The attack on SoMa: City wants to create a new downtown, wiping out culture and thousands of blue-collar jobs

January 30, 2014, 48 hills

Four years ago, Donny Beckwith lived and worked in San Francisco. He and his wife rented a one-bedroom apartment on Nob Hill for $1450 a month. “It was perfect for us,” Beckwith says. But when they started a family, they needed more space. “There was no way we could rent anything else in the city, and it was a good time to buy a house.” They bought one—in Castro Valley.

Beckwith still works in San Francisco, commuting to the same job he had in 2010. He manages Interior Moves, a South of Market business that receives, inspects, and installs high-end furniture. But if the city’s planning department has its way, he and the firm’s thirteen other employees will not be working in San Francisco much longer.

The planners want to change the zoning for a large swath of SoMa, including the 700 block of Harrison, where Interior Moves is a tenant. The new rules would allow the construction of offices, hotels and market-rate housing—now all prohibited—and would raise maximum building heights from 85 to 130 feet, or, in a “high rise alternative,” up to 400 feet. Rents would soar.

That, says Beckwith, “would drastically change our business. We’d have to go to the East Bay and cut our staff in half.”

They wouldn’t be the only ones. The planners themselves say that the proposed zoning would probably put at least 1,800 jobs “at risk.” That could mean the displacement of hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses.

While the displacement of residential tenants has become big news in this city, local blue-collar jobs and businesses are getting forced out of San Francisco, too—and if history is any precedent, the city is asking for a fight. 

The Return of Urban Renewal

From the 1950s through the 1970s, San Francisco underwent the wrenching experience known as urban renewal. Sponsored by government policy, lavished with federal funds, and pushed by local elites, urban renewal initiated the dramatic post-World War II transformation of the city. Longtime industrial districts were obliterated by the expansion of Downtown. Thousands of people were forced out of their homes, and thousands of small businesses were evicted from their places of work, which were demolished to make room for insular mega-projects such as the Geary Expressway, Moscone Center, and the Golden Gateway Apartments.

Thanks to extraordinary grass-roots resistance, South of Market avoided complete destruction and emerged with robust community-based institutions that have enhanced its livability and defended its tattered integrity for almost half a century.

Now that livability and integrity are threatened. The Central SoMa Plan, now working its way through the planning system, is a sweeping proposal whose draft version resembles the old urban renewal, tricked out in the current fashion of professional planning, “smart growth.” Staked on SoMa’s red-hot real estate market and the district’s appeal to tech firms, the plan would remake the area stretching from Market to Townsend and 2nd to 6th Streets into a full-fledged extension of Downtown, replete with high-rise offices, hotels, and residences, all in the name of dense, “transit-oriented development” and “sustainability.”

With the draft published last April, the planning process is well underway. But the requisite Environmental Impact Report won’t be finished until early 2015, so there’s ample time to demand changes that direct market forces so as to strengthen, not destroy, the neighborhood’s unique character.

In fact, a bold alternative that seeks to do just that has been put forward by the same community-based organization, Tenants and Owners Development Corporation (TODCO), that rose up out of the fight against urban renewal in the 1970s. But even TODCO’s Central SoMa Community Plan accepts as inevitable the removal of zoning protections for businesses like Interior Moves, known in local plannerese as PDR, or Production, Distribution and Repair.

Another challenge: the Central SoMa project’s low visibility. In the making since 2011, the plan has received little attention from the media. Meanwhile, the city’s progressives have been absorbed in crucial fights against escalating evictions and overdevelopment of the waterfront. This is a timely moment for them to add Central SoMa to their agenda.

In mid-November the planning department invited the public to weigh in on refinements to the draft. When accepting that invitation, here are some things to keep in mind.

A Great City is Not a Suburb

At first glance, the Central SoMa Plan may seem to be the antithesis of the old urban renewal. Wielding a suburban attitude, its proponents rammed expressways through cities. They separated homes, shops, and workplaces, so that in order to “go somewhere,” you had to get into a car. Contemptuous of the past, they gutted old neighborhoods. Density signaled blight, and diversity meant chaos.

In many ways, the smart growth program advanced by the Central SoMa Plan looks like the opposite. Today the private automobile is not the enabler but the enemy, polluting the air, crowding the roads, fostering sprawl, and overheating the globe. Accordingly, the plan’s first goal is to get people out of their cars and into mass transit.

Central SoMa already has access to BART, Caltrain, and MUNI. But the city’s original rationale for permitting massive new development was the advent of the Central Subway, whose construction is tearing up 4th Street below Market and Stockton above it. 4th Street runs down the middle of the plan area, and until last September, the proposal was called the Central Corridor Plan.

To pencil out, mass transit needs mass ridership. According to smart growth orthodoxy, the way to get such patronage without encouraging sprawl is to mix uses, build densely, and locate new construction in “transit-rich” areas.

