Cottage Row Zen garden sparks a fight



In celebration of its 110th anniversary this year, Japantown leaders proposed a gift to the neighborhood: a simple Zen rock garden at the foot of Cottage Row to honor the first generation of Japanese-Americans, the Issei, who established the community here after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

To create the garden, they enlisted the renowned landscape designers Shigeru Namba, who oversees Oracle boss Larry Ellison’s extensive Japanese garden, and Isao Ogura. Together the two have already created memorial gardens at San Francisco State and at Tanforan mall, the first stop for residents of Japantown evacuated and interned during World War II.

The gardeners would donate their services and all costs would be paid by private donations. Organizers hoped to complete the garden before the end of the anniversary year.

Then they ran into Bush Street resident Marvin Lambert.


At Soko Hardware, it’s the mix that works

Eunice Ashizawa and her nephew Aaron Katekaru help run Soko Hardware in Japantown.


After Masayasu Ashizawa came from Japan to San Francisco nearly a century ago, he opened a hardware store in 1925 in the heart of bustling Japantown and named it Soko — Japanese for “that place.” Soko Hardware’s founder could not have imagined the family business would be thriving in that place today under the management of his grandson Philip, born years after his grandfather died.

Soko Hardware, at 1698 Post Street, thrives not just as a local hardware store, but also as a destination for Bay Area residents and visitors who come for the paper lanterns or the authentic teapots or the delicate china — sometimes even for the hardware.

“I think of going to Soko as a special treat, like going to a museum and finding things I didn’t know existed,” says Mill Valley resident Sue Steele. (more…)

Bringing the outside in

Designer John Wheatman’s  garden is an extension of his home.

Designer John Wheatman’s garden is an extension of his home. Photographs © David Wakely


At the corner of Jackson and Steiner Streets, atop a garage once filled with rooms for servants, rests a handsome experiment in rooftop garden design created by John Wheatman, San Francisco’s eminent emeritus designer.

“I am as old as this building,” Wheatman declares, gesturing skyward at the elegant 12-story apartment tower built in 1926 at 2500 Steiner Street. “I have squatter’s rights.”

His decades of experiments in bringing the outside in, blending home and garden, are evident in the extraordinary design of the small rooftop space Wheatman has been tending for the last 30 years.


New life for an old garden

The house and garden at 1901 Scott Street in San Francisco circa 1980.

The house and garden at 1901 Scott Street in San Francisco circa 1880.


The cow is gone, the windmill torn down, the pharmacy delivery trucks missing from the garage behind the house. The gas pump and the water well no longer pump at all. But some reminders of the storied past of the historic Shumate house and garden at the corner of Pine and Scott remain — including the cobblestones.

Unearthing hidden cobblestones in any San Francisco garden is an instant reminder of the city’s Gold Rush days, when ships with cobblestones used as ballast sat in the harbor after sailors rushed for the gold fields. The heavy stones weighted down the ships during long voyages west, but after 1849 the ships — and the wood and the cobbles — were there for the taking.

After the city took its share to pave dusty or muddy streets, the abandoned stones were commandeered by treasure hunters of a different sort — and now adorn gardens around San Francisco, a link to the early days of the rush to gold.

One of the city’s oldest and largest gardens harbored just such a stash of stones when new owners purchased 1901 Scott Street in 1999. Fifteen years after moving in, they have kept the cobbles and the best of the old while adding modern essentials — and opening the house to the south-facing garden.


Benevolent spinsters’ home now Allyne Park

Remnants of the Allyne house and gardens remain in Allyne Park.

Remnants of the Allyne house and gardens remain in what is now Allyne Park.


A llyne Park, at the corner of Green and Gough Streets, is a San Francisco gem for which I have a strong affection. It’s across the street from our home. The park, adjacent to the historic Octagon House, is a little plot of green that is a daily gathering place for neighborhood dogs and their human friends. While there is no playground, the park is a favorite hide-and-seek haunt for local kids, who mostly manage to co-exist with the dogs.

Named for the longtime owners of this large lot, the park includes the remnants of a garden landscape that once surrounded a grand Victorian-era house built sometime before 1886. A 1905 map of the property shows a large house with a rambling footprint and several small greenhouses.

At one point, the Allyne family owned all of the lots stretching from Green to Union along the west side of Gough Street, and several parcels along Green Street as well.


Alta Plaza Park readies for a makeover


LOCALS AGREE there are problems with Alta Plaza Park, situated atop a former rock quarry and bounded by Scott, Clay, Steiner and Jackson Streets. Among them: decayed columns, stairs, walls and pathways; haphazard and incongruous plantings; outdated and ineffective lighting; and drainage and irrigation issues. So far, the fixes have been piecemeal — and ineffective, particularly the new no-mow grass and attempts to stop leakage onto surrounding sidewalks.

