March 3, 2014, 48 hills
In a story that’s become somewhat legendary of late, David Talbot, founder of Salon.com, asked whether San Francisco could survive the tech boom: “How much tech can one city take?”
There’s no part of town where that’s a more crucial issue than South of Market, where the city is making plans that could change the character of one of the last places in San Francisco that still has industrial jobs and businesses—what the city planners call Production, Distribution and Repair, or PDR.
And what’s at stake isn’t only SoMa’s PDR but also the neighborhood’s fragile motley character.
It’s hard to see how Central SoMa could accommodate much more tech and still retain its fast-disappearing heterogeneity. According to a report released last December by the commercial real estate services firm CBRE, tech already accounts for 3.5 million square feet, or 58 percent of leased office space, in “South of Market,” an area bounded on CBRE’s map by Bryant, the waterfront, King and 8th; and 657,000 square feet, or almost 21 percent of the office space in “Yerba Buena,” which lies between Market, 3rd, Bryant, and 6th Streets.
Even the district’s office space is getting less diverse, as landlords tailor their holdings to satisfy tech tastes. Not incidentally, since the end of 2009, average asking rents in CBRE’s SoMa have increased by 87 percent, rising from about $30 to $57 per square foot a year, and by 95 percent in Yerba Buena.
Can this go on forever? No – but a city plan for Central SoMa assumes that tech companies are going to keep pouring into San Francisco, and into Central SoMa in particular, for the foreseeable future.
That assumption seems plausible in light of the CBRE study, which says that the outlook for the city’s tech sector is bright and, unlike the first tech boom, sustainable. This time, investors are passing up riskier firms for more established companies, while consumers are spending more and more money on technology.
But CBRE also sees “cautionary signs.” In San Francisco, as for the North American tech industry as a whole, things are getting “frothy” at the top, as valuations of “high expectation firms” are “surging well above more established benchmarks” (see WhatsApp). At some point, it all may crash – but by then, the damage to SoMa could be done.
So where does all of this come from, anyway? Why is SoMa – with the support of the City Planning Department – in the crosshairs of a plan that could drive out the very blue-collar jobs that the city claims to want to protect?
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
It’s called Plan Bay Area – a vision of a much-more-crowded future in San Francisco driven by state legislation and delineated by the Association of Bay Area Governments, which projects massive population growth in the region over the next 30 year – and seeks to drive that growth into what are known as “priority development areas.” SoMa is one of those places – and the plan does little to protect the existing residents and businesses that will face displacement as it moves forward.
Plan Bay Area is all about growth – more people, more offices, more jobs. Not everyone shares the idea that this region will, or should, absorb so much: In fact, as the PBA public process drew to a close last spring, the regional plan’s humongous projections were hotly contested by both community activists and professional economic forecasters. Critics pointed out that the plan’s projection of 2.1 million more residents in the Bay Area by 2040 was 60 percent higher than the figure of 1.3 million calculated by the Demographic Research Unit of the California Department of Finance, designated on the DoF website as “the single official source of demographic data for state planning and budgeting.”
The criticism was serious, given the big discrepancy between the numbers, the credentialed character of some of the dissenters, and the population forecasts’ foundational role in the regional plan.
In March 2013 ABAG called an emergency meeting at which Department of Finance demographers, looking subdued, gave the regional agency’s higher calculations their blessing. In June ABAG’s demographer, Steven Levy, issued a detailed memo citing “more up-to-date data” culled from varied sources, including DoF, that showed jobs and population in the region outpacing the nation and hence “argue[d] for supporting or raising, not lowering, the Bay Area growth forecast to 2040.”
Even if, as Levy contends, the region is currently experiencing substantial growth in jobs and residents, what does that tell us about the next 30 years?
I emailed that question to UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Geography Richard Walker. Here’s his reply, edited for regional relevance:
- All projections out that far in the future are useless. If we went back to projections from the 1970s, they’d all be way off. Ten years is a stretch. There’s just so much unknown about technological change, global competition, financial crises, wars & disasters, etc.
- Any projection without business cycles and a downturn at least every ten years is a fantasy….
