The 2016 Consolidation Act of San Francisco
A crazy title, but is it such a crazy idea?
This is an idea I’ve been tinkering with for a couple of years now, but never had the audacity to think that my voice mattered on the subject, or the courage to share my manifesto on a medium that could be accessed by the public. Furthermore, I didn’t think people would care about this fantastical idea, or take it seriously, but a couple of things have changed my mind.
- The housing crisis in San Francisco is so severe that it threatens to break the backbone of one of America’s greatest and most important cities and,
- I run a blog now and can write about what I want, no matter how strange or implausible it may be.
However, before this moment I needed some courage to write this essay. Some months ago, I finally mustered up the cojones and wrote an anonymous comment on a random website when I had finally strung together a quasi-comprehensible theory. Before you say it, I’ll say it for you: yes my make-or-break moment of confidence and coming of age was an anonymous comment about the potential amalgamation of San Francisco with portions of San Mateo County; I’m a weird guy who likes cities, leave me be to my maps, floor plans and zoning documents.
Thankfully, I was validated when I received a fairly positive response from the author of this piece of proposed San Franciscan planning. And so about a year later I figured why not share this almost impossible, certainly far-fetched thought with the internet as a fully fleshed out piece, replete with a couple thousand words, pretty pictures (why people keep reading, that’s why I keep reading) and statistics, a whole lot of statistics.
Without further ado, the proposed 2016 Consolidation Act of San Francisco.
San Francisco is not only one of America’s most cherished cities, it is also one of the most important cities in the world for finance, culture, entertainment and of course, technology. A beautiful place built on hills, by the bay, and for the people. For a place as well-known and profound as San Francisco, it is a little surprising that the municipality isn’t even one of the 10 largest cities in the United States by population. In fact, San Francisco is only the 13th largest city in the country with a population of 864,816 at the 2015 Census Estimate.
With a land area of 46.9 square miles, The city by the bay is the second most densely populated city in the country behind only New York City. With a population increase of 59,581 (7.4%) from the 2010 Census, San Francisco is growing at a rapid rate. In the midst of this growth, it has leapfrogged Paterson, New Jersey as the second most dense city in the country from the last recorded data at the 2010 Census. Compacting from 17,179 people per square mile in 2010 to 18,440 people per square mile in 2015; there is simply no more land for San Franciscans to sprawl out to in the city-perhaps a reason for the cities’ absence in the top 10 of American Cities. While New York is far more densely populated than San Francisco with 28,257 people per square mile and a population of 8,550,405 at the 2015 Census Estimate, it is a far larger city in terms of Land area with 302.6 square miles of land, 255.7 square miles of land larger than San Francisco. Take a look at some of these pretty maps for comparison.
You may be asking yourselves, why is Coby so obsessed with the population and density of these cities? The simple answer is quality of life and affordability. While these are two very complex equations to measure out in the urban environment, they must be expertly balanced in order to create a place that’s dynamic and desirable to live, yet able to cater to the numerous different types of people that live in each area, rich and poor.
To0 high a quality of life with too little space and affordability suffers; see, Monaco. On the other hand, a very affordable, sprawling metropolis often has an arguably lower quality of life (at the very least urban life) with subsequently more affordability in traditional urban areas; see, much of the American West. Neither of these options are ideal, but what’s the solution?
Perhaps I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me re-introduce San Francisco, and in the process explain the cause of my Census Information upheaval upon this page.
Hi, My name is San Francisco…
San Francisco wasn’t always so densely packed as it is now, but for some time it’s been a fashionable place to live. The first documented evidence of settlement on the peninsula that is now San Francisco shows that the land was inhabited by the Yelamu people and their ancestors some 4000 years ago in 3000 BC. It took until 1769 for the area to be “discovered” by Don Gaspar de Portola and the first Europeans in the Bay Area before being established in 1776 as the Presidio of San Francisco, attracting hundreds of Spanish Colonists. After becoming apart of the Mexican Empire and then the United Mexican States after the Spanish Empire was dissolved in 1821 via Mexican Independence and assuming the name Yerba Buena, American settlers soon began moving into the area.
