Anniversary Issue: First, do no harm

Pub date October 22, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan


Mayor Gavin Newsom announced last week that San Francisco is "on pace" to build a historic number of homes in a five-year period.

"Despite the housing crisis facing the nation, San Francisco is bucking the trends and creating a record number of homes," Newsom said. "Once again, San Francisco is leading the way."

But where?

Newsom notes that his housing-development plans will triple what San Francisco produced in the ’90s, and double the past decade’s housing production. He claims that he has increased the city’s production of affordable housing for low- and very-low-income households to the highest levels ever.

But he doesn’t point out that most people who work in San Francisco won’t be able to afford the 54,000 housing units coming down the planning pipeline.

The truth is that, under Newsom’s current plans, San Francisco is on pace to expand its role as Silicon Valley’s bedroom community, further displace its lower- and middle-income workers, and thereby increase the city’s carbon footprint. All in the supposed name of combating global warming.

So, what can we do to create a truly sustainable land-use plan for San Francisco?

<\!s> Vote Yes on Prop. B

In an Oct. 16 San Francisco Chronicle article, Newsom tried to criticize the Board of Supervisors for not redirecting more money to affordable housing, and for placing an affordable housing set-aside on the ballot.

"There’s nothing stopping the Board of Supervisors from redirecting money for more affordable housing," Newsom claimed. "Why didn’t they redirect money to affordable housing this year if they care so much about it?"

Ah, but they did. Newsom refused to spend the $33 million that a veto-proof majority of the Board appropriated for affordable housing last year. Which is why eight supervisors placed Prop. B, an annual budget allocation for the next 15 years, on the Nov. 2008 ballot.

<\!s> Radically redirect sprawl

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s executive director, Gabriel Metcalf, notes that existing Northern California cities —San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose — already have street, sewer, and transit grids, and mixed-use development in place.

"So we don’t have to allow one more inch of suburban sprawl. We could channel 100 percent of regional growth into cities. Instead, we hold workshops and ask ‘How much growth can we accommodate? The answer is none, because no one likes to change."

Metcalf said he believes people should be able to work where they want, provided that it’s reachable by public transit.

"What’s wrong with taking BART to Oakland and Berkeley, or Caltrain to San Jose?" Metcalf said.

<\!s> Don’t do dumbass growth

Housing activist and Prop. B supporter Calvin Welch rails at what he describes as "the perversion of smart growth in local planning circles."

The essence of smart growth is that you cut down the distance between where people work and live, Welch explains.

"But that makes the assumption that the price of the housing you build along transit corridors is affordable to the workforce that you want to get onto public transit," Welch adds. "If it’s not, it’s unlikely they’ll get out of their cars. Worse, if you produce housing that is only affordable to the community that works in Silicon Valley, you create a big problem in reverse, a regional transit shortage. Because you are building housing for folks who work in a place that is not connected to San Francisco by public transit."

Welch says the city also needs to invest more in transit infrastructure.

Pointing to Market-Octavia and the Eastern Neighborhoods, Welch notes that while the City Planning Department is calling for increased density there, Muni is proposing service cuts.

"This is beyond bizarre," Welch said. "It will result in dramatic increases in density in areas that are poorly served by transit. That’s the dumbest kind of growth."

Welch says sustainable land use has local employment opportunities at its heart.

Noting that 70 percent of residents worked in San Francisco 20 years ago, Welch says that only a little over 50 percent of local jobs are held by San Franciscans today.

"Most local jobs are held by people who live outside San Francisco, and most San Franciscans have to go elsewhere to find work. It’s environmentally catastrophic."

<\!s> Protect endangered communities

Earlier this year, members of a mayoral task force reported that San Francisco is losing its black population faster than any other large US city. That decline will continue, the task force warned, unless immediate steps are taken.

Ironically, the task force’s findings weren’t made public until after voters green-lighted Lennar’s plan to develop 10,000 (predominantly luxury) units in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the last African American communities in town.

San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Fred Blackwell has since recommended expanding his agency’s certificate of preference program to give people displaced by redevelopment access to all of the city’s affordable housing programs, an idea that the Board of Supervisors gave its initial nod to in early October. But that’s just a Band-Aid.

And community leader and Nation of Islam Minister Christopher Muhammad has suggested creating "endangered community zones" — places where residents are protected from displacement — in Bayview-Hunters Point and the Western Addition.

"It’s revolutionary, but doable," Muhammad said at the out-migration task force hearing.

<\!s> Don’t build car-oriented developments

BART director and Livable City executive Tom Radulovich predicts a silver lining in the current economic crisis: "The city will probably lose Lennar."

