A crane in the San Francisco sky
Cranes in the sky over San Francisco in 2018. Eric Risberg/AP

In some cities, a skyline full of construction equipment has become synonymous with change and displacement. But there are things cranes can’t tell you.

Cranes should be pretty hard to miss. They reach hundreds of feet into the sky, often dangling precariously over city streets. But in a forest of high-rise buildings, spotting a crane in its native habitat is not entirely unlike spotting its avian homonym. You have to watch the skies.

“There,” said Shreya Sant.

I leaned my neck out of the car window and looked up. Above the San Francisco streets, a mass of steel hugged a skyscraper under construction a few blocks away. We wound through the streets, following the Google Maps directions that would bring us to our next mark. “It may not be the one we want,” Sant said. “But it’s still a crane.”

We’d been en route to check out another crane entirely when we happened upon this one, the kind of low-key serendipity that comes with the territory when you’re on a mission to count all the cranes in a city. This was the third time Sant had embarked on such a journey since moving to San Francisco last year. Usually, she brings her dog. This time, she brought me.

Sant works for Rider Levett Bucknall, a construction project management company and the purveyors of a bi-annual international Crane Count. The firm started conducting its counts in 2012, at first focusing only on Australia. In 2015, they expanded the process to include the 13 cities in North America where they operate. In each location, they tally tower cranes—the big ones used to build high-rises that are 10 to 80 stories tall—and note each development’s eventual use.

RLB crunches numbers all year on construction costs within the cities where it operates, which is useful for people in the development trade, and few others. But counting the tower cranes that rise above each city’s skyline turns out to be a topic of broader interest, too.

Like the Big Mac Index, which uses the price of a McDonalds hamburger to compare international exchange rates, The New York Times considers the crane count a way of taking the economy’s temperature. The last count before my and Sant’s, conducted in fall 2018, marked the third consecutive increase in North America’s total, RLB found.

But in high-cost cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which have seen income inequality rise along with new development, residents study the cranes like tea leaves.

“You know your neighborhood is being gentrified when … the only thing that outnumbers the construction cranes dotting the skyline are think pieces on where the old San Francisco went,” reads a 2014 SFGate post. San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s oral history of Bay Area change, “Narratives of Displacement,” opens with an image of a city besieged by construction equipment: “Today … cranes litter the horizon as the city gains international attention for skyrocketing rents and exponentially growing income inequality.”

As dots on a map, all cranes may look the same. But their impact isn’t indiscriminate. Even more than a construction tool, elegant wetland bird, and/or healing origami shape, cranes have become a synecdoche for transformation—telegraphing evolutions both personal and physical, wanted and unwanted.

It’s the tangled symbolism described by Solange Knowles in “Cranes in the Sky,” a song she wrote about returning to Miami—a place that once felt like home—after having a baby and signing a record deal, only to find the city covered in “metal clouds.” In an Interview magazine cover story, the singer explained her song’s genesis. “I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge,” she told her sister, Beyonce. “I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.”

Cranes of S.F. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

But what “excessive building” means depends on who’s watching it get built—and what’s being constructed. San Francisco has a severe housing shortage. An Apartment List analysis found that the metro added 3.45 jobs to every one housing unit permitted, giving it the worst housing-to-jobs ratio in the country; in 2018, the pace of housing construction in the city dropped 41 percent, despite more ambitious goals. But it also has a glut of offices and luxury high-rises: More than three-quarters of the new stock added in 2018 wasn’t considered “affordable,” according to the San Francisco Planning Department.

When Alexandra Lacey, an artist and activist with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and longtime San Francisco resident, looks at cranes looming overhead, she sees the places she knows and loves—favorite restaurants and neighborhood haunts—at risk. “People often say, ‘Things change; cities change,’” she said. “But there’s a kind of callousness to this idea.”

As Sant and I sat in traffic, I wondered about the cranes we’d be chasing across the city. Were they harbingers of displacement, or agents of much-needed supply? What, exactly, do cranes mean, and how many should San Francisco have?

***

To prep for my crane-hunt, I did a little background research.