- Yes, Silicon Valley sailed through but not much else, and SV firms did not create many jobs for most of the last decade, after blowing up in 2000. They are world leaders in outsourcing….Steve Levy is good and not to be dismissed, but he would be Whiggish [very optimistic] about SV.
- Conversely, a projection based ONLY on the 2000s would probably be too pessimistic, even though we almost surely never see the kind of job growth SV had in the 1990s boom and bubble. Recent years have seen quite a revival of tech.
- The East Bay has not done as well as the West Bay in the recent boom—this stuff is highly uneven geographically.
- Demographers can help with the birth & death stuff, but know nothing about economics, as a rule.
Surely the last point would be disputed by Levy, whose firm is called the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, and who views jobs as the “main determinant” of population. He would be hard pressed, however, to show how his onward and upward prognostications through 2040 take the business cycle into account. But then Levy and ABAG have an out: the regional “blueprint” is to be updated every four years “to ensure that the [population] forecast is as accurate as possible.”
Meanwhile, cities will have significantly altered their zoning to accommodate Plan Bay Area’s projections (no accommodation, no grant money), fundamentally changing the character of neighborhoods and more in ways that, like the upzoning proposed by the Central SoMa Plan, cannot be reversed. And unlike ABAG and MTC, few if any cities have the resources to update their land-use plans every four years.
So if it turns out that Plan Bay Area is way off base, there will be no way to repair the damage to South of Market.
Plan Bay Area has an attractive and green-sounding motivation: Increased urban density, its supporters argue, is all about saving the Earth.
Also known as “smart growth,” this approach measures the “sustainability” of a region in terms of transportation, using the benchmark of VMT (vehicle miles traveled in private cars and trucks).
It disregards other, very different markers of sustainability: a community’s inclusiveness, solvency, and resilience. That kind of sustainability is imperiled by Plan Bay Area, as a regionwide coalition of environmental, affordable housing, and social justice activists made clear.
Led by Public Advocates, TransForm and Urban Habitat, the coalition homed in on a troubling metric in the regional “blueprint”: 36—the percentage of people living in “communities of concern” (plannerese for lower income, minority communities) that, the regional agencies openly acknowledged, would be forced out of their homes by the gentrifying effects of the new transit-oriented, infill development envisioned by the regional plan. Thirty-six percent works out to tens of thousands of men, women, and children.
What makes them vulnerable to displacement isn’t only their modest circumstances; it’s also where they live: in “urban neighborhoods,” explains Gen Fujioka, public policy manager at the Chinatown Community Development Center, “with transit-reliant communities that persevered through decades off disinvestment from middle-class suburban flight.” Now, in accordance with Plan Bay Area’s smart growth ideology, those places have been identified by city officials as Priority Development Areas—PDAs, for short—that are targeted for high-density infill construction.
San Francisco has twelve PDAs, which blanket the eastern side of the city, stretching from Chinatown in the north down through SoMa and the Mission to Hunters Point and Bayview, then swinging west to Balboa Park and finally jumping over to 19th Avenue as it runs east of Lake Merced.
According to the regional plan’s environmental impact report, those who are pushed out of their homes will find housing elsewhere in the region, because Plan Bay Area says that new construction will “house 100% of the region’s projected growth” at all income levels.
Fujioka notes that ABAG has been setting comprehensive housing goals for decades, but that “the only [ones] that have ever been met entirely have been for market rate housing affordable only to upper income households.” The agency’s affordable housing targets are, he says, “mythical.”
The environmental impact analysis also ventures that “displacement risk could be mitigated in cities such as San Francisco with rent control and other tenant protections in place.”
As Tim Redmond wrote last May in a slashing appraisal of Plan Bay Area that would be his final story for the Bay Guardian:
There isn’t a tenant activist in this town who can read that sentence with a straight face. The problem, as affordable housing advocate Peter Cohen puts it, is that “the state has mandated all this growth, but has taken away the tools we could use to mitigate [its detrimental effects].”
The confiscated tools include rent control of vacant apartments and eviction protections against landlords who want to use the Ellis Act to get rid of tenants and convert rental units to condos.
