Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco
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San Francisco mayor looks to
Chicago for urban inspiration
By John King, Urban design writer with the San Francisco Chronicle*
15 August 2006: San Francisco politicians and civic leaders have found a surprising new source of inspiration: Chicago, the pragmatic Midwestern US city on the shore of Lake Michigan. They're drawn not to the classic symbols of old Chicago, such as Wrigley Field or the Art Institute, but to such vivid new landmarks as the Millennium Park, a 24.5-acre gathering place that attracts residents and tourists. They're captivated by the manicured streets and sidewalks that transformed once-gritty stretches of this city into urbane green paths.
These changes exist because of a civic culture that puts more value on getting things done than on finding consensus - the opposite of San Francisco's emphasis on community-based planning. Even so, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and others say Chicago in many ways is a model for what San Francisco should be.
"When you walk the streets of Chicago, it enlivens the spirit," Newsom said. "The intangibles are evoked. There's a spirit of pride and community."
He is describing such sights as the ornate stone railings along the Chicago River, part of the new mile-long Riverwalk Gateway that brings Chicagoans closer to the south bank of the waterway. Or Millennium Park attractions like "Cloud Gate," an enormous, bean-shaped sculpture of polished stainless steel that already is a staple of postcards.
This vitality also is leaving marks on the city's fabled skyline. Twenty-one towers taller than 50 stories are in the works, most of them for downtown's growing residential population; within two blocks of Millennium Park, five newcomers will exceed 55 stories.
Many of these results can be traced to the hard-driving focus of one man: four-term Mayor Richard M Daley. If the name is familiar, it's because another Daley also shaped Chicago - the mayor's father, Richard J Daley, the controversial boss who ruled the city with near-absolute power from 1955 until his death in 1976 and who is most remembered for the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention.
By all accounts, the son's management style is every bit as blunt as the father's. But with the son's authoritarianism comes an update of the father's Chicago-First mentality. The younger Daley has infused a growth-is-good sensibility with a sophisticated environmental confidence that robust big cities can live lightly on the Earth.
Mayor with a vision
Even Daley's burgeoning interest in contemporary design has an impact: Developers eager for the mayor's blessing are investing more in the exterior quality of their buildings.
"He's the Daniel Burnham of the 21st century," said Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, comparing Daley to the creator of the city's 1909 plan that preserved the lakefront for recreation and made the river a centerpiece of the city. "He has a vision, and he's so far ahead of the curve of any other American mayor in terms of environmental responsibility," Tigerman said.
But while San Francisco’s Newsom uses government initiatives in Chicago as models for his own programs, his predecessor is skeptical that San Franciscans are ready to change the way things work.
"I don't think there's any similarity between the two cities as it relates to how you can govern," said former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. "San Francisco's about process, totally. In Chicago, the process begins and ends with results."
This doesn't mean Chicago is Eden. Far from it. Many neighborhoods still are blighted by empty lots or shuttered factories, lingering reminders of riots in the 1960s and the exodus of manufacturing jobs a decade later. The city's 21 per cent poverty rate is twice that of San Francisco, and racial segregation persists.
As for Mayor Daley, his administration is the target of a federal investigation. Last month, three top aides were convicted on charges that they ran a large patronage operation in which supporters of the mayor were hired for city jobs instead of more-qualified candidates.
Mayor Daley tours Ferry Building
But legal clouds haven't dimmed Newsom's admiration for his Windy City counterpart. When Daley visited San Francisco in July for a speech, the two mayors and their staffs met for an hour at the Ferry Building. Newsom then gave Daley a tour of the restored landmark's wildly popular food emporium.
"I've been a longtime fan of Chicago. ... Mayor Daley has accomplished more than what any other mayor and city in America has done," Newsom said afterward. "We in San Francisco could learn an enormous amount from him."
Indeed, Newsom already has. The San Francisco mayor admits that many of his initiatives trace back to Chicago. Within Newsom's office, the position of director of city greening is modelled on a post created by Daley. And Newsom has said he wants to emulate Daley's decree that parking lots be wrapped in black, wrought-iron fencing.
On the environmental front, Newsom has a directive that all new city buildings must meet benchmarks of sustainable development. He also wants the city to speed its permit-approval process for green buildings so they can be approved more quickly than conventional projects. Daley already has both programs in place.
