Blowing into Bubbles: Geography of a Bust

Bubbles: small globules, typically hollow and light; things that lack firmness, solidity, or reality.

Ambling through San Francisco recently, this definition of bubbles surfaced as I surveyed the jagged post-boom landscape. Ecstatic office development led this city’s building euphoria during the height of the dot-com era. Yet this surge came to an abrupt halt alongside the disappearance of the Webvans and Kozmo messengers. In the aftermath of the bubble’s burst, many developers suspended their projects as news of rising commercial vacancy rates were released. Within the course of a year and a half, office vacancy rates in San Francisco plummeted from 1% to 49%. These conditions wrinkled the urban terrain in the form of fissures, shells, and bubbles, revealing the geography of a bust. Empty office building shells stand still while tattered remnants of building paper flap in the wind, telling the story about a new economic and development culture.

One of the remarkable contradictions emerging from all this activity is the disjunction between the housing and office markets. While the office market melts, the housing market remains stable. Many "refugees" from the computer industry are leaving town (so many that it is difficult to reserve a U-Haul these days), but the majority of people are still here and exert the same need for shelter that existed during the boom. Why are there so many empty shells and bubbles, when a simultaneous demand for housing exists? The reason is that Zoning restrictions conventionally separate residential from commercial uses. The master plan diagrams initially developed for the city cannot keep pace with the volatile building markets or the developers who act quickly on those market demands. This delay leads to an uneven pattern of development as can be seen now, the ultimate result being a wasteful use of urban space. This new situation calls for a new approach to zoning, one which increases the availability of low and middle income housing in particular.

Housing and empowerment

Economic mixture is a phenomenon which gives cities their juice, their life. However, an equal mixture of class and economies was threatened in the post-Fordist city. The resultant "dual city", as explained by Manuel Castells in his book (title tk), produced polarizing spatial patterns that were characterized specifically by the absence of the majority of the middle tiers of society. This middle was largely replaced by a diptych of the laborerwhite collar professionals and service-oriented laborer, increasing both tension and separation within the city.

Housing is one of the urban tools that can build power and presence for the lower and middle classes. Home ownership has now been folded into ideas of empowerment and legitimacy, and this is important when discussing urban territories. Encouraged by government-subsidized mortgage programs, home ownership has been a vehicle for economic mobility since WWII, and there is no reason to think that this trend will stop. Home values have risen steadily since the post war boom, when federal policies increased home production and ownership in America.

Rethinking the bubble

Overdevelopment is inevitable in the quickening boom-bust cycles of the market. The erratic market produces a lumpy urban landscape, and new strategies must be forged to deal with these changing conditions. By seeing shells and bubbles as a byproduct of this new economic rhythm, housing advocates and planners should also see an opportunity to increase housing and mixture in the city. This approach of appropriation will improve the urban landscape and increase mixture amongst its population. Blowing into bubbles does not signify surrendering to a market; on the contrary, it capitalizes on the excesses created by a hyper marketplace.

Without regret, the bubbles and shells should be seen as a way to create housing in a city where the housing market didn’t soften like the office market. These abandoned developments have created a surge of pre-housing bubbles which can be an asset to housing advocates/developers. Their abandonment should not mark the death of a building, but it should be seen as an opportunity to realign urban development with the demand for low and middle income housing. At their most basic, bubbles and shells supply a type of urban infrastructure which can be converted to housing. This would lead to a more fluid and progressive use of the city, one tailored to today’s marketplace.

New Urban Paradigm

Adaptive reuse is a common urban practice: loft living came from artists converting warehouses into housing. There are new, generative opportunities in formation now. The concrete column grids visible South of Market represent the bones to future housing developments. This vision is applicable not only to office spaces, but live-work lofts as well. By changing the packaging of the shell, a more appropriate use can be made. A model of this reaction to a market can been seen in the San Francisco restaurant scene in the past couple of years: several high-end restaurants opened, closed during the bust, and have subsequently reopened with humbler menus and humbler prices. One recently opened under the name "Home".

The realization of this strategy within the housing market would depend on enlightened zoning strategies and market savvy housing advocates. I recently had the opportunity to witness a grant proposal before the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in which a non-profit housing developer purchased a partially complete project from a developer at a fire sale price. They received the grant to convert originally high end units into low-income housing. The resourceful housing agency saw the value of the bubble and shaped it into housing. However, in this example, zoning was not a challenge. The next step would be to apply the same approach in converting commercially-zoned shells to housing.

We live in an urban climate in which flux is the operative paradigm. The current spatial contradiction between empty offices and full houses embodies a sludgy mixture of dissolved hopes, crusty zoning regulations, and the hot and sour laws of supply and demand. The built presence of these shells and bubbles should be a wake-up call for housing advocates. These bubbles are waiting to become part of the urban flow, and it can be executed in a way which realigns development with the basic need for low and middle income housing.