Thursday, August 01, 2013

Revisiting San Francisco

I was in the Bay Area last week for the first time since we moved to New York in the spring of 2012, and it was interesting to see the changes.

Photo courtesy of AnywhereSF.

First off, I was able to pay for my cab rides using a credit card — with nary a complaint from the drivers. Most taxis are now outfitted with Verifone units, which let you charge the fare and watch TV during your ride (something that's long been taken for granted in New York).

Photo courtesy of

I can understand why San Francisco cab drivers must feel pressure to improve their service: Half the people I spoke to said they're now using Uber, Lyft or other ride-sharing services. That's a big change from when I left, and it stands in stark contrast with my experience in New York.

Despite the toughness of New Yorkers — or perhaps because of it — they typically aren't comfortable climbing into a stranger's car. In the Bay Area, casual carpool has been getting people used to this concept for many years. (Ride sharing also faces more regulatory hurdles here.)

BART, meanwhile, has become more bicycle-friendly because of some policy changes. I was struck by how many more bikes people brought on board than in the old days. (Again in contrast with New York, where I see fewer bikes on trains — even though they're technically allowed on the subway at all hours.)

I also like these new clearer BART signs.

The most striking aesthetic change, of course, is the Bay Lights installation. It dazzles the Embarcadero with twinkling effects and serves two purposes: brightening up the Bay Bridge and making everyone appreciate the fact that we can see it (i.e., that the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down after the Loma Prieta Earthquake).

Photo courtesy of NBC Bay Area.

The skyline hasn't changed dramatically since I left, but they are building the much-delayed sister tower to the One Rincon Hill project.

A fog-shrouded construction site.

The initial tower was criticized for resembling Sharper Image's Ionic Breeze air filter. The building also sticks out as the tallest thing near the Bay Bridge.

Having a second tower is going to mitigate those concerns by giving the first building "a little friend over there" (as Bob Ross would say). I'm glad this is finally happening.

Down the road in South San Francisco, I see that the Centennial Tower has a glitzy new sign for its tenant SuccessFactors. It gives that stretch of 101 a little more pizazz, even if the hillside of the San Bruno Mountain still seems like an unlikely spot for a corporate headquarters.

Photo courtesy of SuccessFactors Facebook page.

Within the city, the street signs are being converted from a classic all-caps look to regular upper and lower case. Apparently this is because of a federal mandate and affects New York's signage as well.

Photo courtesy of SF Citizen.

The old retro Yahoo billboard along 80 is long gone. But it's been replaced by an Old Navy ad that appears to be trying to capture the same nostalgic vibe.

The old Yahoo ad. Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Egoist.

The new billboard.

I still miss the Yahoo billboard, but I give the Old Navy one a thumbs up. Nice to see San Francisco's advertisers maintain some continuity with the city's corporate landmarks.

I noticed other changes as well. Bigger crowds in the Mission. Longer lines at restaurants. A bit more of a New York-like buzz. (Maybe some New York-like gentrification and rent increases as well, but I won't get into that.)

Lastly, remember Sue Bierman Park? That was the green space along the Embarcadero that took a long time to open back in 2011.

When it did finally debut, Chronicle architecture critic John King complained that the park was a missed opportunity to make more of a statement.

Well, it now has a playground, so that's something. Of course, San Francisco being San Francisco, there weren't many actual kids using it.

The city's child deficit appears to be one of the things that hasn't changed.