Home > General Plan > Chinatown Area Plan
San Francisco has the oldest and second largest Chinese
American community in the United States (New York is first). The Chinese
were participants at Portsmouth Square when San Francisco celebrated the
admission of California into the Union. The Square was the heart of San
Francisco and while the City expanded, the Chinese stayed in the area.
For over 100 years, Chinatown has stood in this same location. In no other
ethnic community of the City can be found such concentration and continuity
The area covered by this Plan area includes 30 blocks
in whole or in part on the eastern slopes of Nob Hill as well as portions
of Russian Hill. The financial district lies to the east of Chinatown
and just south is the Union Square retail area. Grant Avenue, Stockton
Street and the hill side blocks that intersect them comprise the core
of Chinatown. The district is one to three blocks in width and about ten
blocks in length.
Chinatown contains blocks and streets laid out in the
first official mapping of the city. Grant Avenue (called Dupont Street
before the earthquake) is actually the oldest street in the City. The
original activities in the area, especially around Portsmouth Square were
maritime, handling the imported goods and supplying food, drink and entertainment
The impetus for Chinese migration to San Francisco
by young men of the Canton region of China (a major port) during and after
the Gold Rush involved both political conditions in China and mining and
railroad building activities in California. China's war with Britain over
opium (China sought to reduce its trade) had forced opening of certain
Chinese ports including Canton. Internal conditions and upheaval motivated
many young men to seek to earn money outside China, with an intent to
help their families and to eventually return.
The earliest center of Chinese business in San Francisco was along Sacramento
Street (185363). San Francisco was also a staging area during the
next decade for the many Chinese engaged in mining and railroad building
in rural parts of California. During the American Civil War, the Chinese
participated in emerging light industries in California, shoe, cigar and
garment factories. In San Francisco most Chinese businesses sold Chinese
merchandise, dry goods, food and medicines or provided services. As the
Chinese population grew, the Chinatown business area grew too.
Labor unrest and hostility to Chinese workers built
up after the Civil War. It was largely caused by unemployment from the
slow down of the war time economy and the depletion of the gold mines.
AntiChinese legislation was further stimulated by some bigoted politicians.
Chinese workmen and businesses were harassed. Federal laws (Exclusion
Acts) were passed to limit further migration from China. Local laws were
passed that restricted Chinese businesses. Even a ghetto ordinance was
once briefly in effect in San Francisco.
Strong organizations of mutual support, including consolidation
of several associations (Consolidated Benevolent Association or "Chinese
Six Companies") were formed to provide aid, mediate disputes and
to protest anti-Chinese legislation. The restrictions on Chinese businesses
and the ghetto ordinance were eventually found unconstitutional. Family
and District Associations still form a very important part of the Chinatown
community and own and occupy a number of buildings containing businesses,
lodging and meeting space.
After the Civil War to 1900, Chinatown may have actually
had a larger population than lives in the same area now. It was a male
enclave. By 1890, the Census indicated that the total Chinese population
in California was 72,472 and 96% male. By l900, this population has reportedly
dropped to 45,753 and did not increase to over 40,000 statewide again
until 1950. San Francisco's Chinatown sheltered a majority of this population.
When the original Chinatown was destroyed in the l906
earthquake, it was quickly rebuilt in the same location on the south slope
of lower Nob (short for "Nabob") Hill. AntiChinese political
pressure was also felt in this rebuilding process. A civic committee recommended
that Chinatown instead be relocated to the then distant Bayshore edge
of the City.
Under the leadership of the merchant, Look Tin Eli,
some of the rebuilding was consciously geared to the visible identification
of Chinatown as Chinese. Use of lively red, green and yellow colors, balconies
with Chinese motifs, roof details, pagoda style towers at the Grant and
California intersection were meant to attract shoppers to Chinese art
goods bazaars and restaurants. Look Tin Eli's plan was to create "veritable
fairy palaces filled with choicest treasures of the Orient". Perhaps
the popularity of a Chinese Pavilion in the Midwinter Exposition in Golden
Gate Park several years before served as an inspiration.
Housing in pre-World War II Chinatown still reflected
the mostly male population. Chinese men, by now aging, lived in small
dormitory or hotel-type rooms.
