Julie Christensen Is Designer of Change at City Hall

By Joel P. Engardio

When you think about the ways government touches our lives – through public transportation, its tax and license bureaucracy, how it regulates what our streets and cityscape look like -- the concepts of good form, function and design probably don’t come to mind.

We marvel at the beautiful aesthetic and flawless execution of our privately made smartphones while cursing the line at a government office that still uses paper files. Then we curse again, waiting for a public bus that seems to never come.

Imagine if City Hall was filled with politicians who could engineer solutions that embrace innovation and streamline operations while paying attention to the user experience. Maybe there would not be such an embarrassing gap between the analog way San Francisco is run and its designation as the tech industry’s global hub.

Thankfully we have Julie Christensen, the recently appointed city supervisor for District 3 in North Beach, Chinatown and several more neighborhoods. Christensen is a trained painter and sculptor with a pre-law background. She is also a successful entrepreneur who left a major design firm early in her career to start a business dedicated to elevating the look and feel of the mundane gadgets in our lives.

“The KitchenAid candy apple red mixer is what I’m most proud of,” said Christensen, who has created the surface designs for a variety of tech and consumer goods including computer speakers, gaming devices, MP3 players, modems, washing machines, desk lamps and even Pyrex tops.

Christensen’s re-examination of the lowly mixer changed people’s relationship to it, boosting KitchenAid’s mixer sales nearly 40 percent. Perhaps this is what we need when it comes to all the lowly aspects of government we are forced to endure.

“My design career requires me to imagine things that don’t exist, and that prepares me for my civic work,” Christensen said. “I got into civic work for the aesthetics – this park is ugly and we can make it beautiful. I stayed when I saw the impact of building a neighborhood.”

Christensen has spent 30 years running her company while giving back to her North Beach and Chinatown communities. She led efforts to plant hundreds of new street trees, replace a dilapidated library, renovate a century-old playground and organize support for the Central Subway extension to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf.

While historically significant, North Beach is becoming more isolated and irrelevant compared to today’s popular SoMa and Mission neighborhoods. That’s why Christensen calls the subway extension a “savior.” By making all of District 3 accessible to the rest of San Francisco, it will allow small businesses and startups to fill empty second-story office space while providing an influx of customers for a renaissance of ground floor restaurants and retail.

However, critics driven by nostalgia versus a need to plan for the future want to keep Christensen from getting elected in November.

“A new library and better transit shouldn’t be controversial,” Christensen said. “But the same forces vilifying me now have been fighting against common-sense improvements for a long time. I am flummoxed by the resistance they have to change.”

At 61, Christensen said she is a good choice to help manage San Francisco’s inevitable evolution because she has been around long enough to appreciate the past her critics are holding on to. Yet Christensen has continually adapted to change, from an early divorce to bold career choices to remarriage and becoming a stepmother in her 40s.

“I leaned in,” she said.

The newest addition to her life is a 3-year-old Aussie shepherd-hound mix named Cooper.

“Change is frightening for people who can’t imagine things another way,” said Christensen, who grew up in Louisiana and came to San Francisco in the 1970s when her generation was transforming The City into its own preferred paradise. “But life is not a tableau. It is a parade. We can’t stand frozen and expect everything to stay frozen around us.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner February 1, 2015

PoliticsJoel Engardio