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San Francisco: Bustling by the Bay

San Francisco is buzzing with new development, all while maintaining its green - and fashionable - profile.

San Francisco is buzzing with new development, all while maintaining its green — and fashionable — profile.

San Francisco has started the new year with big ideas, such as the leveling of the old Transbay Terminal to make way for a regional rail-bus hub in the center of downtown that city officials say will be the “Grand Central Station of the West.” Designed by Argentine architect Cesar Pelli, the complex, to be completed in 2014, will have a triangle-shaped tower, glass passenger terminal with wavy sides and a 5.4-acre park as its roof.

Nearby, office towers are planned, such as one by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who, across town in Golden Gate Park, recently finished a sod-covered, eco-friendly California Academy of Sciences museum opening this spring. In addition, an influx of luxury condo towers south of downtown with sweeping Bay Area views is reshaping the skyline, which, since 1972, has been defined by the 853-foot Transamerica Pyramid building.

Further south, cutting-edge biotech laboratories are filling new low-rise, high-tech campuses along the shoreline of Mission Bay, a reclaimed 303-acre railroad yard.

Such bullish construction and high-tech investment helped San Francisco score fifth place in a recent ranking of 2008’s best U.S. cities for real estate development and investment, prepared by the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers. (New York topped the list, followed by Seattle; Washington; Boston; San Francisco; Los Angeles; San Diego; Chicago; San Jose, Calif., and Denver.)

“San Francisco is a global gateway city, a 24-hour city where the technology investment is rebounding and expanding,” explained Steve Blank, co-author of the report, which describes “young techies,” eager to move to “this prototypical brainpower mecca.” But while San Francisco plans for its future, in the near term, there are some difficult issues to tackle.

Police blame the prevalence of guns and gang violence for the increase in homicides last year to 98, the most in more than a decade and 12 more than in 2006. In a city that touts mass transit above cars — there is a no-new-parking-garage policy — pedestrian fatalities last year more than doubled to 30, including seven involving municipal buses and trains. The city also faces a potential budget shortfall of $229 million and subsequent cuts in city services, as Mayor Gavin Newsom has instituted a government hiring freeze.

Lisa Rissetto, president of G. Hensler & Co., a San Francisco handbag and accessories design firm that has produced private label fashions for 30 years in Hong Kong for Gap Inc., Bebe and Nordstrom, among others, is an example of San Francisco’s “knowledge sector.” Last fall, Rissetto launched her own higher-end label, 49 Square Miles, a line of slouchy bags at $350 to $750 made of soft Italian and French leather with few adornments. Named for the city’s geographical dimension, the bags sell in 125 specialty stores nationally. “Business has been good,” she said, noting the midtier private label accessories business has slowed a bit with the economy.

Another slice of San Francisco’s knowledge-power economy can be found at Britex, a fabric store across from Neiman Marcus in Union Square with a deep inventory of textiles and notions pristinely covering four levels, floor to ceiling. Sharman Spector owns the 56-year-old family business with her sister, Beverly, where 45 employees keep track of four floors of meticulous inventory without computers. “It’s a tactile business,” said Spector, who makes sales calls to European textile mills cultivated by her Viennese-born mother, Lucy. “I have a real love for the quality,” she continued, feeling a bolt of $195-a-yard gray Italian wool and cashmere fabric sprinkled with a pattern of tiny leopard-print purses with silver handles.

Britex still does a healthy business from customers seeking designer quality fabric to take to a tailor to create an outfit — 20 percent of the business comes from tourists — but, as is the case elsewhere, the home-sewing market has waned with the times. Taking its place are troops of fashion design students from three city art colleges and local universities. “There has been a complete revolution of wonderful young students majoring in fashion design that is benefiting us,” Spector said, attributing the interest to reality fashion TV shows.

Britex is also a source for designers, and movie, television and theatrical costumers. Colleen Atwood picked up fabric there used in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” for which she won an Oscar. Britex fabric also appeared in the movie “Walk the Line” and in ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” and clothed backup singers for Celine Dion’s current tour.

Costumers for director Gus Van Sant, filming a movie about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor and U.S. politician, have asked Spector to match fabric in the brown wool suit worn by Milk when he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in 1978 at City Hall by Dan White. “They want us to match the fabric,” Spector said. (Milk will be played by Sean Penn and Dan White is to be portrayed by Matt Damon.) The tragedy became even more of a defining moment for the emerging national gay rights movement when residents of the Castro, the city’s gay quarter, marched down Market Street to City Hall and rioted. Tempers had peaked when White, using a diminished capacity defense that became known as the “Twinkie defense,” was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder and sentenced to seven years in prison. In many ways, San Francisco continues to be a stage for change. In businesses’ sights is a new city plan to require companies of 20 or more workers to provide employee health care, part of Newsom’s plan for all residents to have health insurance. Equally unpopular among back offices is the year-old city law requiring workers to be paid sick leave. “It’s like a socialist state,” grumbled one real estate official.

Newsom, seen as a rising star in the national Democratic Party, also pledges to further boost San Francisco’s green credentials by having the municipal bus fleet run on biodiesel restaurant grease; charging a traffic-congestion toll to drive certain busy roads, and generating renewable electricity citywide with solar and other sustainable technology, like turbines running off of heavy currents under the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition, by year’s end all commercial buildings will have to change their old fluorescent bulbs for energy-efficient ones.

“We are acting to protect our own unique urban environment,” he explained in his inaugural address. “San Francisco is now a testing ground for how a people and a place can help reverse global warming.”