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February 2003


The Speedy Work That Created PHRA and Changed the City

The spectre of 160-foot high apartment houses on Jackson Street from Steiner to Laguna and similar construction north to Union Street was contained in a postcard sent out by the Planning Department in April, 1972.

Within two days of receiving that proposal, alarmed residents distributed 1,000 flyers in the neighborhood and on the third day 500 people gathered at Calvary Church to take action. They formed the Pacific Heights Association (now PHRA) and went to work.

They organized block captains and volunteers and got 4,000 citizens to sign petitions. They contacted 72% of the property owners from Union to Bush and Van Ness to Steiner; 92% voted for a 40-foot height limit.

By June, when all the San Francisco neighborhoods had spoken with a single voice, the Planning Commission backed down and granted that 40-foot limit except below Lafayette Park and Presbyterian Medical Center. That wasn’t acceptable, so PHA appealed to the Board of Supervisors. A year later the supervisors sided unanimously with PHA.

That was the beginning of what is now Pacific Heights Residents Association, which celebrated its 30th anniversary at its annual meeting in October. Charlotte Maeck, who supplied much of the energy in that initial fight and led PHRA for 25 years, received PHRA’s first "Carrot" award at the dinner. (A carrot because that is preferable to a stick).

A list of PHRA’s zoning battles distributed at the meeting shows that the battle isn’t over, but as Mrs. Maeck wrote in her summary of the fight, "We believe the 40-foot height limit with RH-1 and RH-2 zoning has been responsible for the preservation of the character of Pacific Heights."

After the height limit was won, the Planning Department required Pacific Heights to reduce all housing density to accommodate the new height limits and members took a house-by-house inventory of the entire neighborhood. Questions about height limits and density boiled up again in the 1990s. Then came design guidelines. The Cow Hollow Association, which covers the northwest quadrant of Pacific Heights, spent one year creating guidelines for their area, with PHRA consultation. PHRA is now working on guidelines for the rest of its area.

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