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Van Ness...San Francisco's old "auto row" offers new reasons to get out of your car.

Out-of-towners following the U.S. 101 signs between the Golden Gate Bridge and freeways to the south dutifully pour onto Van Ness Avenue. Locals reluctantly join the procession to buy a stereo, furniture, a new car or gas for the one one. It's a street that can try your patience.

The 100-yard-long blocks are too short for signals to smoothly move traffic in both directions. But stop-and-go traffic brings commercial visibility, so it was probably prdictable that when the car dealers who gave the street its auto row nickname started to drift away, property values would begin to soar.

The completion of Davies Symphony Hall in 1980 coincided with the rapid change, including a million square feet of new offices, new restaurants, a thousand new housing units, new movie theaters.

Perhaps this month the street will be in the news as a controversial plan for its growth is released. So the next time an errand, a trip through town, or a symphony ticket brings you onto this thoroughfare, look around when you slow down.

This widest, most heavily traveled of city streets doesn't invite strolling. Garish signs, meant to be read through the car window, make for dull walking. To cross the street you have just 20 seconds of green light to cover 90 feet from curb to curb (though the slow of foot can find refuge on the median strip where the H line streetcar once ran out to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition).

The Civic Center (McAllister to Hayes) contains a number of attractions within walking distance. Otherwise Van Ness regulars drive right to where they are headed, look for valet or validated parking, then drive on to their next stop. Buses are a convenient option. The 42, 47, and 49 Muni buses each run every 20 minutes until 1 A.M.

Come for art, ballet, a concert, a movie;

plenty of choices for lunch or dinner

Jutting signs, trucks, and buses obscure solid, often interesting buildings that contain a growing number of places to stop for food and entertainment. Where people once came to see the latest from Detroit, they now come for some of the city's most stylish restaurants or for the latest Richard Gere or Meryl Streep movie.

At first new restaurants clustered around Civic Center, where this month at the Opera House ballet season is underway. Davies Symphony Hall's season lasts until May. Herbst Theatre presents a busy schedule of lectures and recitals; in the same building, the Museum of Modern Art shows painter Elmer Bischoff through February 9. Nearby, Civic Auditorium offers attractions from boxing to a conference of travel agents, and the Orpheum Theatre presents mainly musicals (none this month). Combined, these halls have a capacity of 12,000 rumbling stomachs.

The next Civic Center restaurant in the wings, Harry's Bar and American Grill, a sibling to one in L.A.'s Century City, should open in April across McAllister.

On a street where the favorite dish was buffalo stew at Tommy's Joynt, a restaurant enveloped by murals, five restaurants, with decor costing at least $1 million each, have opened in three years. They stretch from Harris' (2100 Van Ness, at Pacific), where beef in a windowed locker comes from their feed lot along I-5 near Coalinga, south to Bull's Restaurant (just above Market Street), with Texas barbecue and Lone Star Beer.

In between, Cafe Royale (at 2080) serves mainly seafood in its 1930s-style pink neon interior. After 6:30 on weekends at the Hard Rock Cafe (1619), long lines and waits of an hour are the norm; IDs are needed after 8, but minors who want to bring their parents can come anytime. Rosalie's (1415) undulates with waves of white stucco and galvanized metal; food is American regional. In Opera Plaza (601), you dine on northern Italian dishes amid owner Modesto Lanzone's art collection. Most of the expensive restaurants have validated or valet parking.

Two movie complexes, Opera Plaza Cinema--small theaters showing mostly revivals and long-run films--and the Galaxy, at Sutter, have added eight new screens to the avenue in the past year and a half.

Millionaire's row to auto row

Van Ness was planned as a grand avenue, a sort of paved moat at the western frontier. It was home to Spreckelses, Gianninis, and Crockers. Their curlicued, turreted extravaganzas could be admired from the busy thoroughfare's gentle slope.

But is very width finished off the mansion-lined avenue: it offered the last hope for stopping the 1906 conflagration. Though houses on the east side were dynamited, the fire jumped the street and burned to the west for a block or more between Washington and Sutter and south of Golden Gate Avenue.

The fledgling auto sellers already grouped along Golden Gate Avenue helped rebuild the street. Van Ness's terrain suited the need for large ground-floor showrooms--often on corners--that didn't have to be diminished by access to service and garaging. On the east side's downslope, cars could be driven in below grade; to the west, where the slope to Pacific Heights begins, they entered on the second floor.

On the northeast corner of O'Farrell is a 1921 auto sales building designed to give the new industry a downtown office look, complete with corporate Cadillac crest in relief over the entry. But the architect couldn't resist placing a pair of chubby grinning bears atop flanking columns, just to remind buyers that it's more fun to own a phaeton than a stock certificate. Diagonally across the corner, the last auto showroom (built in 1938) had the sweeping lines of the era's streamlined models. Once Ingold Chevrolet, today it is George Olsen Cadillac.

Just south of Olsen, at 901, is a Greek temple fantasy implying that Packards are the favored chariots of the gods. It was designed in 1926-27 by Bernard Maybeck, best known for the Palace of Fine Arts. The salespeople invite you in to view the crystal chandeliers, wormwood ceiling, and wood paneling as well as the turbocharged current occupants.

Big new, big old buildings

At McAllister Street, workers are putting final touches on a 400,000-square-foot building for the Public Utilities Commission. The design, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, rounds out the Civic Center's northwest corner. It encloses a tree-planted atrium available for large outdoor gatherings. The 300 underground parking spaces will be open for evening use.

In the street's most significant rehabilitation, the old Masonic Temple near Market Street is now Bull's Restaurant. On top are seven floors of offices. The project was completed just over a year ago.

What's in store for Van Ness?

The three color statements on our map say it in brief. The city looks to Van Ness for housing: some 3,500 more units by the year 2000. There's good public transit, no residential lobby to complain about more density, and some properties big enough to be economical to develop.

The Van Ness Avenue plan, to be released early this year, calls for buildings with a ratio of 3 square feet of residential use for every foot of commercial. But the Van Ness Association, a group of local owners, argues that the street already is developing nicely and that the housing requirement would stop new projects.

Guidelines call for new buildings to conform to setbacks, cornice lines, and the design of neighboring structures. Opera Plaza and projects at California and Post come close--but they don't offer the ratio of housing urged by the city proposal.

For a free copy, stop by the Department of City Planning, 450 McAllister Street, open weekdays 8:30 to noon and 1 to 5.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jan 1, 1986
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