The strange dominance of small single-family homes in San Francisco, with its roots in pre-Quake planning and post-Quake building, has come at last in this century to bite the city in its housing-supply backside. Density doesn’t match need now and it is difficult to see how it ever can. It is as though San Francisco, to personify for a moment, never expected to become a real city. So it allowed builders to fill the thousands of residential blocks with one-story-over-basement structures that cannot reasonably ever be transformed into multi-unit, multi-story buildings—unlike, say, a Mission-District Victorian or a Brooklyn brownstone. And should you be inclined to try, zoning and/or neighbors will prevent you from rebuilding one as a four-story wart on the smooth skin of row-upon-row of SFHs.
In their vast inertial numbers, the Little Boxes will always win. The march of those attached four- or five-room homes, on their narrow 25×100 foot lots, across hundreds of city blocks can only ever be disrupted here and there—a few corner developments, a few big structures on old gas station lots, a few scattered replacements, or the odd added story or ADU.
The die was cast—getting on for a hundred years ago now—and the pattern will persist.
Investment money that funded the Sunnyside Land Company in 1890 was largely sourced from the hefty profits of some of San Francisco’s biggest late nineteenth-century breweries: Philadelphia Brewery, Albany Brewery, and United States Brewery—all overseen by the Brewer’s Protective Association. Men who were heirs to these fortunes, or wrapped up in the racket of propping up prices and selling off franchises to foreign capitalists, were among the most prominent initial investors in the Sunnyside project.
Behrend Joost, President of Sunnyside Land Company, was a notorious and irascible teetotaler, but he had no problem accepting beer-drenched money from his investors, who altogether put in one million dollars to fund the property speculation project. In return, many got their names or the places in Germany they came from on the newly laid-out streets.
Five of the original Sunnyside streets—Mangels Avenue, Spreckels Avenue, Wieland Avenue, Baden Street, and Hamburg Street—I trace directly to these men.
After Sunnyside was laid out and lots went on sale in San Francisco in 1891, there were a lot of unusual newspaper advertisements pushing property sales in the new district during that first year. (Read the second post in this series here.)
One hundred and ten years ago, the real estate firm of Rogers and Stone, who had recently invested heavily in Sunnyside lots, took out a huge four-page stand-alone color supplement in the San Francisco Call. It featured an artist’s fantastical renditions of life in the neighborhood. Unsurprising for the world of property sales, the copious text is full of imaginary claims about the future of the City and the prospects of the then-largely undeveloped district.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 1 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 2 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 3 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 4 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
Recently a marvelous panorama taken about 1912 came my way. Sunnyside can be seen in the distance. The image reveals a feature from the neighborhood’s past–a giant hillside sign in the style of the one in Hollywood that was also placed as a real estate advertisement. However, Sunnyside’s sign preceded the more famous one by at least ten years–though of course ours didn’t last.
As San Francisco city government currently works through the planning process for a housing project on the last remaining seventeen acres of the original Balboa Reservoir land, a review of the dramatic fate of the first housing plan for that land is in order.
In the 1980s, rather than watch the Mayor’s Office of Housing sell off part of the Balboa Reservoir land that was for ten years the site of City College’s West Campus, a campus-based coalition of faculty, staff, and students, joined by some local residents, fought back against housing plans through the ballot over several elections, from 1985 to 1991.
When Sunnyside was laid out in 1891, there was no provision for any public park or open space built into the plans—just rectangular blocks filled with edge-to-edge lots for building (see this early map). To put it in perspective, many more basic matters of infrastructure in the neighborhood were lacking for years: there were no streetlights or sewers, the roads were dirt, and the water supply spotty, even into the 1920s. It was not until the 1960s that Sunnyside got a park of its own.