Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Planning and the English language


Public Comment on “A Policy Guide to Considering Reuse of the University of California Berkeley Extension Laguna Street Campus,” a document created by the San Francisco Planning Department.

Rob Anderson
1516 McAllister St.
SF CA 94115

This document gets off to a shaky conceptual start, since it invokes the Draft Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan, which has not been through the approval process and is not part of the General Plan.

“This document extends the principles and policies of the Neighborhood Plan to the [U.C.] site” (page 2). Since the Market/Octavia Plan hasn’t been adopted yet, Planning cannot legally extend those policies to the UC proposal. Planning can invoke the principles contained in the Market/Octavia Plan for purposes of discussion.

The principles underlying the draft Market and Octavia neighborhood Plan, however, essentially involve waiving density, height, and parking requirements for future housing development in the area, which are not the kind of principles Planning should be invoking in discussing the UC Extension site proposal, since one of the primary controversies is about the sheer size and density---424 one, two, and three bedroom apartments---of the proposed development.

Does Planning think the city is obligated to satisfy regional housing needs? This appears to be the case, since there are several such references in this document: “…Projects of a larger scale must be looked at in a wider, citywide context in order to judge their potential impacts and benefits to the City as a whole, even to the larger Bay Area region” (page 5). And “Some aspects of a project that might be viewed favorably by some in the immediate neighborhood…may conflict with larger citywide goals (such as the production of transit-oriented development and appropriate densities of housing to respond to a local and regional shortage), and vice versa.” And, on page 11, “…and larger city and regional context…”[emphasis added]

The document provides a more or less accurate description of the present neighborhood, which it describes as “an established, centrally-located urban neighborhood” (page 4). Surely no “established” neighborhood in the city can absorb 424 new housing units on one parcel. The document notes the “very walkable nature of the neighborhood.” It’s more or less walkable now, but when 90,000 cars a day start pouring on and off the new freeway ramp on Market St. this summer it will not be so walkable.

The document pats itself on the back prematurely for the still under-construction Octavia Boulevard project: “Several major public improvements are underway in the immediate vicinity, most notably the new Octavia Boulevard, which will provide a significant new public space and promenade.” A “promenade” surrounded by six lanes of traffic! “Promenade” invokes a scene from a Chekhov story, with women twirling umbrellas as they flirt with well-dressed gentlemen of their class. This is surely a rather romanticized view of what Octavia Blvd. will really be like when it’s completed. In fact, it’s not clear that it will be much of an “improvement” at all, with six lanes of traffic and a freeway ramp across the street on Market.

The document makes a number of references to how desirable it is that people in the city should ride bicycles: “Within San Francisco, travel by public transit, by bicycle and on foot must be an attractive alternative to travel by private automobile” (page 10). This is a fantasy, too, since, according to the DMV, there are now 447,585 autos, trucks, and motorcycles registered in San Francisco, which makes riding a bike anywhere in the city an intrinsically dangerous activity. At most, bike riders represent 1-2% of the city’s population, and the new, “improved” Octavia Blvd. is not likely to change that reality, since most people use common sense in their choice of “transit modes,” in the document’s clunky terminology.

“Parking Policies for areas well served by public transit shall be designed to encourage travel by public transit and alternative transportation” (page 10). Muni is now approaching maximum carrying capacity, as anyone who rides the bus or a streetcar to work knows. Planning’s bike fantasy---“alternative transportation”---is not going to get people off the buses. Adding thousands of new housing units to the area---424 at the UC site and up to 5300 in the long term in the neighborhood (Market/Octavia Plan, page 40)---is not going to make public transit a more attractive “mode” of travel, since it will only lead to overcrowding.

The Document completely loses its already shaky grip on reality in the Planning Recommendations section: “If the special qualities of the existing site and surroundings are capitalized on, a project here can become a model development locally and nationally” (page 11). If the Market/Octavia Plan principles are applied to the UC site, it will more likely be a national model of how a city goes about destroying a neighborhood. “…The opportunities for this site cannot be overstated” (page 11). Yes, they can, since the document does exactly that: “What is possible here may not be possible anywhere else in America.” Why limit it to America? Why not the world, the universe?

“Qualities particular to this site and neighborhood include: a small fine-grained scale, the presence of significant numbers of older, presumed historically significant structures, low rates of auto ownership, dramatic topography, proximity to transit, vibrant local services, and a mix of housing densities and income levels” (page 11). Yes, so how can a huge housing development in the middle of this neighborhood do anything but degrade it? (And what the hell is a “vibrant” service?)

“New development should be designed in such as[sic] way as to fully integrate it into the physical and social fabric of the surrounding neighborhood, encourage new housing to meet the city’s housing needs, and contribute substantial new public amenities to the life of the area” (page 11). Well, yes, that’s the way it should be done, but plunking 424 housing units down in the middle of this neighborhood will only degrade the neighborhood and lead to increased traffic, difficulty in parking, and even more crowded buses and streetcars.

This document is in fact a pro-development document. Without a change in zoning from Public Use, there will be no housing development on the UC site. On the last page of the document, before the unhelpful illustrations, it recommends that the site retain “a portion of the current ‘Public’ zoning and encourage the creation of a significant new publicly accessible open space that takes advantages of the site’s unique topography and location that allows for an important new public vantage point” (page 12). Another fantasy: with 424 housing units on this site, there won't be room for any “significant” open space, which is a reference to the proposal’s idea of opening up the old Waller St. thoroughfare to bikes and pedestrians. Big deal. And the “important new public vantage point” is the view from the top of the planned bike/pedestrian path. Another big deal. These are token “public use” gestures designed to placate the uninformed and the unwary.

A word on diction: the author of this document writes like a frustrated English major. The use of words like “vibrant” and “robust” are surely out of place in such a document, using the language of hype and boosterism to lend credence to poor public policy. Planning also favors capitalizing “City,” an annoying form of civic narcissism also practiced by the SF Examiner.

What that neighborhood really needs is a park---Koshland is a playground, not a real park---and a branch library, not upscale housing for the well-off who want to migrate to the city from other parts of the country.

In spite of the over-ripe language of the document, it really demonstrates a complete lack of vision from the Planning Department, which is in thrall to the bike zealots and the We Need Housing movement that is a threat to every neighborhood in the city.

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