Newsom isn't the only San Franciscan looking to Chicago. Last fall, Planning Director Dean Macris and his senior planners visited Chicago - at their personal expense - to walk the city and talk with developers, architects and city officials: "One of my motives was to get our senior people to think about what quality architecture can do for us in San Francisco," Macris said.
And in April, members of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a public policy think tank, went to Chicago in search of ideas. SPUR President Jim Chappell came back a convert. "We really got a lot of inspiration -- you saw that a city can will itself to be the best city in the country," Chappell said. "They have a clear vision of what they want to be, and somebody strong to make it happen."
But comparisons between the cities go only so far. For starters, Chicago, with its 2.7 million residents and 228 square miles, is four times the size of San Francisco. It still has a strong industrial base and working-class neighborhoods where families stay for generations.
There's a political gulf as well: Chicago lacks the term limits that restrict a mayor's time in office. San Francisco mayors are limited to two four-year terms.
In the case of the current Mayor Daley, the creative urbanism for which he is now acclaimed began in 1996, late in his second term and after a trip to Paris. Convinced that Chicago should be as attractive as the City of Light, he had city workers install lushly landscaped medians and planters downtown.
Considering the self-image of a city celebrated by poet Carl Sandburg as "proud to be alive and coarse and strong," not everyone was impressed. There also was snickering when Daley confessed to Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin that "I enjoy Martha Stewart, all her books and, uh, everything else."
But Daley didn't flinch. Now, Chicago has 73 linear miles of medians that stretch like tentacles from the city's high-profile core of the Loop and North Michigan Avenue, leading to such incongruous sights as beds of black-eyed Susans across from auto body shops and the Erotic Warehouse on West Randolph Street.
Scorn and grumbles
"There was scorn, and you still hear grumbles about the difficulty of making a left turn here or there," said Larry Bennett, a DePaul University professor who writes about Chicago politics in "The New Chicago," a forthcoming book from Temple University Press. "But people in Chicago very much appreciate these physical improvements."
Daley's interest in green streets evolved into a broader concern with environmental design and sustainability. His managerial approach hasn't changed: Give something a try and then, if it succeeds, keep moving steadily forward.
That's not always the case in San Francisco. Consider the 150-page Sustainability Plan for San Francisco approved in 1997 by the Board of Supervisors. Of the 15 sections, one on "energy, climate change and ozone depletion" was crafted by a 32-member "drafting group" that spells out 62 recommended actions such as "establish neighborhood energy-planning groups" and a vague directive to "create high-visibility demonstration projects."
In contrast, Daley in 1999 decided to replace the tar-paper atop City Hall with a landscaped roof as a test of whether such systems could make a dent in water run-off and reduce energy costs.
Within a year, workers were installing the first of 20,000 plants. Today, there are more than 200 green roofs in Chicago covering 2.5 million square feet -- more than the rest of the country combined.
To people familiar with both cities, the philosophical gap between civic cultures is profound.
"In San Francisco, the citizenry expects you to be green, it initiates the progressive ideas. Which is great," said Sam Assefa, a former San Francisco planner who is director of policy for Chicago's planning department. "But setting grand goals, in terms of implementation and process, that's what pulls you back. You're trying to make plans to save the world, and it can't be done."
'Doing the small things well'
Daley's "innovations don't come as this grandiose plan or vision," Assefa said. "It's about doing the small things well and working up incrementally. He says 'Here's an idea. If it works, we'll set policy and require it citywide.' "
Former Mayor Brown respects that emphasis on the here-and-now. "In Chicago, you see considerable collaboration between (elected) authorities, between business leaders, between ethnic groups," Brown said. "They don't let political correctness interfere with good decision making."
Realistically, the balance in San Francisco will never tip toward Chicago's make-it-happen norm. Nor should it, Newsom said. "I love the process in this town. It's what makes San Francisco unique," the mayor insisted last month. "People want differentiation between neighborhoods -- wrought iron wouldn't look right in every neighborhood -- and that's where the process is essential. I don't want San Francisco to be a mirror of Chicago."
What Chicago demonstrates is the ripple effect of physical change. When promising initiatives take root - literally, in some cases - it raises expectations of what streets, parks and buildings should offer in terms of appearance and environmental sensitivity.
As for the possibility now being discussed in Chicago - that Daley himself might be indicted on charges related to political patronage, or that the cloud might cause him not to seek a fifth term - Newsom hesitated. "I don't have enough information," Newsom said. "I don't have a way to judge except to judge by the results. And anyone who goes to Chicago can see the results."
*This article was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle
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