By Frank Holland
Published in the San Francisco Examiner
November 26, 2023
Is there anything more deeply ingrained in the American character than our collective fascination with ex-nihilo creation?
The back of our coins may say “E pluribus unum,” but they may as well say, “from nothing, something.”
Our history is littered with heroic accounts of ingenuity and determination that brought forth something new, impressive and world-changing. (Never mind that many of these uplifting tales conveniently omit the plot points involving exploitation, subjugation and displacement.) As a nation, we remain congenitally obsessed with our ability to manifest a new reality — social, political and institutional impediments to progress be damned.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a group of techno-optimists boasting a collective net worth far outpacing the GDP of many countries would embark upon a blank-slate project to build a new city on the outer rim of the Bay Area.
Given 10 zeroes on your bank statement, who wouldn’t want to roll the dice on such a tangible legacy project? And the location: close enough to the capital, human resources and cultural ecosystem that make the region enticing, but worlds away from the messy problems of a contemporary metropolis battling to reinvent itself after an epoch-defining upheaval.
The effort to remake a vast swath of Solano County farmland into a next-generation urban oasis has been hailed as both a refreshing blast of forward-thinking creativity and a gross affront to the interests and traditions of the people who will shoulder its effects.
Like most hot-button issues, both poles of opinion are likely dramatically overstated, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The project’s underlying conceit — to design a new urban paradise unencumbered by the built environment, entrenched interest groups and legacy infrastructure — is at least an exciting thought experiment.
It certainly got us thinking, thus the crux of this issue.
Like many thought exercises, dreaming up a new city from scratch — whether on the hypothetically empty topography of San Francisco or the windswept Solano plains and Montezuma Hills — is an escapist fantasy. It’s a fantasy that has consumed our politics because it has intoxicated our society: a world without tradeoffs.
We want to combat the existential threat of climate change, but not if it inconveniences us or proves costly. We want to live in a free and open society, but not if someone else says or does something we find objectionable.
We want to build adequate housing for our residents and make the city affordable for newcomers, but not at the expense of our handsomely appreciating Redfin estimates.
We want to build the infrastructure of the future, a veritable “smart city” that realizes the promise of our technological advancements, but not if it means potentially disrupting our carefully nurtured historic buildings or neighborhoods.
We want to solve the shameful homelessness crisis, but not if it means confronting the phalanx of nonprofit service providers and activists that have gorged themselves at the public trough for years while the problem has exploded.
No, it’s easier to build a new city in more inviting climes.
The impulse to build a new city in the middle of nowhere — or to pull up stakes and move a company to Texas or Florida — represents nothing so much as a profound failure of imagination compounded by a lack of civic spiritedness and determination.
Ostensibly, those individuals short on San Francisco are among the best-resourced and able to drive positive changes. Some of them are — but not enough.
Rank-and-file San Franciscans should also note what a city is and isn’t.
Since the first cities blossomed on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers nearly 10,000 years ago, they have been iterative entities. At their best, they are mutable, shape-shifting systems that foster new avenues for growth and inclusion as new people, technologies and behavioral patterns settle in.
The system doesn’t work without tradeoffs. Every city has an element of creative destruction in its DNA. If that impulse is repressed or otherwise regulated into oblivion, the city is robbed of its natural ability to evolve, adapt, and thrive. The painful result is sclerosis and decline.
By refusing to accept occasionally painful tradeoffs, protecting every sacred cow and acquiescing to entrenched interest groups eager to protect their turf, we are robbing The City of the oxygen it needs to survive.
Other cities have had their cake and eaten it, too.
Rome — no stranger to historical preservation — will soon celebrate the opening of its new Colosseum station, tucked beneath one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Just this summer, the city laid the cornerstone for one of the most complex urban structures in the world, the eight-level subterranean station at Piazza Venezia in the shadow of the city’s imposing Vittoriano monument.
Both the Colosseum and Venezia stations are continuations of the city’s first new metro line since 1980. In addition to providing sustainable mobility for residents and visitors, the project also happens to be the world’s largest archaeological dig. Workers are excavating 21 million cubic feet of material nearly 150 feet below the bustling sidewalks and roadways above, surfacing countless artifacts and ancient works of art.
When finished, the Venezia station will be a show-stopping museum hub through which more than 800,000 people will pass daily.
It’s a far cry from the tumbleweeds still drifting through the Transbay Transit Center’s bottom deck, and the Romans didn’t have to start from scratch to achieve it.
San Francisco has not been a tabula rasa project since the 1906 earthquake and fire. Even then, reimagining The City amid the ghosts of what had come before was a challenge.
But in the following decades, a new San Francisco unfolded in waves of deterioration and reinvention. This place’s essence has always been its willingness to change, adapt to changing circumstances, and evolve. Yes, it is the phoenix rising from the ashes — but it is also the juxtaposition of new and old embodied by the twin spires of Coit and Salesforce towers.
We already have the creativity to imagine a new San Francisco. We need the determination and willingness to sacrifice to create a better one.