The progressive coalition prepared its own regional plan, dubbed the “Environment, Equity and Jobs” alternative, which distributed regional growth more evenly, and whose environmental and social equity outcomes were actually ranked as superior to the official draft by MTC and ABAG’s researchers. No matter: in July the agencies adopted the proposals that had been prepared by their own staff.
Thanks to an intense final pushback by “Six Wins” and the hard work of core progressive leadership in the Bay Area, including two of San Francisco’s representatives on the regional agencies, David Campos (MTC) and Eric Mar (ABAG), the final plan included amendments designed to shield low-income people living in PDAs from displacement:
- add a public process to develop affordable housing and local priorities for the Bay Area’s 1.3 billion share of state cap and trad funding
- link the $14 billion transportation block-grant funds policies program (One Bay Area Grants or OBAG) to cities’ affordable housing production and displacement prevention measures
- require MTC to develop a comprehensive strategy to prioritize funding of local transit service and transit maintenance
Writing in the Bay Guardian in late July, Peter Cohen and Fernando Martí, co-chairs of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, called the details of these amendments “fairly squishy” but hoped that they would provide “potentially valuable handholds” as Plan Bay Area gets implemented.
In the first week of 2014 Fujioka told me that “MTC has not moved in the direction of the bottom line.” “Whether or not they’re going to live up to the aspirational language” of the plan remains to be seen.
For all its dodginess, the regional agencies’ initial commentary on residential displacement was a model of candor compared with the draft plan’s discussion of Plan Bay Area’s disruptive effects on low-rent business, particularly small and medium-sized industrial enterprises, located in the Priority Development Areas.
The main statement about industrial issues was headlined “New vitality of industrial lands.” Reading further, you discovered that the source of this purported renaissance would be the accommodation of “a different and very diverse mix of businesses” whose “building and space needs” make “traditional industrial lands attractive.”
The plan never specified the nature of these “new” businesses or the “jobs, essential support” and “vital services” that, it asserted, they offer “to other sectors of the economy” and “nearby residents.” Instead, it listed a hodgepodge of uses, ranging from food processing, auto repair, and materials re-use to “high-tech product development” and “graphic design.”
In 2013 none of these businesses were actually new. The last two in the list, however, were and are disruptive presences in industrially zoned areas, because with their inherently higher densities and bigger profit margins, they can afford much higher rents than the manufacturers, wholesalers, jobbers, recyclers and the other kinds of businesses that are typically occupy industrial lands.
In other words, without ever saying so, regional planners were advocating deindustrialization by rezoning for greater density and higher rents.
The real threat to Bay Area industry
Until the final weeks of the planning process, the issue attracted scant attention, eliciting only a handful of comments from the public. But in mid-June, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, whose huge district, stretching east and south from Livermore, is traversed by freeways jammed with big trucks, prevailed on his fellow members of ABAG’s Executive Board to recommend amendments to the regional plan that addressed industrial issues:
- have MTC hire a full-time freight planner
- implement the latest Federal Transportation bill, MAP-21, which addresses the performance of the national freight network and participate in CalTrans’ new California Freight Mobility Plan
- ensure that PDAs “support adjacent viable industrial land and avoid negative impacts on goods movement businesses”
- support local zoning that “guide[s] new residential development to other locations and that limit[s] stand-alone office and retail development”
These changes are fairly toothless, which is probably why they were all approved by the ABAG General Assembly and the full MTC in July.
What made it into the final edition of Plan Bay Area, along with the disingenuous discussion of “new vitality for industrial lands,” were inconsequential recommendations for the regional agencies to “work with the business community, local jurisdictions and stakeholders to explore economic development best practices for goods movement and industrial businesses,” update info and identify key goods movement issues.
The last recommendation is ludicrous. After three major MTC studies in the past decade, we know what the issues are. The 2006-8 Regional Goods Movement/Land Use Project put it bluntly:
The decline of central area industrial land is not an issue of the structural decline of production, distribution, and transportation industries, but the result of the demand for land by other, higher-density land uses and the pressures of a speculative real estate market and by land use policies that allow or encourage changes in land use.
What we don’t know is whether Bay Area officials have the guts to stand up to the real estate industry and its demand for zoning that allows whatever the market the bear.