It turns out, however, that people are most likely to use transit when it’s close to their work, not their homes. Building on that recognition, the plan favors the densest kind of job environment—so-called “creative” offices—as it authorizes 5.5 million more square feet of new commercial construction than the nearly 4 million sf currently allowed in Central SoMa.

The plan also makes room for plenty of new housing. It adds 4 million square feet of potential new residences to the nearly 10 million square feet permitted in the area by current zoning. That adds up to 23.5 million square feet of commercial and residential growth in the area.

Instead of clearing vast expanses so that all that square footage could be crammed into a few monumental projects, the draft plan marks the importance of “respecting the rich context, character and community of SoMa.” A chapter on urban form cautions that “the undifferentiated spread of tall buildings…can diminish and obscure the city’s coherence and the collective connection of people to their surroundings.” Heights are to be “sculpted” to moderate shading on public spaces, protect cherished views and respect the “intimate scale” of the neighborhood’s many alleys. Instead of taking a sledgehammer to the past, the plan dedicates a whole chapter to the recognition and preservation of “historic resources and social heritage.”

And in keeping with smart growth’s promotion of alternatives to the private automobile, the plan seeks to make the district more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists as well as to transit. Criss-crossed by wide, one-way thoroughfares that are often choked by speeding cars and trucks, many of them headed head for or coming off the freeway, Central SoMa can be an unpleasant and even dangerous place to cross a street or ride a bike. The plan calls for widening sidewalks, installing protected cycle tracks and dedicated transit lanes, planting street trees and adding signalized crosswalks on major streets and “bulb-outs” at sidewalk corners.

So far, the Central SoMa Plan sounds like something that urban renewal’s preeminent critic, Jane Jacobs, would cheer. In fact, Jacobs’ masterwork, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is often invoked by smart growthers.

But for Jacobs, density, mixed use, historic preservation, and inviting streets are not ends in themselves but means to something more elusive: “complex” urbanity. What she disliked about the suburban life of her day was its dullness. In her view, the essential requirement for urban success is a kind of diversity that involves something other than varied land uses, building types and modes of transport: democracy. A great city must be open to all kinds of comers. Only then can it provide the unpredictable experience, rich opportunity, and wide choice that spawn urban vitality.

The biggest threat to such liveliness is violent disruption. In cities as in other places, cataclysmic change is just as destructive as stagnation. Jacobs focused on the deadening effects of “renewal planning,” which trained its wrecking ball on real and perceived slums, but she also recognized that a thriving neighborhood could be ruined by a real estate boom. “[S]o many people want to live in [a] locality,” she wrote,
that it becomes profitable to build, in excessive and devastating quantity, for those who can pay the most. These are usually childless people, and today they are not simply people who can pay the most in general, but people who can or will pay the most for the smallest space. Accommodations for this narrow, profitable segment of population multiply, at the expense of all other tissue and all other population. Familes are crowded out, variety of scene is crowded out, enterprises unable to support their share of the new construction costs are crowded out.

Writing in the early Sixties, Jacobs saw Greenwich Village and the East Side of Manhattan degenerating along these lines. She could have been describing 2014 San Francisco, but surely she couldn’t have imagined that the wealthy, childless purchasers of very expensive small spaces would be in their 20s and 30s.

The Attack on PDR

Today Central SoMa is on the edge of ruinous success. Ground zero for the second boom, the area, says the draft plan, “has seen more growth and economic activity than any other City neighborhood in the last ten years.” The plan attributes the district’s allure to its diversity; reiterates the need to protect that diversity; and recommends the sort of development that will destroy it, in more ways than one.

The problem isn’t just the enormous volume—23.5 million square feet—of potential new construction. It’s also the kind of development that’s on the table. The plan proposes to “maintain the area’s vibrant economic and physical diversity” by facilitating a “mix of uses”: having “offices, housing, retail, hotels, industrial, and entertainment…sitting side by side.”

This may sound like a strategy of inclusiveness; in fact it’s a recipe for displacement—most notably, the displacement of a significant percentage of Central SoMa’s industrial businesses.

We’re not talking about large-scale, heavy manufacturing, which left San Francisco long ago, but about small firms engaged in Production, Distribution and Repair. They include wholesalers and delivery services, specialty manufacturers, construction contractors and suppliers, repair and maintenance providers, publishers and printers, utilities, media services, and producers of audio, film and video.

Operating out of the limelight, these unassuming companies have scant public recognition. But as described in “Made in San Francisco,” the illuminating 2007 report prepared under the leadership of former District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, “Back Streets Businesses” provide essential support to the city’s larger economy, including its primary components such as tourism, retail, and office-based enterprise.

