Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Case Study 1.5: Russian Hill

This neighborhood of San Francisco is named after a Russian cemetery discovered atop the hill by gold rushers in the 19th century. The cemetery is long gone, and there hasn't been a Russian presence in the area for a long time, but the name has stuck. The area is most famous for that winding bit of Lombard Street known as the "crookedest street" in the world. Even in Street View the street is crowded with tourists, but the neighborhood has much more to offer than just one street. Though almost entirely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, the area was quickly rebuilt and a lot of interesting architecture survives from the early 20th century. Borders are Broadway to the south, Mason, Columbus Avenue and the trendy neighborhood of North Beach on the east, Van Ness Avenue to the west, and Bay Street separating the neighborhood from touristy Fisherman's Wharf to the north.

Russian Hill behind, immediately after the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. Image Frank Soule
Russian Hill is one of the city's original seven hills and is characterized by steep streets, a result of not modifying the usual street grid to better suit the terrain. Grades of 30 degrees are not uncommon. Occasionally, however, a street may be found off grid, especially in particularly steep areas, such as Lombard Street. It is also common to find staircases in place of or alongside sidewalks and the very steepest streets do away with a road altogether, instead opting for greenery.

View from Broadway towards downtown
Russian Hill is not so much one clearly defined hill but rather a crest which runs from the summit at the southeast corner of the neighborhood to nearly the northwest corner at George Sterling Park. The neighborhood's unusual topography has resulted in a diverse area, with homes often occupying steep sites and excellent views in all directions. Many of these homes can be found at  the hill's summit around Vallejo Street while Hyde Street skims the park at the peak of the crest on the north edge.

Following the crest from the south. Hyde is the tree-lined street center-left
Russian Hill summit in 1908, just two years after the earthquake
The summit today, as before one of the least dense areas of the neighborhood
The view from the summit at the top of Vallejo
Vallejo Street, an expensive cul-de-sac
A 2,900 sq ft apartment in this building was recently on the market for $2.9 million, but the historical style is not genuine. It was built in 1998
It's unfortunate the summit has been crowded with high-rises, visible throughout the city
The overbearing scale of some of these high rises was responsible for the 1960's preservation movement, which has since prevented new towers from being built, thus preserving the scale and character of the neighborhood
This home on Green Street lies in the shadow of a 1960's high-rise
Intersection of Taylor and Green
Green Street is one the wealthiest streets in Russian Hill and has a few survivors of the earthquake, including this 1858 octagon home
On Taylor Street, this is possibly the largest home in the neighborhood, built in 1906 and sold for $12 million a few years ago
On the opposite side of the block, Jones Street is not quite as grand but still pleasant
There are a few of these historical road ramps in the city, where level changes are greater than normal
The view downhill from the top of Jones
Unlike the other neighborhoods I've looked at so far, Russian Hill is quite different. Cow Hollow had a bit of a mix, a division between its east and west, but it's much more patchy here, with certain sections of streets clearly wealthier than others. Russian Hill is considered an affluent neighborhood, but it's nowhere near as expensive as Pacific Heights. Russian Hill is much closer to downtown, much more urban, much grittier. In general areas along the crest of the hill are less dense, better maintained, greener, and thus more expensive. Even looking at the satellite image above, the crest can clearly be seen as a strip of greater greenery.

1915 apartment buildings on Green
As stated previously, most of the neighborhood is on the grid, which has quite wide streets and a rather defined urban dimension. There are a few off the grid streets, however. Many are little more than back alleys and are surely some of the most affordable places to live in the area, though probably out of desperation as they really are not very nice. A couple are charming, however, as the narrower street width lends them a more intimate character. More like a pedestrian lane in comparison to the car friendliness of other streets. I do wish they were cobbled rather than asphalt. Asphalt surfaces never lend themselves well in any situation, but certainly not in narrow urban areas. The most famous of these off the grid lanes is Macondray Lane, which is in fact purely a pedestrian path. It's the setting of Armistead Maupin's Barbary Lane in Tales of the City

Glover Street is one such lane, between Jones and Leavenworth Streets
Valparaiso Street between Taylor and Mason is another
Union Street
Going uphill on Union, the homes get more attractive
Back downhill on the other side of the crest, and again beauty trails off
It's no surprise really that the neighborhood is at its most attractive at the peak of the crest. Greater elevation means better views, always at a premium.

