The Essay

The Past and Future of Laurel Hill: Notes From a Neighbor

By Annie Wilson

A 1938 map of northwest San Francisco, featuring the former Laurel Hill cemetery.

I have spent most of my life within an eight-block radius of Laurel Hill. I was born in the Children’s Hospital (later CPMC) on California Street, and then went home with my family to Laurel and Clay streets in Presidio Heights, and we later moved to Commonwealth Avenue. After college, I returned to the other side of Laurel Hill on California Street at Presidio. The area — once the picture of dignified elegance — has gone rough around the edges, and it’s time for a reboot.

As most natives know, Laurel Hill used to be cemetery country — a place to bury the dead outside the city limits, in the proverbial Outside Lands. It wasn’t until 1851 that the City Legislature reincorporated the western boundary of San Francisco to Devisadero (now Divisadero) Street, hence the Western Addition. The areas known as the Richmond District, Golden Gate Park and the Sunset District were described as a “cold desert,” an uninhabitable sand waste. Indeed, some of the landscape around Laurel Hill seems so scrubby today that if you scratched the surface you’d hit a sand dune with a few inches of effort.

When the cemeteries moved to Colma post-World War II, Laurel Hill became the home of Fireman’s Fund, which built a monolithic, modern black-and-chrome building on the hillside. As I was growing up in the neighborhood, the place was a total mystery, but I looked forward to its rooftop Christmas tree display each winter. In the 1980s, Fireman’s Fund sold the property to UCSF, which uses the campus for social, behavioral and policy science research. The UCSF tenancy on Laurel Hill will end next year, when it gets incorporated into the shinier campus at Mission Bay. UCSF has sold the property to the Prado Group Inc. and SKS Partners LLC, making way for the first bit of development on Laurel Hill in approximately 60 years.

Did you know that at California and Presidio (where the much-loved Jewish Community Center currently sits) there was once a roadhouse serving up alcohol and “nonrespectable” activities? It was the city limits, after all, and this intersection was truly the unincorporated part of the Wild West. In 1888, Adolph Sutro’s railway began running a train from California and Central (now Presidio) to Point Lobos, cutting through the cold desert to the Pacific. And so it seems only appropriate that, in 2019, four very busy Muni bus lines intersect here. In fact, the new development plan was inspired by the neighborhood’s access to transit; one of the most ecologically sound ways to support urban development is to build high-density housing near public transportation, which is what makes Laurel Hill so attractive.

In a city developing at a rapid pace to keep up with the demands of its tech Gold Rush, the static state of this pocket of real estate is an anomaly. In fact, the streets bordering Laurel Hill still sometimes feel like a no-man’s land: The first block of Masonic Avenue includes “the backside” of the homes on Lupine Street as well as the Muni shelter on Presidio. It is chronically strewn with garbage and weeds that neither Muni, the Department of Public Works, nor Lupine’s homeowners feel they need to clean. One could see how Lupine could be another potential Laidley Street boasting unobstructed views of downtown, but no one wants a mess at their back door. Bordering this, the Laurel Hill/UCSF campus is imposing and dark to anyone outside the red brick walls. The site is grubby and careworn, a microcosm of the symptoms plaguing the City as a whole: Hypodermic needles and trash litter the bushes along California Street, while the weedy Euclid Street slope is a known campground for homeless living out of ramshackle cars. Again, no one wants a messy neighbor.

Perhaps because the locale has flown under the radar, as it were, the debate over the development of Laurel Hill has been mildly contentious. Two groups, Save Laurel Hill and Save the Trees of 3333 California Street, proposed a “community opposition” plan largely devoted to saving the 210 trees on the Prado Group’s newly acquired property. At a Board of Supervisors meeting on November 12, the activists formed distinct lines: those focused on housing, and those focused on trees. San Francisco has a greenhouse gas emissions standard to meet by 2029, yet Prado plans to retain 11 “key trees” on the site — California native oaks, redwoods, cypress and pines that the company tapped an arborist to identify. Plus, they are planning a multifold increase of trees on the premises, replacing 15 street trees earmarked for removal with 88 fruitless olive trees.

As District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani stated in the November meeting: “We can have trees and we can have housing.”

The Prado Group plan offers 744 housing units, and Supervisor Stefani has negotiated for 186 affordable-housing units for seniors. Apart from the trees, the plan’s accelerated timeline (seven to ten years) brings concern over its effect on the already-struggling Laurel Village, especially now that CPMC hospital has moved to Van Ness Avenue and UCSF employees are due to vacate. The customer base of the once-thriving shopping strip is depleting quickly. Stefani, who previously worked on this proposal as a legislative aide under Supervisor Mark Farrell, insisted that the project’s retail scope be limited to California Street, effectively extending the Laurel Village shopping strip from Spruce Street to Presidio Avenue. It should also be noted that the Jewish Community Center, SPUR, Presidio Heights Association of Neighbors, and Northern Neighbors are all entirely in support of the Prado Group/SKS plan. The opening of the hilltop to public walkways is a huge part of the Prado strategy, which would mark avast improvement over the current imposing brick and glass that, like a fortress, keeps people at bay. According to the book Portals of the Past, the Laurel Hill cemetery was once a “western showplace laid out with 20 miles of wide avenues and winding paths. … It was the single oasis of tranquility in a monotonous and treeless city.”

Laurel Hill on a gusty day just after a rain is my favorite: The skies over the City are full of clouds in every shade of gray and blue; the Pacific wind whips the top of Euclid Street; the towers of the Golden Gate and Marin Headlands are visible to the north while the towers of the Financial District and Mount Diablo can be seen by looking east, all while standing in one spot. If only it weren’t such a valuable prospect, this hilltop would make quite an open space.

Annie Wilson is a fourth-generation San Franciscan. She is currently working on her first novel, a satire set in the Hamptons. Follow her on Instagram at @poeticandchic.

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