Interior Moves, for example, works with decorators at the San Francisco Design Center who in turn assist individual and corporate clients. Central City Glass, just down the street, furnishes windows, mirrors, and tabletops to upscale restaurants and retailers. “Made in San Francisco” documents many other such linkages. Production, Distribution and Repair companies also bolster the city’s middle class by providing stable, well-paying employment for people without four-year college degrees.

Unfortunately, the city’s Production, Distribution and Repair businesses face tough challenges. At its peak, in 1980, PDR supported 165,000 jobs. According to the planning department, by 2012 the number had fallen to 63-72,000. A major factor in that shrinkage is the dwindling supply of affordable PDR-appropriate space. Only 6.8% of the city’s land is zoned for industry, the lowest percentage of any major city in the U.S.

The dearth of industrial space reflects four hard facts:
• San Francisco is a built-out city that sits on only 49 square miles of land.
• Housing and offices have been allowed, if not encouraged, to spread into industrially zoned areas.
• The odors, late hours, truck and forklift traffic, and noise that often accompany PDR activity are incompatible with housing and offices.
• Back Streets Businesses cannot afford office or housing rents.

Which brings us back to Central SoMa Plan. There are now about 5,600 PDR workers in the Plan Area. About 2,300 of them ply their trades south of Harrison in venues where PDR is protected by current zoning—either Service/Light Industry (SLI) or Service/Arts/Light Industry (SALI), both of which ban offices and market-rate housing. In the SALI zone, any kind of housing at all is prohibited.

The bulk of the new growth potential created by the Central SoMa Plan would come from replacing most of the SLI and SALI zoning with Mixed-Use Office (MUO), which allows just about everything except adult entertainment and heavy industry: offices, housing, general commercial, PDR. In October, the Board of Supervisors added large hotels to the list of permitted uses.

Mixed Use-Office, says SoMa Leadership Council Chair and PDR advocate Jim Meko, “is zoning for people who don’t like zoning.”

Straining to counter that impression, the plan acknowledges that “some uses may conflict with others when they are in very close proximity,” a problem that, it avers, “will require the use of zoning and other tools to try to minimize conflicts.” It’s a baffling claim, given that such conflicts, avoided by the current zoning, are encouraged by the promiscuous MUO.

The city’s real motive for shrinking Central SoMa PDR emerges along with more tortuous rationalization in the plan’s Appendix B, which addresses “Questions & Concerns”—in other words, the controversial aspects of the project. The first question up asks about the plan’s ramifications for PDR uses.

In response, the plan first throws PDR a sop, avowing that “Production/Distribution/Repair… jobs are critical to the economy and job diversity of San Francisco.” It then contends that something else is far more critical: the city’s “need to direct growth to transit-rich areas.” Meeting that need means that “some existing PDR uses on parcels currently zoned SLI or SALI would potentially face a greater risk of displacement from higher paying uses” that are also “more intensive transit-oriented uses, such as offices and housing.”

More precisely, replacing the SLI and SALI zoning with the Mixed-Use Office designation would eliminate protections for about 1,800 PDR workers, or 1/3 of the PDR jobs now in Central SoMa.

The plan asserts that “such a zoning change does not guarantee the loss of PDR jobs.” For one thing, “a ‘new school’ model of boutique manufacturing and other small-scale PDR uses” is setting up shop in Central SoMa. Regrettably, no examples or explanation (how do they pay the rent?) are provided. In any case, Production, Distribution and Repair encompasses far more than boutique manufacturing.

We’re told that “60% of the existing PDR jobs in the Plan area are in districts where office and housing is allowed and co-exists.” Again, in contrast to the plan’s handsome drawings of street re-configurations, 3-D visualizations of proposed urban form and illustrated discussion of building types favored by the tech sector, no examples or explanation of such co-existence are to be seen.

The plan also ventures that its implementation would “would accommodate space for up to 40,000 new jobs overall, of which several thousand would likely be higher-paying jobs for people without a four-year college degree, thereby creating new opportunities for the segment of San Francisco’s workforce who are employed by PDR businesses.” Even if that’s true, exactly what opportunities are these? And are the businesses providing them going to be located in SoMa or even in San Francisco? Silence.

Glancing at the space issue, the authors of the Central SoMa Plan report that San Francisco has commissioned “a PDR ‘intensification’ study” of “the conditions under which new PDR development is available.” Curiously, they doesn’t disclose that the study, completed four months before the publication of the draft plan, found that the scheme it was asked to research, using new office space to subsidize PDR on the ground floor, is (unsurprisingly) a financial non-starter.

In another propitiatory gesture, Appendix B declares that “the City is strongly committed to the preservation of PDR uses, as signified by the 2008 creation of the very restrictive PDR zoning districts in the Eastern Neighborhoods,” one of which, East SoMa, overlaps with the southeastern Central SoMa Plan area.