Filbert Street
Russian Hill is yet another neighborhood with an overhead wire problem
Filbert and Jones
Filbert and Leavenworth is one of the steepest points
Filbert and Hyde
Hyde Street is one of the main corridors in Russian Hill, site of apartments, shops, restaurants, and a heavily used cable car line which transports large number of tourists to Lombard Street and Fisherman's Wharf. It's a wide street, almost completely tree-lined, almost too heavily in some sections, which can be a bit dark.

Filbert just west of Hyde
Greenwich and Leavenworth
This ridge on Greenwich would be a great point if only the giant swath of asphalt was replaced with a park
Greenwich and Hyde with a few nice historical apartment buildings
George Sterling Park is an important amenity in the neighborhood, featuring tennis courts and great views
The park is in the upper right
How nice to see all these trees at the corner of Greenwich and Larkin
Larkin Street
The eastern border of Russian Hill, Columbus Avenue at the corner with Lombard Street
Lombard just below the "crookedest street"
The section of Lombard Street known as the "crookedest street in the world" is a tourist magnet. There's always a crowd milling around and a constant line of cars waiting to drive down the hill. On some days it can get so crowded that a police officer must direct traffic. What a headache it must be for those who live along the street and the surrounding area. Can't really blame the tourists, however, as it's undoubtedly a unique part of town. But perhaps they should close the street to non-resident cars. Streets are best viewed on foot anyway.

Lombard Street 1933. Image San Francisco Public Library
View uphill from the east
Downhill from the west
Montclair Terrace, half way up, the only street which intersects the crooked section
Lombard and Hyde looking south
Lombard and Hyde looking west
Home at Lombard and Larkin which was on the market for $6.9 million but sold in 2010 for $4.1 million
Lombard and Larkin
Larkin Street
Here's that general area from above, Larkin Street cutting through the middle of the image
Larkin across from George Sterling Park
What Russian Hill generally lacks in many areas are soft edges between streets, sidewalks, and homes. Soft edges are things like trees and front gardens, or even vines growing on a building. Often, homes abut the sidewalk in a rather urban manner whereas the most enjoyable parts of the neighborhood offer some breathing space between the home and street. I'm certainly not advocating the black hole that is a front lawn in the suburbs, as that's way too much breathing space. Simply a bit of nature in between. Judge for yourself, as Russian Hill has quite a few examples of very successful soft edges and I think those places are a big improvement.

Lombard and Larkin, looking downhill westward. The Presidio on the horizon
Lombard and Polk. Polk is another of the neighborhood's commercial streets
Polk and Green with a large variety of shops, though certainly not impressive architecture
Columbus Avenue at the corner of Chestnut. Transamerica Pyramid in the distance
Chestnut and Jones looking towards the summit of the hill
Chestnut and Hyde
A string of townhouses along Chestnut though severely lacking in soft edges. That sidewalk is unnecessarily several meters wide and should be replaced with a strip of greenery
The view downhill from Chestnut on Larkin. The big bare spot is Russian Hill Open Space, though its purpose is not clear
The only way to traverse the length of Chestnut is down these pedestrian steps
Chestnut and Polk
Francisco Street is essentially the northernmost street in the neighborhood
Francisco and Leavenworth
Francisco continues up this ramp
View from top of the ramp
The middle section of Francisco is an exclusive enclave, with many expensive single family homes atop dramatic staircases
It's perhaps the quietest part of the neighborhood and the most secluded
It almost has the air of a gated community
Many iconic photos of Russian Hill are taken from this vantage point at the corner of Hyde and Francisco, usually with a cable car
On the opposite side of the large Open Space, one could think this bit of Francisco Street was in the country
This is where the Larkin Street ramp joins with Francisco
Russian Hill Park as seen from Bay Street at the neighborhood's northern edge
Bay Street
With its steep hills, charming homes, and touristy locations, Russian Hill is the San Francisco many visitors take home with them. It's a successful urban neighborhood, with much to like about it. Around the edges it can be a bit too gritty for my tastes but at its best it offers some of the nicest streets in the city and unforgettable views. If I had kids, it's the sort of place I could see raising them in, with plenty of nearby attractions and walkable amenities at hand. No doubt some parents see the neighborhood as not quite kid-friendly, slightly hostile perhaps due to the steep hills (not stroller friendly) plus the lack of parks on many streets. But if its urbanism close to downtown one is after, Russian Hill is hard to beat. The neighborhood is a good example of how to do inner city urbanism right, largely helped by the strong preservation movement. Much of the neighborhood is a historic district.

Russian Hill in the morning. flickr: Markus Spiering
View from Lombard Street. flickr : Lucas Janin
View from Macondray Lane. flickr : Dead Slow