Critic-about-town John King on the urban village
Architecture critic John King has pretty eclectic tastes. As revealed in his new book, Cityscapes: San Francisco and Its Buildings (Heyday, 2011), King sees beauty in structures like the monument to brutalism—a 1960s architecture fad featuring copious amounts of poured concrete—that is the cavernous Glen Park BART station. “Tucked deep inside the earth, under a raised muscular shell, trains rush in and out through a brooding grandeur of rough concrete,” he writes. (And here I just thought it would be a great place to age blue cheese.) King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s architecture critic, is also fond of Frank Lloyd Wright’s brick masterpiece on Maiden Lane and the Mission Creek houseboats near AT&T Park. Since King’s a homeboy who went to Cal and lives in Berkeley, I decided to get his take on some strictly East Bay hits and misses. First up: the city of Hercules’s flirtation with “new urbanism,” a housing development concept that strives to create a mixed-use, high-density, walkable environment—like where your grandmother grew up.
Paul Kilduff: New urbanism and Hercules, which I’ve written about for the Chronicle—why didn’t it really work out, do you think?
John King: The frustration with Hercules is that Hercules is a suburb developed in the ’80s, which was really the last gasp of pure suburban—put in the big subdivision, slap in the shopping center, and you’re done. So the center of Hercules, which is where the new urban village should be, is actually two shopping centers that face each other across a six-lane traffic boulevard next to the freeway exit. The classic is probably one of the shopping centers had Safeway and one had Lucky.
PK: All you need.
JK: They both suffered because other newer shopping centers near the freeway have gone up but that is kind of where everyone is. So you built this cool little atmosphere of a walkable block that theoretically gets filled in more as time goes on, and [yet] it’s a real drive to get there. I go there about once a year or so just to check in on it and it’s a seven- or eight-minute drive from the freeway and it’s not a real obvious drive. So you’ve kind of instantly limited your whole population to the folks who live pretty close by. But if you’re someone who lives pretty close by, you probably commute to work every day in San Francisco. You’re just going to hop off the freeway and get what you need to get on the way home and once you get home, you’re not going to really say, “Oh now, I’ll go walk down to the [walkable downtown].” The last time I was there, it was pretty much all real-estate agent shops and one little coffee shop and probably the real estate agent shops are all closed now.
PK: I remember I interviewed somebody there and they said they didn’t want to rent. They had the top unit. They owned the whole building and they didn’t want to rent it out to a noisy restaurant so that’s why they had a real estate office.
JK: Terrific. That’s funny.
PK: Pleasant Hill created a downtown out of whole cloth and I think you wrote about that. I was just out there a while ago and I don’t know. Yeah, it’s not a mall, but it doesn’t feel like a downtown to me either. It sort of feels like a theme park. I don’t know. How do you feel about the Pleasant Hill downtown?
JK: I grew up in Walnut Creek, so I was real interested to watch the evolution of downtown Pleasant Hill. And that was an early bit of new urbanism. I think it opened in ’99 but it was approved back in around ’91. And it was originally approved to be pretty much the same scale, but there were going to be offices above shops and by the time it finally got done, the developer had kind of run out of energy and everything. So they just slapped it in with stores on the bottom and just kind of built the buildings a teeny bit higher. I know a couple where the wife grew up in Pleasant Hill and the husband’s from Scotland and when it was kind of new a decade ago, the woman who grew up there loved it. She just thought it was terrific. The husband from Scotland thought it was the stupidest thing he had ever seen. and they’re bringing two different viewpoints. She knows what it was. He knows what Edinburgh looks like or Glasgow looks like. He knows real cities. I mean, my feeling with downtown Pleasant Hill is I love the fact that they tried. I wished that there was more there and unfortunately, one thing about new urbanism, it tends to get tied to big developments. And this is a case where by the time the developer did anything, it was just “We just want to get out of this thing.” So it’s pretty chintzy-looking, goofy buildings, theme-parkish. I mean, think about it. [But] what if it was three stories tall with housing above it? What if it was built to the quality and scale of your new urbanism town in Hercules? Then you would kind of start to get a little texture. The other thing is, it’s the classic thing, they had a planning director who really liked the idea but once it came time to do more development around it, he was gone, or kind of on the way out and so you had the stuff that’s been built around it since then, turns its back to it, so on and so forth. So it just feels more and more isolated. For instance, there is an extended-stay hotel-motel at the south end of it.
PK: I’ve stayed there.
JK: Boy, there you go. I don’t want to hear about that. It’s built so that you can even walk into it from there. It faces the freeway. It’s got the parking lot, so on and so forth. If they stay isolated, they’re going to kind of feel out of place. Things grow up around it. To me, the beauty of downtown Pleasant Hill is they tried and it’s something that could get better. You could imagine it developed upwards a bit, so on and so forth. But, who knows?
PK: Speaking of places that have been redone in the East Bay, the El Cerrito Plaza was redone several years ago. Frankly, the way that it was was fine with me.
JK: Oh, I think it’s terrible. I wrote a review of it, believe it or not, because it just embodied to me what gets done wrong. What was there before was your kind of classic little ’50s neighborhood center and it was no great shakes but at least it had like a little area where you could walk and take your kid. And this was another case where the original idea was, “Gee, let’s put in some big fancy housing or let’s create a downtown” for El Cerrito which is not known for its downtown. It’s just got San Pablo Avenue. And somehow what that turned into, when all the dust settled, was a big sprawling shopping center that’s unpleasant to walk around and it’s confusing to drive through, and as a bicyclist, you want to just skirt the edge of it. I think it’s terrible. On the bright side, it has a good video place.
