Q&A: SF Planning Director John Rahaim

Q&A: SF Planning Director John Rahaim

John Rahaim, former planning director for the City of Seattle, assumed his duties as San Francisco’s new planning director in January. Kenneth Caldwell finds out what’s on his mind for San Francisco.

The Architect’s Newspaper: What can we do to encourage really first-rate architecture and landscape architecture and urban design in San Francisco? What can we do to achieve the goal of the contemporary building?

John Rahaim: I think highlighting good examples is one way. I think we need to have a discussion about what the key principles are, and about what makes a good urban building—which transcends architecture, in my view. 

Part of the solution might be the planning department’s being very cautious about moving projects forward that don’t achieve that good urban quality we’re all looking for. It’s hard, because historically, urban buildings were constructed with a much more limited palette of materials and a much more limited technology. So they had a uniformity that simply doesn’t exist anymore. 

What about some of the fine-grain character? What do you see as some of the greatest challenges and opportunities for the evolution of the neighborhoods, and what do you regard as the role of a tool like residential design guidelines? 

What we see on a fairly regular basis is the challenge of inserting new development that is often large in scale and contemporary in design into a traditional San Francisco context. I think the residential design guidelines have an important role, but what I don’t believe is that they should go so far as to require mimicry in buildings. 

We need to design buildings of our time. One of our great architectural challenges is to design buildings that are contemporary and that work within an urban context. I think most architects haven’t figured that out yet. But I would really like to challenge architects on that front, to design buildings that are wonderful, contemporary, exciting buildings that work on a city street. 

I think there’s a pretty broad perception that a lot of the recent high-rise architecture here is mediocre. Do you have some ideas about how we can improve the quality of those large-scale towers? 

Every city I go to, people complain that the architecture in their city is so much worse than the architecture in the city down the road. Couldn’t we do what Chicago does? Couldn’t we do what Vancouver does? And I go to Chicago and people there are saying, oh, look what’s being built here; it’s so awful. Can’t we do what San Francisco does? What’s being built in high-rise residential architecture isn’t great architecture. There are some good examples, though. I would argue that not every building should be a landmark, and that if every building tried to be a landmark, we would have no landmarks. There is a difference between building good-quality background buildings that work in an urban environment, and understanding when and how and where a landmark building should be. 

That’s why it’s important to talk about contemporary architecture that works in an urban context. How does it work on the street? How does it work on the skyline? How does the facade play off the other buildings on that street? 

It’s not our job in planning to dictate our architectural style. Sometimes we may want to go too far in that regard, and I think it’s very important not to cross that line. It’s a fuzzy line, but it’s important for us not to tell an architect how to design a building, but to tell an architect and a developer the principles that that building should achieve. 

Yet with redevelopment, and the federal government exempt from planning department guidelines, a lot of what you might want to achieve in a certain area or adjacent area… 

You wouldn’t be talking about a certain example? 

I think that one of the most dramatic new high-rise buildings is one that was exempt. [Morphosis’ Federal Building] 

Sure. But the federal government, as much as it builds, doesn’t build one of those every year in most cities. How long did it take to get that project built? That building has its own challenges in terms of the tone that it set for that particular neighborhood. But I will also say that I think it is part of the government’s job to push the envelope. 



The Seattle Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas is a very controversial building. It’s essentially a giant experiment, and some parts of that experiment are not going to work. Koolhaas has a tendency to use materials that aren’t tested, are experimental. Some of those materials simply aren’t going to work. But that’s okay. 

If we can just relax about that as a society and as a city, there are advantages to having that experiment. There are things about the building that don’t work on the street; I wish it was different on some of the street frontages, but all in all, I actually think it’s an exciting new building for the city. 

The federal building here is what it is. Part of the problem is that it’s essentially an 8:00-to-5:00, Monday-through-Friday office building. If that building had other uses that activated it, I’m not sure that people would feel so strongly about it. 

What are some of the lessons from the other cities where you have worked that you can bring here? 

I think San Francisco needs to take a little bit of a step back from the conflicts and discussions about details of development projects and neighborhood plans—all of which are important. But we seem to have lost the perspective on why we’re doing all this. 

I would like to have a conversation about growth management, about how the city wants to grow, and how we should shape growth. I think Seattle has done a good job with this because of all the issues of growth management and controlling sprawl in that region. 

So often the conversation seems to be about a conflict between people who want to build something and people who don’t want it to be built. The conversation should be about how we can shape growth that benefits the city in the long run. The city will grow whether we want it to or not. 

Let’s expand on that a little and talk about regional planning. That’s a hot button and very hard to implement, but can we put our local planning efforts into a regional context? 

I must say I’m a little disappointed that I’ve not heard more of that. I think it’s important. I think the major urban centers in the Bay Area have a responsibility to accept a fair amount of growth just because of the regional issues and regional sprawl. 

Again, Seattle is a good lesson there. It certainly has not solved the regional discussion by any means. And not nearly as much as cities like Portland and Minneapolis have. 

Because of the state growth management act, King County (in Seattle) literally has an urban growth boundary, much like Portland does. We copied that from Portland. All good things in urban planning are copied from Portland, I guess. What the state growth management act forced us to do is to talk to each other at a regional level. 

There is still a tremendous amount of fighting between urban municipalities and suburban municipalities that will not accept certain minimum densities and all those things that are important to growth management. But at least they are at the table with each other. It isn’t clear to me that people are sitting at the same table here. Yet.