But the Central SoMa Plan proper states that when the Board of Supervisors adopted the SLI zoning, it was understood that “PDR businesses would not be strongly protected” in the future. The East SoMa Plan does contain those very words. But it also incorporates one of the “Key Principles” that, it says, “inform all the objectives and policies” of all the Eastern Neighborhoods Plans:
Reserve sufficient space for production, distribution and repair activities, in order to support the city’s economy and provide good jobs for residents.

It appears that the city’s mode of choice for dealing with PDR is equivocation.

That said, one passage in Appendix B makes the city’s position clear:

“Given the relatively small percentage of the City’s PDR jobs in [Central SoMa], the other efforts citywide to protect and encourage PDR, and the opportunity represented by the rezoning in this location, on balance this”—the likely destruction of 1,800 jobs by an incursion of market-rate, transit-oriented development—“is a reasonable trade-off.”

Is it?

Plan Bay Area: Pushing Displacement

Answering that question involves asking another: what’s behind the figure of 40,000 new jobs that supposedly justifies the displacement of 1,800 PDR workers? Surely it’s something more substantial than a stand-alone subway line that’s only 1.7 miles long.

Indeed it is. Just as the old urban renewal depended on the federal government for legitimation and largesse, the Central SoMa Plan relies on translocal powers to validate its mission and, its proponents hope, subsidize its implementation. The preparation of the plan itself was funded by a $250,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). As Mayor Lee announced in October 2012, the federal government has dedicated $942 million to the Central Subway Project. MTC has kicked in an additional $100 million.

But the main impetus for the Central SoMa Plan’s big numbers—to be precise, 46,960 new jobs and 23,449,400 million square feet of new development—comes from Plan Bay Area, the controversial regional “blueprint” that was adopted last July by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments.

Plan Bay Area was mandated by California Senate Bill 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008. That law requires each region in the state to coordinate land use and transportation planning to meet the State Air Resource Board’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and to do so using “the most recent planning assumptions,” which is to say, smart growth.

The prodigious numbers set forth in the Central SoMa Plan reflect the even more prodigious projections of Plan Bay Area, which anticipates that by 2040 the Bay Area will add 2.1 million people (a 30% increase over the 2010 population of 7.2 million), 660,000 new housing units (a 24% increase) and 1.1 million jobs (a 33% jump).

Seeking to cut personal auto use and block sprawl, Plan Bay Area directs 60% of the new jobs onto less than 5% of the region’s land—specifically, into “Priority Development Areas,” urban districts identified by each local government as prime sites for transit-oriented, infill construction. To “incentivize” participation in the PDA process, $14.6 billion of federal funds controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will go to jurisdictions that focus new housing in PDAs. (The regional agencies haven’t quite caught up with the latest word in smart growth, which prioritizes, as they like to say, urban infill near near jobs over infill near housing.)

Central SoMa is in one of San Francisco’s twelve Priority Development Areas, the Eastern Neighborhoods, which means it’s responsible for absorbing a substantial amount of the city’s designated share of regional growth—in all, 280,490 more residents (a whopping 35% increase over 2010 population), 92,840 new housing units (a 25% jump) and 191,000 new jobs (a whopping 34% increase).

The city’s job allocation represents 15% of the new employment projected for the entire Bay Area. The Central SoMa Plan embraces that assignment but concedes that it’s “ambitious.” For the last forty years, employment growth in San Francisco has lagged behind the rest of the Bay Area. And for over half a century, the city has seen no “significant net increase in jobs,” due to the departure of many big firms for the suburbs and the steep decline of “traditional industrial and manufacturing” activity.

Nevertheless, the planners discern “signs of hope.” Most promisingly, “office-based ‘knowledge’ sector jobs” have flooded into the city. The Central SoMa Plan welcomes that surge, for several reasons. “Knowledge workers”—sorry, but I can’t use that expression without quotation marks—like to take transit. Making it even less probable that they will drive to work, they also like living in San Francisco, “instead of either living in more suburban areas or enduring the long commute down the Peninsula (even on free corporate shuttles).” They “appreciate the economic and social diversity that South of Market provides, relative to both San Francisco’s Financial District and Silicon Valley’s suburban corporate campuses.” In particular,

they like working in the large-scale, formerly industrial buildings that dot the SoMa townscape, which is fortunate, since the area covered by the Downtown Plan—the Financial District, Mid-Market, Yerba Buena Center, and part of the Transit Center District—has “little capacity left for growth.”

So popular are SoMa’s old factories and warehouses and other venerable commercial structures that they now rent for as much or more than Financial District high-rises. Assuaging concern about the limited supply of these rugged venues, the plan says that new construction can replicate their characteristic features: large, open floorplates, high ceilings (12 -15 feet clear, as opposed to the standard 10 feet), and, to avoid the impersonality and staidness associated with skyscrapers, a typical height of 4 to 8 stories, maxing out at 10-12 floors.

