Housing and highrise offices

Pub date May 30, 2012

EDITORIAL It's something of a civic shame that the only way San Francisco can build a new transit terminal is to sell a private developer the rights to stick a 1,070-foot highrise office tower on public land. In fact, it's a sad statement on the city, state, and local government: Once upon a time — and it wasn't the long ago — tax dollars collected through a progressive system paid for major infrastructure projects.

But there's no easy way to raise $4 billion in tax money for the Transbay Terminal — even though it ought to be seen as part of the high-speed rail project, and the federal and state government ought to be picking up the tab. So San Francisco ambles forward, selling land and lease rights to the highest bidder.

In this case, Gerald Hines of Houston won the right to build the largest highrise west of the Mississippi on property owned by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority. There are all sorts of drawbacks to the deal — among other things, it will cast shadows on a number of city parks, all the way to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown. Like any massive office complex, it will put pressure on Muni, on city streets, on police and fire and other city services — and no commercial office building ever pays its fair share of that burden. And since in this case the major recipient of the money from the project will be the TJPA, the city's General Fund will suffer.

Oh, and the building is ugly.

Meanwhile, city planners want to increase height limits all around the Transbay Terminal and allow hundreds of units of new (luxury) housing and more commercial office space. It's going to be a new highrise neighborhood, complete with a rooftop park and a few little patches of ground-level open space, which won't get a whole lot of sun, particularly in the morning and evening.

And at this point, there's been very little focus on what ought to be the defining issue of this and the other major developments on the city's planning horizon, and that's affordable housing.

This city has a terrible jobs-housing mix. The vast majority of the people who currently work in San Francisco can't afford to buy a house here, and many of them can only rent if they pay for more than the federal standard of one-third of their income for housing. So people who work in hotels and restaurants and city, state and federal offices and hospitals and even financial district companies wind up living far from the city and commuting. Nobody thinks that's a sound environmental policy.

And this kind of full-scale rezoning and development will only make it worse. According to the City Planning Department, the Hines project will pay about $27 million into the city's affordable housing fund, enough to pay for maybe 60 or 70 housing units. That won't even begin to cover the need created by the thousands of employees who will fill that tower. The market-rate housing on the site will almost certainly be beyond the reach of most San Franciscans, and probably many of the office workers who fill the Hines building. And only 35 percent of the new housing — at maximum — will be affordable.

San Francisco has to get a grip. The city can't keep allowing more high-end housing and highrise office space without a plan to meet its housing needs. We're glad to see the mayor talking about a $50 million a year fund, but that will barely meet existing needs; it can't possible keep pace with new development.

So before the supervisors rush ahead to approve this ambitious new downtown district, they need to ask Hines, and the TJPA, and any other developer who comes along, how it intends to meet the demonstrated need for affordable housing that these projects will create — and demand a much higher level of payment that what's currently on the city's books.