It would be bad enough if residential and industrial displacement were the only ways that Plan Bay Area undermined civic sustainability. Unfortunately, the plan poses another, equally subversive, albeit less conspicuous, threat: the gigantic fiscal demands inherent in its massive growth scenario.
Redmond observed that “there is nothing anywhere in any of the planning documents addressing the question of who will pay” for the additional police, firefighters, Muni capability, schools, or sewers that will be required to service 280,000 more new San Francisco residents, 190,000 new workers, and nearly 100,000 new housing units.
Indeed, there’s nothing about how much all this would cost. “Nobody,” Redmond wrote, “has run the numbers,” adding that surely they will run into the billions.
In its “Funding” chapter, the draft Central SoMa Plan assures us that the land use changes it proposes “will result in far greater contributions”—via property taxes and other revenues—“than their cost.”
But as Redmond noted, “every study that’s ever been done in San Francisco shows that the tax benefits of new development don’t cover the costs of public services it requires.” Those services, he emphasized, are getting more and more expensive, even as sources of funds have dwindled. “And,” he asked, “if the developers and property owners who stand to make vast sums of money off all this growth aren’t going to pay, who’s left?”
The answer became clear last November, when Mayor Lee’s 2030 Transportation Task Force, co-chaired by two top SPUR executives, released its final report. The report proper opens by citing Plan Bay Area’s estimate that by 2040 San Francisco’s population will swell to nearly one million.
With that forecast in mind, Mayor Lee charged the group “with developing a coordinated set of transportation priorities and identifying new revenue sources dedicated to making the City’s transportation system more reliable, efficient, and better prepared to accommodate future growth.”
The task force concluded that the city needs to raise over $10 billion, nearly $3 billion of which is proposed to come a higher city sales tax, a restored vehicle license fee, and two $500 million general obligation bonds, all of which would have to be approved by the voters.
One member of the task force was in vocal dissent. Supervisor John Avalos, who also chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, told the Chronicle, “Downtown business interests got to sit at the table and decide how they wanted to tax the rest of San Francisco for infrastructure” that would primarily benefit them. Avalos wanted to see increased property taxes and higher transit impact fees for developers. Instead the mayor’s task force expects the public to pick up the tab.
Making Environmentalism Safe for Development
You can go on about inflated growth projections and displacement and downtown business interests trying to fleece the public. Smart growth advocates have a ready rejoinder: we’re saving the planet.
If that were true, it would be hard to counter.
But like the proponents of the old urban renewal, smart growthers exaggerate the benefits of their agenda.
Consider the conclusion of a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report: increasing density in metropolitan areas and decreasing private driving would yield negligible reductions in CO2 through 2050.
Moreover, NAS committee members disagreed about the feasibility of achieving the most optimistic scenario, in which doubling the density in 75% of new and replacement housing units in the metropolitan U.S. reduced emissions by 11%.
Some, said the NAS press release, “thought that these higher densities would be reached due to macroeconomic trends—higher energy prices and carbon taxes—in combination with growing public support for infill development, investments in transit, and higher densities along transit rail corridors.”
Others held “that the high-density scenario would require such a significant departure from current low-density development patterns, land-use policies, and public preferences that it is unrealistic without a strong state or regional role in growth management.” Indeed, the NAS committee encouraged government to support compact, mixed-use development.
Plan Bay Area, of course, professes to offer just such support. The regional agencies claim that by 2040 the plan’s policies—“denser land use patterns focused in Priority Development Areas, increased investments in the region’s public transit infrastructure, and enhanced funding of climate initiatives such as electric vehicle adoption incentives”—will have reduced per capita Co2 emissions from cars and light duty trucks in the region by 18% from the 1990 levels—3% over the target reduction mandated by the law that authorizes Plan Bay Area, SB 375.
Don’t believe it, say leading environmental organizations.
Last May Earthjustice, writing to MTC in behalf of Communities for a Better Environment, contended that the 18% figure was attained by faulty accounting. SB 375 stipulates that its target must be met by reducing reliance on automobiles and light trucks. Instead, the regional agencies included reductions of greenhouse gas emissions achieved by separate “statutory schemes” that rely on other means, such as more fuel efficient cars, low carbon fuels, and expanded energy efficiency programs.