There are a confident few who believe that aliens built Stonehenge, and the pyramids, and Macchu Picchu. It’s hardly fathomable that early humans, without the aid of powered machinery, were able to hoist tons of rocks into the air to build these sophisticated structures. But historians and archeologists have evidence that it was indeed humans (some of them likely forced laborers) that did it—with help from ropes and pulleys.

These mechanisms were the earliest versions of cranes, says Henry M. Koffman, a civil engineering professor at the University of Southern California. To lift 100 pounds using ropes and pulleys, he says, it would take humans just the equivalent of a five-pound tug.

Today’s steel-bodied cranes in the sky didn’t emerge until the Industrial Revolution, when steam could provide the lugging power. In the 1900s, gasoline and diesel engines took over.

Now, at least one crane is behind the construction of all of the urban structures you see. Tower cranes—the ones RLB counts—are used to construct the tallest buildings because they “will often give the best combination of height and lifting capacity”: Each can carry up to 18 metric tons, and reach up to 265 feet above ground (and even higher when affixed to the side of buildings). To keep the mega-cranes from tipping over, they’re often planted to the ground with concrete pads, which, according to Coast Crane Company approximations, can reach up to 30 by 30 feet, four feet deep, and 400,000 pounds. Everything about them is monumental.

“We can’t build skyscrapers without tower cranes—it’s really that simple,” said Koffman.

You also can’t build tower cranes without other cranes. “Mobile cranes”—the standard, medium-sized, truck-mounted ones, synonymous with “construction cranes”—are responsible for putting the jib (horizontal parts) on the tower crane’s mast (vertical part). Then, to rise to its maximum height, according to a breathless How Stuff Works explanation, “the crane grows itself one mast section at a time!”

Once the crane finishes auto-building, the human operator intervenes. “It’s like playing a big Donkey Kong game,” explained one crane operator in a History Channel documentary feature.

If you want to build tall, Koffman says, cranes remains the best technology we’ve got; he is unabashedly pro-crane. “Even when we colonize space, the moon, and Mars, we’ll be using cranes,” he said.

When I asked him about what the cranes currently operating on Earth mean, symbolically speaking, he got excited. “It’s funny you say that, because when I travel, usually downtown, I gauge the development by the number of tower cranes I counted,” he said. “In downtown L.A., where I’m from, I think a year ago I counted something like 13 or 14 tower cranes downtown … so that means that we’re in a big building boom.”

Apparently, counting cranes is a thing people do. I wanted to do it, too, which is how I found myself sitting across from Sant at a San Francisco Starbucks this summer, talking through the crane-count game plan.

She’d printed out a list of approved projects from the city’s construction permitting database, and cross-referenced it with a list of cranes she’d counted last fall. Then, she created a Google Maps route that would take her to each potential mark, grouping them by neighborhood. For the past few days, she’d been systematically driving through cluster by cluster, and checking off the cranes she found. (To stay as accurate as possible, Sant won’t count a crane until she sees the construction site from which it stems.)

The crane-count game plan. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

This afternoon, we’d be covering the second cluster: About 10 locations around Van Ness Avenue, splayed between Uber’s HQ and the Tenderloin district, home to many of San Francisco’s unhoused residents. I could probably leave after an hour or so of this, she said. Anything longer, and I’d get bored.

“You have to drive and look out the window and say, ‘There’s a crane,’” said Shreya. “That’s all it is.”

This point-in-time count technique has its drawbacks. The exact number of cranes on the ground fluctuates, and can be influenced by a number of factors: If a bundle of permits have just been approved, cranes may not have appeared yet, but development is still on its way. Similarly, if a project has just been completed, cranes may just have been lowered, but in their place is a new building with units to fill. RLB counts twice each year to help balance this out—it takes far longer than six months to complete any one project, so most cranes will likely be captured at some point. In addition to counting, the company uses permits to categorize buildings by their use category, to find out whether projects are commercial or residential, civil or educational.

“It’s not perfect,” says James Casey, an associate at RLB’s San Francisco office. “But it’s an easy, quick, visual barometer of how it’s going.”

Crane counts like this are also ultimately flawed measures of “neighborhood change.” Despite the fact that high housing costs have been pushing people out of the city (recent Census data revealed that, between 2013 and 2017, the wider Bay Area lost a net of 35,400 people, not counting new births or immigration), San Francisco’s position on the crane spectrum has not surged relative to its peers.