Just so, the planning department is reviewing an application from Barrett Block Partners to replace most of the 700 block of Harrison, including the once-handsome, single-story, brick 1906 building that houses Interior Motives, with 730,940 square feet of new office space divided between a 9-story mid-rise and a 16-story high-rise. As described by the applicant, “[t]he proposed program utilizes large floor plates for high-tech companies,” and the lower structure would have “the higher floor-to-floor heights”—in this case 15 feet—“that are desirable for technology-oriented users.”

Tech companies’ partiality to old industrial and commercial buildings has been obvious since the first boom in the late Nineties turned SoMa into Multimedia Gulch. Less apparent is how that attraction serves smart growth’s high density agenda.The executive suites and private cubicles of the typical high-rise average out to 275 square feet for each worker. Today’s flexibly designed offices, with their mobile employees laboring at shared tables and workstations, can reach densities of over one worker per 200 square feet.

SPUR and the Imperial Downtown

Despite its repeated homage to diversity, the draft Central SoMa Plan touts only one kind of job growth: employment in offices—above all, tech offices. In facilitating that growth by decimating SoMa’s Production, Distribution and Repair economy, the plan recapitulates the motives of the old urban renewal: expand downtown into San Francisco’s industrial districts, pushing out their businesses and workers.

In another sign that history sometimes does repeat, downtown’s full colonization of SoMa is being lauded by one of the key boosters of the old urban renewal, an entity that is also one of the most influential pressure groups in the city today: the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association or SPUR. From 1959 to 1977, the R stood for Renewal. The organization changed its name but not its main agenda: lobbying for big real estate interests and the development opportunities they seek.

One thing, though, has changed: nowadays the pursuit of such opportunities is associated with the environmental amelioriation promised by smart growth. In San Francisco and other cities, the huge projects entailed by the old urban renewal were billed as an antidote to slums. By contrast, the expanded, high-rise, office-dominated downtown envisioned by the Central SoMa Plan is championed as a way to achieve a low carbon future.

That’s the guiding principle of SPUR’s 2009 white paper, “The Future of Downtown San Francisco: Expanding Downtown’s Capacity for Transit-Oriented Jobs.” Like the Central SoMa Plan, the report identifies the need to slow climate change and the imperative to cut back on personal auto use as its prime motives. It too assumes that over the next few decades the Bay Area and the city will experience exponential growth, and that a conscientious environmentalism dictates that to the greatest extent possible, new development be aimed at limiting private auto commutes by funneling jobs into “densified” uban places with abundant transit.

San Francisco, SPUR observes, is “the only employment node in the region where most people travel to work without bringing their own car.” It follows that the city should become a regional “employment center” and a magnet for high-density office development and jobs. That goal can be realized only by eliminating current constraints, which range from “restrictive zoning” to woefully inadequate transit capacity. SPUR’s “highest long-term priority” for transportation is a second new SoMa subway,“designed and built by BART,” that would carry workers from the East Bay into and out of the expanded downtown.

Though “The Future of Downtown San Francisco” casts a wider net than the Central SoMa Plan, much in the report, including a call to turn “the Fourth Street corridor” into a dense office district, reads like a template for the official document.

But SPUR is also more aggressive and less politic than the city’s planners.

In 2009 the organization’s definition of downtown already included what the report calls “SOMA” and “Lower SOMA.” More provocatively, SPUR wants to raise the cap on annual office development—875,000 square feet for large buildings and 75,000 square feet in buildings under 50,000 square feet—established by the passage of Proposition M, so that the city can “meet regional smart growth and carbon emission reductions targets.”

The rhetoric of diversity that permeates the Central SoMa Plan has no place in “The Future of Downtown San Francisco,” which is to its authors’ credit, since they aim to make the neighborhood a less diverse place. Consider the report’s position on housing, a subject to which the 66-page document devotes less than a page. SPUR envisions downtown as an employment center that houses only 40% of the prospective new office workers, the same share of downtown workers who resided in the city in 2009. The other 60% would live in downtown’s “catchment area,” more familiarly known as the East Bay and the Peninsula.

Here equity and displacement issues get even less attention than they receive from the none-too-attentive Central SoMa Plan. The SPUR report nods to PDR, asserting that “if an area is rezoned from light industrial to office uses (and becomes built out as a dense office district), the area will likely produce more light industrial jobs than the prior zoning,” because offices have a far higher worker-to-square-footage density than industrial enterprise and generate “a tremendous demand for light industrial suppliers.” Not a word about where those suppliers will locate their businesses.

There’s also a paragraph about the “difficulty of reconciling the varying needs and interests” of the neighborhood’s residents—“many of modest means”—the historic resources, and the “service and light industrial type jobs that support the city’s knowledge exports” in the area south of Harrison. What such a reconciliation might involve, the reader is left to imagine.