Chinatown's population began to change in the late
l960's with the liberalization of immigration laws. Migration from Hong
Kong and other areas of Chinese population in Asia brought about a large
increase in Chinatown's population, creating a shortage of affordable
housing. The new population brought new vitality to the neighborhood and
enlarged the market for Asian goods. Concurrently, Chinese residents from
Chinatown began to move into other neighborhoods of San Francisco, notably
the Richmond and Sunset districts. Although many Chinese left Chinatown,
they continue to shop there and to maintain a strong level of contact
with the religious, social and political institutions.
The plan area resident population in l980 was estimated
at 10,000, virtually all of whom are Chinese. The arrival of young families
since that time has probably increased the population. The study area
is part of 13 adjacent census tracts in the northeastern part of the city
whose total 29,000 Chinese residents represent approximately a third of
the total Chinese population in the City. In l979, the median household
income of the plan area population was about $10,100, half of the median
income in San Francisco at that time. The social and economic characteristics
of Chinatown lead to concern about the standard of living space for the
largely elderly or immigrant population, and the sustainability of resources
including shopping and social agencies to continue to serve this population.
PRESERVE THE DISTINCTIVE URBAN CHARACTER, PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT AND CULTURAL
HERITAGE OF CHINATOWN.
Maintain the low-rise scale of Chinatown's buildings.
Although adjacent to Downtown, Chinatown is not the
appropriate setting for tall buildings. Seventy five percent of the structures
in Chinatown are three stories or less in height. Height districts in
the Planning Code should be based on the generalized height plan below.
Requiring setbacks for new buildings above three stories will help achieve
a complementary scale.
1 - Generalized Height
Promote a building form that harmonizes with the scale of existing buildings
and width of Chinatown's streets.
The Chinatown area is primarily composed of small-scaled
buildings. Most existing buildings are quite low and due to the pattern
of the lots, many are relatively short in depth as well. The typical lot
size is only 3,500 square feet. The few large buildings in the area intrude
into this fine-scaled texture of development. Further development along
these lines would severely damage the appearance of this historic part
of the city and would also produce deeply shadowed streets.
Urban design guidelines should be applied to new construction
in Chinatown in order to (1) integrate new buildings into the dominant
fine scale of development characterized by small varied buildings in a
manner that does not create sharp contrasts in scale or significantly
alter the texture of the area as viewed from surrounding areas and (2)
maintain the unifying rhythm of facade widths and the general scale of
street walls as viewed from the streets. Generally, buildings above a
height of 40 feet should not exceed a width (measured parallel to the
street) of 50 to 75 feet or a maximum diagonal of 100 feet. As buildings
approach these dimensions, increasingly stronger measures will be required
to minimize the apparent bulk and scale of the project and insure a harmonious
fit with the contextual setting. Larger projects may necessitate division
of the facade into independent designs, changes of height of several floors
and setbacks to achieve the desired relationship.
These design controls have been presented as guidelines
rather than rigid rules. This is essential given the wide range of sites
and situations in which a project may be proposed. The ultimate development
potential in a given property is dependent not only on the zoning and
height limit by also on the nature of surrounding development.
for Bulk and Massing - Part 1
for Bulk and Massing - Part 2
Retain Chinatown's sunny, wind-free environment.
An oldtimers' expression about weather in Chinatown
is that "the fog never comes to Chinatown." The sunny and wind-free
climate is important to the comfort of residents and visitors because
most people walk rather than drive in Chinatown. To achieve and protect
as much sun as possible on public sidewalk during midday hours, setback
requirements are needed for various streets in Chinatown. Retaining lower
height buildings reduces the potential increase of wind currents at street
Protect the historic and aesthetic resources of Chinatown.
Chinatown has been an identifiable part of San Francisco
for over a hundred years. Post earthquake Chinatown was built on its original
site. In some cases, the original bricks were reused. The area includes
over 250 historically and/or architecturally important buildings which
date from Chinatown's early post earthquake years and retain their historic
integrity. Insensitive alteration and dramatic shifts in scale threaten
the character of the area.
Over the years, significant buildings have been demolished
and original storefronts have been altered beyond recognition. Appropriate
measures should be taken to protect these resources.