In its first count in July 2015, RLB counted 23 cranes in San Francisco, putting it on par with Los Angeles at the time. While Los Angeles’ crane count reached 44 this January, San Francisco’s grew to 29, marking its highest count yet, but fewer than Calgary, Seattle, and Portland. Washington, D.C., and New York City were right on its tail, with 28 each.

When I told Lacey this, she believed me, but said it didn’t square with what she and the peers who grew up with her in San Francisco have been seeing—or what they’ve been feeling. “There’s a normal rate of urban change, and this is not that,” she said. “And it’s not happening in an organic fashion, but in a top-down fashion.”

San Francisco’s modest ranking on the crane scale can partly be explained by high construction labor costs in California: One pro-union nonprofit estimates that the state would need to hire 200,000 new construction workers to keep pace with ambitious building goals set by Governor Gavin Newsom. That shortage, too, can be traced back to the housing crisis, as construction workers struggle to find affordable homes in-state.

It is also a reminder that two things can be true: San Francisco’s crane count is almost half that of Seattle, and its affordability crisis is more severe. The average rent for a Golden Gate one-bedroom reached $3,700 this year, while in Seattle that figure is $2,130, and housing costs in Seattle have cooled off recently, thanks in part to a major construction boom. According to RLB, 78 percent of Seattle cranes were building mixed-use and residential projects in January, while in San Francisco, only 35 percent were involved in housing.

The company doesn’t factor affordability into their analysis, but most of the luxury housing being sold on the San Francisco market is part of existing housing stock, not new apartments, according to a 2017 analysis by the Urban Institute. At least some of this crane-related activity is easing, not exacerbating, the city’s housing crisis. And some YIMBYs argue that cash-strapped San Franciscans who want to stay in their city should be yearning for more cranes, and the housing they build.

But no matter what the statistics say, a downtown skyline full of cranes remains a visceral visual symbol of change-in-progress, like the dark gray rehabbed houses in the Mission district or the woolly Allbirds on the toes of tech workers.

From her office in SOMA, Lacey often stares out at the cranes punctuating the skyline. “It feels like something you don’t have any power over,” she said. “It feels like they loom over you, and loom over the city, and that there’s nothing you can do to bring them down.”

***

As Sant and I roamed around Van Ness, the cranes we did see said as much as the cranes we didn’t. Last count, Sant found cranes concentrated in the South of Market (Soma) and Portrero Hill neighborhoods, where multifamily projects have been rising. Construction was also active in Parnassus Heights, where UCSF’s Medical Center was growing after receiving a $500 million renovation grant last year.

This month, our route took us through downtown, where we seemed to find cranes everywhere: Above scaffolding that advertised an upcoming Four Seasons on Mission Street. Helping construct a San Francisco Conservatory of Music expansion. Putting the finishing touches on a new Trinity Place apartment complex, which rents one-bed, one-bath apartments for $3,299 a month.

When the final crane count, which included the fruits of Sant’s labor, was released in July, North America’s overall crane count had jumped yet again, for the fourth consecutive year. Together, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Toronto made up over half the total count, RLB found.

But San Francisco’s count had again decreased, one of only three cities to see slumps. Sant counted 23 total cranes, down six from January’s peak. The decrease was probably due to the completion of two major projects, the new Chase Arena and the UCSF medical center. RLB wrote that the city’s “construction market continues to be busy, with high-rise developments in SOMA and residential and commercial developments in Potrero Hill continuing.”

The tone seemed to be one of reassurance, as other cities gripped by the housing crisis seemed to be building more aggressively: Los Angeles’ 11 percent leap in crane activity was expected to grow even more next year, RLB wrote, as the city continues proposed housing projects “concentrated around public transportation nodes.”

Counting tower cranes might not be the best way to track the real momentum of a city’s construction scene: Sorely needed missing-middle housing, like duplexes and fourplexes and “five-over-one” apartment complexes, don’t require the same construction gear, for example.

But for now, it’s the best RLB’s got. In November, Sant will hit the streets again and, again, report on San Francisco’s highest peaks. Really, she’s always counting. Once you start looking, she says, you see the cranes everywhere. “It’s always in my mind now.”

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