After gaining independence from Mexico in 1848 and joining the United States, gold was discovered in 1849. This lead to the California Gold Rush, causing the population to explode 2400% to 25,000 people, and lending a name to the local football team indigenous to the Bay Area.
Just one decade later, the next boom to hit San Francisco was the discovery of Silver, more than doubling the population to 56,802 people in 1860, and 149,473 people in 1870. Thousands of treasure seekers, pirates, gamblers and generally unsavory types descended upon the seemingly lawless peninsula.
San Francisco slowly legitimized itself from its not so humble beginnings to becoming the 8th largest city in the country by the end of the 19th century and home to some of the most prolific American companies such as Levi’s, Ghirardelli, Wells Fargo and more.
San Francisco was able to capitalize on it’s prosperity by attracting many wealthy people from the business and creative classes leading to a thriving arts scene, the development of thousands of lavish victorian houses culminating in a unique culture centered around a high quality of life, socially, economically and creatively.
Despite the tragic and destructive San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, the city was quick to rebuild and did not sustain massive losses. In fact, the people of San Francisco used the adversity thrust upon them to create some of the cities greatest landmarks, including the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
With the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge built in the succeeding decades, San Francisco continued to boom until 1950, when all American Cities seemed to have lost momentum. With the rise of the automobile, suburbanization, white flight, the city was neglected in favor of the search for an idealized lifestyle colloquially referred to as “The American Dream”, replete with two kids, a dog, a lush green yard and a white picket fence to hold them all in.
Though San Francisco suffered a sustained population loss of 96,383 from 1950 through the 1980’s, it fared much better than some of it’s siblings across the United States-most infamously Detroit, which is still reeling from disinvestment and lifestyle changes brought about in Post-War America.
However, San Francisco was able to rebound thanks to the first dot-com boom, centered around Stanford, Silicon Valley, and a bunch of garages. World-famous corporations such as Apple and Google were created in this time, along with the advent of the internet for commercial use. Even through the famous dot-com bubble of 2000, Silicon Valley as a whole remained strong and continued to grow.
But I digress, we will have a full profile on San Francisco coming up, but that profile is not today. In effect, that is the long and short of San Francisco’s volatile history of growth, a boom town attracting hundreds of thousands of people during its peaks, and innovating for the world during the busts. Even at the height of of the boom-bust cycles though, housing was never a problem for San Francisco more so than any other American city, much less a crisis of epidemic proportions.
And I have a Housing Problem.
As San Francisco is currently going through it’s latest boom, the pressures of an already dense, desirable and rapidly growing city are threatening to consume the municipality as a whole.
As of the most recent report put out by Zumper in April of this year, San Francisco is the most expensive market in the country to rent a one or two bedroom apartment, and it’s not even that close. On average, a one bedroom is $3,590 while a two bedroom is $4,850. To compare, the median value for one and two bedrooms in New York City are $3,340 and $3,850. It is almost clinically insane to imagine that San Francisco makes New York look cheap (by comparison.) At the bottom of Zumper’s list of the Top 10 median rents of cities in the United States is Seattle. Though Seattle is not a very affordable place to live with one bedroom prices on average costing $1,750 with two bedrooms costing $2,350, San Francisco makes Seattle look like it’s housing stock is designated as affordable by the government, which says a lot about the state of San Francisco’s housing market.
The housing crisis in San Francisco is bad, but this is not news. The chronic shortage of housing has not kept up with the job growth of the region, and the demographic shifts of Young Urban Professionals (Yuppies for Short) and Baby Boomers moving into our urban areas en masse. This presents a problem for everyday San Franciscans who cannot compete to live in a city with the newly-minted rich tech wonder-kids and retirees moving into the city.