Last May SPUR Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky posted a comment on the organization’s blog under the headline “Central Corridor: A Good Plan, But It Needs More Height.” Calling the draft “a great step in the right direction,” Karlinsky praised the “greater flexibility in zoning” and the “greater variety of uses” it would allow, the “streetscape and circulation improvements that would make it easier to get around by foot and bicycle,” the proposed park between Freelon and Welsh, and the idea of making the area an “eco-district.”

There was just one problem: the plan’s recommendation for a “mid-rise” Central SoMa. That idea, Karlinksy conceded, honors the “existing urban form characterized by older commercial and industrial structures.” It also reflects “tech companies’ preference for the larger floorplates typical of such buildings.” Nevertheless, significant height variation has benefited “many successful urban areas, including San Francisco’s downtown.” In any case, planners need to the take the long view: what companies want and need now might well change in the next decade or two. SPUR endorses the plan’s “high-rise” option, amended to allow even taller buildings than it now contemplates.

The Neighborhood Strikes Back: TODCO’s Plan

One of the old urban renewal’s most vigorous and effective opponents was TODCO, short for Tenants and Owners Development Corporation. Established in 1971, TODCO carried on the fight against displacement and downtown expansion that had been initiated by the poor and elderly inhabitants of dilapidated residential hotels and apartments on Third Street that were slated for demolition. A federal lawsuit forced the city and the redevelopment agency to provide four sites in the Yerba Buena Center (now the site of the Moscone Convention Center) to replace the destroyed housing and to fund the new development with hotel tax monies. TODCO built, owns, and manages nearly a thousand units of permanently affordable housing on eight properties that serves the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, and hotel tenants.

The Central SoMa Plan has revived TODCO’s historic opposition to a southward-encroaching downtown. Last May the organization published a 95-page-and-counting (it’s a work in progress) rejoinder to the city’s draft, its manifesto bannered across the cover:

We are not a “corridor.” We are the South of Market. We are a neighborhood. We are a community. That is our best future—both for SoMa and all San Francisco.

The first page cites “the frank admission” made by an unnamed member of the city planning department (it was apparently Planning Director John Rahaim) during the 2011 launch of the “Central Corridor Study”: “Let’s face it, this is really about expanding downtown…”

Later retracted, that statement, says TODCO, exposed the city’s “initial goal: to build many more office buildings in Central SoMa for the City’s new Tech Industry,” with the forthcoming Central Subway—“just a modest addition to the current MUNI service here”—as its announced rationale.

Declaring that Community/Neighborhood Building must always be of equal/greater importance than downtown office buildings,” TODCO proceeds to flesh out that conviction.

The operative word is “flesh.” Whereas the official plan begins at the global level (the threat of climate change) and projects abstractions (smart growth, transit-oriented development) down through the state, the region, and the city to a place it initially called The Central Corridor—who in San Francisco would tell you that he lives in “the Central Corridor?”—TODCO refracts civic considerations through hard-earned local knowledge.

Instead of the city’s lofty approach, we’re offered a fine-grained, historically informed overview of the ingredients that make up SoMa’s special character, an annotated glossary (inexcusably omitted from the city’s plan) that decodes the alphabet soup of zoning categories, a review of neighborhood demographics, and much more, all rendered in everyday English and supplemented by maps whose specificity rivals that found in the best travel guide books.

(To get a bird’s eye view of coming development, check out the map showing the location, size and status of the twenty office and hotel projects currently proposed, approved, or under construction in the plan area.)

But for all its focus on the neighborhood, TODCO is no NIMBY. The organization’s swipe at the city for viewing SoMa as ripe for annexation to downtown and conversion into a high-rise office district filled with tech companies should not be confused with a wholesale rejection of high-rises, office development, or the tech industry. TODCO has places for all three, albeit not always the ones suggested by the city’s planners.

Far from resenting techies, the Central SoMa Community Plan salutes them for having compensated for the “very severe contraction” in San Francisco office demand from the corporate and financial sectors, and for having provided, along with the thousands of new residents in Yerba Buena and Mission Bay, the clientele that’s turned 4th Street north of Townsend into a lively neighborhood shopping district. TODCO wants tech to stay in SoMa and flourish, as long as its presence benefits the community and upholds the area’s uniqueness.

To that twofold end, the Community Plan adopts a position on office development that is strikingly different from the one advanced by the city, both in its assessment of needed space and its approach to the tech sector.

Rather than take its cue from the regional agencies’ growth projections, TODCO counts the San Francisco offices that have actually gotten built or have been awaiting construction since the 1985 approval of the Downtown Plan and the passage of Prop. M a year later. The amount of these “real projects” averages about 586,000 square feet a year.

That figure takes into account a crucial factor that the city’s planners ignore: the business cycle. “Once the feast/famine boom/bubble/bust cycles are averaged out,” says the Community Plan, the “long-term average office demand is much less than the projections typically hyped by development proponents.”

