Chinatown: San Francisco, California


The unique sense of place found within this ethnic enclave comes not only from the architecture and compact street grid but a cultural identity that has persevered for more than 160 years. Despite its reputation as a tourist attraction — it is San Francisco's third most-popular visitor destination — Chinatown is an immigrant gateway and cultural capital, a touchstone for Chinese throughout America as well as the 150,000–plus San Franciscans of Chinese heritage.

Designated Area

Thirty blocks bounded by Green Street to the north; Columbus Avenue and Kearny Street to the east; Bush Street to the south; and Powell Street to the west.

San Francisco's Chinatown, the most densely populated neighborhood west of New York City, has many local markets. Photo courtesy Chinatown CDC.

Planning Excellence

San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire, which destroyed Chinatown, gave rise to the colorful and ornate architectural style that distinguishes this neighborhood. With city leaders intent on relocating Chinatown, residents quickly rebuilt in place using a Sino – architectural vernacular, strategically designed to appeal to tourists, that shapes Chinatown's present-day skyline.

That skyline escaped physical damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but the resulting demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 led to a seven percent drop in sales tax (1998-2007). Business and community groups rallied, creating events and promotions. Most recently, from 2006-2012, the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development reports a 21 percent increase in sales tax.

The neighborhood dates to 1846, when an American flag was raised in Portsmouth Square, one of several popular community open spaces. An influx of Chinese in the 1850s, due in part to the Gold Rush and railroad jobs, gave rise to a 12-block area that by 1880 would be home to 22,000. Today, 14,500 people, 75 percent of them foreign born, call Chinatown home. An equal number travel into Chinatown each day for community services, shopping, and socializing. Many come by bus, which will be augmented by train service when a subway station opens in 2019.

Chinatown grew organically through the late 1960s when the International Hotel, home to low-income Chinese and Filipino immigrants, was targeted for demolition as part of urban renewal. In January 1977, the courts upheld the eviction of residents and some 5,000 people protested, laying the groundwork for heightened community involvement in neighborhood development, especially affordable housing. In 2005, a new 105-apartment complex for low-income and senior residents opened on the site.

The neighborhood has a long standing history of affordable housing units, much of it the result of public and private efforts. The Ping Yuen Public Housing development was built in 1952, and the Mei Lun Yuen housing project opened in 1982. Roughly 40 percent of housing is single-room occupancy, which contributes to the neighborhood's sustainable character, as does the low level of household car ownership — less than 20 percent.

The high level of pedestrian activity has been an important part of the neighborhood's alleyway and streetscape improvement plans created since the mid–1970s, when development in the nearby Financial District threatened Chinatown. The Chinatown Community Benevolent Association created and published in Chinese "A Plan for Chinatown," while the Chinatown Community Development Corporation Center and Chinese Chamber of Commerce collaborated on the "Chinatown Community Plan." Both would influence the city's 1986 Chinatown Rezoning Plan, which downzoned large portions of the neighborhood to protect the single-room occupancy housing stock and create incentive zoning with height bonuses for affordable housing. Community participation continues today and is evident in the design guidelines created to accompany development of the new subway station in this compact, tight-knit community.

The facade of one of Chinatown's residential buildings displays an East Asian inspired mural, adding to the neighborhood's rich sense of place. Photo courtesy Chinatown CDC.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Complete and Sustainable

  • Most densely populated neighborhood west of New York City, with 115 people per acre; more than four times higher than the density of San Francisco as a whole
  • Boasts schools, shops, restaurants, hospitals, squares and playgrounds, community centers, social services, and religious and cultural institutions
  • Compact grid and alleyway network favor pedestrians: more than 80 percent of households do not own a car
  • Muni 30 bus averages 22,000 daily passengers at four Chinatown stops; subway station to open in 2019; three Chinatown streets included in citywide bicycle network
  • Housing stock is 40 percent single-room occupancy, reducing residents' carbon footprint; some 2,200 housing units are affordable
  • Chinatown Alleyways Master Plan passed by Planning Commission in 1998, building upon four years of community-led efforts. To date, 11 alleyways have been renovated to be more green and pedestrian oriented
    • Chinatown Green Alley, a public-private demonstration project, will add green infrastructure technologies in up to three of neighborhood's 41 alleys by 2016
  • Concentration of social services and health care access create a complete and livable neighborhood
  • Chinese Hospital is a critical cornerstone of the Chinatown neighborhood and a proud community accomplishment providing services since 1925; new replacement hospital is under way
  • Significant public investment has occurred over the past five years to a number of civic institutions including Chinatown YMCA, Chinese Recreation Center and the Chinatown North Beach campus of City College of San Francisco

Cultural Capital

  • Largest Chinese community outside Asia, with 14,500 residents.
  • Gateway for new immigrants, providing familiar language, goods and services; 75 percent of residents are foreign born
  • Home to annual Chinese New Year Parade and Street Fair and the Autumn Moon Festival; dining, shopping, and entertainment options attract more than 10 million visitors
  • "Oriental" architecture — employed as a land-use tactic to prevent Chinatown's relocation after 1906 earthquake and fire — distinguishes neighborhood
  • Public art, which includes 19 murals, often speaks to Chinese-American history and culture

Planning Milestones

  • Growth was organic through 1960s urban renewal claimed some landmarks, such as Kong Chow Temple on the border between Chinatown and the city's Financial District. From mid-1970s to mid-1980s some 1,700 housing units were converted to office space
  • Chinatown Rezoning Plan (1986) downzones neighborhood, preventing high-rise commercial and residential encroachment from Financial District
  • Chinatown Area Plan (1995) sought to preserve distinct urban character and stabilize and increase housing supply.
  • Guidelines to transform alleyways into pedestrian/community spaces included in innovative Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan (1998).
  • Alleyway network not only provides passage through neighborhood but is home to apartments, ethnic grocery stores, and unique businesses, including the 1962 Golden Gate Cookie Factory, the only fortune cookie manufacturer in the city that still makes cookies by hand.
  • The Chinatown Broadway Street Design project was planning effort to develop a community-based vision and design plan to improve pedestrian conditions along Broadway from Columbus Avenue to the Broadway Tunnel. Funds for implementation have been secured (2013).

Stockton Street is one of Chinatown's busiest and most vibrant streets, and is home to several Asian companies such as the Hop Hing Ginseng Company and the Kowloon Market. Photo courtesy Chinatown CDC.

Community Activism

  • Founded in 1882, Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), aka Chinese Six Companies, provided community services — including security, health and translation — and advocated on immigration and persecution matters.
    • Today, CCBA is active in community development — creating the "A Plan for Chinatown" (mid-1980s), published in Chinese — and managing Chinese Hospital.
  • Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) was founded in April 1977 following protests over closing of International Hotel, which provided low-cost housing to Asian immigrants.
    • The group has been instrumental in creation of some 2,200 affordable housing units.
    • CCDC has created numerous plans, including "A Station for Chinatown" (2008), community design guidelines for the new Central Subway Chinatown Station.
    • Cameron House and Self-Help for the Elderly are among a dozen groups providing social and educational services to a population where 30 percent of residents are over age 65.