Sunday, January 2, 2011

Case Study 1.3: Pacific Heights

Pacific Heights is stylistically quite similar to some parts of Cow Hollow, a mix of architecture from the past 100 years. In Pacific Heights, however, everything is super sized. The largest homes in this neighborhood are positively massive, taking up the entire lot and several stories tall. Quite literally palatial mansions in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood. I find Pacific Heights to be much more homogeneous than Cow Hollow, without a clear east/west or north/south divide. Rather, the neighborhood has pockets here and there, with lesser or greater concentrations of expensive single family homes, usually dependent on their proximity to green space, of which Pacific Heights has plenty, with the Presidio to the west and two parks, Alta Plaza and Lafayette. For the most part the neighborhood is less commercial than Cow Hollow, with just a few shopping streets and a hospital among the non-residential uses. California Street, which forms the southern border, has a good deal of shops, as does Fillmore Street, but the area lacks a certain character. In fact, residents in the most exclusive areas are physically closer to Cow Hollow's Union Street. As with the previous neighborhoods, the Presidio and Lyon Street form the western border, Van Ness Avenue the eastern, and Green Street the northern border with Cow Hollow. Pacific Heights offers panoramic views of San Francisco, rising to 370 feet/112 meters above sea level at its highest point. 

From the intersection of Broadway and Divisadero, one can see all the way to the Transamerica Pyramid and Oakland across the Bay
From the top of Divisadero Street, an expansive view toward the Bay 
The oldest building in Pacific Heights was built in 1853 but most of the neighborhood dates to after the 1906 earthquake, when much of the city's wealthy migrated from Nob Hill. Cable cars facilitated the early popularity of the neighborhood, as walking distance and the multiple hills were no longer an important concern. Today the neighborhood is mainly accessible by car, though a bus does stop as far west as Alta Plaza Park, on the doorstep of the best streets. More than any other neighborhood this close to downtown, Pacific Heights is a residential neighborhood, aimed at those seeking peace and quiet in the big city. Due to the high real estate prices, it appeals to a demanding older demographic who appreciate the well-kept streets and large homes. As a consequence, Pacific Heights gets more than its fair share of criticism from many in the city, who view it as a wealthy enclave. Still, I appreciate the lack of electrical wires criss-crossing the streets and the evident care of the residents for their neighborhood.

Fillmore Street looking south towards Pacific Heights in 1895
Fillmore Street looking north toward the Marina around 1920, with a streetcar climbing the slopes
Spreckels Mansion on Washintgon Street around 1912. Image courtesy Library of Congress
The mansion today, reputedly the home of author Danielle Steel 
The wealthiest section of Pacific Heights straddles Broadway Street west of Divisadero Street and has gained the nickname of Gold Coast, curiously the same nickname used to describe the wealthy eastern shore of Lake Zurich in Switzerland.

Broadway Street at the intersection with Broderick, in the heart of the Gold Coast
Looking north, the Presidio to the west, and Vallejo and Broadway Streets
From top to bottom, looking south, Pacific Avenue, Broadway and Vallejo Streets flanking the Presidio
Broadway Street is perhaps too popular for its own good, however. While some of the homes are very attractive and modest, others are gaudy, kitsch, and grossly oversized. Some homes might even suggest an acceptable fa├žade from the street, but in fact stretch deep into the lot and down or up the hillside. One result is that some homes positively tower over the street, stretching upwards many stories. The view towards the Bay is no doubt spectacular, however.

Away from the Gold Coast, Broadway Street takes on a very different atmosphere. Home sizes drop considerably, it gets busier and less well-kept, though still obviously wealthy. Certainly one constant is the view downhill, always impressive.

Looking downhill from the intersection of Broadway and Pierce Streets
Corner of Broadway and Pierce
Even if you are not directly aware of Pacific Heights, you've probably seen it featured before, as Hollywood believes it to be quintessential San Francisco. From my childhood I remember watching Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, filmed in San Francisco, but at the time I was not aware that the family home featured in the film is in Pacific Heights, just off Broadway. The audience was made aware of the family's relative wealth, however, so the location is no surprise. Coincidentally, Robin Williams lives in Sea Cliff, San Francisco. In the film the home seems to be in a very urban area, but in reality it's a relatively quiet corner.

Not great architecture, but it's a charming, well-proportioned Victorian home
At the eastern edge of Pacific Heights, around Broadway Street, is one of the few places you'll find tall apartment buildings. Most of these are around 80 years old and are generally the most affordable options in the neighborhood. 

