Campus crush

Pub date November 21, 2006
WriterAndrew Tolve

It’s easy to forget about the Villas Parkmerced.
Nestled in the foggiest, most sedate corner of San Francisco, the 62-year-old planned community feels like a slice of suburbia for seniors and families.
“There’s grass. There’s trees. There’s traffic circles where the cars can’t speed too damn much and knock off the pedestrians,” says 82-year-old Robert Pender, a tenant since 1967. “It’s forgettable suburbia in urban San Francisco.”
But the peace has been shattered recently by word that San Francisco State University is laying plans to transform its campus into a smaller version of UC Berkeley — with little apparent concern for its neighbors just across the street.
The SFSU administration has been busy at work for the past year on a new campus master plan. University officials say the body of college-bound students in California is steadily increasing and a campus overhaul is needed to accommodate that growth by 2020.
The proposed expansion calls for a conversion of many of the two-story buildings on campus to four- or five-story structures, as well as the construction of new buildings for academic, housing, and cultural purposes. A new 250-room hotel at 19th Avenue and Buckingham, a new creative arts facility, and a new gym are also on the table.
The project’s chief architect, James Stickley, told the Guardian that the master plan is about making SFSU “efficient as an urban campus” and transforming its character from a commuter campus to a destination community. In 15 years, he said, university officials expect to have 25,000 full-time students at the university (an increase of 5,000 students), many of them living on campus and taking advantage of new amenities and commercial ventures within university borders.
It’s an ambitious vision that aims to attract more students and accomplished professors to the SFSU campus. Which is great news for just about everyone — except the tenants of the 3,400-unit Villas Parkmerced, who allege not only that they were forgotten during the university planning process but also that their neighborhood is now coming under attack.
“I would love to see SFSU come out as a premier university and to have a really strong image,” said Adriana Torres, a current Parkmerced tenant and former SFSU student. She was speaking at a meeting held Oct. 24 to assess the environmental impacts of the university’s proposed master plan. “But you are not taking into consideration us, the people who live next to the students,” Torres continued. “I think what this plan is doing is, in building your image, it’s eroding ours.”
The meeting was hosted by campus planner Richard Macias and was attended by more than 70 disgruntled Parkmerced residents.
One major area of contention is the university’s proposal for Holloway Avenue, which separates much of the Parkmerced community from SFSU. The university intends to transform Holloway into what Stickley called “a campus street,” with around-the-clock commercial stores at street level and student housing above, something akin to Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. The university already owns much of the residential property on the south side of Holloway.
But Parkmerced tenants still occupy about 70 percent of that housing, and in their minds, plans for the gradual conversion of that property “for University uses as current occupants vacate their units,” as a university notice put it, sounds a lot like a friendly eviction letter.
“I have lived in Parkmerced all my life,” Healeani Ting said at the Oct. 24 meeting. “My grandmother died here. My mother died here. I intend to die here. Would you have me living in a relocation camp for the homeless in Fresno?”
Parkmerced tenants also assert that SFSU has drastically underestimated the impact of 5,000 additional students on the neighborhood.
Parking — no surprise — is the biggest issue. The university notes in a preliminary environmental review document that “the bulk of the University’s parking needs is met through the multistory parking garage east of Maloney Field” and therefore it won’t be adding any additional parking spots to accommodate 5,000 more students. Parkmerced tenants maintain their parking situation is already a nightmare, thanks to students snatching up spots in their community.
“If you think that you’re going to confine the garbage, the noise, the disruption to all the residents by keeping everyone along Holloway, you’re wrong,” Michelle Miller, a resident of Parkmerced and the head of a local organization called Neighborhood Watch, said at the Oct. 24 meeting. “They filter out. They all want cars. If you keep your parking flat, that’s not going to work.”
University spokesperson Ellen Griffin told the Guardian that SFSU is interested in fostering a “collegial relationship” with Parkmerced tenants and the university will be taking their complaints seriously. University officials met with Parkmerced tenants Nov. 9 to discuss some of their objections. According to Parkmerced Residents’ Organization board member Arne Larson, the university said it would consider moving graduate students and professors to Holloway instead of pursuing the campus street idea.
Of course, SFSU doesn’t have to do any of that. As a state entity, the university has the authority to create and adopt its own plans without involving the San Francisco Planning Department.
The university is preparing an environmental impact report — but no matter what the document says, the project can move forward without city review or approval.
Sarah Dennis, a senior planner with the Planning Department, told us her agency is concerned with the project on two counts: first, the campus street proposal threatens to drain 945 units from the city’s already vulnerable rental housing stock; and second, the overarching plan endangers the basic historic and cultural resources of the city. The Villas Parkmerced is one of only four urban master plan communities in the country.
“We’re hoping that they’ll follow the good-neighbor policy and that we’ll have the opportunity to get involved,” Dennis said. “But again, that’s all up to them.”
District 7 supervisor Sean Elsbernd said that he too is concerned with the SFSU master plan.
“At this point [the university is] at least recognizing this is going to have a massive impact,” Elsbernd told the Guardian, referring to the SFSU environmental impact report that is under way. “But we can guess what’s going to be in that EIR when it’s finally published: ‘Oh look, they say there won’t be much of an impact.’ That’s when the real fight happens.” SFBG