Volume 41 Number 29

April 18 – April 24, 2007

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This November, let’s fix Muni


OPINION In 2007 quality public transportation is not just a hallmark of a world-class city; it’s our best defense against global warming. In a state where half of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from mobile sources, we have to provide people the real choice to get out of their cars and onto public transit.

Nationwide, public transit use was up 3 percent last year. In San Francisco, Muni’s ridership declined 2 percent. This is a city that understands the threat of global warming, rallies against oil wars, believes in an improved quality of life with fewer cars, and long ago adopted a transit-first policy; the Muni ridership drop is totally unacceptable.

Muni should be attracting new riders, not driving the existing users off the system. A reliable Muni is also a serious social justice issue: 29 percent of San Francisco households get by without a car, mostly because they can’t afford it.

Muni’s meltdown in the 1990s was one of the biggest failures of the Willie Brown administration. The crisis caused voters to amend the City Charter in 1999 and create the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), setting explicit standards of service quality and guaranteeing predictable funding. Using new capital from the reauthorization of the sales tax for transportation, Muni was able to replace its bus fleet and restore most of its operability.

However, early in the Gavin Newsom administration, Muni service quickly began to deteriorate. Recently, Muni officials even sought to lower their on-time goals. This month’s opening of the T–Third Street line brought Muni metro service to a near standstill. Muni leadership apparently agreed that the problems were unacceptable — they spent much of their time passing out written apologies to Muni riders. However, these service interruptions are symptoms of deeper, structural problems at Muni. Apologies are not enough. It’s clear that significant additional Muni reform is necessary.

That’s why we are proposing a charter amendment for this November’s ballot to make managers and operators more accountable for their performance and to find new sources of revenue for this struggling system.

The MTA currently lacks the vision, accountability, and resources to deliver the transportation system that San Francisco needs. While Muni’s structural deficit has risen to $150 million a year, Muni officials have been slow to propose revenue options, and we know voters won’t be happy to provide more funding without structural reforms that make those public investments worthwhile. Measured in passengers carried per hour of revenue service, Muni’s current productivity has dropped to a historic low.

We need to make sure Muni’s managers and service planners have the tools to deploy their workforce efficiently, and we need to hold them accountable for delivering promised service.

We don’t know if Newsom will support substantial Muni reforms — but the system has broken down on his watch, and every San Franciscan who relies on Muni and who cares about the environment needs competent leadership from city hall now. *

Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin

Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin represent Districts 6 and 3, respectively.


Web site of the Week



He poses at the Apollo in shades. He meets with the laundry crowd at a Bernal Heights coin-op. He poses at the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission office. And boy, do his friends take some crappy pictures. Yes, Mayor Gavin Newsom has his own Flickr page. And it’s really, really special. (Thanks to Beth Spotswood [bethspotswood.blogspot.com] for the tip.)

Members of the environmental activist group ForestEthics staged a Friday the 13th demonstration at Justin Herman Plaza, addressing the "real-life horror story" of the clear-cutting habits of Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). ForestEthics communications manager Tom O’Leary wore a hockey mask and wielded a chain saw to topple other activists dressed as trees. The protest signified the launch of a major campaign against the SPI.


Draining the river


This winter was the fourth driest rainy season on record, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the agency that owns the pipes running from the Sierras and controls the water supply for much of the Bay Area, is trying everything short of mandatory rationing to cut water use.

In press conferences and public statements, SFPUC officials are urging residents to take shorter showers and fix leaky faucets. But at the same time — with a lot less publicity — the agency is looking for ways to suck more freshwater into the reservoirs.

The SFPUC is working on a plan that could divert by 2030 another 25 million gallons a day — enough each year to cover San Francisco with more than a foot of water — from its natural source, the Tuolumne River, to meet the demands of East Bay and South Bay customers.

"They are taking the easy way out by opening up the spigot instead of working with their customers to pursue a more sustainable plan," Heather Dempsey, Bay Area program director of the Tuolumne River Trust, told the Guardian.

Individual conservation is bringing San Francisco’s per capita water use down, according to the SFPUC. But the agency estimates that the Bay Area’s demand will increase 19 percent by 2030. The way to meet that demand, agency officials say, is to increase the daily diversion of 265 million gallons to 300 million gallons. Ten million of that will come from local aqua filters, recycled water, and conservation. The rest may come from the Tuolumne.

Dempsey said she’s concerned that less water for the river could further threaten struggling fish and wildlife populations. Only 625 Chinook salmon were counted in the river last year. While the salmon population fluctuates, even a high of 17,000 in 2000 looks troubling; in 1944 the count was 130,000.

The SFPUC is working on the plan’s environmental impact reports and is considering alternatives to diverting more water, but those alternatives may cost more than the agency and the public are willing to pay.

Tony Winnicker, communications director of the SFPUC, told us the agency is interested in recycling, but that’s very expensive. The plan to retrofit and upgrade the system is already estimated to cost $4.3 billion, which will triple water rates by 2015, when the project is complete.

"It’s cheaper to rely on water that flows from the Sierras by gravity than it is to fund alternatives," Winnicker said. "But we have to diversify our water supply, and this year reminds us of that more than ever."