In February, the community group Friends of Alta Plaza Park enlisted landscape architect Jeffrey Miller — whose firm designed the new playground that was part of the recent renovation of the neighborhood’s Lafayette Park — to help formulate a master plan for an integrated overhaul of Alta Plaza’s infrastructure and aesthetics.

Miller solicited community feedback as he developed his plans, and at a final public meeting in November he unveiled the latest iteration of his proposals.

Among other things, the master plan, published above, features reworked entryways and plantings along the park’s perimeter. It adds a picnic area and creates a central plaza with a seating area overlooking the view of the city to the south. It also adds a new pathway and additional seating at the top of the park.

The plans, which will be presented to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission for approval in February, were considerably revised and scaled back from earlier proposals, which included a large central amphitheatre, an oculus with a view locator and relocated tennis and multi-purpose courts. The overwhelming public outcry was for less construction and fewer bells and whistles, with refurbishments that would make the park more functional while maintaining its formal elegance.

The first phase of the project, slated for completion next year, will be confined to the north side of the park, with $3 million of the expected cost already available from various sources. The park’s south side still suffers water issues that need to be resolved, even after a redo of its irrigation system last year. The Friends of Alta Plaza hope to raise money for the rest of the project through grants and fundraising.

Empty lot becomes an orchard

Rendering of the orchard of apple, pear and fig trees growing at Divisadero and Geary.

Rendering of the orchard of apple, pear and fig trees growing at Divisadero and Geary.

“LET A thousand flowers blossom,” Chairman Mao supposedly said.

Kaiser Permanente has taken a similar approach with the block-long empty lot at Divisadero and Geary it fought — and paid dearly — to clear for a new medical building, now delayed.

Just beginning to bear first fruit in the summer sun is a new orchard with four kinds of apple trees, three varieties of plum trees, plus a few figs, all chosen for this microclimate. They’re planted in four huge stone planters and surrounded by hundreds of other plants and vines growing along an estate-quality fence. [View the landscape plans.]

“We needed a solution that everyone, including the city, was going to be happy with,” says Randy Wittorp, a spokesman for Kaiser.

The orchard grew out of a collaboration between Kaiser and Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), urged on by a community task force. Kaiser bought the property years ago with an eye to future expansion. It reportedly paid more than six figures each to get longtime tenants out of a deteriorating 21-unit pink apartment building and, with a group of local ministers, built 21 replacement apartments across O’Farrell Street.

“Kaiser came up with a lot of money — a lot of money,” says Bush Street resident Jan Bolaffi, a member of the task force. “By the time all that was done, the demographics of the city had changed.”

Kaiser decided its new medical building should be in Mission Bay and put off plans to expand at Geary and Divisadero. But what to do with the empty lot?

“We’d heard that FUF was going to be planting these urban orchards,” says Jay Murphy, manager of capital projects for Kaiser, who served on FUF’s board of directors for three years. “We thought, what if instead of traditional landscaping we gave the community an orchard?”

The trees will likely be moved at some point when construction proceeds.

Cottage Row loses its redwoods

Five redwoods were cut in the mini-park at Cottage Row.

Five redwoods were cut in the mini-park at Cottage Row.

THERE HAD BEEN TALK for years about cutting down the rapidly growing redwood trees in the park along Cottage Row. Suddenly one day in mid-February the five redwoods were felled, along with a massive eucalyptus tree and other smaller trees.

The howls of outrage among many neighbors now seem to be giving way to acceptance.

“I was opposed to cutting the trees when they could have been trimmed,” said Cottage Row resident Jeff Staben. “But now that you see the light and openness, it’s nice. If only people would stop using the park as a dog potty.”

cottage rowA crew from the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks has removed the trees and the redwood stumps and begun to refurbish the mini-park, which serves as a front yard for the historic Cottage Row homes. New Japanese maple trees — and perhaps cherry trees and magnolias — will be planted in a nod to the heritage of the row before its Japanese-American residents were ousted and interned during World War II. A few redwoods remain on private property.

“We’re stabilizing the park and updating the landscaping,” said Steve Cismowski, the manager from Rec & Park responsible for Cottage Row. “Those redwoods were always the wrong species for a park this size. We caught it just in the nick of time.”

He said the interim plan — what he called “shoestring and duct tape landscaping” — will make the park safer and more usable. “But it isn’t intended to be the end of the conversation — just the beginning,” he said.

