Union Iron Works, photo by William Porter, 2004.
Union Iron Works, photo by William Porter, 2004.

Preserving Industry in the Eastern Neighborhoods

 

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, adopted in late December 2008, states that “San Francisco is a special place because of the way in which it has always balanced preservation with change.” It is true that despite generations of natural and manmade disasters, demographic shifts, and  radical economic realignment, San Francisco has managed to hold on to its essence as a place that “doesn’t look or feel like anywhere else.” [1]  That said, the dominance of globalized capital, coupled with San Francisco’s pivotal role within the high tech/dotcom industry, have fundamentally transformed the city. As San Francisco’s economy has shifted, longtime businesses, particularly manufacturing, have departed for the East Bay, the Peninsula, and increasingly, overseas. Meanwhile, many working-class San Franciscans who depended on these jobs have been pushed out as well. I argue that we should retain a reservoir of light industrial zones to nurture newer artisan-based and small-scale manufacturing industries that are currently thriving in San Francisco. The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan provides an effective, if blunt, instrument to accomplish this goal.

 

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which actually consists of four specific area plans—one each for East SOMA, the Central Waterfront, Potrero Hill, and the Mission—was crafted in response to trends unleashed during the first dotcom boom of 1997-2001. Though the boom subsided shortly after planning got underway, its long-term effects of gentrification and accelerating high-end residential development continued unabated. Protected only by interim zoning controls established by the Planning Department in 2001, industrial uses, categorized as “PDR” (Production, Distribution, and Repair) have continued to evaporate. Wall Street-driven trends play a part, especially the continued offshoring of industrial production to China. Local factors are also to blame, particularly the accelerating value of industrial land for residential and office development, which has raised rents beyond the reach of many industrial entrepreneurs. [2]

 

Baker and Hamilton warehouse, photo by Christopher VerPlanck, 2008.

 

As traditional manufacturers have fled the city, high tech businesses have eagerly gravitated to the industrial zones of the northern Potrero District, SOMA, Central Waterfront, and the northeast Mission. Many of the older historic warehouses and factories in these areas, with their large floor plates, flexible interiors, and exposed brick-and-concrete, industrial-chic aesthetic, readily appeal to high tech business. A very good and early example of this trend is the former Baker & Hamilton warehouse at 7th and Brannan Streets. Built in 1905 as one of the city’s largest warehouses, the heavy timber-frame and brick building was converted to office use in the late 1990s and is now occupied by Adobe.

 

Aside from the Financial District—traditionally the center of the region’s financial, real estate, and legal professions—San Francisco does not have many reservoirs of potential office space, with the result that former industrial zones must now accommodate the new Zyngas, Yammers, and Dropboxes. Of course, as competition for buildings in the areas covered by the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan has intensified, rents have grown apace, resulting in commercial leasing rates that are now higher south of Market Street than in the prestigious Financial District.

 

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan will preserve some land for PDR use, including traditional businesses like printing, auto repair, warehousing, machine shops, and food processing. PDR also encompasses artisans and craftspeople who need space to expand their flourishing home-based soap-making, cupcake-baking, and custom bicycle-fabricating businesses. A thriving trade organization called SFMade advocates for a full range of companies that make both traditional and non-traditional things in San Francisco, including bicycles and bicycle parts, apparel, body products, food and beverages, furniture, jewelry, pet products, and print and media products. Though the costs of doing business are typically higher in San Francisco than in the suburbs or overseas, many of these entrepreneurs are committed to staying in the city. Reasons include the ability to cut down on transportation times and costs for goods, the retention of decently paid jobs for at least some non-college-educated San Franciscans, and the elimination or reduction of commutes. Many non-traditional, local manufacturers also embrace a certain “pride of place” associated with making products that reflect the values and cultures of San Francisco.[3]

 

It does not take a genius to understand that housing and high tech office uses can afford to pay more for space than most manufacturing operations. It is also obvious that the reservoir of land zoned for industrial uses is a dwindling resource. In the 1990s, San Francisco had 2,781 acres of land, or 12.6% of the city’s total area, zoned for industrial use, but according to the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, in the near future we will have only around 1,500 acres, or 6.8% of the city’s total area.[4]  Furthermore, budding craftspeople and manufacturers also understand that while it is possible for office and residential uses to move into industrial zones, it is basically impossible for PDR to move into non-industrially zoned districts.

 

Though the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan will preserve only about half the area currently zoned for industry, it is important to acknowledge that market forces would have eventually eradicated that area entirely. For this reason and contrary to popular opinion, raw market forces alone probably should not be allowed to determine long-term land use. A diverse economy is one hallmark of a healthy city, and who is to say that high tech will continue to be San Francisco’s meal ticket? Just look at other cities, such as Detroit or Las Vegas, to see what over-reliance on a single industry can do. With escalating fuel prices and the rising value of the Chinese Yuan, there is a future for domestic manufacturing in the United States, including in San Francisco.

 

I agree with the basic premise of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan to retain a reservoir of industrially-zoned land in the City. However, PDR classification casts a wide net that does not distinguish between different types of industrial production. The unfortunate reality is that our remaining traditional “smokestack” industries will likely continue to leave. What will be left will be craft-based enterprises. I ask whether public policy should not nurture these local industries and make them a centerpiece of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan? If amended, the plan could define special use districts that may be especially well-suited to craft-based industry. We already have many buildings in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan that accommodate these uses, and their historic status will ensure that many remain. Why not allow them to become incubators for artisan- and craft-based industry?

 

A good existing example of an industrial incubator is the former American Can Company Building (now known as the American Industrial Center) in Dogpatch. This massive brick building, which occupies the block bounded by 20th, Illinois, 22nd, and 3rd Streets, has housed a variety of traditional craft-based industries, artists, and artisans since the 1970s. More recently, an exciting proposal for the Central Waterfront has emerged, where Orton Development would repurpose the long-abandoned 1883 Union Iron Works machine shop as a “New American Workplace” where designers, manufacturers, artisans and craftspeople, and others would work together under one roof. This facility would be located across the street from the American Industrial Center, creating a tremendous opportunity for synergy and cooperation, as well as making the Pier 70/Dogpatch area the center of local craft-based industries. I look forward to purchasing products made by the companies who work in these spaces, and take pride in the fact that in addition to paper pushing and data coding, my city still makes tangible things.

 

 

Sources:

[1] San Francisco Planning Department, Eastern Neighborhoods Plans (San Francisco: 2008), ii.
[2] City and County of San Francisco Budget & Legislative Analyst, “Industrial Protection Zones, Live/Work Projects and Community Plans,” http://www.sfbos.org/index.aspx?page=3716, accessed April 27, 2012.
[3] “About Local Manufacturing,” http://www.sfmade.org/about/companies/, accessed April 30, 2012.
[4] San Francisco Planning Department, Eastern Neighborhoods Plans (San Francisco: 2008), vi.

 

 

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