Saturday, January 8, 2011

Case Study 1.4: Presidio Heights

For whatever reason, information about Presidio Heights is scarce. Apart from a few short descriptions, I haven't been able to find any background information, no history, and just a few real estate statistics. Perhaps because it's not one of San Francisco's iconic neighborhoods, and it's not nearly as close to downtown as the other neighborhoods I've been looking at. It's not popular as a hip destination, and doesn't have great views unto the rest of the city. Though it does have a nice view of the Presidio and the Bay beyond. Presidio Heights is also a fairly young neighborhood, lacking the myriad of historical homes found elsewhere. The neighborhood is by and large an upscale residential area. 

On the neighborhood's boundaries, information is also a bit spotty. About the northern and southern borders (Pacific Avenue and California Street, respectively), there is no disagreement. The western border is of some dispute, with real estate companies including the gated community of Presidio Terrace but the residents association stopping at Arguello Boulevard. The image above includes the Terrace but in actuality the association is probably more correct. The eastern border is more complicated. Almost all sources describe the border at Presidio Avenue, but the block over doesn't really have the feel of Pacific Heights. In fact, it still looks like Presidio Heights. Or rather, the block bordered by Presidio/Pacific/Lyon/Jackson. That's how I see it and that's the area I'll focus on in this study. 

Pacific Avenue east of Presidio Avenue. The cobbled streets are a welcome addition and greatly enhance the streetscape
Pacific Avenue west of Presidio Avenue, with the Presidio visible down the hill
Northeast corner of the neighborhood
The same corner as above, but looking south
The presence of the Presidio is stronger in Presidio Heights than in any other neighborhood. It's not just some park off to the side. It runs along the entire northern border of the neighborhood, pulling the entire neighborhoods towards it. Apart from a couple playgrounds, it's the only green space in the vicinity, hence its importance. Many of the most expensive homes along Pacific Avenue face directly towards the park, but from any point in the neighborhood the Presidio is at most a few blocks walk. Access could be slightly better though. Dividing the neighborhood and the Presidio is a short wall and West Pacific Avenue, a fairly busy road. Hence, there are only a few people crossings along its length. It must be frustrating not to have direct access from any block, but one upside to this strategy is that activity is centered around a few recreation areas, such as Julius Kahn Playground, which has a baseball field and tennis courts. This centralization ensures a vibrant community atmosphere, responsible for Presidio Height's distinction as a family friendly neighborhood, sort of like London's Fulham to Chelsea (Pacific Heights being Chelsea). 

Julius Kahn Playground on the left
This being the US, however, you won't find the terraces so common in London. Single-family homes are the name of the game in Presidio Heights. In fact, there's very few apartments of any kind here, especially near the Presidio. This has contributed to some of the highest average property prices in the city, some years even higher than Pacific Heights, which does have quite a few apartments. 

There's quite a view of Presidio Heights when approaching through the Presidio from the north
Same as above but from the adjacent Pacific Avenue. The two run together for three blocks
Presidio Heights is perhaps the most homogeneous neighborhood in the city. There are few tall buildings, and most homes are of a similar size. There are no huge five story homes of the kind found in Pacific Heights, but neither are any of the homes small. It's all sort of upper middle class. The demographics of the neighborhood suggest a more down to earth, more "American" mix. In fact, the neighborhood is 90% white. Unlike Pacific Heights, there's a fair number of pickup trucks parked throughout the neighborhood. To someone from the Mission or Castro, Presidio Heights is surely considered very boring. But that's precisely what makes it so attractive to families and those seeking a more suburban lifestyle. 

Presidio Avenue, the eastern edge
Jackson Street just off Presidio Avenue. This is the northernmost street which runs the length of the neighborhood
Corner of Jackson and Walnut. The Presidio, visible on the left, is omnipresent
The neighborhood is arranged like a bowl around the Presidio, hence the hill down towards the center than back up again
Running east/west in this image, north to south, are Pacific, Jackson, and Washington
Corner of Jackson and Laurel Streets, a couple of the neighborhood's larger homes. In Presidio Heights, corner lots rule
Just below Jackson, immediately bordering the Presidio, the bottom of Spruce Street
Looking back on the same streetscape as above. Presidio Heights aims for a pleasant tree-lined vibe
The bane of suburbia, but this courtyard on the north side of Maple Street is acceptably small, more of a roundabout
Jackson and Maple. The homes on the left are unusually modern for the neighborhood, though not great architecture
Homes are often difficult to see behind shrubbery. Homeowners are more private than elsewhere
Homes run the gamut of architectural styles
The block between Jackson and Washington, with the Cherry Street courtyard top right
On the corner of Jackson and Cherry
Presidio Heights is the kind of place with streets named after plants (Walnut, Locust, Maple, and Cherry Streets). Like the Marina, it can sometimes feel like a suburb gone through densification, with architecture to match. Not so much on Jackson and Washington Streets, the more upscale corridors, but some homes have that pseudo Mediterranean style a bit too ubiquitous in California. At least all the homes are well-maintained, however.  