The strong (and I mean very strong) preservation laws of the city, the stunning natural environment that consumes and surrounds San Francisco, the high quality of life, the tech boom leading to hundreds of thousands of workers descending upon the region, and of course the lack of physical space, amongst a myriad of reasons, has created a perfect storm of characteristics leading to one of the most job friendly markets in the world, and one of the most beautiful and desirable cities in the world. As a result of this storm though, San Francisco is increasingly becoming one of the most unaffordable places on Earth, a perfect storm of a far different nature.
I’m a strong proponent of preservation as I believe it allows us to connect to those who came before us in a tangible and palpable way, as well as creating indelible charm and history for communities that simply cannot be replicated no matter how hard resorts around the world try-there’s nothing as good as the real thing. However, with such strict preservation laws and community NIMBYism, developing in San Francisco is near impossible, and developing enough units to alleviate the housing market is made even more difficult by the low-density zoning that covers most of the city.
As a result of this perfect storm of un-affordability, many are forced to leave a place they’ve grown up in and lived in for decades, or are pushed to the curb, resented for having nowhere to eat, sleep, or shower. Homelessness in San Francisco is made all the worse as the new-comers to the city have little tolerance for the 7,000 or so people that live on the streets.
But isn’t it the cities’ responsibility to provide this housing? Why can’t San Francisco implement plans like this, or this? The simple answer is that there is not enough available land to make these seemingly land and cost efficient plans feasible.
Additionally, the city will not be able to serve as a mecca for the creative classes, and not be able to host the thousands of Immigrants who have historically flocked to San Francisco in search of a better life.
Okay, what are the real draw backs in this. So we lose some old poor people and immigrants who can’t afford to pay, what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that it is these people who are now being forced out who made San Francisco desirable to live in the first place-if they leave would logic not follow that the character of what made the city desirable leaves as well? Furthermore, the creative haven that was, and decreasingly is San Francisco will not be able to support artists, entrepreneurs, innovators and creators that would allow the city to evolve and continue to thrive. This is not merely a negative for the creative types that would be forced out by increasing rents, it threatens to jeopardize San Francisco’s ability to be a global destination for more than just tech and finance. Without the city, and region, being able to support it’s own support system of those who work in the services and entertainment industries, the city could collapse into itself in a corporate-mess of unaffordable homogeneity. But what can we do to prevent this future of an unaffordable, non-creative and homogenous San Francisco?
That’s where the annexation of land comes in. This isn’t without precedent as many of the world’s greatest cities have done this to create more land for public services or tap into a larger tax base, amongst many other reasons.
Consolidate, Amalgamate, anything to keep us great!
Eventually, the space to develop in San Francisco will run out, due to the scarcity of land, desire to keep neighborhoods within an appropriate scale and maintain a certain quality of life. Inevitably more land will be needed to be develop in order to preserve the life that San Franciscans are accustomed to.
The answer to the question of San Francisco’s future is development and annexation. Smart development, and careful annexation, of course, but this cocktail could be the out of the box solution needed to fix the absurd reality that is the San Francisco Real Estate Market, and steer it clear from becoming a playground exclusively reserved for the best coders and most fratty of Wall Street Bros.
But where would we get this land? Surely the city wouldn’t build out into the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to create a utopia or infill the bay, because those ideas are crazy and haven’t happened multiple times before, right? Well, parts of the bay have been filled in, but in order to protect the ecosystems and scenic beauty of the region any further infill would meet staunch opposition, and justifiably so. Building into the Ocean would be tough as this stretch of the powerful Pacific has not been known to be tame.
The only option for more land contiguous with San Francisco would appear to be to the south of the Peninsula. Look, San Mateo County, usually referred to as Silicon Valley, just so happens to border San Francisco to the south, oh the convenience! Now, I don’t propose annexing the whole county as that would be potentially devastating to the local economy, not to mention a huge headache, but would annexing a few towns in the name of saving one of the world’s greatest cities from a housing crisis of unheard of proportions in the American context be such a bad thing?