Bay Area residents use more water per capita than people living in the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles and its surrounding sprawl have not increased their diversion since 1980, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

With all of the projected demand coming from the SFPUC’s wholesale customers, Dempsey says the agency should be working with those customers to reduce their draw on the natural system.

Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action believes this is attainable.

"It’s not crazy to set a goal of not taking more water and to figure out how to create incentives to reach that goal," Clary told us. "It’s not rocket science. People are already doing it. What we need is a commitment." (Chris Albon)

The silver bullet train


› steve@sfbg.com

There aren’t many easy answers to the environmental crisis facing California, a state with a fossil fuel–dependent culture that’s cooking the planet, congesting the freeways and airports, and hastening a tumultuous end to the oil age. But there is one: build a high-speed rail system as soon as possible.

All the project studies indicate this should be a no-brainer. San Franciscans could travel to Los Angeles in just a couple hours, the same time it takes to fly, at a fraction of the cost. And the system — eventually stretching from Sacramento to San Diego — would generate twice as much money by 2030 as it costs to build. The trains use far less power than planes or cars and can be powered by renewable resources with no emissions. The system would get more than two million cars off the road and single-handedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 12 million metric tons per year.

High-speed rail is a proven green technology that works well everywhere it’s been implemented, including most of Europe and Asia. In France the TGV line from Paris to Lyon connects the country’s two most culturally important cities in the same way that Los Angeles would be linked to San Francisco — from one downtown core to the other — allowing for easy day trips and ecofriendly weekend jaunts. Advocates for high-speed rail say it’s an essential component of California going green and the only realistic way to meet the ambitious climate change targets approved last year in Assembly Bill 32.

Yet for some strange reason, the idea of high-speed rail has barely clung to life since San Franciscan Quentin Kopp first proposed it more than a decade ago as a member of the State Senate and set the studies in motion, all of which have found the project feasible and beneficial. Today Kopp, a retired judge, chairs the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), which has fought mightily to move the project forward despite severe underfunding and sometimes faltering political support.

Growing awareness of climate change has increased support for high-speed rail among legislators and in public opinion polls (among Democrats and Republicans), leaving only one major impediment to getting energy-efficient trains traveling the state at 220 mph: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

While posing for the April 16 cover of Newsweek with the headline "Save the Planet — or Else" and touting himself around the world as an environmental leader, Schwarzenegger has quietly sought to kill — or at least delay beyond his term — high-speed rail.

The $10 billion bond issue to build the LA-to-SF section was originally slated for 2004, then pushed back to 2006, then pushed back to 2008 because Schwarzenegger worried it would hinder the $20 billion transportation bond, Proposition 1B, which was focused mostly on new freeway construction.

Part of the deal to delay the train bond involved giving the CHSRA the money it needed to start ramping up the project, which included $14.3 million last year, the most it has ever received. But rather than give the authority the $103 million that it needs this year to honor contracts, set the final Bay Area alignment, start buying rights-of-way, and complete the engineering work and financing plan, the governor’s budget proposed offering the agency just $1.3 million — only about enough to keep the lights on and not fire its 3 1/2 staffers.

And now Schwarzenegger is asking the legislature to once again delay the 2008 bond measure, which would take a two-thirds vote of both houses. "Investing in it now would prevent us from doing bonds for any other purposes," the governor’s spokesperson, Sabrina Lockhart, told us, citing prisons, schools, and roads as some other priorities for the governor. "It’s not cost-effective in the short term."

The stand baffles environmentalists and other high-speed rail supporters, who say the project is expensive but extremely cost-effective over the long term (although it gets less so the longer the state delays, with about $2 billion tacked on the price tag for every year of delay).

"If the governor would get up on his bully pulpit and talk about high-speed rail to the California people, we would be starting construction in 2009," Kopp told the Guardian. "What you have is political fear instead of political will."

Asked why Schwarzenegger doesn’t seem to understand the importance of this issue — or how it relates to his green claims — CHSRA executive director Mehdi Morshed can only guess. Some of it is the daunting price tag and long construction schedule, some of it is that the governor tends to defer to the Department of Transportation for his transportation priorities, "and they’re in the business of building more roads, so that’s what they say we need."

But mostly, it’s a failure to understand the kind of transportation gridlock that’s headed California’s way if we do nothing. "It’s an alternative to meeting the travel demand with more highways and airport expansions," Carli Paine, transportation program director with the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, told us. But as Morshed told us, "The governor doesn’t suffer much on the freeways, and he has his own plane."

The person doing Schwarzenegger’s dirty work on high-speed rail is David Crane, an attorney turned venture capitalist who, although he’s a Democrat from San Francisco, is one of the governor’s top economic advisers and his newest appointee to the CHSRA board. Despite thick stacks of detailed studies on the project, Crane seems to want to return the project to square one.

"There’s never been a comprehensive plan for how you’re going to finance this thing," Crane told us, noting that the LA-SF link is likely to cost far more than the bonds would generate. "The bond itself is a red herring. You could raise the $10 billion now and still not have a high-speed rail."

