Moment of truth

Pub date September 10, 2008


The controversial and long-awaited Eastern Neighborhoods Community Plan — which includes a thicket of thorny planning and financing issues that will largely determine San Francisco’s socioeconomic future — has finally arrived before the Board of Supervisors.

Neither developers nor community activists are happy with the plan approved Aug. 7 by the Planning Commission, which sets zoning, policies, and funding levels for new development in the Mission District, eastern SoMa, Potrero Hill, and the Central Waterfront.

Developers objected to the fee levels and affordable-housing requirements, saying they would discourage growth, but the compromise plan of less than $16 per square foot in development fees (which vary widely, depending on many factors) and a maximum 20 percent affordable-housing requirement have left public needs severely underfunded. San Francisco Planning Department estimates indicate the fee structure will yield only about $150 million for the area’s $400 million in infrastructure needs.

“The plan right now is not balanced in favor of diversity and real neighborhood needs,” said Sup. Tom Ammiano, who plans to introduce a long list of amendments to the plan in conjunction with Sup. Sophie Maxwell and neighborhood groups that include the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, the South of Market Citizen Action Network (SOMCAN), and the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association.

On the other side of the equation, the Residential Builders Association and other developers say the city will end up with little development activity if they ask for too much, and they’re threatening legal action if the city pushes too hard. “Our members certainly aren’t happy, and the industry isn’t happy,” RBA president Sean Keighran told the Guardian, saying the plan allows for too little development. “Many of our members are meeting with attorneys and considering their options.”

The Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee will begin working through the myriad conflicts Sept. 15 with a series of at least four hearings running through Sept. 23, when the plan could head for the full board. But given the complex political dynamics at play — and the fate of Proposition B, the affordable housing set-aside measure that could help narrow the funding shortfall — key parts of the plan could be delayed until at least January, when the new board is seated, making the stakes of this November’s election even higher.

Political priorities will determine the plan’s emphasis, and the balance of power on the board now seems to favor increasing the amount of affordable housing that will be required in the eastern neighborhoods, home to much of San Francisco’s remaining working class. The supervisors also are leaning toward asking developers to pay more for parks and other infrastructure needs.

Planning Department staffer Steve Wertheim said the goal has been to “make the fees as feasible as possible” for developers and “to find a sweet spot” that will satisfy developers as well as community activists. While he said the commission “was as aggressive as possible with the tools we had available, we would have to subsidize every house if we want [more] affordable housing.”

Planners say they are constrained by city studies indicating that developers won’t build if required to offer more than 20 percent of their housing units below market rates. “As a resident of San Francisco, I would love to see housing cheaper. But we can’t make affordable housing requirements so high that we end up getting no housing at all,” Wertheim said. “We’ve done as much as we can, but the whole city has to commit.”

Indeed, the plan’s funding shortfall raises citywide questions. Tony Kelly, president of Potrero Boosters, said the unspoken assumption in the Eastern Neighborhood Plan is that voters will need to approve Prop. B: “This plan is a big argument for the housing fund.” Either the proposition passes or San Francisco simply becomes steadily less affordable for working families.

Keighran thinks there’s been too much focus on affordable housing. “This one goal should not take priority over the other goals,” Keighran said. “We feel we’re being asked for so many different things from so many different people.”

Yet the activists argue that San Francisco will lose its working class and families if the market alone is allowed to determine what kind of housing is built. The city’s own general plan states that 64 percent of new housing should be affordable. The activists are urging the supervisors to prioritize community needs over developer profits.

“It’s a huge, sprawling plan that has a lot of detail, and the details we wanted to see aren’t there,” said Nick Pagoulatos, coordinator of the MAC. “In terms of the housing, it’s a complete disaster for our housing needs…. The housing we’re seeing is the same old housing we’ve always seen in our neighborhoods, which is mostly market-rate housing.”

Given the amount of light industrial land in the plan area that would be zoned for housing — enough for an estimated 7,500 new units — Pagoulatos said the community has gotten very little. The Planning Department estimates that less than 30 percent of the housing developed under the plan will be considered affordable — less than half of what the city needs — and even getting to that level will require more funding, perhaps by creating new redevelopment districts.

Among other problems in the plan, Pagoulatos said there isn’t nearly enough land set aside for the fully affordable projects that nonprofit entities seek to build with city affordable-housing funds. “If we don’t get that, then we didn’t get anything for all the concessions that we’ve made,” he said.

While the plan now includes modest new affordable housing and community benefits requirements for developers who want to exceed the plan’s height and density limits, activists say the community isn’t getting enough for offering this carrot. They propose to require that 100 percent of the units exceeding current entitlements be affordable.

“Our main concern is there isn’t enough affordable housing in the plan,” said Chris Durazo, community planning director for SOMCAN. “We want the Board of Supervisors to get involved and take this seriously. They need to understand how this community is growing. The families here now should be able to remain here.”

SOMCAN formally appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of the plan’s environmental impact report, which didn’t include detailed traffic studies that must eventually be completed. “We’re appealing it based on them punting the traffic and transportation plan,” Durazo said.

Kelly said that was emblematic of the cursory approach planners have taken toward sizing up and providing for the needs of residents in the affected neighborhoods. “This whole plan is going to move forward with less than half the money for neighborhood improvements they say are necessary,” Kelly said. He notes that the population of the 94107 ZIP code could double under the plan, which makes no provisions for increasing transit services for that higher population or securing new land for parks.

“The gap in affordable housing and the loss of light industrial jobs is matched by a lack of funding for community improvements,” said Kelly, who said his association focuses on that latter issue but is supportive of community groups that focus on housing and jobs.

In fact, there has been an unprecedented level of community organizing and collaboration among groups of all political stripes around this plan, work that is expected to pay off more at the board level than at the commission level.

“Because the board and the commission are two very different political bodies, others may come out that weren’t at the commission hearings,” said Wertheim, noting that developers were well-represented at the commission level. “But the one thing I’ve learned from this whole process is not to be surprised.”

Keighran seemed to sense the changing dynamics. “Planning takes methodical procedural work,” he said. “Politicians are not best suited to doing planning.”

But the activists say this plan should be a reflection of the city’s values, not simply a product of discussions between developers and planners. Yet they understand that politics can cut both ways, particularly during an election season.

“Of course we need more housing, but building $6 million condos isn’t the answer,” said Marc Salomon of the Western SoMa Task Force, which broke away from the Eastern Neighborhoods planning process — a process he criticizes. “It’s not about housing people, it’s about investment. It’s ‘How do we give the developers what they want and give the natives the bare minimum, or just enough that they don’t burn down City Hall?'<0x2009>”

Salomon fears the Eastern Neighborhoods will continue to suffer from political pandering. “The [supervisors] are all looking for their next move,” Salomon said. “The discourse has moved so far to the right that you can’t be against market-rate housing. And what they’re doing is developing market-rate housing to suit developers, and at the same time purging this city of progressives.”