A Product of "Arrested Development":
History of Diamond Heights
Also see GPNHP Advisory Councl member and architectural historian Hannah Simon's master's thesis, Modern Diamond Heights: Dwell-ification and the Challenges of Preserving Modernist, Redevelopment Resources in Diamond Heights, San Francisco.
View Hannah Simonson's presentation at the Environmental Design Archives at UC-Berkeley, February 11, 2020.
Unlike its older neighbors to the south, namely Glen Park, the Fairmount Tract, and Sunnyside, Diamond Heights could be considered the “new kid on the block.” But don’t be fooled by its apparent youth as this neighborhood holds much historic significance.
Residents of Diamond Heights enjoy spectacular views, overlooking 70 acres of open space in Glen Canyon to the southwest, Mt. Davidson and the Pacific Ocean to the west, and sweeping views of San Francisco Bay from north to south. On its summits and slopes you’ll find “California-modern” homes and condominium complexes, a shopping center, three churches, five parks (four with playgrounds), schools, a fire station, and even the San Francisco Police Academy. Unlike most neighborhoods before 1950 in the City, this clustering of conveniences was the result of community planning.
Between 1949 and 1973, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency embarked on nine redevelopment projects. “Redevelopment Area B” was the largest by acreage, covering 332 acres among three hills immediately south of Twin Peaks: Red Rock Hill (elevation 690 feet), Gold Mine Hill (elevation 680 feet), and Fairmount Hill (elevation 540 feet). [Historic Note: Though not identified by the Redevelopment Agency, the designated area also includes Billy Goat Hill, part of Fairmount Hill, elevation 500 feet.] The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency named the area “Diamond Heights” because:
“Diamond Street, south from Clipper, climbs the eastern slopes of these hills, and, when extended, will lead into the central portion of the area. Because Diamond Street is one of the principle arteries serving Area B, it is proposed that the area be called ‘Diamond Heights.’”
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In a request to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1950 to set aside land for the purposes of redevelopment under Section 33 of the Community Redevelopment Act of California, the Redevelopment Agency defined the boundaries for Area B: “… on the north, Clipper Street Extension and Portola Drive; on the west, O’Shaughnessy Boulevard; along the southern boundary, Bosworth, Elk, Sussex, Castro and Laidley Streets; along the eastern boundary, Laidley, Thirtieth, Castro, Valley, Diamond, Twenty-eighth and Douglass Streets.” In other words, in addition to the three hills, the designated area included 70 acres of open space in Glen Canyon, the northern edge of Glen Park, and a good portion of the upper reaches of the Fairmount Tract.
Early History of the Three Hills
Reflecting a truly rural history, much of the area had been used for cow pasturage and “milk farming” since at least 1861, and likely as early as the late 1700s during the Spanish Mission period. The Good Brothers Dairy in Glen Canyon, near today's Glenridge Cooperative Nursery School in the Silver Tree Building, was active until it burned down in the 1930s. Grazing cows belonging to future mayor George Christopher's Christopher Dairy could be seen along the flanks of O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, as well. [Historic Note: Ronald Reagan’s favorite milk came from Christopher Dairy cows.] Riding the slopes of the canyon on horseback was another activity into the mid-20th century, based on clothing in an undated image from the San Francisco Public Library.
The area to become known as Redevelopment Area B was first subdivided in 1863 when the Horner’s Addition was extended from the Mission up to the summits of Gold Mine and Red Rock Hills. The Fairmount Tract, along the eastern slopes of the proposed Diamond Heights neighborhood, was recorded in 1861. Even though the area was full of the “breathing spots” so important to residents living in a growing and ever more crowded metropolis, sales of lots were sluggish over the subsequent decades, possibly due to the steep grades of the hills. The streets had been laid in a “gridiron” pattern, ignoring the contours of the slopes. Many went straight uphill over rugged terrain, sometimes at grades of 20% to 35%. Even the best available horsepower, whether equine or later by horseless carriage, would struggle to make their way up the hill.
Several vintage maps of San Francisco display streets and neighborhoods that today are purely fictional, a vision for anticipated development rather than a guide for the crosstown traveler. A Langley map from 1877 shows 30th street running west straight over the top of Gold Mine Hill to the banks of Islais Creek. At that point, 30th intersected with a Bellevue Street that run north over Red Rock Hill to the old Ocean Road, today’s Portola Drive. Faust’s Map of the City and County of San Francisco in 1900 shows the entire designated area, including Glen Canyon up to and over the summits of Red Rock and Gold Mine Hills, laid out in the same grid pattern all the way to Stanford Heights on the slopes of Mt. Davidson, today’s Miraloma Park neighborhood. The only speck of greenery on the map is a tiny island called Sunnyside Park. If it existed today, it would be near Teresita Boulevard in Miraloma Park.
