Dense in the west

Pub date February 15, 2011
WriterRebecca Bowe

A marathon special meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission on Feb. 10 demonstrated a clear split over Parkmerced, a $1.2 billion private development project that will rebuild an entire existing neighborhood on the west side of San Francisco.

While some expressed strong enthusiasm for moving forward with the ambitious plan, many residents turned out to voice vehement opposition, citing concerns about traffic congestion, noise, dust, and the demolition of affordable apartments that some Parkmerced tenants have occupied for decades.

The votes to certify the project’s environmental analysis and send the plan onto the Board of Supervisors with a commission endorsement were split 4-3, with Commissioners Christina Olague, Hisashi Sugaya, and Kathrin Moore dissenting.

Those who voted no were appointees of the Board of Supervisors, while the four commissioners who voted in favor were appointees of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, suggesting a break along clear political lines. State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano also submitted a letter urging commissioners not to approve the project.

While Parkmerced Investors LLC, the project sponsor, eagerly awaits groundbreaking, spokesperson P.J. Johnston noted that they weren’t there yet. “First,” he said, “we have to break ground at the Board of Supervisors.”



The Parkmerced redesign has been touted as an ecological and sustainable beacon for urban development and, indeed, some features of the grand plan read as if they were plucked from a checklist from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-neighborhood standards.

Walkable, bikeable streets with proximity to transit? Check. Water-efficient landscaping? Check. Energy-efficient dwellings? Check. Project sponsors claim that through dramatic reductions in per capita resource consumption, three times as many residents would consume the same amount of water and electricity as Parkmerced’s current population does today.

Johnston emphasized how adding new units to the west side of the city also helped contribute to “density equality,” since most new projects tend to be concentrated in the eastern neighborhoods.

Johnston was particularly jazzed about an innovative storm-water discharge system envisioned for the plan, which he described as a design that could “regenerate and repair the environment.” It would recirculate rainwater through a naturally filtrating system of ponds and bioswales to recharge Lake Merced, a water body that has been slowly shrinking due to being choked off from its natural watershed by a concrete urban barrier.

Green points might be awarded for plans for an on-site organic garden, but Commissioner Michael Antonini, who said he lives less than a mile from Parkmerced, cautioned that developers shouldn’t get too attached to that idea. After all, he said, many kinds of vegetables won’t thrive in that part of the city.

Meanwhile, the wholesale destruction of existing units is decidedly not eco-chic. The Green Building Council’s LEED neighborhood standards insist that “historic resource preservation and adaptive reuse” is always preferable in a green development — and that’s the point that Aaron Goodman, an architect who previously lived at Parkmerced, has been driving at for more than a year. Proponents maintain that Parkmerced’s wartime construction meant it was built with inferior materials, and that property owners have battled dry rot and other infrastructure problems.

Another not-so-green Parkmerced project feature has also raised eyebrows: parking. While proponents portray the redesign as a switch from a suburban, love-affair-with-the-automobile style to an enlightened departure from car-centrism, plans nonetheless include a parking space for every single unit.

That creates the potential for more than 6,000 new cars on the road in that area, and the 19th Avenue corridor is already notorious for traffic snarls. According to calculations by the Environmental Protection Agency, the typical American motorist generates more than five metric tons of carbon dioxide by driving in a given year.



Before the Planning Commission meeting, residents from the Parkmerced Action Coalition — a relatively new residents’ group formed to oppose the redevelopment and a wholly different entity from the Parkmerced Residents’ Organization — made a public show of their dissatisfaction outside City Hall. Holding signs with slogans such as “Don’t Bulldoze Our Homes,” residents sang protest songs and chanted, “We are Parkmerced!”

With the dramatic makeover, Parkmerced would expand to around 8,900 units, tripling the number of residents who could be accommodated. Existing 1940’s-era garden apartments would be razed to make way for higher, denser housing. The plan comes at a time when neighboring San Francisco State University is undergoing its own phase of expansion.

“This project in its current state is a vision that is not in harmony with the people, place, or the environment,” charged Cathy Lentz, an organizer with the Parkmerced Action Coalition, in a vociferous plea to the commissioners. “It is a narrow vision, a corporate vision … a true vision would be inclusive of present dwellings, inclusive of animals, trees, and present environment.”

One resident lamented the pending loss of his garden courtyard, noting how much his children had enjoyed the green space growing up and listing the different kinds of birds that would surely be driven away by heavy-duty construction and tree removal. For many, the point was not so much what developers intended to build, but what would be lost to make way for it. One speaker dismissed the plan as “architectural clear-cutting.”

Commissioner Moore, an architect, sounded a similar note when she rejected the notion that the Parkmerced redevelopment should be hailed as infill, a desirable development concept that curbs sprawl by utilizing space efficiently. “Urban infill housing is defined as infill on vacant sites,” Moore said, “not sites that have become vacant by demolition.” She added that she believed the environmental impact review “fails to sufficiently examine why housing demolition is even necessary.”

In Moore’s view, “the only reasonable alternative is a significantly redesigned … project.”



Unlike a luxury condominium development, the Parkmerced plan emphasizes built-in economic diversity — yet critics point out that as it stands, the housing complex is already inclusive of many lower-income, working-class residents.

The plan will incorporate several hundred below-market rate units, in accordance with the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance. Commissioner Antonini also emphasized the boost to city coffers from tax revenue associated with the project.

Meanwhile, questions are still arising on the issue of rent control. “We do not believe it is appropriate for the City and County of San Francisco to be displacing rent-controlled residents,” noted Michael Yarne, a mayoral development advisor. A binding agreement between Parkmerced Investors LLC and the city of San Francisco, which will be linked to the land, promises that new units will be made available to rent-controlled tenants at the same monthly rate they now pay, with rent control intact (See “Weighing a Landlord’s Promise,” Dec. 21, 2010).

Yet Polly Marshall, a commissioner on the San Francisco Rent Board, noted that she still didn’t believe tenant protections were adequate. She also spoke to the pitfalls of tearing down and redoing an entire neighborhood.

“The proposed Parkmerced development is the kind of development that I normally would support. It’s the kind of thing I work on in my profession,” noted Marshall, an attorney who has worked on redevelopment projects. “What’s different about this project is that it involves an existing community. It requires devastation of that community. It reminds me of the old-style redevelopment projects that went on in the Fillmore that destroyed existing neighborhoods. Look around that area now … there’s high density housing there, but that’s about all. The community — the networks of the people — was destroyed decades ago.”

Marshall took it a step further, offering her analysis on why Parkmerced was targeted. “It’s because it’s a working-class neighborhood of renters,” she said. “That’s why we’re going to destroy Parkmerced.”