Yet supporters of high-speed see the Schwarzenegger-Crane gambit as mostly just a stall tactic. While Crane argues that the private sector funding — which could account for about half his estimated $40 billion in total project costs (other documents say around $26 billion) — needs to be nailed down first, supporters say California must firmly commit to the project if it’s going to happen.

"Private capital won’t be interested unless they know there is a public commitment," Kopp told us.

"You need to take a leap of leadership. When there is something that makes sense in so many ways, you need to have that initial public buy-in," said Bill Allayaud, legislative director for the Sierra Club California.

Support for that stance also seems to be strong in the legislature, where San Francisco’s newest representative, Assemblymember Fiona Ma, has emerged as the point person on the issue. She even went on a fact-finding mission in France, aboard the TGV train when it reached 357 mph to break the world rail speed record.

"We can’t do it until we have that public investment," Ma told us, noting that holding detailed financial debates right now is a diversion considering that "this project will pay for itself."

"My assembly caucus is extremely positive about high-speed rail. Right now it’s on the ballot for next year, and I think it’s going to stay there," Ma said. She isn’t sure that she can get the CHSRA the full $103 million it wants this year, "but whatever we can come up with is going to be better than $1 million."

"The governor needs to get on board. This is an important environmental issue," Ma told us. "For him not to be behind it doesn’t make sense."

Californians also seem to have a hard time fully understanding the project, probably because polls show that only about 10 percent of them have ever used high-speed rail in another country. Yet polls show climate change is a top public concern among Democrats and Republicans.

"Number one, the dollar figure is daunting," Kopp said. "Number two, we’re Americans, and we just haven’t experienced it."

Yet when the project and its benefits are explained, it doesn’t seem to have any opponents outside the Schwarzenegger administration. Morshed said not even Big Oil and Big Auto — two deep-pocketed entities with a history of fighting large-scale transit projects — have opposed high-speed rail. Once people get it, everyone seems to love it.

"The reaction you get almost every time is ‘Why aren’t we building it?’ That’s the thing that is universal, people saying, ‘Why don’t we have this? What’s wrong with us?’ " Morshed said.

For such a massive project — with construction spanning almost the entire state — it’s notable that none of the state’s major environmental groups have challenged the project’s environmental impact reports, which were certified in November 2005. That’s largely because the route uses existing transportation corridors and has stops only in urban areas, thus not encouraging sprawl.

"Environmental groups generally don’t like big projects, but they like this one," the Sierra Club’s Allayaud told us. "There aren’t a lot of negatives that we’re having to balance out, and there are a lot of positives."

Yet politics being what it is, other obstacles are likely to present themselves. The CHSRA is now setting the route into the Bay Area, either through the Altamont Pass or the Pacheco Pass, both of which have political and environmental concerns.

Morshed — an engineer who served as consultant to the Senate Transportation Committee for 20 years before heading the CHSRA — expressed confidence that the project will happen if the state’s leaders support it: "It’s moving ahead, and we have very good support in the legislature. The only soft spot is the governor, who wants to postpone it and seems to have other priorities." *

Green isn’t PG&E


› amanda@sfbg.com

You’ve seen the ads, lime colored and screaming from the sides of Muni buses, papered to the walls of BART stations, popping up on local news Web sites. "Let’s green this city," they proclaim in a chummy, we’re-all-in-this-together way. Like any good ad campaign, these broadsides, brought to you by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., are designed to snap your eco-consciousness into thinking, "Hell yeah! I’m going to get right on that!"

And like any good greenwashing campaign, they are also designed to distract you from what’s really going on at the $12.5 billion utility company.

"There’s an advertising rule that’s based on the idea to advertise where you’re weakest," says Sheldon Rampton, cofounder of the Center for Media and Democracy, which regularly tracks corporate greenwashing. "What typically happens with greenwashing is an attempt to create a superficial image without changing anything the company’s doing that would affect their bottom line."

Yes, PG&E has the fourth largest alternative fuel fleet of any utility in the country. (That’s if you define natural gas as an alternative fuel, a resource in which this utility happens to have $9 billion already invested. It’s still a fossil fuel and only burns 30 percent cleaner than oil and coal.)

Yes, PG&E is making environmental strides with increased investments in solar, biogas, and wind energy. (But the company will, by its own admission, fail to make the state-mandated goal of selling 20 percent renewables by 2010.)

Yes, PG&E has committed $1 billion over the past three years to energy-efficiency programs. (Actually, that money isn’t a kindhearted gift from the shareholders. It’s mandated by state law. And much of it comes from the ratepayers — see the "Public Goods Charge" on your monthly bill.)

Yes, PG&E has been donating solar panels to local schools and nonprofits. (Less than 1 percent of PG&E’s power comes from solar energy.)

Yes, the folks at PG&E have been loudly announcing all their good deeds. Here’s what else they’ve been working on, a little more quietly.


A recent PG&E television commercial shows children playing with Renewable Energy Man and chanting, "Sun, water, wind" as the future sources of power. But consider:

PG&E’s current power profile is 44 percent fossil fuels, 24 percent nuclear, 20 percent large hydro, and only 12 percent renewable.