PK: There’s a Trader Joe’s there, I believe. What’s going on with downtown Berkeley, John? I mean, you live in Berkeley. You went to Cal. You’ve been in Berkeley for a long time and I grew up in Oakland and Berkeley. I went to Berkeley High. I remember going downtown and you’d go into Hink’s and there was this big expansive downtown department store. Berkeley used to feel like a real downtown. Now, it just sort of seems like Beirut to me or something. What’s happened to downtown Berkeley?
JK: Well, you’re getting a little bit of the rose-colored glasses. I think the downtown Berkeley you’re describing was pretty much done by the late ’80s. My wife and I both went to U.C. Berkeley. We moved back to Berkeley in late ’92 and downtown Berkeley now is better than it was then. Part of the problem in Berkeley is not Berkeley’s fault. Part of the problem is America’s fault. People all want cool little downtowns but they want to do all their shopping at Target and via email, you know, over the Internet. I mean, again, look at downtown Pleasant Hill. The idea was, “Oh, we could have our old fancy little downtown.” At this point, it’s kind of all shopping places or all quick food places and nail salons. So downtown Berkeley, part of it is that places like Hink’s don’t exist anywhere anymore. There’s a little chain, McCaulou’s in Contra Costa.
PK: How does that place stay in business? My mom shops there.
JK: Yeah, it’s such an anomaly. I mean, how many little clothing-oriented department stores are left? That’s so rare. So places like Hink’s died all over. Berkeley’s problem is exacerbated by the way people fight with each other and the nostalgia of, “Let’s not change anything. Let’s just do all the historic restoration,” so on and so forth. But it doesn’t really align to the reality of the place and then you also get the problem [that] realistically, today people do their main shopping in big places. If you don’t want to go to Target, you’re going to go to downtown—anywhere except downtown Minneapolis.
PK: Is that where Target’s headquarters are?
JK: It’s their headquarters and they’ve got a big one right downtown. But you’re going to go to the new one down in Emeryville or you’re going to go to the cool one in Albany with the neat shed.
PK: Yes, the Albany Target is cool.
JK: Yeah, it’s a great building for what it is. So downtown Berkeley, the reality it was built to doesn’t exist anymore and there is such contention over what the next reality should be that it kind of stumbles along, and turns into something that no one’s really that happy with.
PK: It’s just such a hodgepodge for me. I mean, there are some really nice high-end restaurants. There’s theaters and all that and then you sort of have all these junky shops that I don’t want to go into.
JK: Well, it still has the hardware store. Remarkably, it does still have a hardware store but other than that, where do you buy a pair of socks in Berkeley?
PK: Yeah, they closed the Ross, which used to be JCPenney.
JK: And then Ross is Ross. It’s one of these strange things where it’s like it’s all gone but then you also get—and this is getting far field of urban design—into capitalism and everything. You get buildings that have been on the same family trust for generations and they’d love to get San Francisco rents. So it’s interesting that the stores that have done fairly well in downtown Berkeley increasingly are the ones that cater towards the college students, as more and more downtown Berkeley is like of a satellite of the college. But then most places leave because of rents. The fantasy bookstore moved down near Alcatraz and I guess the comic bookstore closed because the guy who had it forever has just run out of steam. You know, Games of Berkeley is kind of the retail anchor at this point.
PK: I think you’re exactly right, though. We do sort of talk out of both sides of our mouths in that we do want to have the thriving downtown that we all have some memory of or somebody we’re related to has a memory of. But we’d much rather shop online or go to the big box retailer. And even in San Francisco where there’s all this talk about that, one of the biggest Home Depots is in Colma, right next door. That does some of the biggest business of any Home Depot in the country. So we have a bunch of hypocrites in San Francisco who say, “I don’t want big box retailers in my city but I’m happy to go across the border to San Mateo County for the same thing.”
JK: Well, that’s the political dynamics. There’s this site Home Depot considered that now is a Lowe’s in San Francisco and it started out as a big fight to save Goodman’s Lumber—so if we allow Home Depot in, Goodman’s Lumber will go out of business.
PK: What a gem that was, Goodman’s Lumber.
JK: But it also went out of business like a decade ago.
JK: Totally separate before this thing ever came in.
PK: My life is not the same without Goodman’s Lumber.
JK: It’s just one of these funny things and then once that disappeared, then it became the “Oh gee, why don’t you do affordable housing there?” I think one thing that shapes the Bay Area, and not always in a good way, is where everyone has their utopian ideal of how things should be. Whereas other cities would be or other regions would be, “If I can get seven out of 10 on this deal, I’m ahead.” In San Francisco, Berkeley, places like that, it’s “I got 9.5 out of this deal but I want 10, so let’s just kill it.” Philosophically, Berkeley should not have this or San Francisco should not have this, so we’re going to find a way to stop it.
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Birthplace: Dallas, Texas
Astrological sign: Leo.
American Idol: Ada Louise Huxtable, formerly The New York Times architecture critic. She’s 90 now and still writes for The Wall Street Journal.
What I want to be when I grow up: An architecture critic with a big travel allowance.