STREET FIGHT Parking reform is one of the most radically important elements of making San Francisco a more livable and equitable city.
In this geographically constrained city, parking consumes millions of square feet of space that could be used for housing, especially affordable housing in secondary units. Curbside parking in the public right of way impedes plans to make Muni more reliable for hundreds of thousands of transit riders. Parking in new housing and commercial developments generates more car trips on our already congested and polluted streets, slowing Muni further while bullying bicyclists and menacing pedestrians.
Fundamentally, parking is a privatization of the commons, whereby driveway curb cuts and on-street parking hog the public right-of-way in the name of private car storage. The greater public good — such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing public safety through bike lanes, wider sidewalks, public green spaces, and transit-first policies — is subsumed to narrow private interests. These are among the many reasons why, for over a decade, parking reform has been a key part of progressive transportation policy.
Yet lately, it has been disappointing to watch progressives, especially on the Board of Supervisors, retreat from that stance. In Potrero Hill and North Mission, a vitriolic reaction has slowed rollout of nationally acclaimed SF Park, which raises revenue for Muni and is a proven sustainable transportation tool. Yet there are murmurings that some progressive supervisors might seek an intervention and placate motorists who believe the public right-of-way is theirs.
On Polk Street, some loud merchants and residents went ballistic when the city and bicycle advocates proposed removing curbside parking to accommodate bicycles. The city, weary of Tea Party-like mobs, ran the other way, tail-between-legs. Progressive supervisors seem to have gone along with the cave-in.
Along Geary, planning for a desperately needed bus rapid transit project drags on. And on. And on. And on. The lollygagging includes bending over backward to placate some drivers who might be slightly inconvenienced by improvements for 50,000 daily bus riders.
One thing that is remarkably disturbing about this backpedaling is that, in an ostensibly progressive city by many measures (civil rights, tolerance, environmentalism), the counterattack is steeped in conservative ideology. That is, conservatives believe that government should require ample and cheap parking, whether in new housing or on the street. This conservative ideology, shared by many car drivers and merchants — and even by some self-professed progressives — is steeped in the idea people still need cars. This despite the evidence that cars are extremely destructive to our environment, socially inequitable, and only seem essential because of poor planning decisions, not human nature.
Progressive backpedaling has become more confusing with the recent debate over 8 Washington, defeated at the polls Nov. 5, and on the same day of a convoluted Board of Supervisors hearing on a proposed car-free housing development at 1050 Valencia. Both of these projects highlight the muddled inconsistency emerging among progressive supervisors.
Enough has been written about how 8 Washington was a symbolic battle for the soul of San Francisco. But during the campaigns, the lack of attention to parking was curious. Notably, progressive-leaning transportation organizations like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and Transform sat out the election despite the project’s excessive 327 underground parking spaces, which violated hard-fought progressive planning efforts to make the waterfront livable. The Council of Community Housing Organizations also sat it out, despite benefitting from the progressive parking policies that 8 Washington violated. It appears that despite their transit-first rhetoric, progressives made a tactical calculation to keep parking out of the campaign.
The progressive victory came with a Faustian bargain which involved ignoring parking. To ensure 8 Washington was defeated, conservative voters were folded into the opposition. Groups like Eastern Neighborhoods United Front (ENUF), the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, and the Republican Party came out against 8 Washington and yet, ironically, all are opponents of progressive parking reform.
Moving forward, whatever happens at the 8 Washington site must include progressive parking policies. Don’t expect this from the unimaginative leadership at the Port, which speciously demanded the excessive parking. Don’t expect it from the developer, who steadfastly insists that the rich must have parking. And don’t expect conservatives to latch on to a waterfront scheme that is both publicly accessible and genuinely transit-oriented. It is progressives who will need to muster political will for a zero-parking project at the waterfront and set the tone for consensus among the other factions in the waterfront debate.
Meanwhile on the same day 8 Washington went down, 1050 Valencia barely made it out of a tortuous Board of Supervisors hearing in which progressives seemed to be the antagonists. As the first car-free market-rate housing proposal on Valencia under progressive parking reforms, this 12-unit mixed use building seemed an obvious win for progressives. It would be a walkable, bicycle-friendly urban infill mixed-use project with on-site affordable housing, all of which the city needs more of.
Yet since 2010, when the project first went to the Planning Commission, conservative rhetoric has been deployed to stop the project. Significantly, the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association objected to the transit-oriented characterization of the project. It claimed that the 14 Mission and 49 Mission/Van Ness are filthy, crime-ridden, and unreliable and so 1050 Valencia must have parking.
Unlike progressives, who also decry shortfalls with Muni but propose solutions, the Liberty Hill opponents offered only secession from public transit, insisting on driving in secure armored cocoons instead of addressing Muni reliability, and they also expect free or cheap parking in the public right of way.
You would think that progressives at the Board of Supervisors would see through this thinly veiled bigotry against the 14 and 49 buses. But instead, four self-professed progressive supervisors — John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar — voted against 1050 Valencia.
They may argue that they were more concerned about the neighboring Marsh Theater, which has concerns about construction noise (and also parking). The noise issue can be worked out, and why the progressive supervisors did not work this out in advance is a mystery. But if you watch the hearing closely, the Marsh basically opposed the development — period — and thus a modest car-free development that included affordable housing at an appropriate location. And so did four progressive supervisors. It’s baffling.
At the end of the day, 1050 Valencia moved forward, barely. But it can still be stopped at the upcoming Board of Appeals hearing. Meanwhile, it’s time for progressives to make a frontal response to the Muni-bashing coming out of Liberty Hill.
The SFMTA is offering a bold and ambitious proposal for these buses on Mission between 13th and Cesar Chavez. This includes a transit-only lane, restricting automobile traffic, rearranging loading zones, and removing curbside parking so that 46,000 daily 14 and 49 passengers have better reliability and less crowding.
This plan will make life easier for San Franciscans who rely on these buses, but will require progressive supervisors to openly and sincerely advocate for removal of on-street parking, to support SF Park, and push for car-free housing development in the Mission, rather than knee-jerk posturing for a few political points in future elections. Progressives, stop screwing around.
Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University.