As of 2006, PG&E had planned to integrate 300 megawatts of renewable energy sources a year into its overall profile in an effort to make the state-mandated goal of 20 percent renewables by 2010.

In 2006 Securities and Exchange Commission filings, PG&E projected it would miss that goal by a couple percentage points and is relying on the "flexible compliance" that the law allows.

The utility is currently building 1,350 megawatts of fossil fuel–burning plants, which are permitted to emit up to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

In December 2006, PG&E filed permit applications with the California Pubic Utilities Commission for 2,300 megawatts of conventional, nonrenewable power sources.

Renewable Energy Man is looking pretty weak.


PG&E is working to secure permission to build an $850 million, 232-mile gas pipeline, called the Pacific Connector, to bring one billion cubic feet of natural gas a day from Oregon into PG&E’s California customer territory starting in 2011. Some facts about natural gas:

PG&E customers currently use 836 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year, or 2.3 billion cubic feet per day. Over the past 20 years, natural gas usage in California has increased in concert with the rise in population — about 1 to 2 percent per year. The new pipeline would increase daily supply by 50 percent.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is considered the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but it’s still a hazardous, flammable material and can freeze-burn skin, crack ship decks, and asphyxiate.

A "small" LNG tanker is the length of three football fields and burns 170 metric tons of fuel (natural gas and heavy-duty diesel) per day. Planners anticipate at least six to seven ships will dock per month at a new LNG terminal in Coos Bay, Ore.

PG&E recently showcased a hybrid natural gas–electricity plug-in Toyota Prius with V2G, or vehicle to grid, technology. Unlike those of other electric cars, the connection is two-way — power comes from the grid to the car, but power can also go from the car to the grid. PG&E has said that if enough people own these cars, each one will be a miniature storage unit of power for the utility to draw on during peak hours — eliminating the need for more power plants. If the utility takes too much electricity from your battery while you work or sleep, you can still run the car on natural gas. But either way, you’re paying PG&E for the electricity and the fuel, and since PG&E electricity is hardly renewable, it isn’t doing much for the ecosystem.


Twenty-four percent of PG&E’s so-called nonemissions burning power comes from nuclear plants in Humboldt Bay and Diablo Canyon. When asked if PG&E is considering future nuclear power plants, spokesperson Keely Wachs said, "We’re not ruling it out." Some reasons to worry:

One of PG&E’s newest board members is Richard Meserve, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The decommissioning of nuclear power facilities is set to begin at the Humboldt Bay plant in 2009 and at the Diablo Canyon plant in 2024, at a cost of $2.1 billion, or more than $5 billion in future dollars — all of which you will pay.

PG&E will undergo a $16 million study of the feasibility of relicensing Diablo Canyon (at your expense).

PG&E currently has contracts out for $539 million of nuclear fuel, which you will pay for.

And, of course, PG&E spends millions fighting public power (which is almost always more environmentally sound than PG&E’s private mix). Green city or greenwashing? It seems pretty clear to us. *

The green issue


› tredmond@sfbg.com

Climate change is a global problem. A lot of the solutions, at least in the United States, are going to be local.

And a lot of them are going to start and end with the way we use land.

That’s a critical theme for this year’s Earth Day: cities like San Francisco, which claims to be (and really ought to be) a world leader in environmental sustainability, have to rethink everything from housing and consumption to open space and energy use — and particularly transportation.

Cars — private-use automobiles, the center of so much of American life and public policy for the past 100 years — are also one of the greatest threats to the future of the planet. The byproducts of tens of millions of internal combustion engines on the roads every day are a major component of greenhouse gases (not to mention other environmental pollutants). And the oil that fuels them drives a foreign policy that leads, as we’ve seen, to tyranny, instability, and millions of deaths.

It’s not enough to raise gas taxes or promote hybrids or increase fuel-efficiency standards (although all of those should be on the national agenda). Cities and states have to profoundly change the way people get around and the way they use public and private space.

Some of this is just so simple you can’t believe it’s not already happening. As Steve Jones reports ("The Silver Bullet Train"), a high-speed rail connection from San Francisco to Los Angeles would get almost two millions cars off the road and cut down immensely on the use of airline fuel. It would also pay for itself in a few years. It’s a form of public transit that would work right away: nobody likes to drive to LA. If you could take a train, get there in less time than it takes to fly, and pay less than $50 for the trip, why would you travel any other way?

Some of it requires more political vision (and political guts). If San Francisco wants to fight sprawl and encourage less car use, it has to be willing to build housing for people who work here — and that means, by city estimates, ensuring that two-thirds of all new housing be affordable.

And if San Franciscans want to reconnect to urban land and encourage bikes and walking, we have to think seriously about open space — even if it means that roads and private developments have to be sacrificed. That’s what Deborah Giattina describes ("Open Water,").

Cities and states also have to think about energy policy, and that means reclaiming energy as a public good, not a private commodity. San Francisco’s private utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is spending millions trying to tell us how green it is; as Amanda Witherell notes ("Green Isn’t PG&E,"), that’s a big lie.