He’s talking about two million square feet of office space and 6,000 square feet of retail space that Lennar Corp., the financially troubled developer, is proposing in Southeast San Francisco.

"We should not be building an automobile-oriented office park in the Bayview," Radulovich said. "Well-meaning folks in the Planning Department are saying we need walkable cities, but Michael Cohen in the Mayor’s Office is planning an Orange County-style sprawl that will undo any good we do elsewhere. This is the Jekyll and Hyde of city planning."

<\!s> Buy housing

Ted Gullicksen at the San Francisco Tenants Union says that since land in San Francisco only increases in value, the city should buy up apartment buildings and turn them into co-ops and land-trust housing.

"The city should try to get as much housing off-market as possible, grab it now, while it’s coming up for sale, especially foreclosed properties," Gullicksen said. "That’s way quicker than trying to build, which takes years. And by retaining ownership, the city also retains control over what happens to the land."

<\!s> Work with nonprofit developers

Gullicksen said that the city should work with small nonprofits, and not big master developers, to create interesting, diverse neighborhoods.

Local architect David Baker says nonprofits are more likely to build affordable housing than private developers, even when the city mandates that a certain percentage of new housing must be sold below market rate.

"Thanks to the market crash, very little market rate housing is going to be built in the next five years, which means almost no inclusionary," Baker explains. "During a housing boom, you can jack up that percentage rate to 15 percent, or 20 percent, but then the boom crashes, and nothing gets built."

Gullicksen says the good news is that planners are beginning to think about how to create walkable, vibrant, and safe cities.

"They are thinking about pedestrian-oriented entrances and transparent storefronts, about hiding parking and leaving no blank walls on ground floors. Corner stores, which are prohibited in most neighborhoods, are a great amenity.

"San Francisco needs to figure out where it can put housing without destroying existing neighborhoods, or encroaching on lands appropriate for jobs."

<\!s> Design whole neighborhoods

Jim Meko, chair of the SoMa Leadership Council, was part of a community planning task force for the Western SoMa neighborhood. He told us that one of the most important things his group did was think about development and preservation in a holistic way.

"WSOMA’s idea is to plan a whole neighborhood, rather than simply re-zoning an area, which is how the Eastern Neighborhoods plan started," Meko said. "Re-zoning translates into figuring out how many units you can build and how many jobs you will lose. That’s a failed approach. It’s not smart growth. If you displace jobs, the economic vitality goes elsewhere, and people have to leave their neighborhood to find parks, recreational facilities and schools."

Meko noted that "housing has become an international investment. It’s why people from all around the world are snapping up condos along the eastern waterfront. But they are not building a neighborhood."

San Francisco, Meko said, "has the worst record of any US city when it comes to setting aside space for jobs in the service and light industrial sector. But those are exactly the kinds of jobs we need. The Financial District needs people to clean their buildings, and I need people to repair my printing press. But I don’t like having to pay them $165 an hour travel time."

<\!s> Practice low-impact development

Baker recommends that the city stop allowing air-conditioned offices.

"We’ve got great weather, we need to retrofit buildings with openable windows," he said. "We should stop analyzing the environmental impact of our buildings based on national tables. This stops us from making more pedestrian friendly streets. And people should have to pay a carbon fee to build a parking space."

A citywide green building ordinance goes into effect Nov. 3 and new storm water provisions follow in January, according to the SFPUC’s Rosey Jencks.

This greening impetus comes in response to San Francisco’s uniquely inconvenient truth: surrounded by rising seas on three sides, the city has a combined sewer system. That means that the more we green our city, the more we slow down the rate at which runoff mixes with sewage, the more we reduce the risk of floods and overflows, and the more we reduce the rate at which we’ll have to pump SoMa, as rising seas threaten to inundate our sewage system.

The SFPUC also appears committed to replacing ten seismically challenged and stinky digesters at its southeast plant.

<\!s> Strictly control the type of new housing

Marc Salomon, who served with Meko on the task force, told us he thinks the city needs to create a "boom-proof" development plan, "a Prop. M for housing." That’s a reference to the landmark 1986 measure that strictly limited new commercial office development and forced developers to compete for permits by offering amenities to the city.

The city’s General Plan currently mandates that roughly two-thirds of all new housing be affordable — but the city’s nowhere near that goal. And building a city where the vast majority of the population is rich is almost the definition of unsustainability.

"Too much construction is not sustainable at any one time, nor is too much uniform development," Salomon said. "If we see too many banks, coffee shops or dot-com offices coming in, we need hearings. We need to adopt tools now, so can stop and get things under control next time one of these waves hits. And since infrastructure and city services are in the economic hole, we need to make sure that new development pays for itself." *