In 2009 SPUR estimated that the total citywide office space need between 2010 and 2035 would range from a “conventional” (Moody’s-based) figure of 18.6 million square feet to a super-smart growth (ABAG’s 2009 “3rd Scenario”) number of 57.6 million.

By contrast, TODCO, allowing for a moderate increase in new demand, boosts the historic long-term annual average of new offices by 25% and arrives at 750,000 square feet per year—well under the Prop. M limit of 950,000—or 15 million total square feet of office growth through 2034.

Where should all that new office space should go? The Community Plan identifies the four most likely candidates: Central Market/Civic Center, the traditional Financial District, Mission Bay and the Central Waterfront, and the SoMa Central Corridor (expanded by TODCO to stretch all the way to Dogpatch). Central Market/Civic Center is assigned 1.5 million square feet, in recognition of its relatively small capacity for more office growth. The other three areas each get an allocation of 4.5 million square feet of new office development over the next twenty years. The city’s plan authorizes the construction of 9.4 million commercial square feet in its own, less extensive version of the SoMa Central Corridor.

TODCO also takes a different approach to the tech sector. Instead of treating the industry as a monolith whose defining characteristic is a taste for large floor plates and high ceilings, the Community Plan distinguishes tech companies according to what type of office space they need and can afford.
• Class D Space: very cheap but illegal; rank start-ups
• Incubator Space: legal, shared, and cheap; i.e., The Hub in the former Chronicle Building
• Class C Space: legal but with limited improvements or funky location; firm is launched but still small
• Class B Space: upgraded larger buildings in desirable locations;
significant growth/investment funding has been achieved
• Class A : expensive properties; big-time success

TODCO warns that the continuing growth of the city’s tech industry is seriously threatened by “office gentrification.” Class A space is going to get built in any case. Class C, crucial to young but promising firms, is the endangered species. Most of it is housed in small, older buildings vulnerable to demolition, especially if the owners plan to assemble adjacent lots into large development sites. In today’s scorching market, once such space is gone, it cannot be replaced.

To promote the survival of Class C office space, TODCO takes a harder line than the city’s planners, who would allow the consolidation of small lots with a conditional use permit. Property owners know that such permits are almost always granted. So forget conditional use. TODCO would allow the consolidation of lots smaller than a half acre only if any existing building on any of the merged lots that has a floor-to-area ratio greater than 1.5 will not be torn down.

Besides showing a discriminating regard for the tech sector, that recommendation bespeaks TODCO’s solicitude for what it calls “the globally recognized SoMa Brand.” Like Class C and below office space, most of the businesses that contribute to the neighborhood’s edgy character are located in smaller and older multi-story buildings that sit on lots of less than half an acre.

They are where most of the ‘good stuff’ happens—the Tech start-ups, the local spots, the fresh ideas, the places that become loved, the ones that can’t be replaced by any real estate developer, ever, anywhere.

A mere two years ago, the planning department set base height limits for the area. The city’s Central SoMa Plan substantially raises them. TODCO wants to keep those limits.

Once again, however, the organization defies the NIMBY stereotype. The Community Plan also specifies a few “Priority Commercial Development Sites”—including the 700 block of Harrison, three properties along Fifth Street between Bryant and Bluxome, and, most notably, the Caltrain station and opposite northeast corner and adjacent site—where a conditional use permit would allow buildings to rise above the existing limits. Development proposed for the Caltrain complex could go up to 320 feet.

Other departures from city’s plan include TODCO’s ideas about a new park on the north side of 5th and Brannan (how about a Levi’s Plaza South?), the proposed Central SoMa eco-district (the official vision is “technocratic” instead of community-inspired), the forthcoming expansion of Moscone Center (lacks a neighborhood perspective), and greening the freeways (they’re not kidding). Consideration of these intriguing topics will have to wait.

What Kinds of Housing, At What Cost?

What can’t wait are two topics on which TODCO more or less concurs with the city’s planners: the need for affordable housing, and the rezoning that will eliminate strict protections for Production, Distribution, and Repair (PDR).

In the Central SoMa Plan, housing places second fiddle to offices. But when second fiddle gets 14 million square feet—the total amount of new residential space authorized by the official plan—it’s still a big role. It’s also a role that complicates the analogy between the Central SoMa Plan and the old urban renewal.

When the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s bulldozers rolled into SoMa in the last Sixties and the Seventies, they wiped out dwellings, businesses, and jobs. By contrast, no housing is jeopardized by the Central SoMa Plan. Rather, it’s small businesses and the jobs they provide that are once again at risk. And whereas the city and the Redevelopment Agency had no intention of replacing what they destroyed, the Central SoMa Plan foresees the creation of a significant amount of new affordable housing. Moreover—and this is the real complication—it ties the provision of that housing to displacing those 1,800 PDR jobs with massive amounts of high value development, both residential and commercial.

