Categories: Bay Area

The San Francisco that could have been

In 1904, a group of civic leaders hired the most eminent urban planner in the nation, built him a roost atop Twin Peaks, paid his underlings' salaries and asked him to design a great plan for the layout of San Francisco.

Days before the earthquake of April 18, 1906, Daniel Burnham's report was delivered to the soon-to-be-destroyed City Hall. The quake and the subsequent fires cleared huge swaths of land, prompting speculation that Burnham's plans, which required significant property acquisition to make way for broad boulevards, would be implemented.

That didn't happen.

Except for a few minor exceptions, Burnham's plans were completely ignored in the rush to rebuild what had existed before, historians and urban planners say. Today, that decision was either a lost opportunity to create from scratch a majestic, European-style city, or a lucky break for the eclectic, Victorian charm of San Francisco, depending on whom you ask.

“Burnham was one of the most influential planners in the entire history of the United States of America,” for his leadership in the City Beautiful movement, said Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.
Burnham's design, however, “runs counter to the American notions of property rights,” Metcalf said. “I think it's a very good idea that the Burnham plan was not implemented.”

Burnham's vision was inspired by Paris' series of concentric circles bisected by boulevards, a design used in the creation of Washington, D.C. Monumental in scale and heavy on parkland in every neighborhood, it created a great road-loop around The City and bisected the grid structure with broad “diagonals.”

The Burnham plan would have increased the connectivity between neighborhoods, created many public plazas, extended Golden Gate Park's panhandle to Market Street, introduced a linear park running from Potrero Hill to Twin Peaks, situated a grand train station like Washington's Union Station near the Civic Center, ended Market Street at Twin Peaks and placed a great athenaeum high in those hills with “courts, terraces and colonnaded shelters.”

Burnham himself knew that his plan, which would have required The City to buy huge tracts of land to accommodate the additional park space and wider boulevards, would be expensive, though he could not have foreseen what San Francisco Art Institute Professor Jeannene Przyblyski described as the “imperative to rebuild quickly.”
“While prudence holds up a warning finger, we must not forget what San Francisco has become in 50 years, and what it is still further destined to become,” Burnham wrote. “The City looks forward to a sure future wherein it will possess in inhabitants and money many times what it has now.”

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