In fact, Earthjustice wrote, “implementation of [Plan Bay Area] will actually increase aggregate GHG [greenhouse gas emissions] by 2040.” People will be driving more, not less. “Under the Plan, daily vehicle trips are expected to increase by 22%,” and “daily vehicle miles traveled are expected to increase by 20%.”
In a follow-up letter of July 12, Earthjustice asserted that “the last-minute” consideration of goods movement issues resulted in “a cursory and piecemeal analyis” of the impacts of freight and truck transport in the Bay Area, a region that includes one of the largest ports in the U.S. and several major airports.
Walking their talk, in August Communities for a Better Environment and the Sierra Club sued MTC and ABAG in the Alameda County Superior Court under the California Environmental Quality Act. The lawsuit accuses the regional agencies of failing to “accurately account for the environmental effects” of Plan Bay Area. It also contends that the Plan’s Environmental Impact Report “masks the fact that the Plan does little to reform the transportation system,….fails to analyze the effects of freight transport in the region,….and fails to adequately analyze the Plan’s contributions to displacement and the environmental effects of displacement.” The plaintiffs asked that the court order the agencies to withdraw their approval and certification of the plan and block its implementation until the plan has been revised in accordance with CEQA.
In early February, Earthjustice attorney Irene Gutierrez told me that she and her colleagues are in settlement talks with ABAG and MTC, but that to date little progress has been made.
Now, it could be argued that the problem with Plan Bay Area is that the growth it seeks isn’t smart enough. And in part that is what the Sierra Club and CBE are saying: the plan does too much for highways and too little for transit. It actually expands highway capacity, leading to an expected 22% increase of daily vehicle trips and 20% increase of daily vehicle miles traveled by 2040.
By contrast, the rejected Environmental, Equity and Jobs proposal, using the same budget as the draft regional plan, boosted transit, most notably the local bus service that accounts for two-thirds of all transit boardings in the Bay Area.
But smart growth entails more than good transit. Because mass transit needs mass patronage for its fiscal viability, the other crucial ingredient infill construction.
Seizing on that need, for decades smart growth advocates have been whittling away CEQA itself. They made major inroads in 2008, when then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 375, the California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act.
Taking its cues from SB 375, Plan Bay Area offers “CEQA relief”—code for “CEQA exemptions”—to projects that meet Sustainable Community Strategy standards or qualify as “Transit Priority Projects” (TPPs).
Transit Priority Project-eligible areas are places within a half-mile of a major transit stop or a high-quality transit corridor that contain at least 50% residential use and provide a minimum net density of at least 20 dwelling units per acre. Though TPP-eligible areas are not identical to Priority Development Areas, most of them are within PDAs.
In San Francisco, Tim Redmond observed, “pretty much every square inch qualifies.” Which means “that almost any project almost anywhere in town can make a case that it doesn’t need to accept full CEQA review.” Throughout the city, and certainly throughout “transit-rich” Central SoMa, it’s going to be harder, if not in some cases impossible, to slow down, much less halt, outsized new development.
And that’s not the end of the story: Plan Bay Area says that MTC and ABAG “will support efforts to update CEQA”—code for trying to roll it back even further—“to encourage and expand infill development opportunities that can help reduce urban sprawl.”
When they okayed such efforts, the elected officials who control the Bay Area’s regional agencies took the “free” market side in one of the most heated political battles in the state: the fight over CEQA “relief”/”modernization”/”streamlining”/”reform”—all euphemisms for deregulation.
What does it mean to be green?
What’s at stake in this struggle is not only the potency of California’s environmental law; it’s the very meaning of environmentalism. Both sides claim to be defending the environment. But the CEQA “reformers” want to restrict such defense to consideration of “traditional” environmental factors such as air and water quality and the viability of endangered species, and to exclude quality of life issues such as traffic, noise, and aesthetics that have figured in many CEQA lawsuits.
Above all, the “streamliners” embrace growth. The grass-roots activists of the 1960s and 1970s who spurred the creation of Golden Gate National Seashore and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission held that if the Bay Area was to retain its livability and environmental health, growth had to be limited. By contrast, the CEQA “modernizers” believe that more—more people, more jobs, and most important, more transit-oriented construction—is better.
