Saving San Francisco
By Joel P. Engardio
“Saving the Bay” is an Emmy award-winning PBS series about the local activists and environmentalists who fought and stopped development plans in the 1960s that would have filled in San Francisco Bay until it became a river.
Now the documentary filmmaker and San Francisco native who told the “Saving the Bay” history is working on an even bigger and more immediate topic: “Saving the City.”
Ron Blatman, 57, sees that San Francisco is in crisis without enough housing, public transportation and infrastructure for all the newcomers driving up prices.
At first glance, Blatman looks like the anti-change and not-in-my-backyard demographic that wants to strictly preserve and protect San Francisco’s neighborhoods with the same playbook that saved the Bay. But the solutions in Blatman’s “Saving the City” will surprise fans of “Saving the Bay.”
Start with Blatman’s view of the “No Wall on the Waterfront” campaign that fought against new housing by the Bay.
“Where was the wall? The plan I saw wasn’t on the water. It would have turned a parking lot on the westside of the Embarcadero into something really nice,” Blatman said. “San Francisco is so afraid of its waterfront, but that’s where people go in other great cities.”
For Blatman, a saved urban Bay is squandered when people can’t live or recreate near it.
Initial footage of “Saving the City” compares San Francisco’s newly developed Mission Bay neighborhood to a similarly situated area of Vancouver.
The difference is striking. Tall, skinny housing towers in Vancouver leave lots of green, open space between the structures for families to picnic and play. Schools and recreation centers anchor the high rises to create a vibrant community.
Short, squat buildings dominate San Francisco’s Mission Bay because anti-height activists got their way. Sites for schools and parks to attract and retain families remain empty.
“San Francisco likes to get mired in its planning process without concern for the end product,” Blatman said. “Now we have Mission Bay, which is broken from the start. It’s blocky and sterile with no sense of place. Community facilities should have come first, not last.”
Blatman’s expertise goes beyond filmmaking: He was City Hall’s director of business development in the early 1990s and he has masters degrees in city planning and business administration from the University of Pennsylvania. He studied architecture as an undergrad at Berkeley.
Blatman said he wants his “Saving the City” series – 13 hours of public television with a $7 million budget – to teach lessons and change mindsets by letting people see for themselves what works and doesn’t work in today’s cities.
“The Transbay Terminal we’re trying to build in San Francisco is a mess,” Blatman said. “But everything our Transbay Terminal is supposed to be, Denver’s Union Station is.”
While Blatman calls for more density and height in San Francisco, he is not an urban purist. For example, he doesn’t believe cars are the enemy.
“It’s ludicrous to think people don’t need or won’t use cars,” Blatman said. “How can we enforce people to live like we have the Paris Metro when all we have is Muni?”
Blatman also said neighborhoods with single-family homes are good for keeping larger families in San Francisco, as long as adjacent transit and commercial corridors provide more multi-story housing for young professionals, couples and downsizing seniors.
“You don’t want to see 10 stories in West Portal, but four stories of condos above retail will retain its village quality,” said Blatman, who grew up near West Portal Avenue. “Just don’t touch the family homes behind it.”
In his effort to save San Francisco, Blatman’s series will highlight successful cities willing to embrace change to meet future needs -- cities that know what to preserve and what to let go.
“The idea that everything should be frozen is nuts,” Blatman said. “Cities change, and if they don’t, they die.”