Citizen planning

Pub date July 3, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan


The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan has become a high-stakes battleground involving anxious developers stalled by a temporary building moratorium, progressives who want more affordable housing, concerns about dwindling light-industrial spaces and an exodus of African American residents, environmental justice, and a list of other issues that are central to this sprawling section of the city.

But the folks in the neighborhood known as Western SoMa are just happy that they’re no longer a part of that mess. Instead, they’re excitedly experimenting with a new approach to planning using an innovative and largely untested grassroots model.

Five years ago, when the city Planning Department first announced its intention to rezone the Eastern Neighborhoods, a group of disenchanted SoMa residents decided that they wanted to secede from that process and develop an independent, more comprehensive, community-based plan.

"A lot of us were offended by the Planning Department’s top-down, autocratic process," Jim Meko, who later became chair of the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force, told the Guardian. "It was a bad process for everybody, but it was particularly bad for SoMa because the neighborhood had already been rezoned in the 1990s."

Meko survived three major demographic shifts within three decades: the AIDS epidemic that decimated SoMa’s gay community, the live-work loft zoning loopholes that gutted the artistic community, and the dot-com crash that displaced many techies. He feared that the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan would impose a "one-size-fits-all mode that treated all of SoMa like postindustrial wasteland."

So Meko set his sights on pressuring the Planning Commission to split his neighborhood from the rest of the Eastern Neighborhoods, which include the Mission District, Eastern SoMa, Showplace Square, Potrero Hill, and the Central Waterfront. Western SoMa is bordered by Mission and Bryant, 13th and Fourth streets, and Harrison and Townsend.

That dream became a reality in February 2004, and that November the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force formed, with a stated objective to "recommend zoning changes that will preserve the heart and soul of their neighborhood, while planning for the realities of 21st-century growth."

Since beginning its work in 2005, the 22-member task force has met as often as five times a month and has created a values statement; a set of planning principles; committees focusing on business and land use, transportation, and arts and entertainment; and a committee that integrates a variety of issues.

Its June 28 town hall meeting was the first time the task force threw the doors open to the community at large, although the occasion happened to come on the heels of a high-profile budget battle between Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sup. Chris Daly, whose district includes SoMa and who helped set up the task force.

Within five minutes of Meko’s kicking off the meeting, a small but vocal group of attendees began to heckle him midspeech. Perhaps they were there to confront Daly, who had been slated to attend but was out of town. Whatever the reason, while accusing Meko of "having an agenda" and "using the bully pulpit" to present his own views, this faction was anxious to know how many task force members are property owners and which particular group of them would be dealing with crime, the fight against which Newsom has made a top budget priority.

For one wobbly, tension-filled moment, it felt as if this first crack at a citizen planning forum might crumble. But then another participant saved the day by requesting a simple but basic meeting ground rule: no personal attacks.

From that moment, the mood in the room lightened. Pretty soon the rest of the 150 residents who had gathered in the multipurpose room of Bessie Carmichael School on Seventh Street to share their thoughts on Western SoMa were talking about what they liked and what could improve. Even the hecklers quieted down and seemed to meld into the discussion.

As Planning Commissioner Christina Olague put it at the meeting, "This is possibly one of the most exciting things going on in planning. No one understands the heart and soul of a neighborhood like the people who live there. We hope this is a model other neighborhoods will adopt, because a neighborhood plan without the involvement of neighbors who live and breath a community is chaos — just a bunch of buildings zoned in a language no one can read or feel."

But while residents were happy to create lists of neighborhood needs — more parks, bike lanes, affordable housing, child care facilities, and trees; wider sidewalks; and fewer homeless people — they were less keen on the idea of increasing building heights. One proposed means of financing improvements would be to increase allowable heights from 40 to 65 feet in some places.

Some locals complained about partygoers who urinate in the streets and play music loudly in cars instead of going home when the clubs close. But a youthful resident politely pointed out that "it may not be possible to stop young people from being young."

In the face of requests from senior citizens for more dinner theater and fewer nightclubs in SoMa, task force member and nightclub owner Terrance Allen observed that it’s probably only possible to "nudge existing conditions."

Recalling the battle that broke out between residents and partygoers after city planners decided to put affordable housing next to the wildly popular nightclub 1015 Folsom, Allen said, "You don’t want to start a war by putting subsidized housing next to the city’s biggest nightclub." Or as Meko put it, "We don’t want to set up conflicts by putting family housing across from the Stud."

By evening’s end, the consensus was that the meeting was a success. "We have much more in common than we have apart. That’s the whole key," said Marc Salomon, who sits on the task force’s transportation committee. As Meko told the Guardian the next day, "Wasn’t it a fantastic experience? It was the closest thing to a cocktail party without a bartender."

Meko said the task force is eager to complete its work and is shooting for having a draft plan ready by the next town hall meeting, on Oct. 24.

"But we need to do more community outreach," he added, noting that there weren’t many Filipinos at the first meeting even though they have a large presence in Western SoMa. "We’re looking at what SoMa could be like in 20 years. The other Eastern Neighborhoods are watching, and they are envious." *