If high-density development forces renters out of their homes or workplaces, or even worsens traffic or degrades air quality in certain locales, so be it; your housing, job, or neighborhood may have to be sacrificed for the greater good: the projected reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
In other words, displacement by gentrification is not a side effect of smart growth; it reflects that ideology’s preoccupation with density and the fact that higher density yields higher rents.
The makers of Plan Bay Area did not forget about protecting low-income tenants who live or work in Transit Priority Project-eligible areas; they did not want to protect them, because doing so would conflict with their smart-growth agenda.
Ditto for the city planners who wrote the draft Central SoMa Plan. Their plan’s elimination of 1,800 Production, Distribution, and Repair jobs is neither an oversight nor an aberration; it follows directly from their planning priorities.
The Real Trade-offs
By now it should be clear that the trade-off entailed by the draft Central SoMa Plan involves far more than swapping 1,800 middle-class jobs for the “opportunity” represented by rezoning for high-density, high-rent development.
It’s about choosing between a city in which market forces are regulated in behalf of expansive, community-based prosperity and one in which land use is deregulated in favor of growth for the wealthy.
It also means deciding whether San Francisco is going to hold on to its precarious urbanity or follow New York’s lead and succumb to creeping suburbanization.
This is perhaps the Central SoMa Plan’s consummate irony. Smart growth claims to bring together what the suburbs put asunder: home and work. But for an increasing number of Bay Area residents, the plan’s vision of Central SoMa as an “employment center” widens the split between home and work.
To be sure, the plan is for workers to reach their jobs by transit, bike or foot rather than private automobile (getting to BART is another matter—and never mind getting from BART or your home to everything besides work). That said, viewed from Central SoMa Plan and its forebear, Plan Bay Area, the East Bay and San Mateo County north of Silicon Valley proper are looking more and more like bedroom communities. Call it transit-oriented suburbanization.
But there’s more to suburbanization than segregrated land uses and sprawl. The suburb is also a state of mind born of a specific culture and society. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, great cities are exhilarating because they’re diverse and unpredictable—qualities predicated on their broad accessibility. Suburban places, she argued, are dull because they’re homogeneous, predictable, and exclusionary. Today’s suburbs are a lot more varied than the white, middle-class enclaves of the Fifties that Jacobs had in mind, but her point about urban vitality being rooted in inclusiveness still holds.
On the diversity/unpredictability scale, the Central SoMa Plan scores low. As envisioned by the plan, the entire district is not only an employment center; it’s an office-dominated employment center—make that a tech-office-dominated employment center. The proposed rezoning has priced out other kinds of work, most notably non-boutique Production, Distribution, and Repair.
The homogenization partly reflects smart growth’s penchant for density; offices, and tech offices in particular, are much denser than PDR. Which is to say that while density is a prerequisite to diversity, a place can be dense — and exclusionary, and dull. Again, see what’s trending in 21st century Manhattan.
The moral of the story isn’t to reject density and embrace sprawl but to recognize that density is only one ingredient in the rich mix that makes for a great city. Instead, like the old urban renewal, smart growth operates with a few big abstractions that planners foist on intricate realities. We can’t get along without abstractions, but they need to be handled with care.
Closely related to smart growth’s fixation on density is its dogmatic quest for growth. No question about it: To prosper, we need growth—growth that gives particularity of place far more respect than it’s accorded in Plan Bay Area.
The myopia of the regional “blueprint” is apparent in its opening declaration that “[m]ost of us in the nine counties that touch San Francisco Bay are accustomed to saying we live in ‘the Bay Area.’”
Really? I say “Bay Area” only when someone from outside the state asks me where I live in California. If the query comes from another Californian or a Bay Area resident, I say I live in Berkeley. And if the questioner is a fellow Berkeleyan, I name my neighborhood, Thousand Oaks.
Each of these designations—state, region, city, neighborhood—represents a distinctive place, with a specific character and particular needs. In the new regional plan, the distinctiveness of the Bay Area’s cities and neighborhoods pretty much disappears under a blizzard of statistics, starting with ABAG’s disputed, eye-popping growth forecasts.