Let’s assume that the towns annexed to San Francisco don’t put up a fight, and enthusiastically join The City by the Bay, but what towns would we choose? Well, in the name of cartographic organization and demographic similarity without too much disruption, I would propose Brisbane, Colma, Daly City, Pacifica and South San Francisco be invited into the club of San Fran, in addition to the unincorporated areas surrounded by and adjacent to these towns, and the airport. Honestly, I was a little surprised that South San Francisco wasn’t already apart of the city, and even more surprised to discover that it shares no border with San Francisco proper-let’s call this restoring cartographic integrity of familial proportions.
A look at our towns, and the New San Francisco afterwards.
Brisbane, California: “The City of Stars”
Population: 4,717 at the 2015 Census Estimate
Total Area: 20.077 Square Miles
Land: 3.096 Square Miles
Water: 16.981 Square Miles
Local Tax Rate: 9%
Density: 1524 People per Square Mile
Colma, California: The Cemetery of San Francisco
Morbid, yes, but the history behind this town is fascinating
Population: 1,792 at the 2010 Census
Total Area: 1.909 Square Miles
Land: 1.909 Square Miles
Water: 0.0 Square Miles
Local Tax Rate: 9%
Density: 939 People per Square Mile
Daly City, California: Gateway to the Peninsula
Population: 106,094 at the 2014 Census Estimate
Total Area: 7.664 Square Miles
Land: 7.664 Square Miles
Water: 0.0 Square Miles
Local Tax Rate: 9%
Density: 13,843 People per Square Mile
Pacifica, California: The Surfer’s Coast of New San Francisco
Population: 37,234 at the 2010 Census
Total Area: 12.662 Square Miles
Land: 12.660 Square Miles
Water: .002 Square Miles
Local Tax Rate: 9%
Density: 2,941 People per Square Mile
South San Francisco, California: South San Francisco, San Francisco
Total Area: 30.158 Square Miles
Land: 9.141 Square Miles
Water: 21.017 Square Miles
Local Tax Rate: 9.5%
Density: 7,331 People per Square Mile
The New San Francisco
Population (accounting for most recent Census information available): 1,081,662
Total Area: 304.36 Square Miles
Land: 81.34 Square Miles
Water: 223.02 Square Miles
Local Tax Rate: 8.75%
Density: 13,298 People per Square Mile
As the statistics suggest, this New San Francisco would nearly double in land area, not accounting for the Colma Landfill, which could be redeveloped and utilized as more land for housing. The city would become less dense, dropping from 18,440 people per square mile to 13,298 people. With it’s increased population, San Francisco would jump ahead of it’s fellow Bay Area city of San Jose to become the 10th largest city in the U.S. Moving southward, there would be more space for affordable housing to be built, and a larger tax base to extract requisite funds. Additionally, the local tax rate of San Francisco is 8.75%, lower than any of the other towns who would potentially join this new city.
With more space to spread out, San Francisco would be able to preserve it’s historic architecture and culture, without having neighborhoods stripped clean of their character due to development interests, although this would inherently occur.
But how would we go about this annexation? Well it’s not without precedent.
We can look to Philadelphia’s 1854 Act of Consolidation, the 1898 Consolidation of New York City, the numerous Amalgamations of Toronto, with the most recent edition occurring in 1998, amongst countless other examples as a guideline for how San Francisco would go about amalgamating land to within it’s jurisdictional borders. Perhaps the best plan to look to is Toronto’s most recent amalgamation. Not only was this done within the past 20 years, but it was done in a city much larger than San Francisco, and anchoring a metropolitan area of roughly the same size.
As I was writing this, someone sent along this video to me, and I think it ties in nicely with what I’m trying to say
In addition to the consolidation plan, it will call for x amount of new development units with at least 20% designated as affordable up to 60% of the neighborhoods income.
Regardless of attempts to save the city from one of the worst housing crises in modern history, one thing remains abundantly clear-the city must implement an unorthodox, unique and extreme measure to ensure that San Francisco will again become in the future one of the greatest cities in the world, open to all types of people from different walks of life. If extreme measures are not taken, San Francisco is in jeopardy of losing its status as one of the most important cities in the world, for the simple reason that the people who have made the city great will no longer be able to do so.