Cismowski and his crew expect to work in the park every Monday for the next six weeks, completing their limited work by mid-May. They are widening the planters where the redwoods stood, building new steps and adding Japonesque touches. The eucalyptus stump — too big to grind out — will remain.

While Cottage Row has lost its redwoods, it has gained its own song — a lyrical melody by singer-songwriter Eve Fleishman, who lives nearby.

“Twice a week I could sing to the five small redwood trees that inspired the bridge lyrics of my song, City Light,” she said. “I felt like crying when I saw they were gone. Not much to sing about on Cottage Row right now.”

New plaza coming to Fillmore

Rendering of the new Gene Suttle Plaza on Fillmore

Rendering of the new Gene Suttle Plaza on Fillmore

WORK BEGINS in early March on an ambitious new plan to transform the forlorn public plaza at Fillmore and O’Farrell streets into a dynamic green space that honors the history and culture of the neighborhood.

“It’s got a lot packed in,” said architect Jane Martin, whose Shift Design Studio designed the new plaza. “We want it to be fun and engaging.”

The paved checkerboard with the names of key figures from neighborhood history will remain, but eight squares of bricks will be removed and converted to planted areas with built-in benches. All of the plants will be native to Africa, and African symbols like those on nearby buildings will also be incorporated into the design. References to the earlier history of the area when it was largely a Jewish neighborhood will also be included.

“Our plan is to subvert the checkerboard and use the plaza as a way to make sense of a lot of disparate elements that have been added over time,” said Martin.

The nonprofit San Francisco Beautiful is coordinating the project with the owners of the property, nearby merchants and city agencies. The public is invited to join a community work day scheduled on Saturday, March 15, which is also when the planting will be done. The plaza is envisioned as the first phase of a larger series of neighborhood improvement projects that will unfold over the next two years.

“This is one more bead on the string,” said Kearstin Krehbiel, executive director of San Francisco Beautiful.

Pacific Heights is cheap compared to Noe Valley

The views are better in Pacific Heights — and maybe the deals, too.

The views are better in Pacific Heights — and maybe the real estate deals, too.

By Nina Hatvany

SALE PRICES of real estate in San Francisco’s southern neighborhoods have taken off dramatically in recent months. Noe Valley, Potrero Hill and South Beach are especially sought after by people who commute to the Peninsula, but still want to live in the city, or couples in which one person commutes south or to the East Bay. The south side generally offers better weather, proximity to the burgeoning restaurant scene in the Mission District, and often better access to muni or bart for commuters. 

In contrast, the more established northern neighborhoods are still desirable, but aren’t experiencing the same surge in popularity, despite the views, the bustling retail streets and easy commuting to downtown and to Marin.  

Areas like Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights, Cow Hollow and Russian Hill will always retain their allure. They are what I consider to be “blue chip” quality in the long term. But at the moment, while attention is focused southward, the properties coming up for sale in the northern neighborhoods are often a comparatively better deal — either by dollars per square foot, or because there are fewer people bidding on them and buyers therefore don’t encounter quite the same kind of bidding frenzy. 

One could argue that now might be the time to buck the trend and revisit the traditionally more expensive neighborhoods, considering the southern craze.

But gut feelings on the real estate market have to be backed up with evidence, and in this case the evidence speaks volumes about how the southern neighborhoods are quickly catching up to — and in some cases surpassing — northern values, at least in certain price ranges.

For example, consider a typical search by a younger couple interested in both Pacific Heights and Noe Valley — arguably the most expensive neighborhoods in each of their geographies. Looking at recent sales results, I found that one- and two-bedroom condominiums with parking priced under $2 million were selling in the last three months in Noe Valley at an average of 13.2 percent above asking price and roughly $879.16 per square foot.

That’s hundreds of dollars per square foot more than prices in these up and coming areas just a few years ago. On average, the homes were on the market from the start of marketing to closing for only 22 days, meaning there was a high percentage of all-cash and preemptive offers.  

In contrast, similar Pacific Heights home sales were averaging only 8.9 percent over asking price (indicating less competition) and $880 per square foot.

That’s a difference of only 84 cents per square foot between the neighborhoods — despite the fact that historically Pacific Heights has been San Francisco’s most expensive neighborhood.

This evidence speaks volumes. The competition for first-time or mid-range home buyers has soared in the southern neighborhoods, and there may well be some competitively priced deals to be had by turning one’s gaze back toward the bay. I will be encouraging clients to join me in living on the north side
of town.

Nina Hatvany is a real estate agent with Pacific Union.