On this Earth Day 2007, the time to mess around and debate has run out. Think globally, act locally — and push for a city and state environmental agenda that is more than hot air. *

Open water


› deborah@sfbg.com

For the casual stroller, a walk under the 101 interchange at César Chávez is none too inviting. Trucks and cars zoom off the freeway and onto the street all day long, bringing noise and exhaust with them. An atmosphere of abandonment and neglect allows crime to fester.

And if you dare to walk far enough under the highway, you might notice that water often floods the lowest point of the underpass.

That’s not rain collecting; it’s water seeping into the streets from the paved-over Islais Creek, which runs through Glen Park to the eastern neighborhoods and ultimately channels into the bay.

It’s just one of a network of creeks that flow through San Francisco, invisible urban treasures that have long since been filled in or paved over. The city has been burying the creeks since the 1906 earthquake. Back then the Board of Supervisors voted to fill the marshy lands near Islais with debris from the fires.

Standing under the overpass, Bonnie Ora Sherk, artist and founder of the urban planning nonprofit Life Frames, reaches for some leaves poking through a chain-link fence that separates the path from mostly empty islands of space. I can barely hear her through the ongoing traffic din when she says, "I haven’t been here in so long…. See those roses? We planted those."

Sherk dreams of allowing some of the water in the area to emerge from its underground culvert and fill a pond surrounded by beautiful riparian plantings such as willow trees.

With the Planning Department putting the finishing touches on its eastern neighborhoods plan and the Mayor’s Office launching its Better Streets program — which will put $20 million toward improving streets, sidewalks, and unused spaces — it’s a good time to talk about daylighting Islais Creek.

Sherk wants only a small piece of the underground stream brought back to life, but in theory San Francisco could open up much bigger stretches, allowing water to flow through neighborhoods and parks between its source in Glen Canyon Park and its outflow.

Sherk has been turning forsaken lots and concrete jungles into thriving natural areas that provide educational opportunities for children since she started the Crossroads Community art collective, also known as the Farm, under the freeway in 1974. With a colony of artists, she turned the void into a crossroad for the Bayview, Bernal Heights, and Mission District communities. During her six years at the collective, she led children from the neighborhoods in planting and gardening, built a barn for chickens and goats, and curated art shows.

Check out the photos on a Living Library Web site (www.alivinglibrary.org), and you’ll see how that area flourished during Sherk’s days as the collective’s executive director. Back then a landscape of native plants grew under the overpass. Now fences enclose these scraps of dead space to keep homeless people from setting up encampments in them.

When Sherk learned from old maps that the area was built over a watershed of intersecting creeks that feed into Islais, she tried to convince the city to uncover some of the creek water that flows under an open space next to the Farm, what is now Potrero del Sol Park.

The city built the park as she suggested but separated it from the artist community by a fence. Her idea to expose the creek wasn’t adapted either. A concrete-bottom pond fed by Hetch Hetchy water was installed instead. Soon it will be transformed into a skateboarding area, which Sherk thinks is better than constantly piping in precious reservoir water.

But she hasn’t given up on the idea of daylighting Islais at the interchange. She envisions diverting the off-ramps a bit to make way for the pond at the center of the underpass. From there César Chávez would be resculpted into a curving road, forcing traffic to slow down. Poplars could line the street, and educational artwork could be added to the mix. The fences would come down under the freeway, and the area once again would be replanted. It would be a nice place to drive and walk. Perhaps the crime and litter would disappear.

According to Sherk, the idea of an urban environment needs a paradigm shift from the days of factory-school settings. To her, it’s not just a matter of beautification or convenience. "Why do one thing when you can do 10 things simultaneously?" she asks — meaning a pond isn’t just a pool of water, it’s part of a place where nature intersects with industry, technology, and our everyday culture and where we can look at all of those elements, as she often says, "through the lens of time." *

Clean isn’t always green


› gwschulz@sfbg.com

There’s no more symbolic and tangible an issue for elected officials than clean streets.

Not everyone can see firsthand how well local schools are operating, whether nonprofits receiving city grants are spending the money wisely, or if every board and commission is complying with open-government rules.

On the other hand, everyone knows when the streets are filthy, and if a grease-soaked, wind-tossed burger bag slaps you in the face on your way to the ballot box, you’ll angrily remember it.

But clean doesn’t inherently equal green. Street sweepers don’t magically cause dirt to disappear. Where do the used condoms, food wrappers, trails of frothy malt liquor, puddles of urine, auto exhaust particulates, oil and gas residue, toxic chemical spills, and arching piles of trash go after being sucked into a street sweeper’s collection bin?

Well, two places really. When haulers and street sweepers at the Department of Public Works pick up junk from the streets, as much as possible gets recycled at a site on Tunnel Avenue.

"DPW separates materials we pick up for recycling [furniture, appliances, construction debris, etc.], which as recently as 2003 went to the landfill," department spokesperson Christine Falvey told the Guardian.

Then, however, the street sweepers all congregate at a DPW maintenance yard on César Chávez Street, where workers hose charming layers of sludge off the inside reservoir panels of the trucks and out onto two grates — little more than storm drains, which ultimately empty into the bay.

