Shared with the author’s permission
WEST OF TWIN PEAKS CENTRAL COUNCIL – THE BEGINNING
GAS STATIONS AND HOT DOG STANDS
It is conventional wisdom that you can’t fight City Hall. But one evening in mid-1936 hundreds of folks from west of Twin Peaks homeowner associations met in Aptos Junior High School’s auditorium and decided that if their associations joined together, they could take on City Hall.
The alternative was to see their residential neighborhoods littered with gas stations and hot dog stands. The West of Twin Peaks Central Council was formed on the spot and in the following months it launched a citywide drive to defeat Charter Amendment 15 that would strip property owners of their right to block commercial use in their residential neighborhoods.
The homeowner associations suspected that property owners who wanted zone changes from residential to commercial had enlisted the aid of Warren Shannon, the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Members of homeowner associations from west of Twin Peaks had been battling for years to block property owners who were intent on converting their residential lots to commercial use.
The surge in automobile ownership, the building of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, and the upcoming World’s Fair in 1939 were making strategically located residential lots far more valuable as commercial sites.
The bombshell arrived in the mail in the form of a voter pamphlet for the special Municipal election of March 9, 1937. City Charter Amendment 15 seemed harmless enough, proposing what appeared to be a very small change in the Building Zone Ordinance. Originally, the Ordinance allowed for flexibility by establishing procedures to change zoning as follows:
The city planning commission, from time to time, shall consider and hold hearings on proposed changes in the classification of the use to which property in the city and county may be put, and the establishment or changing of building set-back lines, in either case on its own motion or on the application of an interested property owner.(Underline added)
Amendment 15 proposed to change the words, “an interested property owner” to “the owner of the particular property involved in any such proposed change.”
People on the west side of Twin Peaks neighborhoods immediately recognized the significance of the proposed wording change because of a 1935 lawsuit.
Michael Marculescu, the owner of the southwest corner of Dewey and Laguna Honda Boulevards sued the Planning Commission for reversing the commercial zoning on his lot. He proposed a gas station for the site. The majority of neighbors opposed his plans and petitioned to have the lot rezoned for residential use.
The Planning Commission sided with them. Later Marculescu sued the Planning Commission alleging his property rights were violated, claiming he should be the only person to petition for a zone change of his property. However, the court upheld the Planning Commission’s determination that an interested property owner is not necessarily the owner of the subject property. An interested property owner could be a person whose property was impacted by the proposed change in use of the property.
To remove any future problems about the interpretation of the words, interested party, subsequent printings of the Building Code Ordinance included a reference to Marculescu vs. City Planning Department. City Charter Amendment 15 would have voided the court’s decision in Marculescu vs. city Planning.
Up until 1921, there were no regulations separating residential and commercial use in the city. City planning was a new concept and Mayor James Rolph introduced city planning to San Francisco by appointing a Planning Commission in 1917, and in 1921 the Building Zone Ordinance was enacted.
At that time, the Ordinance consisted of three pages of text and six maps showing designated zoning districts. In the 1921 zoning map, Marculescu’s lot had been zoned for commercial use. The developers expected a business district to develop on Dewey Boulevard. However, in the interim, West Portal Avenue grew as the major neighborhood-shopping district. Dewey Boulevard became mainly residential.
The west of Twin Peaks folks suspected that Marculescu and other like-minded property owners had persuaded Supervisor Shannon to place Charter Amendment 15 on the ballot. Shannon told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, “I had a reason for introducing the amendment. 1 didn’t think it right that property owners other than the owner of the parcel involved should have the right to ask that it be rezoned.” (1) That statement reflected the 19th Century concept of property rights, but the new concept of city planning considered a neighborhood as a whole, and took precedent over individual property rights.
THE ORPHAN AMENDMENT
After the meeting in Aptos Junior High Auditorium, the newly formed West of Twin Peaks Central Council launched a citywide campaign to educate voters about the hidden dangers of City Charter Amendment 15. John Craig was the secretary of the St. Francis Homes Association in 1936, and he organized a letter writing campaign to hundreds of civic and improvement organizations throughout the city. He enlisted the support of reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner and vigorously campaigned against the amendment.
Charter Amendment 15 was defeated on March 9, 1937 and, on the eve of the election, even Warren Shannon conceded that it was a bad idea and withdrew his support of his own amendment. He said in the San Francisco Examiner, “I am not so hot for the amendment now.” (2) On March 4, 1937 a San Francisco Chronicle editorial stated: “In a commendable spirit of fair play he (Shannon) has withdrawn his support of Charter Amendment No. 15 and aligned himself with the home owners to defeat this proposal.” (3) City Charter Amendment 15 had been abandoned by its sponsor and became known as The Orphan Amendment.
THE CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR AND ALDOLPH SUTRO’S WILL
The development of the west of Twin Peaks subdivisions was uniquely different from the development of other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Two events in the waning years of the 19th Century would create an opportunity for these housing tracts on the western slope of Twin Peaks to be developed in keeping with a new mode of city planning.
The first event was the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 that introduced the City Beautiful Movement creating a new discipline of city planning throughout the country. The advocates of the City Beautiful Movement were “convinced that the redesign of cities could cure many of the ills, social as well as physical, that resulted from the laissez-fair development of the nineteenth century.” (4)
The second event was the death of Adolph Sutro. When he died in 1898, he left his San Miguel Rancho to his six children stipulating that no part of it could be sold until the death of the last remaining child. The Rancho, located in the western part of the city, was about a tenth the total area of San Francisco. Five of his children challenged his will. It would be 13 years before the will would be settled and the land sold. In those 13 years from 1898 to 1911, the visionary concepts of city planning had taken hold in San Francisco.