The western edge, Arguello Boulevard
The next block south, Washington Street is the most expensive street in Presidio Heights, home to executives and celebrities, and host to more than one Decorator Showcase home. 

Washington and Walnut, a large Victorian home graces this corner
Tucked among the single-family homes is this upscale apartment tower, though admittedly not a very tall one
Looking north from Laurel Street, perpendicular to Washington
Looking towards the Presidio from the corner of Washington and Locust
The same corner, but looking the opposite direction
Coming up on prime property, Washington Street between Spruce and Cherry has a lot of large homes. If Presidio Heights has a Gold Coast, this is it
Washington and Spruce
This is one of the most refined homes in the neighborhood, a beaux-arts mansion built in 1928 and boasting 12,000 sq ft
On the opposite side of the corner, 3701 Washington, built in 1900, was recently on the market for $13.5 million before being sold
Spruce Street
Great view towards the Presidio and the Bay from Spruce
Undoubtedly the most prominent home in the area is pictured above, center, owned by CNet founder Halsey Minor
Large by any standards at 18,000 sq ft, the home at 3800 Washington sold for $20 million
The next block over, Washington and Cherry is the scene of a 1969 Zodiac murder
It is perhaps not so surprising the Zodiac chose this corner for his murder. Even today it is regarded as an unusually quiet corner, eerily so according to some. Tucked away behind the Presidio and with few commercial uses, the neighborhood has very little traffic and little reason to walk. Most residents rely heavily on their cars. The relatively low density (single-family homes and few apartments) further complicates matters.

Clay Street is not universally appealing. The eastern side, shown here, has an odd bare, lifeless persona
Clay and Walnut
Laurel Street just off Clay
Corner of Clay and Locust with a few stately townhouses, if not the best paint choices
Locust Street loses its residential character towards the southern edge of Presidio Heights
Clay and Spruce. Looking just at the left side of the image, I might think I was back in Kensington
The intersection of Clay and Maple is especially suburban. Reminds me of images of Berkeley
Where are the homes? This stretch of Maple Street could be straight out of a Garden City
The monumental Temple Emanu-El sits at the far end of Clay Street, offering a satisfying marker in keeping with New Urbanism. Not that it was a planned decision when it was built in 1926. Sound city planning was the norm back then
Walnut Street between Clay and Sacramento
In the above image, the way one side of Walnut Street is tree-lined and the other side not, is an intelligent beautification strategy which gives contrast to what would otherwise be a quite dull streetscape. Having the trees on only one side gives all the visual benefits one could desire without stifling light levels below. Trees on both sides generally works fine in the suburbs with large front lawns, but on streets where the homes abut the sidewalk, it is more tricky. 

Sacramento Street is the neighborhood's commercial corridor. You won't find a Loius Vuitton here, but there's an eclectic mix of cafe's, boutiques, salons, and shops. Officially Presidio Heights goes on one more block to California Street, but by then the character of the neighborhood is nonexistent.

California Street
I might have given the impression that I'm not too fond of Presidio Heights, which isn't at all true. The neighborhood is one of my favorite in the city but it isn't so much of the city. Presidio Heights can be seen either as the least dense neighborhood in central San Francisco or as a dense suburb. In fact, I wish most American suburbs looked more like Presidio Heights. A pleasant, though not always high-quality mix of architectural styles, well-maintained, and with beautiful scenery plus plenty of parks. Just thinking back to my childhood neighborhood in Indiana, the gaps between houses are so huge, you could easily slot a townhouse in between. If suburban America is to adapt to a world where oil is scarce and climate-change of prime importance, those are the kind of steps its neighborhoods will have to take, and they're welcome steps that can serve only to make more enjoyable places to live.

flickr : Scott Hess
3800 Washington after the 1906 earthquake