The plan would increase the required percentage of below-market rate units in any housing project—in planning lingo, “inclusionary” housing—built in the areas rezoned from Service/Light Industrial (SLI) and Service/Arts/Light Industry (SALI) to allow currently prohibited uses, i.e. offices, hotels, and market-rate housing.

The percentage of inclusionary housing would also rise on sites receiving substantially increased height that are located anywhere within the plan area. The city’s standard inclusionary requirement is 12% on-site, or 20% if off-site or if the developer is paying a fee in lieu of building affordable housing at all.

Mind you, here “below market rate” means what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as affordable to people earning up to 120% of the Area Median Income, or AMI. In San Francisco that works out to a maximum of $81,550 for a one-person household and $116,500 for a four-person household.

And what HUD says is affordable for local 120-percenters ranges from $1,529 for a room in an SRO to $2,039 for a studio to $2,623 for a two-bedroom apartment, all with utilities. (The full range of AMIs and maximum rents is posted on the Mayor’s Office of Housing website.) Because San Francisco’s annual median income is so high, what’s officially below market rate is a lot higher than what most people might expect and what many of the city’s residents can afford.

Exactly how much higher the inclusionary requirement would go under the Central SoMa Plan remains to be worked out during the “refinement” process now underway. Nevertheless, the plan predicts that the increased percentage would generate about 1,750-1,900 on-site inclusionary units, or about $550-600 million in in-lieu fees. (The plan estimates that over its thirty-year life, a total of 11,715 new housing units will be built.)

All non-residential development in the plan area will be subject to the city’s Jobs-Housing Linkage fee, which requires new commercial development to pay a substantial fee to fund new affordable housing. The 2013 rate for offices is $22.83 per square foot. New hotels and retail projects pay somewhat less. The Central SoMa Plan estimates that new development in the plan area would yield $688-740 million in these fees for affordable housing.

Plus, the plan is extending to Central SoMa the new inclusionary options offered in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan: developers can fulfill their required percentage of affordable housing by either dedicating land to the city or providing a greater number of below-market-rate units at higher prices that are affordable to households with incomes averaging 135% of San Francisco’s AMI (maximum rent for a studio with utilities: $2,391). This is officially known as middle-income housing.

Having proposed less new office space and lower heights than the city’s planners, TODCO foresees less money for affordable housing. But the Community Plan specifies as its “highest possible priority” the creation of a thousand units of permanently affordable housing in the neighborhood over the next twenty years. Whereas the city’s planners call only for the “exploration of mixed income housing at major development sites such as 5M and the Central Subway’s Moscone Station,” TODCO provides a detailed list of sites and funding for those thousand units. By TODCO’s reckoning, at least 645 of those units would be financed with fees paid by nearby future office or hotel development.

It’s unclear how much of that fee-generating development would go on land that’s proposed to be rezoned from SLI or SALI. Certainly it would be a substantial amount—all of it at the expense of numerous Production, Distribution, and Repair jobs and businesses.

And that’s the tricky issue, one that many in the affordable housing movement agree is troubling: The City desperately needs affordable housing, at all levels–but when the source of money for that housing is high-end development and high-end housing, it’s not an easy call.

Most affordable housing advocates, for example, opposed the 8 Washington project–despite the substantial money it would offer for affordable housing. None of the major housing groups supported it. The same advocates have supported restrictions on housing in PDR areas in the Northeast Mission, Dogpatch, and parts of the Eastern Neighborhoods.

As Peter Cohen, at the Council of Community Housing Organizations, points out, overall, the affordable housing community has never supported the notion of an acceptable tradeoff between PDR jobs and new below-market rate housing.

In fact, the Council just released a plan for 2014 that includes the following:

“Gentrification is not simply about the displacement of tenants, but about the wholesale transformation of people’s neighborhoods and commercial districts. We need policies to stabilize local-serving small businesses.”

Cohen notes that strict zoning is one of the few ways to “dictate the price of the land. The price of land is based on its highest possible use. You can’t be flexible and keep prices down” to a level PDR companies can afford. I don’t think a lot of city planners get that.”

John Elberling, the CEO of TODCO, argues that many of the PDR businesses will be lost anyway, and that it’s not politically possible to maintain zoning so strict that all conversions to office and housing uses would be banned. “Basically,” he told me, “21st century PDR still has a future in SoMa, but 20th century PDR, except for the very significant auto service businesses, does not.”

Meko, Chair of he SoMa Leadership Council, disagrees:

“There’s no place else in the heart of the city for service and light industrial businesses,” he told me. “there has to be some social engineering involved in planning, especially community planning. I”m sure there’s a higher and better [more profitable] use for all that property down there, but pretty good working-class jobs trump that and need to be protected.”

That will be one of the big challenges in addressing the city’s plans for SoMa.

Part Two, Coming Next: Who’s behind the attack on SoMa–and do we have to give up the neighborhood to save the Earth?