Harvey Rose, chief budget analyst for the Board of Supervisors, released a comprehensive management audit of the DPW in January. Buried on page 149 is a description of what San Francisco does with all this waste scrubbed from the city’s asphalt surfaces and left clinging to the inside of street sweepers.

For the audit, Rose’s office hired health and safety experts from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the San Francisco International Airport to conduct an inspection of the maintenance yard.

We recently requested a copy of the report, and it shows that the foul and possibly toxic liquids removed from the trucks — still swirling with smaller debris that slipped through the grates — wind up in the city’s sewers.

A capture basin below the drains, which the SFPUC cleans out once a week, gathers some of the smaller debris such as trash and gravel. But the basins lose their treatment capacity once they’re a third full, and auditors noted that the basins were almost overflowing when they visited. And despite the presumably high concentration of pollutants in the waste liquids (uninhibited runoff from the streets is a chief contributor to water pollution), no special attention was being given to their handling.

"There are no measures in place to prevent an acute discharge of a collected hazardous material," the analyst’s report concluded, "or to reduce the chronic influx of pollutants generated from this activity."

In other words, the city is cleaning crud off the streets, where people can see it — then dumping it into the bay, where it’s a lot less visible.

In the DPW’s official response to the audit, director Fred Abadi did not dispute how poorly the agency was treating discarded waste from street sweepers and vowed to link the catch basin to a multichambered oil-grit separator, as auditors proposed. Falvey admitted that sometimes night-shift sweepers dumped their entire loads at the César Chávez yard, but she said that habit stopped after the audit was released. The DPW is currently in the market for an oil-grit separator, she added, and the maintenance yard’s drains that receive material from the sweepers have been covered with metal nets.

Of course, all that flushing also requires a lot of water — and that’s in scarce supply right now. San Francisco is experiencing its fourth driest winter on record, and to fill the region’s water needs, there’s talk of diverting more precious flow from the Tuolumne River, threatening fish and wildlife (see "Draining the River").

The DPW’s "street flushers" can each hold 3,200 gallons of water and use about 15,000 gallons of freshwater every business day to cover an average of 25 routes.

In comparison, three average San Francisco households would have to cease using water for an entire month to equal the amount of water used to clean local streets each day. The DPW’s Bureau of Street Environmental Services used 5.6 million gallons of water last year, according to figures provided by water officials. The agency used 90.8 million for landscape maintenance, mostly irrigation for street medians, which during droughts in the late ’80s was temporarily outlawed to conserve water, according to SFPUC spokesperson Tony Winnicker. San Francisco is not there yet, but "for now we would just like everybody to cut back," Winnicker said, "and certainly the city has room to do that as well."

There are costs involved in not cleaning the streets. The Maryland-based Stormwater Center, funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, argues that it’s not clear how much street cleaners help remove surface pollution before it runs directly into the oceans. The center says, however, the runoff could be reduced by 5 to 30 percent with the right modern trucks and aggressive maintenance.

Street sweeping as a municipal function historically began as a matter of aesthetics. Unmanageable layers of trash and slime on the street are unsightly and generally not considered to be a part of good public policy, to say the least.

More recently, though, cities have looked at how street cleaning can also help green their locales. "They still want to pick up trash and litter, which was the original idea," said Jim Scanlon, a program director for the Alameda Countywide Clean Water Program. "But it’s moving a little bit more toward wanting to pick up the finer particles because of the pollutant-reduction capabilities."

To its credit, the DPW has planted several thousand trees in the city over the past three years at the direction of the mayor, helping to contain burgeoning stormwater during heavy rains that would otherwise overflow into the ocean. It’s a strategy lauded by groups such as San Francisco Planning and Urban Research. And elsewhere at the César Chávez maintenance yard, auditors noted the DPW’s good housekeeping, including its storage of toxic materials.

But scooping up noxious sludge in one place and pouring it out somewhere else isn’t exactly the sort of green behavior that Mayor Gavin Newsom likes to talk about. *

UC Extension project a bad deal


EDITORIAL Something has to be done with the old University of California Extension site, a 5.8-acre parcel of largely unused land at Laguna and Market. The historic buildings are locked and sitting empty; there’s no public access to the site at all. That’s a huge amount of land to be essentially going to waste in a crowded neighborhood that lacks parks and open space.

But there are competing issues here: the university, which doesn’t want the land anymore, wants to get every penny it can out of the property. And that’s led the university to enter into a long-term agreement with A.S. Evans, a big private developer, to turn the site into a mixed-use project with nearly half a million square feet of mostly market-rate housing, some retail, some community-use and open space, and a lot of parking. Among the plums Evans is holding out: the project is slated to include 85 units of senior housing targeted to the LGBT community. The Planning Department points out in an environmental impact report that the public will be able to access a modest park in the project center, where Waller Street, which now dead-ends at the site, will be opened up.

But this land is and has been zoned for public use and used by public institutions for a century or more. It represents almost 20 percent of all the public space in the Octavia-Market neighborhood. And if it’s going to be turned over to a private developer, the public needs to get a lot more out of the deal than this project offers.

