I often think about all the land that’s used up by cars in a city.

I’m not just talking about the public roads and highways. I mean the private property that is exclusively devoted to cars in one way or another. Even a fairly old pedestrian oriented city like San Francisco has a huge amount of car based establishments. You never see images like these on a postcard. But if lots of people own and drive cars the city needs a certain number of gas stations, muffler shops, parking lots, and car washes.

Victorian era builders didn’t construct gas stations. At one time these streets were lined with grand homes and businesses that were incrementally torn down and replaced with new auto-oriented establishments. People often forget that San Francisco went into serious decline for a few decades after World War II and followed the same general trajectory as many other industrial port cities like Cleveland and Detroit. There was a time in the economic and cultural history of the city when traditional buildings were out of fashion and economic liabilities. It made sense to clear away underperforming buildings to make way for more productive and profitable structures.

San Francisco’s economy recovered sooner and stronger than most other inner cities. Today real estate in once undervalued neighborhoods is astonishingly expensive. The culture has changed and so has market demand. As a result many aging gas stations, auto repair shops, and parking lots are being converted back to residential buildings – many incorporating retail shops on the ground floor.

This particular auto repair joint sat vacant for years. It’s finally been removed and new construction has begun. On average it takes a full decade to get zoning and planning permission to build anything in San Francisco. Absolutely nothing is legal as-of-right so zoning hearings, environmental impact reports, and an endless number of review boards must be worked through before permits are finally issued. This involves an army of consulting engineers, architects, lawyers, professional fixers, and middle men to grease the wheels of the system. All of that costs serious money.

And then there are the inevitable community activist groups and social justice demonstrators who lobby and sue to get the approved building stymied because the city needs more affordable housing rather than luxury condos. A common form of detente involves a few of the new apartments being set aside as workforce or affordable housing in order to move the project forward. These new buildings must be fantastically expensive by the time they hit the market in order to justify the massive up front costs, otherwise no one would ever bother to build anything. Keep in mind, no one ever lived in the old Jiffy Lube.

Here are some comparisons of buildings that went up a century or more ago and new buildings currently under construction. The overall size, shape, and uses are nearly identical. These construction sites were most often occupied by parking lots and gas stations for the last several decades. That’s the low hanging fruit. People may strenuously object to the demolition of an historic building, but there’s less push back when a fifty year old Shell station goes away.

And here’s the context for these new buildings. What we’re witnessing isn’t a modern aberration of multi story buildings being imposed on the traditional city. It’s actually a return to the historic pattern after an odd twentieth century hiatus. The car-oriented land use pattern was the real anomaly.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)


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