In the early 20th century, Daniel Burnham, a master designer of the City Beautiful movement at the turn of the 20th century, developed a community plan for San Francisco at the request of former mayor James D. Phelan, president of the Association of the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco. The City Beautiful aesthetic was based on the premise that architectural beauty and order would promote civic pride. From his perch atop Twin Peaks, Burnham developed a grand plan for the entire City that he believed would enable transformation from metropolis to cosmopolis, much like Paris, France or Vienna, Austria. He mapped out grand boulevards to encircle and transect the city, interspersed with parks, theatres, and museums. He designed streets for Diamond Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods that took advantage of the contours of the hills. His City Beautiful plan for San Francisco was published in 1905 and he predicted it would take 50 years to complete. One year later, however, San Francisco was devastated by the Great Earthquake and Fire. The City was in a hurry to rebuild and Burnham’s plan was never carried out. If it had, San Francisco would be a very different place today.
By the late 1800s, the quarrying of red rock had become active in the area. Franciscan chert, ubiquitous along the slopes of the San Miguel Range, was used for ships’ ballast, street paving, construction, and bay fill. The Gray Brothers Quarry blasted chunks out of several hills around the City in the late 1800s and early 1900s, most famously on Telegraph Hill and Corona Heights. Their devil may care attitude, intentional ignorance of property rights, and outright disregard for the general safety of residents in the immediate blasting area made them despised scoundrels for decades.
The Gray Brothers had two quarries in the future area of Diamond Heights: at 26th and Douglass, and at 29th and Castro on Billy Goat Hill. While on the site of the Billy Goat Hill quarry in 1914, George Gray was shot and killed by a destitute employee who had been refused payment of back wages. The employee was later found not guilty by reason of insanity. By the time the Redevelopment Agency had designated the area as Diamond Heights in 1950, two small quarries were still in operation. The Fay Improvement Company and the Rosenberg Brothers, both independent paving contractors, quarried about an acre each on Red Rock Hill.
The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Declares “Blight”
The hubris is apparent in their own words: "The Redevelopment Agency knows that to make neighborhoods pleasant places to live it is essential that they be well-designed." The Agency made it clear in their 1950 assessment of Redevelopment Area B, delivered to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1950, that only they knew how it could be done.
The Agency noted that, “Most of the Diamond Heights area is still open land.” Sixty percent of the gross area was already public lands, of which 25% was streets, 24% blocks, 3% State property and 8% owned by the San Francisco Housing Authority. The Agency claimed that less than 10% (about 32 acres) of the designated land contained structures. Four hundred fifty of these were dwellings, most situated along the “fringe area” (within 400 feet of the redevelopment boundary). The Agency noted that over half of the homes had been constructed prior to 1919, and 80% were more than 13 years old. They also documented that three independent contractors at that time were considering development on small parcels of land. On Fairmount Hill, Thomas Valerga had started developing about five acres, and on Gold Mine Hill, Atlas Realty and the Crocker Estate Company were expressing interest in the development of four acres and 22 acres, respectively. They further noted that within the area there were two truck storage yards which the Redevelopment Agency determined were illegal, not to mention that, “… the dangers and unpleasantness of large trucks driving through residential areas” was undesirable. A transmitter for radio station KWBR-FM was located on Red Rock Hill, and throughout the entire 332 acres, there was only one corner grocery. [In the 1948-1949 Polk-Langley Directory of San Francisco, a grocery operated by Joseph Scialabba was located at 1600 Diamond at 28th Street on Gold Mine Hill.]
Taking all of this into account, along with the gridiron street plans, and despite “… many years of real estate activity …” with subdivision and resubdivision, and “… parcels of land having changed hands countless times,” the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in consultation with the Department of City Planning declared that:
“…the use of redevelopment powers in certain types of vacant areas is authorized in Section 2 of the Community Redevelopment Act. In particular, subsection 2(b) declares an area to be blighted when there exists an economic dislocation or disuse as a result of faulty planning, lots laid out in disregard of the contours, or inadequate streets and utilities … that in many such instances the private assembly of the lands in blighted areas for purposes of redevelopment is so difficult and costly that it is uneconomic and as a practical matter impossible for individual owners independently or collectively to undertake to remedy such conditions …; that the remedying of such conditions may require the public acquisition at fair prices of adequate areas, the clearance of the areas through demolition of existing obsolete, inadequate, unsafe and unsanitary buildings and the redevelopment of the areas suffering from such conditions under proper supervision, with appropriate planning, and continuing land use and construction policies.
“With a platted street pattern entirely unsuited to the steep grades, a great diversity of ownership and a lack of building development in spite of nearly a century of real estate activity, the Diamond Heights area clearly qualifies under these provisions … In land hungry, house hungry San Francisco very little other vacant land remains. It seems apparent, then, that the Diamond Heights area is one of ‘arrested development.’”