For starters, like so much else that city planners are pushing these days, this is going to be housing for rich people — mostly single or childless rich people. Of the 365 units that aren’t included in the LGBT housing, 304 would be studio and one-bedroom units. And the 15 percent set aside as affordable housing still means only 54 units would be sold or rented below market rate. Only a tiny handful of the new units would be any help at all to the endangered population of working-class families — the ones who are fleeing the city in droves, the ones whom the Mayor’s Office claims to be concerned about.

At the 15 percent affordability level, exactly 13 out of the 85 units of LGBT housing would be available to anyone who isn’t wealthy. So 13 very lucky queer seniors or couples, out of the entire needy population in San Francisco, would win a lottery and get a decent place to live at a price they can pay.

And for that, San Francisco would give up 5.8 acres of public space and allow the demolition of some historic structures. It doesn’t seem like such a great deal.

Yes, there will be a community center and some other amenities, but overall this a private developer’s plan to make a lot of money selling expensive condos — which are the last thing San Francisco needs right now.

Rejecting this particular deal doesn’t mean the city is giving up on a better use for the site. If the school is told clearly that the only way San Francisco will rezone this land for private use is if the new project meets (or at least makes a real effort to meet) the goals in the city’s General Plan, which require that two-thirds of all new housing be affordable, the university will have to reconsider its financial demands on the project. And if it doesn’t, that’s something San Francisco’s state legislators should take up with the chancellor and the regents. *

Green city, part one: cut back cars


EDITORIAL San Francisco needs a real green city agenda — not something that comes out of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s corrupt propaganda operation or from the timid folks in the Mayor’s Office but a comprehensive environmental plan for the next 10 years that aims at making San Francisco the nation’s number one city for green policy.

There’s no point in thinking small: this is the year for dramatic talk about real environmental action. And it doesn’t have to be overwhelmed by global problems; there’s so much to be done right here at home.

We will be laying out a much longer, more detailed platform over the next few months, but here’s one way to start:

San Francisco ought to commit to cutting car use in the city by at least 50 percent in the next five years.

How do you do that? By making cars unnecessary and slightly more expensive.

The nation’s addiction to oil didn’t come by accident. As Thomas Friedman wrote in the April 15 New York Times, then-president Dwight Eisenhower responded to the cold war in part by building the Interstate Highway System, which allowed the military to move people and weapons quickly — but also set the nation on a path to the car-driven development and land use that are now poisoning the environment and global politics. Turning that around requires tremendous dedication and political leadership, but San Francisco shouldn’t have to wait for the rest of the country.

A citywide auto-reduction plan would involve sweeping land-use changes. Some streets, such as Market, should be closed to cars entirely. Much downtown parking should be eliminated. More bike lanes and transit-only roads, more pedestrian-friendly shopping areas, and other measures of that sort would not only help discourage car use but also make the city a more livable place.

But there’s more: a city that discourages car use has to build housing for local workers — that means affordable housing for the city’s service-industry and public-sector workforce. All new housing needs to be evaluated on that basis: will people who work in San Francisco be able to live here — and avoid long commutes? Most housing currently in the planning pipeline utterly fails that test.

To make cars irrelevant, public transportation has to be vastly improved. As Sups. Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin point out in the Opinion on page 7, that means better management. But more than anything, it means money — big money. Muni fares ought to be reduced dramatically (or eliminated altogether) — but in exchange, Muni needs a dedicated funding source. A special fee on downtown businesses makes sense. A citywide transit assessment on property owners might be necessary.

It’s not fair to place a burdensome tax on cars that makes it possible only for the rich to drive — but simply restoring in San Francisco the vehicle fee Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wiped out would cover Muni’s deficit. Assemblymember Mark Leno is working on this, and it should be a top civic priority. So should pushing high-speed rail (see page 19), which would eliminate tens of thousands of car trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

There are lots of ways to approach this goal; the supervisors and the mayor just need to set it and enforce it. *

Bar wars


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For the owners of the Hole in the Wall Saloon, the plan was simple: move their popular South of Market gay bar out of its dingy and dilapidated quarters to a much better spot around the corner. With numerous bars and nightclubs already along the stretch once known as the gay miracle mile, they assumed their place would fit right in.

But SoMa is changing — and the bar’s new neighbors in the increasingly residential district are using every regulatory trick in the book to block the move. Another bar, they say, is one too many.

The Hole in the Wall’s current location on Eighth Street frequently lives up to the place’s modest-sounding name. The plumbing stops up. The patched floor sags in places. And the bar tilts at an unnatural angle. Co-owners Joe Banks and John Gardiner, who are life as well as business partners, spent years seeking a new space for their eclectic, art-filled taproom. Last year they thought they had found an ideal spot a block and a half away on Folsom, between Dore and 10th streets.

At today’s prices, the building was a bargain — only $1.2 million. After making sure that the space, a former dance studio, was zoned to allow for a bar, Banks and Gardiner hired a local design-build firm to renovate the building. They hoped to open the new location by April 15, the bar’s 13th anniversary.

Now they just hope to open.