In 1904 Mayor James Duval Phelan brought the Chicago World’s Fair architect-planner, Daniel Burnham to San Francisco. Burnham drafted plans to redesign the city from his studio on Twin Peaks. Burnham departed from the architectural excesses of the Victorian era and designed buildings of simple, classical beauty. Contoured roadways accented with terraces were also a feature of the City Beautiful Movement.
When the Sutro land was put on the market, A. S. Baldwin was commissioned to survey the property. He suggested development in keeping with Burnham’s concepts of city planning: “villa-sized” lots, minimum cost of houses, exclusively residential areas, and curvilinear street patterns rather than the square block method of subdivision (5).
The City Beautiful Movement in America was short lived. Architectural historian David Gebhard summed up the end: “The grand city plans of Burnham and others never came to fruition due to their often prohibitive costs and the array of difficulties posed by the private ownership of land and buildings.” (6) The west of Twin Peaks neighborhoods are a lasting legacy to the City Beautiful Movement.
WEST OF TWIN PEAKS CENTRAL COUNCIL GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS
After the March 9, 1937 election and the smashing defeat of City Charter Amendment 15, the West of Twin Peaks Council had its first official meeting on March 16 in Forest Hill Clubhouse. Their first order of business was to deal with applications on file with the Planning Commission requesting commercial zoning on four residential lots: the southeast and southwest corners of Sloat Boulevard and 19th Avenue, the northeast corner of 20th and Ocean Avenue and the northeast corner of 19th and Ulloa. Craig dispatched letters to the Planning Commission under West of Twin Peaks Central Council letterhead requesting that those four requests be denied.
Craig continued his role as secretary to the Council, recruiting association members, collecting dues, and organizing the first meeting in which delegates from seven home associations attended. They were Balboa Terrace Homes Association, Forest Hill Association, Laguna Honda Association, Miraloma Park Improvement Club, Merced Manor Property Owner Association, Westwood Highlands Association, and St. Francis Homes Association. Banker John Curran of St. Francis Homes Association was elected president.
The Council supported the proposed West Portal Library and Abraham Lincoln High School. It supported member organizations in getting streets swept regularly. The Council requested a stop sign installed at Clarendon and Laguna Honda Boulevard and asked for the striping of Junipera Serra Boulevard to be repainted. The Council asked the Department of Public Works to look into the conditions of the sidewalks on the northeast and northwest corners of Sloat Boulevard and Portola. The Council sent a flurry of requests and recommendations to various city departments. When action was taken, letters of appreciation followed, as did thank you letters to speakers at West of Twin Peaks Council meetings.
The replies the Council received were not always gracious, however. In response to a request for a traffic sign West West Portal and Fifteenth Avenues, the Council received this tart reply, “We shall investigate with a view to placing some sort of a sign that will prove satisfactory. Signs heretofore put at this intersection have been knocked down almost as fast as they were put up.”
The Council took its place in the city with other civic organization and was solicited for support by anti-picket organizations, organizations to keep fast intercostal liners running, improvement of rapid transit, and airport improvements. Most of the issues continue to this day except for one that barely got off the ground, or more correctly off the water. Support for city funding of the San Francisco airport included funds for a seaplane base in the Bay, which was cited as having a promising future.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
By 1920, the automobile had become part of the city planning process. The new west of Twin Peaks developments were automobile oriented with garage space included in house plans, and streets were built wide enough to accommodate automobile traffic. The automobile also made housing development possible on the steep western slopes of Twin Peaks.
“Because of automobiles, commercial activities could be clustered on certain streets, such as West Portal Avenue, away from residential areas” (7) But by 1937 the automobile was becoming too much of a good thing.
In 1914, there were about 12,000 automobiles in San Francisco. By 1937, there were 160,000. (8) The Golden Gate Bridge was due to be opened to traffic in 1937 making 19th Avenue a major vehicle corridor from Marin and San Mateo Counties, filling it with out-of-town automobiles.
The city was sprucing up for the 1939 San Francisco World Fair that was expected to bring a flood of pedestrians and automobiles into the city. Early estimates for automobile traffic across the Bay Bridge were off by a half when an actual traffic count was taken in September 1937. The projected number of vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge in 1938 was 10,630,000 vehicles and 12,750,000 in 1939 during the San Francisco World’s Fair. (9) The volume of automobile traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge was comparable.
All of this growth added up to a lot of tanks to fill with gasoline and a lot of hungry drivers and passengers. The pressure from property owners intent on cashing in on the automobile bonanza was relentless. But the will of the west of Twin Peaks folks to preserve the beauty of their neighborhoods prevailed in the end.
Today on 19th Avenue from Holloway Street to Taraval Street where West of Twin Peaks Central Council member organizations fought to block gas stations and hot dog stands, there are no gas stations or hot dog stands. On 19th Avenue from Taraval Street to Lincoln Avenue, there are eight gas stations, two oil-change services, but no hot dog stands. The site of Michael Marculescu proposed gas station at 401 Dewey Boulevard is now the Korean Presbyterian Siloam Church. John Craig served for twenty years as the secretary of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. The West of Twin Peaks Central Council still meets at Forest Hill Clubhouse.
(1) SF Examiner 3/4/1937
(2) SF Examiner 3/4/1937
(3)SF Chronicle 3/4/1937
(4) Kortum, Jean, 19th Century, Magazine of the Victorian Society in America, Volume 14, Number 1
(5) Kortum, Jean, 19th Century, Magazine of the Victorian Society in America, Volume 14, Number 1
(6) Kortum, Jean, The West Side of Twin Peaks, Page 47
(7) Kortum, Jean, The West Side of Twin Peaks, Page 46
(8) Delehanty, Randolph: Walks and Tours in San Francisco, The Dial Press, N.Y, 1980
(9) September 15, 1937 letter from Triangle Shopping District Association secretary, D. V. Nicholson