Another contemporary observer similarly characterized Diamond Heights as, “… forgotten … barren, and useless while other sections of San Francisco, and of the Bay Area as a whole, for that matter, have grown around it.”
Blighted? Obsolete? Suffering? Useless? According to Brandi, residents of this pastoral setting, primarily the same type of blue collar workers who also lived in Glen Park, Sunnyside, and the Fairmount Tract beyond the designated boundaries, were in full disagreement. In their opinion, there was no blight, they did not want to lose the rural character, the boundaries of the designated land had been arbitrarily drawn, too many dwellings were included in the area, and most importantly, homeowners were concerned they would not receive a fair price for their land and structures. Ultimately, however, the project would be approved.
Urban Renewal of Redevelopment Area B Begins
To remedy the perceived blight, the Redevelopment Agency proposed the following to the Board of Supervisors:
“1. A Canyon Drive on the east side of Glen Canyon connecting Portola Drive and Bosworth Street, providing access … and separating these sections from the proposed park in Glen Canyon.
2. Other secondary thoroughfares, such as the extension of Diamond Street, to provide ready access to all parts of the City.
3. Local streets with reasonable grades fitted to the steep hillsides … to discourage fast through traffic.
4. Two new schools …
5. To small conveniently located shopping centers …
6. Sites for a wide range of residential building types, many of them with superb views.”
They estimated the new community would have up to 2,500 to 3,000 new homes with “spectacular sites,” and Glen Canyon would be kept in its “natural, rugged state.” The Agency recommended that buildings be, “… scientifically oriented to get plenty of sun and little wind. The climate of the area is one of San Francisco’s best, with little fog. Thus, contemporary indoor-outdoor living would be possible and enjoyable.” The planned neighborhood would mostly include “moderate income families” along with a few “luxury” and “perhaps some low rent public housing.” The types of dwellings constructed would be “appropriate” to place. As an example, the Agency suggested that, “… the pleasant home-like character of Glen Park could be continued in the new development area where it merges with the new built-up section. The hillside houses overlooking Mission Valley, with their old trees and their well laid-out gardens, would have neighbors that also have trees and gardens. There would be no sudden break in the character of the neighborhood as one passes into the redeveloped area; the new homes would harmonize with those already built.”
The final plan was approved by the Supervisors in 1952. Yet, a larger than anticipated scope, interdepartmental negotiations, disagreement over the fair price of the lands, and challenges over the legality of the Redevelopment Act’s definition of blight would stall the project for four years. Then, by 1959, the Redevelopment Agency had purchased half of the privately held land in Diamond Heights, with the other half being condemned under eminent domain. The summits of Red Rock Hill and Gold Mine Hill were leveled off, and the dirt – 2 million cubic yards of it – was pushed into the saddle between the two hills, where the Diamond Heights Shopping Center and Christopher Playground stand today.
Despite project delays, Vernon DeMars, a faculty member in the Department of Architecture at U.C. Berkeley, provided designs for Diamond Heights in 1951. Following in the footsteps of Burnham by “working with the topography,” he designed streets that followed the contours of the hills so that, according to Brandi, “enabled each house or townhouse to have street access and opportunity for views.” Dwellings would include high-rise towers, single or multi-story row houses, and apartment or condominium complexes. The height of structures would “step-down” the slopes so that no single view would be obstructed. He designed the primary path of transit through the neighborhood, Diamond Heights Boulevard, as a four-lane artery that began at Clipper and made its way around the hills before descending into Glen Park.
Red Rock Hill National Architectural Competition
In 1961, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency announced a national architectural competition for proposed designs for Red Rock Hill Towers, with the top ten finalists each receiving $1,000 (about $7,800 today). The purpose of the competition was “… to elevate the urban design consequences of the redevelopment process to a higher level than is likely to result without special attention to the esthetics of the ultimate construction.” Entrants were to submit plans within the Agency’s specifications: 22 acres of land, height up to 135 feet at the summit (equivalent to about 12 stories), no more than 3,960 total rooms comprised of 90 efficiency units (400-500 sq ft), 180 one-bedroom (600-700 sq ft) and 360 each of two- and three-bedroom units (800-900, and 1000-1150 sq ft, respectively), inclusive of covered parking for each unit.
Of the ten finalists, the Agency narrowed the final selection down to four. The developer who ultimately purchased the land, San Francisco Redevelopers, was required to select one of these four designs to build on the site. They soon chose the plan submitted by Cohen and Levorsen of San Francisco that included a total of 650 apartments in five high-rise towers ranging up to 15 stories and connected, as Brandi describes, in “undulating chains.” An additional 340 units in low-rise structures with covered parking areas were to be connected in the same manner, reminiscent of a “sophisticated” San Francisco row house.