2 - Architectural Ratings
RETAIN AND REINFORCE CHINATOWN'S MUTUALLY SUPPORTIVE FUNCTIONS AS NEIGHBORHOOD,
CAPITAL CITY AND VISITOR ATTRACTION.
Chinatown has three major roles:
- A residential neighborhood with 10,000 to 15,000
population, primarily elderly and recent refugee/immigrant households.
It has its own language and newspapers, groceries, fish and meat markets
and small shops.
- Chinatown functions as a capital city and center
of civic, religious, political and social service organizations, as
well as a specialized shopping center for the larger Chinese population
of the Bay Area.
- Chinatown is a destination for most visitors to
the city and many Chinatown restaurant and gift store enterprises have
a strong tourist trade.
Although the land uses associated with these
functions tend to cluster, there is in fact, much overlap and intermixing.
Define mixed use subdistricts based on the predominant type of ground
Base zoning on the generalized land use and density map below.
3 - Chinatown Land Use
and Density Plan
STABILIZE AND WHERE POSSIBLE INCREASE THE SUPPLY OF HOUSING
Conserve existing housing.
Chinatown's 6,500 housing units, with their moderate
rent are a virtually irreplaceable housing resource. The protection already
provided to residential hotel units (two thirds of Chinatown's housing)
needs to be extended to apartment units as well. Demolition should be
allowed only if that is the only way to protect public safety or for a
specific use in which there is a high degree of community need. Low cost
housing removed by new development should be replaced on a unit for unit
basis and adequate relocation assistance for all displaced persons should
Increase the supply of housing.
New zoning controls in Chinatown should insure that
a substantial part of new buildings will consist of housing. In selected
areas of Chinatown, height incentives related to provision of affordable
housing should be provided. New residential development should be linked
to new commercial development. While market rate housing may have standard
parking requirements, other forms of housing in Chinatown may not need
as much parking.
Seismically upgrade unreinforced masonry buildings without imposing undue
financial burdens or permanent displacement of residents.
Approximately half of Chinatown's buildings are unreinforced
masonry. Many of these buildings should be retained because of their historical
and architectural importance. The cost of full seismic upgrade is considerable
and would cause displacement of tenants, but some safety measures allowing
safe exodus are less costly. The City is investigating the feasibility
of encouraging such safety measures as additional bracing and tying of
floors. Such measures provide a substantial amount of protection and can
be done at lower cost than a full upgrade. If work is done on an older
building with low income tenants in an historic district, as much as 60%
of the cost can be taken as federal income tax credits under the l986
PRESERVE THE URBAN ROLE OF CHINATOWN AS A RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD.
Protect and enhance neighborhood serving character of commercial uses
in predominantly residential areas.
Most such uses occur in small stores and shops, so
the regulation of size and the street frontage can protect existing smaller
enterprises from displacement by larger operations and can help maintain
Control proliferation of uses that tend to crowd out the needed neighborhood
Such uses as financial institutions, conventional fast
food vendors and jewelry stores tend to displace smaller retail spaces
and neighborhood shops and need to be limited or subject to discretionary
Guide the location of tourist oriented uses away from predominantly residential
neighborhood commercial areas.
Such uses as large restaurants and gift stores do not
belong in residential neighborhood commercial areas because they do not
primarily serve the local residents. Furthermore, the neighborhood economy
is vital for the tourist industry itself. Tourists come to Chinatown not
only to shop and eat, but to see a thriving Chinese community with small
businesses and institutions that cater to residents. These uses should
not be crowded out by tourist-oriented uses.
Expand open space opportunities.
Chinatown has long been designated as a high-need neighborhood
and has been granted acquisition funds for a new park in the Prop. J Open
Space acquisition program. Chinatown has been the only designated high-need
neighborhood which as of 1987 had not yet received a new park. Site acquisition
in such a densely built-up area containing so much residential population
has been extremely difficult, but the City is proceeding to acquire a
site on Powell Street.