Not only does the draft Central SoMa (né Corridor) Plan reiterate those forecasts; it confers an identity on the district that transcends even the region. “[T]he Central Corridor Plan,” we read on page 1, “aims to ensure SoMa serves a local neighborhood as well as a global one.”
What, pray tell, is a “global neighborhood”? Is it a place where the migratory elite own multi-million dollar pied-à-terres that they visit once a year, and the shops are run by the same international retailers—J. Crew, Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Starbucks—that have opened branches in Europe’s high streets, driving out small independent merchants? How could SoMa possibly accommodate global clienteles and still serve the dedicated local community?
We need to bring our city and regional planners down to earth—specifically, to the places people in the Bay Area call home. Instead of starting with shaky hypotheticals foretelling massive growth, planning should begin with the carrying capacity of the region and its cities. Carrying capacity is conventionally gauged by by the amount of available food and water relative to population. We should expand the concept to include at the very least actual (not mythical) budgets, social equity provisions, quality of life particulars, and environmental factors such as the availability of alternatives to private vehicular travel and levels of greenhouse gas emissions—in short, the requisites of truly sustainable community.
Only after we’ve established the carrying capacity of our region and its cities will we be prepared to figure out how many people the Bay Area can support, and at what level of consumption and standard of living.
And rather than being handed down from on high, the answers should emerge out of a vigorous public discussion that begins in every city in the region—the likes of which, except in Marin County, and then only late in the game, did not occur during the Plan Bay Area process—and then percolates up to the regional level. (We also need to change the way MTC and ABAG operate, but that’s a topic for another day.)
The goal is to infuse regional planning with democratically-grounded realism and reasonableness along the lines suggested by Chester Hartman in the final pages of City for Sale, his landmark, 1984 study of San Francisco’s economic and political development since the mid-1950s:
Any rational overall resource allocation plan for the Bay Area would not continue to stuff high-rise office buildings into downtown San Francisco, placing an impossible burden on the city’s transit system and its housing stock, and thereby causing enormous suffering among residents of the city least able to bear those costs. A sound regional growth plan would spread this development throughout San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Marin Counties, a diffusion that prevailing communications technology facilitates.
That kind of planning, Hartman wrote, would “both meet economic and human needs and retain what’s left of San Francisco’s wonderful diversity of class, ethnicity, race, age, and lifestyle.”
Thirty years on, this wise counsel has yet to be absorbed, much less implemented, by the region’s professional planners and the elected officials they serve.
One of the most conspicuous signs of their recalcitrance is their idolization of tech. Besides taking a starry-eyed view of tech’s economic fortunes—you’d think the capitalist business cycle had been suspended—they parrot the industry’s pretentious rhetoric. The Central SoMa Plan alludes to tech’s “knowledge sector jobs,” “dynamic and collaborative settings,” and “team-oriented creative environment,” as if knowledge, collaboration, and creativity had no place in other kinds of work. Certainly tech has flooded the world with information, but as the data tsunami has made evident, at times painfully so, information and knowledge are very different things.
And enough already with the fetishism of innovation, disruption, and change—those other watchwords of the volatile tech world. Like density and growth, none of these things an absolute good. It all depends what’s being changed, how, and how fast. Indeed, when it comes to cities, beneficial change is constant and gradual, not sporadic and convulsive.
Tech idolatry helps to explain why the harmful effects of the second dot.com boom—the desolation of once-lively streets and parks, the unimaginably unaffordable rents, the spike of speculative greed, and the mounting evictions of those who cannot pay tech-sized rents—never make an appearance in the official Central SoMa Plan.
Political Will and Reality
The TODCO SoMa Community Plan prefaces its discussion of office development in the city by citing the official plan as “a prime example” of “the single most consequential deficiency in the City’s planning to date for its economic future”: “the lack of any coordinated strategy for targeting the burgeoning Tech Industry to where it is most beneficial to overall civic goals, and least harmful to existing communities and vulnerable community assets.”
Well-stated. And TODCO’s discriminating, historically informed treatment of tech and office development should be the starting point for the sort of overall civic strategy that it advocates.
