Thursday, December 23, 2010

Case Study 1.2: Cow Hollow

Sometimes thrown in with either the Marina or Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow is in fact its own neighborhood, characterized by busy shopping strip Union Street. Some of the confusion may stem from Cow Hollow's identity crisis, an east/west divide, in which the commercial eastern half is distinctly different from the residential western half. Even looking at the satellite image, the contrast between the two is evident, with far more greenery in the west. Indeed, the residential half can feel a lot like pricier Pacific Heights, which borders Cow Hollow to the south. Which is not to say that Cow Hollow is affordable, for it certainly isn't, being among San Francisco's most expensive areas to live. But because it has greater diversity in its housing stock, apartments can be had for significantly less than anything in Pacific Heights, especially in the eastern half. I'm interested in the best Cow Hollow has to offer, however, so my focus will be on the more residential half. To the north, the neighborhood is bordered by Lombard Street, to the west by Lyon Street and the Presidio, and Van Ness Avenue on the east. All in all some 58 equally proportioned blocks. As opposed to the Marina, Cow Hollow is strictly on the grid.

Few places have better access to the Presidio than Cow Hollow
The name Cow Hollow comes from the area's use in the late 19th century, once host to a large freshwater lagoon and hundreds of dairy cows. Once tanneries polluted the water, however, the lagoon was filled in and the cows ordered out. The wealthy streamed in to build mansions, often to replace homes destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, as the area escaped relatively unscathed. Most early development happened on and around Union Street. Today the street is a busy shopping destination, known for boutiques, restaurants, and health spas. Luckily the historical homes have survived, as Union Street is known as the first place in the city where historical homes were converted into shops. Some remnants of the dairy industry have also survived in the form of shops and bars. 

Cow Hollow is only four blocks wide. Note the lack of greenery here, the commercial eastern half. 
Backyards transition away the more eastward you go, and with them trees. 
The housing stock in Cow Hollow is generally a few decades older than in the Marina. There is a vast array of Victorian and Edwardian homes, the kind of homes stereotypical for San Francisco. Consequently, the neighborhood has a very different kind of urbanism. While the buildings in the Marina are fairly short, many just two stories, Cow Hollow is more partial to the traditional urban townhouse. Meaning narrow, tall, and deep. This results in more climbing of stairs (unless you have an elevator) but to me this has always been the purest form of urban housing. I fell in love with terraced housing in London and always delight in finding similar homes around the world. The United State's strong historical connections to England have had a profound impact on urban housing in large cities such as New York and Boston, and even San Francisco, albeit not as directly. The Victorian of the West Coast is far more flamboyant than in England, and in fact has a lot in common with Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts movement. A sort of hybrid of the three, almost always built of timber rather than brick. 

Victorian shops on Fillmore Street
Lyon Street divides Cow Hollow from the Presidio, a popular 3 sq mile national park. Lyon Street is a quiet street and in no way hinders the interaction between the neighborhood and park. 

It is a shame the part of the Presidio adjoining Cow Hollow is not pristine park but in fact residential buildings put up by the WPA in the 1930's. Up until 1989 they housed military families from the adjoining base, but today they are available to rent from upwards of $6500/month, far more than the average in the area. 

Lyon Street, with the Presidio on the right.
Not classically beautiful, but they have a charm of their own.
Moving uphill, the homes get larger and more refined.
These Italianate villas are the only homes on Lyon Street on the Presidio side of the road, on the border with Pacific Heights. 
Typical for many urban areas in the US, not all parts of Cow Hollow are pristine, despite the area's wealth. Private homes are always immaculate but streets and sidewalks can disappoint, suggesting budgetary issues with San Francisco city.

Green Street, the boundary between Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights, looking west towards the Presidio. 
Here, the nicest several blocks of Cow Hollow, stretching uphill until reaching Pacific Heights.
On the very right, the trees of the Presidio. Center, Baker Street. 
One block east of Baker Street, Broderick Street, probably the spine of residential Cow Hollow and host to many fine homes. 
The bottom of Broderick Street, just off Lombard Street. Here Cow Hollow does not live up to its name. 
From the upper reaches of Broderick Street, the view opens out to the Bay. 
Halfway up, still two blocks from Pacific Heights, and the neighborhood takes on a sedated, refined atmosphere. 
Something that I really appreciated about London was the balance the city was able to find between different uses in the city. Generally a busy, commercial street such as High Street Kensington or Brompton Road serves as an artery for countless residential streets. In the US, however, zoning laws have for many years subdivided cities into various uses, with little interaction between them present. Cow Hollow is testament to these zoning laws. The residential western half is clearly compartmentalized from the commercial eastern. There is virtually no business activity among the many residential streets. Likewise, the eastern half is full of shops and businesses of all sorts, but few exclusively residential streets. Just apartments interspersed. 

One of the problems that results from this strategy is that besides those who live on the border between uses, amenities are not necessarily close by. Cow Hollow therefore has a good number of automobiles parked on the sides of roads, for many residents must travel to work, shop, and run errands. Maybe if there was a corner grocery, they wouldn't have to. This reliance on automobiles makes Cow Hollow more of a suburb than it needs to be.

Divisadero Street, one block east of Broderick. 
Filbert Street where it intersects with Divisadero. The Presidio at the far end of the street. 
Webster Street, in the commercial eastern half of the neighborhood. 
Greenwich Street, looking eastwards from Broderick. 

Greenwich Street on a rainy day. Note the multitude of overhead wires, a problem throughout the city. flickr : Dizzy Atmosphere

As noted previously, Cow Hollow real estate prices fluctuate extensively. Many young professionals in the neighborhood rent, but most single family homes are owned. To give an idea of prices in the area, two examples are presented below. 

3047 Divisadero Street, only 2,700 sq ft and not in the best part of Cow Hollow, but on the market for $2.2 million.
In contrast, 2820 Scott Street, yellow house centre-right, just steps from Green Street, 16,000 sq ft for $20 million. 
This brings to a conclusion my look at Cow Hollow. Neither as trendy as the Marina, nor as posh as Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow has managed to carve a niche for itself as a good compromise neighborhood with a lot on offer for young professionals, families, and the wealthy. The excellent shopping of Union Street, and proximity to the Presidio, has made it the choice of many. To me, however, the neighborhood lacks a certain character. Perhaps the compromises are too many and coherence lacking, but this certainly isn't a well-defined neighborhood. Saying "Marina" or "Pacific Heights" is certainly enough, but I imagine in Cow Hollow one has to say where precisely they live to give a good idea. Maybe it isn't such a bad idea to include the area in the Marina and Pacific Heights. There isn't much in between.