Both conventional and innovative means of assembling
open space should be explored. In addition to the much needed new park,
Chinatown has opportunities to use and develop alternative forms of open
space including, school yards, alleyways and sidewalks. Air rights on
existing publicly-owned property such as Ping Yuen housing complexes should
be used for additional open space. Finally, existing resources should
be used in ways that enable more people to benefit from high quality outdoor
The following specific measures should be pursued:
- Aggressively continue to implement the alleyway
- Improve existing school yards and provide for their
use during non-school hours.
- Maximize use of existing public recreation facilities
through better maintenance and revamping and redesign where appropriate.
RETAIN AND ENHANCE CHINATOWN'S ROLE AS A VISITOR ATTRACTION.
The San Francisco Convention and Tourist Bureau reports
that of the two to three million visitors to San Francisco each year,
at least three out of four visit Chinatown. During peak visitor days,
visitors may outnumber local residents. An estimated one third of the
estimated 20,000 jobs in Chinatown are related to visitors and therefore
its tourist role is important to the neighborhood.
Maintain Grant Avenue as the traditional specialty retailing area.
Grant Avenue is a specialty shopping street with a
concentration of Chinese style architectural detailing that contributes
to the City's visual diversity. Many of the tourist-oriented restaurants
and gift shops are concentrated here. The street's present character,
use and scale should be retained while allowing a modest potential for
future economic expansion.
RETAIN CHINATOWN'S ROLE AS A CAPITAL CITY
Chinatown functions as a capital city and center of
civic, religious and political organization, as well as a specialized
shopping area for the larger Chinese population of the Bay Area. There
are about 200,000 Chinese in the Bay Area and about 2/3 of this population
lives in San Francisco.
Provide incentives for location and expansion of institutions and cultural
Institutional land use including space for social agencies
comprises a significant share of all floor area in Chinatown. Family and
District Associations whose roots go back to the first settlement of Chinatown
are important agencies in the provision of various support service to
their members. There are approximately 140 family and district association
in the planning area. There are also a number of health and social service
agencies. Public and private health, educational and welfare agencies
which provide support services to Chinatown residents should not have
to compete with commercial uses for activity space. Limits on commercial
floor area should not apply to institutional land uses.
Provide for modest expansion of community business offices related to
Capital City role.
Kearny Street and vicinity have more potential for
added office development than other parts of Chinatown. Changes should
be carefully managed, however, to avoid excessive new development.
MANAGE TRANSPORTATION IMPACTS TO STABILIZE OR REDUCE THE DIFFICULTIES
OF WALKING, DRIVING, DELIVERING GOODS, PARKING OR USING TRANSIT IN CHINATOWN.
Chinatown is characterized by high pedestrian volumes
and intensive use of public transportation. During peak shopping times,
the sidewalks, especially along Stockton Street and Grant Avenue, fill
with throngs of visitors and residents. At these times, buses may move
at the same speed or even more slowly than pedestrians.
Pedestrian space needs to be maximized where possible.
Chinatown residents, 75% of whom have no cars echo need for more frequent
and less crowded bus service and better east-west links. Paratransit is
also an important part of the transportation system in Chinatown.
Implement measures responsive to pedestrian needs such as scramble system
intersections, increased duration of walk signals, and limits on auto
use in alleys
Make MUNI routes more reflective of and responsive to Chinatown ridership,
including bilingual signage, schedules, maps.
Improve and increase parking enforcement; use enforcement and rate structures
to encourage short term parking; operate meters seven days a week. Improve
and increase parking enforcement; use enforcement and rate Improve Improve
and increase parking enforcement; use enforcement and rate structures
to encourage short term parking; operate meters seven days a week.
Increase public short-term parking opportunities; set rates to discourage
Parking is extremely difficult to find in Chinatown.
Provision of a new off-street parking facility is a high priority. However,
locating such a facility without displacement of residents or businesses
is a problem. Other parking solutions include increasing the joint use
of existing parking, expansion of metered spaces, increased enforcement
to increase the turnover of on-street parking, and increased parking fees
and improved transit service to reduce demand.
Since Chinatown is adjacent to the financial district,
downtown commute patterns and goods movements are major contributors to
congestion. Morning peak traffic often conflicts with local truck loading,
particularly for meat and produce. Changes in timing for deliveries could
reduce such conflicts.
Minimize truck loading/unloading conflicts.
Implement concentrated commercial loading zones and uniform truck delivery