pay enough taxes to cover the public burden; they create shadowed canyons and block views; they spread into Chinatown, South of Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods,

A lot of these objections were lumped together into the term Manhattanization. It’s useful to look back at what Manhattan represented then: anarchy, crime, graffiti, and bedlam:

The best case against highrises was made in a coloring book.

coloring book

It is a tale of innocence lost and hope in an uprising.

It was a postcard town and romance was everywhere:

postcard png


Until the developers came along:


But by banding together, the little guys were able to beat the big guys:

fight back

And how decisions about the City get made would change too:


It’s a great story. And in my experience, a good story will beat a terrific study or report any day. The plucky insurgence against the developers – Jane Jacobs as David against Robert Moses as. Goliath. God punishing the hubris of the builders of Babel. And we had perfect villains: Supasit Mahaguna, the Redevelopment Agency, and the King Kong developer shown above.

In the highrise battles there were two competing narratives, different visions of the role of the city – and of how the future should be determined. On one side, developers, Mayors, and planners envisioning a regional job center in the International style. On the other, the Bay Guardian newspaper, San Francisco Tomorrow, and neighborhood groups keen on a city that primarily serves existing residents. At issue: the idea of Progress.

The City went through a lot.
These battles of the ‘70s and ‘80s echo today and they shape the decisions we make and how we make them. The events of those times were traumatic and the City has responded to them as an individual would.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about trauma:
“Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person’s familiar ideas about the world and their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is also seen when institutions that are depended upon for survival, violate, humiliate, betray, or cause major losses or separations.“

In response three changes came about: laws were passed, decision-making authority was diluted, and we have embraced a planning culture that accepts gridlock.


Overall, I think the City did a pretty good job of legislating solutions to the problems of that period. Tenants are well protected and so are historic buildings. Another International Hotel eviction could not happen. New buildings contribute toward offsetting their impacts.

• The Residential Hotel Ordinance mandates that residential hotel rooms must be preserved or replaced.
• Office developers must pay into funds for affordable housing and transit and either fund or provide childcare.
• Significant new shadows on parks are prohibited.
• In the Downtown area, historic buildings are preserved and owners can sell development rights.
• Community – initiated plans adopted by the City help protect Chinatown and the Tenderloin from office and hotel development.


The planning blunders of the ‘70s and ‘80s led to changes in how decisions get made. Power and decision-making authority have been diffused.

• The City went from an at-large system of electing members of the Board of Supervisors to an 11-member Board elected by numbered districts. The effect is that each supervisor has de facto veto power over developments or plans in his or her district.
• Previous Planning Commissions were composed of 5 mayoral appointees and two representing City departments. (For about four years I was a “permanent alternate ex officio” member of the Commission.) Now, the Commission is made up of a handful of appointments from the Board and a handful of Mayoral nominees, who must also be Board approved. They tend to vote along those lines.
• Proposition M the anti-highrise proposition, was the finale to a series of efforts to manage growth at the polls. Since then, “Ballot Box Planning” has really taken off. Affordable housing percentages, disposition of City surplus properties, AirBnB controls, building heights, market rate housing moratoriums, protection for legacy businesses, increased voter controls over waterfront planning, and individual projects have all been decided by the voters in recent years. And it is not only opponents who have brought their case to the electorate. So have developers, including Lennar, the SF Giants, Forest City, and Pacific Waterfront Partners.


Legislation is difficult and the dilution of decision-making authority has made it harder. But I believe that it’s not the challenge of crafting and implementing laws that stymie the City’s planning and development. The impediment is our unique culture.

In reaction to the top-down, autocratic plans of the ‘70s and ‘80s – the hollowing out of entire neighborhoods, the widespread loss of historic buildings and the poor quality of the replacements, the downtown boom that nibbled at Chinatown and other adjacent neighborhoods – San Francisco has adopted a conservative planning culture. We just don’t like change.

• Rather than providing leadership and skill, planning has become an exercise in consensus-seeking. And that means that an unsatisfied individual or group can exercise de facto veto power.
• Preservation, of “neighborhood character” or of individual, often nondescript, older buildings, has assumed a higher value than competing interests for housing, jobs, urbanism, innovative design, or other social goods.
• Fortunately we no longer have the brutal drama of events like the International Hotel eviction or the destructive scale of the scooping out of the Western Addition or South of Market. We lack colorful villains like Supasit Mahaguna or the Redevelopment Agency bulldozers. What we get is vicious infighting among people who generally agree within a narrow spectrum of views. And hyped up crises like the 5M project, a proposal for 40% permanently affordable housing that led to the shut down of the Planning Commission, with speakers calling the proposal “genocide” Or the bogus Wall on the Waterfront campaign – successful opposition to a housing development that was neither a wall nor on the waterfront.
• Planning resources are focused on procedures, bulletproofing proposals from environmental appeals, discretionary review of small projects, and second-guessing design.
• Real issues – like the change of the City’s role in the regional economy, changing transportation patterns, and the housing crisis – have slipped by without serious planning.
• There is no real constituency for effective planning. The sheer inefficiency of planning, with multiple redundant reviews, easy appeals of even fully Code compliant projects, and CEQA review of modest infill projects serve as a de facto drag on change. It is like driving with the parking brakes on.

And after the planning blunders of the past, we settle for this.


David Prowler (www.prowler.org) arrived in San Francisco in 1974. Since then he:

• Served as Housing Specialist at the City’s Human Rights Commission, focusing on saving the International Hotel;
• Worked as Planning Director at the Chinatown Community Development Center;
• Served as Special Assistant to the City’s Chief Administrative Officer and as a Planning Commissioner;
• Served as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and managed the creation of Mission Bay and the Giants Ballpark;
• Founded Prowler, Inc., a planning and development firm whose clients have included City agencies, SFMOMA, SF State University, SF Zen Center, and One Rincon Hill
• Lectures in the Urban Studies Program at Stanford University.