In early December project manager Jeff Matt was working on the build-out of the new space when a man named Jim Meko stopped by and asked him to give a letter to the owners. The letter, obtained by the Guardian, is on letterhead for the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force. The task force, which Meko chairs, is advising the Planning Department on a new zoning plan for South of Market.

The letter was a copy of a five-month-old missive Meko had addressed to the real estate agent representing the building’s sellers. It warns that if the property were sold to someone who wanted to open a bar, the buyers could face "obstacles" such as protests to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and petitions to the Planning Commission.

Silvana Messing, the agent to whom the letter is addressed, told us she never received it. The agent representing Gardiner and Banks as buyers, who asked not to be identified by name, claims he didn’t see the letter either. But if he had gotten it before the sale, he said, "I probably would have advised [Gardiner and Banks] not to buy the place."

Meko, who lives around the corner from the Hole in the Wall’s new location, told us Banks and Gardiner "tend to live right on the edge of the law" as bar owners. He charged that the place used DJs without the proper entertainment permits and that there have been reports of drug dealing and nudity on the bar’s premises.

Gardiner admitted that he and Banks have employed DJs in the past but says they did not know that a DJ requires a special permit: "We thought an entertainment license was for places with live bands…. When we found out, we stopped it." Banks and Gardiner denied that drug dealing takes place at the bar. As for nudity, several Hole in the Wall regulars recalled a time in the mid-’90s when patrons occasionally drank in the buff, but they told us such behavior died down long ago.

Officer Rose Meyer, the San Francisco Police Department’s permit officer at Southern Station, gave the bar and its owners glowing reviews. Referring to Gardiner in particular, Meyer told us, "Southern Station would have no objection to him operating [at the new location]. I don’t foresee there being any problems."

"He has always been responsible" in the past, she said.

Meko claims the letter wasn’t meant to stir up opposition to the bar’s move. Instead, he said, he was simply trying to warn Gardiner and Banks about the simmering antinightlife attitude among SoMa residents. "It’s real precarious," Meko said. "Neighbors just rise up. They become real irrational…. They can go crazy."

When 10th Street resident Damien Ochoa received notice from the Planning Department about the new bar in early January, he didn’t rise up — at least at first. But given that his bedroom window is less than 50 feet from the bar’s back smoking area, he was concerned. As a result, he said by phone, he "started to do a little bit of research about the owners." In the course of his research, he got in touch with Meko.

Ochoa said Meko informed him that "they’re potentially not good neighbors." After a neighborhood meeting, Ochoa, Meko, and several other residents pitched in money to file a petition in Ochoa’s name asking the Planning Commission to look at the project under its power of discretionary review. Other neighbors lodged protests with the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Within weeks all of Meko’s warnings to the real estate agent had come true.

As a result, work on the new bar is at a standstill. It cannot begin again until the protests work their way through hearings and appeals. It could be many months until the outcome is decided. Banks and Gardiner say they have staked their financial future on the new bar, with tens of thousands of dollars in construction loans set to come due before the end of the year. Without any income from the new location, they might not be able to stay afloat.

Banks told us the opposition to the bar’s move came as a complete surprise. The Hole in the Wall, he said, is "a place where everybody’s welcome. It’s a gay bar, but everybody’s welcome." To try to resolve the dispute, Banks and Gardiner hired Jeremy Paul, an experienced permit expediter, to shepherd the project through the regulatory process and to negotiate with Meko and the neighbors. The two sides are currently in talks about enclosing the back smoking area, a change that could cost more than $100,000. Paul expressed guarded optimism that the project will eventually go forward, but he told us the rancor over the new saloon is an example of "the identity crisis" San Francisco is going through.

"The Hole in the Wall relocation is a case study in how dysfunctional this system is," Paul said. Zoning in the area allows for a bar, he said, "and if these people don’t want to live in a bar district, they should check the zoning where they’re buying a house or renting an apartment" before moving there.

Paul added that if the residents are dead set against any new bars on their block, they should work to change the zoning.

The task force Meko chairs is at work on a new zoning plan for the area, which it will eventually present to the Planning Department. Some nightlife supporters worry that the goal may be a more residential neighborhood with no room for more bars.

Meko and Ochoa strongly deny that Meko is behind the residents’ actions. "I’m a neighbor," Meko told us, claiming that he is simply working with other neighbors to prevent the noise, smoke, and litter that could accompany the bar. As for the task force’s work, Meko said he is actually trying to bring more nightlife into SoMa, but only in appropriate areas with adequate "buffers" for the residents.

"I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life trying to broker peace between" bar owners and neighbors, he asserted. He noted that the Entertainment Commission, on which he also sits, is working to clarify permit rules for clubs and bars.

John Wood, a member of the San Francisco Late Night Coalition, said the neighbors "have reasonable concerns" about the new bar but those concerns "are being overblown." Wood noted that the bar is only rated for 49 patrons at a time and that by agreeing to soundproof the building and possibly enclose the back patio, the owners have been very accommodating. "Even nightclubs don’t go through those kinds of measures," he said.

Banks told us he and Gardiner desperately want to resolve the situation. "We’re willing to do anything within our financial means," he said. "We want to save it. The Hole in the Wall is our baby." *