Eventually, financial issues caused the Red Rock Hill project and the adjacent shopping complex to be halted in 1964. By that time, the townhomes were about 60% complete and the towers had yet to be started. San Francisco Redevelopers sold their interests for the complex and shopping center to General Electric, who was involved in the redevelopment project as the provider of all-electric homes. After taking over, General Electric reduced the number of towers first to two, then to one. By 1968, only the townhouses along Diamond Heights Boulevard near Clipper were complete, and the towers were never built. Imagine what the silhouette of Red Rock Hill would look like today with apartment towers looming atop its summit! It would have changed the balance and character of the San Francisco skyline entirely.
A down-scaled alternative was developed and what would become known as Diamond Heights Village, a complex of two- to three-story buildings designed by Gensler and Esherick, was completed by the Ring Brothers in 1972. In addition, St. Adian’s Episcopal Church was completed in 1963, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church opened in 1964, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church (now the New Life Chinese Lutheran Church), the Diamond Heights Shopping Center, and Diamond Heights Elementary School on Amber Drive (now the San Francisco Police Academy) all opened in 1965. Station 26 of the San Francisco Fire Department opened on Digby in 1968, and Eugene McAteer High School, today the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, opened in 1972 at the intersection of O’Shaughnessy Boulevard and Portola Drive.
Many of the older homes that predated Redevelopment Area B along the southern and eastern boundaries of the project were maintained by The Redevelopment Agency. Many single lots were sold to individuals who then hired their own architect to design a modern home for them. In addition, 500 units of lower-income housing were constructed by private developers under loans from the Federal Housing Administration rather than the San Francisco Public Housing Agency. The homes were to be rented or sold at below-market rates to those with moderate income for private housing, and not as public housing for welfare recipients. The first of these was the Glenridge Cooperative on the southern slopes of Gold Mine Hill in 1969. Buyers enjoyed affordable monthly payments but were not allowed to sell their home for profit for the first 20 years. The Diamond View Apartments (Fairmount Hill) were completed in 1972, and Vista del Monte (Gold Mine Hill) in 1975. Much of the impetus for lower income housing was to accommodate residents of the Western Addition who had been displaced by the Agency’s earlier project, Redevelopment Plan A-1.
New residences for higher income families throughout the Diamond Heights area were constructed by several developers. In addition to Diamond Heights Village on Red Rock Hill (by Gensler and Esherick), other condominium complexes were designed by Fisher Friedman and Associates (Red Rock and Gold Mine Hills), and Beverly Willis (Fairmount Hill). Many single-family homes were designed by prominent architects Ray F. Galli (Red Rock and Gold Mine Hills), and Joseph Eichler (Red Rock Hill), among others.
Eichler had been building homes in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1950. A modernist by design, he is responsible for the construction of 11,000 “California-modern” homes in the Bay Area, from San Francisco north to Lucas Valley and San Rafael, eastward to Oakland, Walnut Creek, and south to Castro Valley and San Jose. Diamond Heights was particularly adapted to Eichler’s basic approach: open floor plans with floor-to-ceiling glass. In other words, much like Frank Lloyd Wright had done at the turn of the 20th century, Eichler was bringing the outside world in, and allowing the interior of the home to go outside.
Diamond Heights was Eichler’s first project in a redevelopment program. Working with architect Claude Oakland, Eichler Homes built 100 split-level or two-story family homes in Diamond Heights on Amethyst, Amber, and Cameo Way between 1962 and 1964. The sale price was based on one of six floor plans, each with three or four bedrooms and ranging from $34,950 to $46,500. According to a real estate agency that specializes in Eichler Homes throughout the Bay Area, property turnover of Eichler homes in Diamond Heights is only 3% to 5% annually, which speaks volumes not only to the quality of these homes but to the neighborhood, as well.
The entire Diamond Heights project, with approximately 2,350 units constructed, was determined closed on September 27, 1978. It was a major undertaking that garnered local and national attention. A success under the parameters of redevelopment, it is not as well recognized today as other redevelopment projects in the City, and is generally not considered a destination.
Brandi reflects that DeMars’ design of Diamond Heights Boulevard as the main thoroughfare for residents is one reason. DeMars intentionally avoided direct intersection with major crossroads connecting to downtown and other neighborhoods. This has restricted traffic through the area, just as DeMars planned.
Additionally, while visitors from across the City visit Glen Canyon, the main entrance is through Glen Park. Moreover, the three hills of Diamond Heights lack open space at their summits for non-residents to ascend and enjoy the view. Brandi believes that, had the Redevelopment Agency not declared the area blighted, proponents of the growing environmental movement in the 1960s would have likely ensured the preservation of the summits as open space. This was the case for Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, Mt. Sutro, Bernal Heights, and other areas in the City.
Now a half-century old, Diamond Heights maintains its “California-modern” flare and mid-century historical significance. As a planned community embracing the topography of the eastern slopes of the San Miguel Range, nothing else in San Francisco compares.