For all its considerable merit, that treatment can only be a starting point. In scaling back new office development, TODCO has gone an impressively long way toward calling to heel the city’s big real estate interests and the public officials who cater to them. But to unwavering advocates of Central SoMa PDR such as Jim Meko, it hasn’t gone far enough.
At bottom, the disagreement is about political expectations. TODCO CEO John Elberling says that since commercial rent control is illegal, low-revenue PDR is vulnerable to market forces. You can zone for PDR, but you can’t force landlords to charge rents that PDR can afford.
That is correct.
But if landlords believe that the city is serious about maintaining its zoning, they’re far more likely to treat their property in a manner that serves the law’s purpose. In recognition of that truth, the Western SoMa Community Plan says that its
policies must create certainty among property and business owners regarding land use. If nonresidential uses are to be prioritized over residential uses within parts of Western SoMa, then they must be definitively established through clear land use regulations that cannot be easily modified or manipulated. Without such policies, many landlords and business owners will not invest in their Western SoMa properties or businesses.
Case in point: the 700 block of Harrison St. Most of the block is either small surface parking lots or shabby one-story buildings, such as the space that houses Interior Moves. To cite Elberling, there’s no hope of saving them. And why would anyone, even the most dedicated supporter of PDR, want to?
But consider, too, the political and historical context. The owner of most of the block, John Barrett, has long sought to develop his property big-time. In 2005, when condos were hot, he applied to the city for a condo project, Harrison Gardens. That never came to pass. Meanwhile the city made clear its intentions to upzone the block. Given those intentions, why would a landlord bother to invest in his property in accordance with the current zoning?
In February 2013 Barrett submitted a new application, this one for two tech-oriented office buildings, one 16 stories or 240 feet high, the other rising six stories or 95 feet, totaling 730,940 square feet.
The planning department’s “preliminary project assessment,” dated May 16, 2013, first notes that the eight parcels that make up the project site is currently zoned Service/Light Industrial (SLI) with maximum heights of 45, 55, and 85 feet and only permits offices for design professionals. No way this project is going to be approved under that zoning.
But not to worry. The planning department is evaluating the application under the rezoning proposed by the Central Corridor Plan, which is “anticipated to be before decision-makers for approval in late 2014.”
In keeping with its “key objectives…, which include providing support for substantial development in a transit-rich area and favoring office development over other kinds of growth, particularly on large parcels,” the draft plan changes the SLI zoning to Mixed-Use Office (MUO) and raises the maximum heights to either 85 to 130 feet (the plan’s Mid-Rise Alternative) or 85 and 240 feet (the High-Rise Alternative).
Turns out that the building height of 240 feet that Barrett’s proposing for his 16-story office tower is also “greater than the Mid-Rise and the High-Rise alternatives proposed in the draft Central Corridor Plan.” And “the proposed 95-foot tall mid-rise building exceeds existing height limits” as well as “those proposed under the Central Corridor Plan.”
Moreover, a “preliminary shadow analysis indicates that the proposed project would potentially cast new shadow on South Park.”
Again, not to worry. The “Department” is going ahead and “evaluating a 240-height limit for this parcel in the Central Corridor Plan EIR.” In a passage of marvelous delicacy, the city planner writes:
The Plan publication and ongoing EIR analysis is not an indication of which heights will ultimately be adopted as part of the Plan is not a guarantee that the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors will approve the proposed heights or whether these bodies will modify the existing height limits.
Meaning, modify them up.
In other words, the city is relaxing the proposed, more permissive zoning, even before it’s been adopted.
The TODCO Central SoMa Community Plan removes less of the PDR-protecting zones than the city’s planners, but it removes enough to nullify, practically speaking, what’s left of SLI and SALI. John Elberling believes that, given the current alignment of power in the city, this is the best PDR can hope for, and that it’s unrealistic to hope for more. He may be right.
But political reality is a famously unstable thing. Since last fall, the mood in the city has radically shifted. What the planning department calls “the refinement” phase of the Central SoMa Plan comes at a moment when a growing number of San Franciscans are rising up against the forces that are turning the town into an enclave of wealth and privilege. The Central SoMa Plan could—and should—become one more front in that struggle. If it does, protecting service and light industrial workers and businesses, not to say the SoMa community at large, may look a lot more realistic than it does in March, 2014.