West coast inspiration

That's what it's all about

As we continue to ponder our own City’s destiny (please consider attending the imminent round of public workshops regarding transportation, green systems, community revitalization, and economic development as part of the new City Comprehensive Plan), it’s always instructive to recall what’s compelling in other cities–in this case, San Francisco and the Bay Area, which was a holiday trip this year. Above is a shot taken in San Francisco’s Mission District: density is a fundamental aspect of this city, enabling walk-ability,interesting streetscapes, and healthy public life.

Only NYC is denser

A good mix of mid-rise and high-rise buildings define the downtown area, above.

Consuming the city

Above is the main shopping area downtown near Union Square, which manages to feel authentic–even a bit gritty–despite the very expensive chain stores. It was great to see huge crowds out on the sidewalks.

...and more shopping

It’s important to remember that San Francisco has one of the higher per capita incomes in the US, and is considered one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Hence the preponderance of luxury stores downtown, from Neiman Marcus to Diesel, above.


Chinatown, above, is unique in this country as a large, tight-knit ethnic community with a very old history. The projecting signage, fruit stands, and shoppers make for a superb walking environment.

How can you beat it

In the Russian Hill neighborhood, we stumbled upon the original Swensen’s ice cream parlor, a quaint corner shop with a lunch counter. This neighborhood is filled with corner coffee shops and dry cleaners.

Good edge

Across the water in Berkeley, the university campus is edged with vibrant streets lined with retail and restaurants, above. It’s a great urban amenity for staff and students alike.

Is it real?

Over at the edge of Oakland, the Bay Street Mall is an urban mall with all the right elements of good urban planning–lots of shops lining sidewalks, housing above, parking hidden away in garages, bike racks, etc. (above). Yes, it all feels mall-ish and homogenous. But if you do new construction malls, this is a really good effort.

Keeping fares low

Back in San Fran, the subway system, like many others across the world, is getting creative with selling ad rights. Above is the Union Square stop, which a bit jarringly feels like the “Banana Republic” stop when you leave the train. But it helps keep fares low. And with such a relatively comprehensive transit system, I guess we can’t complain too much about corporate branding like this.

Inspired by a great trip, it’s good to be back in Birmingham, ready to work to improve the city.

8 responses to “West coast inspiration

  1. ahhhhh. you’re making me miss “home”! I was wondering when you might tap that fabulous city for some examples on your board; there’s definitely lots to learn there. Hope you had a wonderful trip, and my City was good to you!

  2. Having lived in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area for more than 20 years, it was great to revisit that part of the world through your post. San Francisco really is a very livable city, especially if you actually live in or near the city proper and don’t have to wrestle with commuting over all those bridges.

    • The commuting was not fun. Lots of crowded bridge traffic, heavy into the night. But yes–once inside it’s very walkable. And a friend who lives in the City with no car said he’s satisfied with BART (commuter rail) taking him to other Bay Area towns when required. Thanks for reading.

  3. I know SF pretty well but have never been to Berkeley. It would be nice to see the UAB/Five Points South boundaries grow into something like your photographs show.

    • Yes–in Berkeley I was aware of parallel UAB possibilities! Stanford less so, as the campus doesn’t have the direct relationship to urban edges enjoyed by its rival across the bay.

  4. As much as I love SF and like positive things happening in neighborhoods like the Mission District, I was dismayed last trip to find Market Street southwest of Nordstrom/ Bloomingdales and the adjacent “Tenderloin” in such a dangerous mess. That used to be a lively, walkable stretch all the way to Castro. No one could answer why it had happened.

    It reminds me somewhat of downtown Birmingham. When one area gets better, another gets worse. A prime example is Second Avenue. Delightful Second Avenue east of 20th is fulfilling its potential, while the low avenues west appear hopeless.

    • Interesting. Yes, Market Street going in that direction was amazingly spotty/tattered. As to 2nd Avenue here, one reason is that the old retail/commercial structures east of 20th are smaller, and therefore easier to renovate. Much of the renovation has come from owner-occupiers. West of 20th you’ve got a lot of bigger retail structures–the medium and large old department stores–that are more costly to renovate, and whose vacancy deters any momentum in between.

      Personally, I think if the Pizitz happened (with its ground floor retail), and was successful, that could create critical mass for surrounding development. Until then (or some other large injection of capital), it will continue to be slow and piece-meal on the west. Thanks.

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