“Twin Peaks Falls…” The Battle of Vista Francisco

As debates about SF’s housing crisis and high-density zoning rage on, let’s take a look back at how one viciously contentious development was approved in the early ‘60s.

Devin Smith
15 min readMay 4, 2018


A map of the three neighborhoods in the Twin Peaks area: Clarendon Heights, Midtown Terrace, and Twin Peaks/Upper Market.

Twin Peaks is, in some ways, like a small mountain town dropped right in the middle of San Francisco — the city’s equivalent of a flyover state (a tunnelunder state?). It’s basically nonexistent in online culture writing, because there’s no action up here. No storied music venues. No overhyped foodie spots. No upstart tech companies burning through VC cash, salacious hubris-and-downfall sagas in the opening chapters.

In the broad sense, “Twin Peaks” is comprised of three smaller neighborhoods circling the mountain: Clarendon Heights to the north, Midtown Terrace to the west, and Twin Peaks proper to the east (which some maps elide into Upper Market).¹ But as similarly sleepy as these three neighborhoods are, they’re markedly different in character… and these differences trace all the way back to when they were carved out of the mountain.

After centuries as a lookout spot for the Ohlone, Twin Peaks entered the development record as the northern tip of the massive Rancho San Miguel granted to Don José de Jesùs Noé, the last Alcalde of Yerba Buena. Back then, the mountains were grassy pastureland; Noé sold the land containing Twin Peaks to Adolph Sutro, who had the eucalyptus trees planted during an Arbor Day campaign. An 1885 photograph captures the waist-high saplings twisting ambitiously towards the clouds.

Around this time, the first Victorian estates (and curious DIY castles) began to rise on the northern slope of the mountain, branching eastward from Market Street. Clarendon Heights grows from this pedigree, and today, as a collection of mismatching mansions and secret brick stairways, maintains something of its original contrarian nouveau riche character.

Midtown Terrace arrived all in one go. Built from 1953–1960, it’s a textbook postwar planned community of single-unit detached houses snuggled into a basin in the foothills. It was designed for new mid-income families during the Baby Boom, which is largely the demographic which still lives here today: the…