Despite the reputation the Gold Coast of Broadway Street enjoys, I don't at all find it to be the best street in the neighborhood. The homes are disproportionately large, the road too wide, and it lacks a sense of place, that extra element which distinguishes enjoyable places to live from a generic anywhere. In Pacific Heights I prefer Vallejo Street, one block north. The homes are not only considerably smaller, but more historical and interesting. The streetscape and massing of homes is more varied. You won't confuse it with any other part of the city, for me a key test of any successful street.

Looking west towards the Presidio, the steetscape of Vallejo is unique
No towering giants here, the homes are at most a few stories high but still have a lot of presence
Notice how far back this home is tucked away from the street. Each home front is different from the next
Vallejo Street also has great views. See the Palace of Fine Arts beyond?
Corner of Vallejo and Divisadero Streets
The western parts of Broadway and Vallejo benefit from their close proximity to the Presidio, but the remainder of the neighborhood relies heavily on Alta Plaza and Lafayette Parks for their green space. Unsurprisingly, both parks are surrounded by nice homes, some equal in size to those found on the Gold Coast. Highlights of both parks include a nice view and multiple tennis courts, and both are four city blocks in area.

Looking south, Alta Plaza Park is in the wealthier western part of the neighborhood
Looking north, a continuation of single family homes on the doorstep of the park
The corner of Jackson and Steiner at the northeastern edge of Alta Plaza Park
Clay Street townhouse on the southern edge of the park
Washington Street heading west from Alta Plaza Park, seen at the end of the street
Except for those few tall apartment towers around Broadway Street, most apartment buildings in Pacific Heights are only a few stories high and blend in well among the single family homes. This helps to preserve a harmonious scale to the neighborhood's buildings.

Brightly painted Victorian on Washington Street off the eastern edge of the park
Timber clad building on the corner of Steiner and Washington. Alta Plaza Park visible on the left
The same corner pre-1956 before the cablecar line was cancelled. Luckily the overhead wires have since disappeared
One block downhill from the previous image, more of the park visible
Victorians on Washington in between Alta Plaza and Lafayette Parks
Clay Street
Lafayette Park, with Washington Park skimming the northern edge
Lafayette Park is in a more urban setting than Alta Plaza, with far more high-rises in the vicinity and generally less expensive homes, though Spreckels mansion, center-right in the above image, is a very large home by any standards, with a huge garden. In all the property spans nearly half a block. So while some nice homes can be found around the park, it's closer to commercial activities and generally a less desirable place to live. 

Washington Street facing the park
One block further north, Jackson Street has some of the nicest homes in the area
One block further still, these Queen Anne Victorian homes on Pacific Avenue date from 1890
Octavia Street in between Pacific and Broadway
Pacific Avenue is one of my favorite streets in the neighborhood, with a large collection of historical Victorian homes dating to before the 1906 earthquake. 

These Pacific Avenue homes, not far from Alta Plaza Park, are uncharacteristically wide for the Victorian era
Most of the neighborhood's attractive locations are situated inwards, with few nice homes on the eastern and southern edges. There are a few historical Victorians but they are usually locked in by newer commercial or apartment buildings. 

Intersection of Baker and Clay Streets in the southwest of the neighborhood
A particularly impressive Victorian on California Street, which is predominantly a commercial street but has a few gems like this
It's really no small wonder why Pacific Heights is so popular. It's crammed full of beautiful, well-maintained homes, including a lot of Victorian homes that are equal to any homes in the nation, let alone the city of San Francisco. They're treasures. 

Some real estate now. The home prices in this area can be truly shocking, among the most expensive in the nation per square foot, just behind Manhattan. Only titans of industry need apply.

On Pacific Avenue, this 13,000 sq ft 1904 Revival is on the market for $14 million
Prices go up on the Gold Coast. On Broadway, the 16,000 sq ft of this 1910 home will set you back $32 million
The most expensive home currently on the market in the city, at $45 million, it boasts a tennis court and 10,000 sq ft
Pacific Heights is low on public transportation but high on just about everything else. The city's best views, best homes, and best reputation. It was a pleasure to research this neighborhood, with just about every street corner worthy of submission and full of history. No doubt it would be great to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon walking these streets, traversing the hills and taking in the homes. It won't be easy for any of the proceeding case studies to claim their stake. A few more photos to finish the study.

South edge of Alta Plaze Park. flickr : kelkooelodies
Pacific Heights San Francisco
Lyon Steps, which go down from Broadway to Vallejo alongside the Presidio. flickr : *cherie