Sunday, June 01, 2008

The project no one wants to talk about

The Market and Octavia Better Neighborhoods Plan rezones more than 4,000 properties on 376 acres in the heart of San Francisco; it okays four 40-story highrises at Market and Van Ness; it will encourage 6,000 new housing units and 10,000 new residents in the area; the traffic studies in the project's EIR don't account for the former Central Freeway traffic---45,000 cars a day, according to DPT---now coming through the heart of Hayes Valley on Octavia Blvd. As the Plan itself makes clear, its primary purpose is to encourage housing density in that area by changing the zoning on setbacks, backyards, height limits, parking, and density.

Given the ambitious scope of the Project area---it extends to Turk St. in the North, Scott St. on the West, 17th St. in the South, and Howard St. in the East---you would think it would be the subject of much discussion in both the mainstream media and the so-called alternative media. You would be wrong. There are usually only indirect references to a Project that will radically change the heart of San Francisco. Matt Smith in the current SF Weekly provides the latest example:

Even when well-meaning planners attempt to improve this condition, they fail. Along Octavia Boulevard, site of a torn-down freeway off-ramp, planners have tried to create a dense transit-friendly neighborhood by making it easier to approve apartment projects according to an area-wide plan amenable to neighbors.

No specific mention of the Market/Octavia Plan here, though that's what Smith is referring to. This is similar to Smith's approach to the Bicycle Plan a while back. Instead of informing himself about that Plan and the litigation that forced the city to do an environmental impact report on a proposal to redesign city streets on behalf of the bike zealots, Smith attacked me and the lawyer who worked on the successful litigation.

But Smith is not alone, since none of the local print media---including the Bay Guardian---has done any in-depth reporting on this boon for developers. The more units developers can cram into a parcel the bigger the profits. The Market/Octavia Plan could have been written by a housing developer, but it was written by our Planning Dept. and okayed by our "progressive" Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, including of course the Green Party's Ross Mirkarimi. The Bay Guardian puts one of its few reporters, Steve Jones, on the bike beat, because bikes are more important to city progressives than the impending destruction of the heart of San Francisco.

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Tom Davidson and the Silent Majority

Tom Davidson writes:
Hi Rob,

Have been reading your blog for the first time tonight, and feel like email is perhaps a better way to make my points rather than public discussion.

I live in the city and own a car and a bike. If I need to haul other people, or groceries, or it's miserable out, or late, I'll drive. If the weather is nice, or I'm headed somewhere nearby, I try to bike. When I'm biking, I really appreciate bike routes, and try to ride predictably and be courteous to cars. When I'm driving, I do what I can to make life easier for cyclists (no double-parking in bike lanes, checking my mirrors fanatically). Not having to find parking, or worry about getting a ticket is really nice, as is getting some fresh air on a nice day. Around commute time, I find that the many other cyclists I see on the bike lanes are similarly calm and pragmatic about their mode of transport.

So this email is not to take issue with your specific arguments, but just to remind you that there may be another 'silent majority' out there that your writings don't really deal with: citizens who are not deeply invested in the politics of cycling, but who are willing to try a different balance between the various modes of transportation that keep a busy city humming. If my experience is any guide, there is actually quite a lot of 'elasticity' in the choice of mode of transport, and I think this is a valid target for policy-setting.

Lastly, I think there are also lots of ways in which this is not a zero-sum game. For instance, setting up bike lanes on quieter streets (like the lane down Page street that I use quite often) is a great way to segregate bike and vehicle traffic, which is safer and faster for all concerned. It seems like you and your interlocutors on the board have really gotten yourselves into an us-and-them situation, but I hope as you head back to court in the coming months that you realize there's a lot to be gained from reaching consensus and letting the planning process proceed.

Cheers,
Tom Davidson

Rob replies:
What makes you think this e-mail message is a better way to discuss these issues than commenting on my blog? Actually, you don't really say much of anything anyhow, so why the personal message? Of course there are a lot of otherwise sensible people like you who ride bikes. Maybe your scoutmaster will give you a merit badge for safe and sensible cycling in the city.

In fact, on many city streets it is a zero-sum game, since many of our streets have only two traffic lanes. To make bike lanes on these streets, the city has to take away either a traffic lane or street parking. And then there are busy streets like Masonic and Cesar Chavez that have more than two lanes where taking away a traffic lane risks making traffic a lot worse for everyone but cyclists.

"Letting the planning process proceed"? You mean like the way Planning and the city tried to sneak the Bicycle Plan through the process without doing any environmental review? What "consensus"? The city and the bike nuts are going to more or less redesign our streets on behalf of your small minority regardless of what I think. They only have to worry about screwing up city traffic so badly that it will cause a political backlash from the overwhelming majority of city residents who don't ride bikes.

Your message is bland, smug, and adds nothing to the discussion, Tom, but thanks for sharing.

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