Thursday, December 30, 2004

No help from the Planning Department

UC Extension @ 55 Laguna and

I just took a second look at the Planning Dept.'s Policy Guide for the UC site, and I'm no more optimistic than I was after the first look.

Some specifics:

* In what's supposed to be an objective guide for the developers and the public, the Policy Guide contains remarks indicating that the idea of a for-profit housing development on the site is desirable to Planning: "Reuse of the site will surely trigger other improvements, both public and private, in the area"(page 2). Maybe, maybe not. That depends on the nature of the "reuse," doesn't it? Is every change/reuse in city neighborhoods an "improvement"? Not in my experience. This sentence doesn't belong in this document, and it tells us more about the mindset at Planning than the authors intended.

* "This document extends the principles and policies of the Neighborhood Plan[The Market/Octavia Plan] to the [UC] site"(page 2). This is bad news for opponents of the UC proposal: the Market/Octavia Plan calls for waiving housing density rules, waiving parking requirements for new units, and waiving height limits for development in the whole area.

* "Some aspects of a project that might be viewed favorably by some in the immediate neighborhood (production of large amounts of off-street parking, or very low density development) 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)..." (page 5). That is, housing development in the city---including the Market/Octavia neighborhood---is seen by Planning as an opportunity to make up for a citywide---even a regional---shortage of housing.

* On page 8 the document lists the specific elements in the Market/Octavia Plan that are cause for concern in both the Market/Octavia Plan and the UC proposal---waiving neighborhood density limits and parking requirements for new units.

* There are some positive principles on page 9: "Provide off-street parking adequate for the occupancy proposed." But note that this assumes that they're dealing with a housing project.

* "Under no circumstances [should the project] be excepted from any height limit established by this Code." That sounds good, until you read the next sentence: "A rezoning of the site may also include changes to allowable heights." That is, once UC and the developers get the zoning changed from Public Use to allow for a for-profit housing development, the Market/Octavia Plan principles will kick in, thus allowing greater density, less parking, and greater building height.

* On page 11: "These [positive neighborhood] qualities, when combined with the ownership of the entire site by a single public entity (University of California), and a development potential for significant quantities of rental and affordable housing, the opportunities for this site cannot be overstated." Again, this means that Planning thinks that some kind of private housing devleopment on the UC site is a Good Thing. Planning is not talking about a park, preserving historic structures, or a library here; they're talking about "opportunities" to build housing.

* Note that there is very little mention of the Public Use zoning or the public's use of the parcel at all, except that UC and the developers need to get that zoning changed. The public is tossed some tokenism on access and "vantage points"(see page 12). That seems to mean that, yes, the old Waller St. thoroughfare will be reopened to bikes and pedestrians (big deal #1), and the wall will come down (big deal #2)---and maybe the dental clinic will be retained, too (big deal #3). This appears to be the "public use" fig leaf the developers and Planning will brandish to legitimize a huge housing development on a parcel that has always been zoned for Public Use.

* The document tells us that, no matter how big the development is, "Automobile parking should be minimized at this location, consistent with the surrounding neighborhood." Of course a 500-unit housing development is not "consistent" with that neighborhood---or any neighborhood in the city, for that matter---so the statement is meaningless, except in the context of the "transit corridor" mythology, which means waiving parking requirements because new residents won't really need cars: they can take an already crowded Muni, walk, or ride bikes.

* The discussion of "height/scale of buildings" on page 12 is also revealing, since it assumes that a housing development of some kind is a done deal, as long as UC/Evans put the tall buildings on the bottom of the parcel and the shorter ones on the top.

This Policy Guide shows that the city's Planning Dept. welcomes a housing development on the old UC Extension site. All UC/Evans has to do is get the zoning changed from Public Use and then show Planning that the project meets the Market/Octavia Plan principles, which were formulated to be attractive to housing developers. As we suspected from the beginning, the war to stop this project will be won or lost in the re-zoning battle: UC and the developers can't proceed with this project if they can't dump the parcel's historic Public Use zoning.

The other lesson from reading this document: opponents of UC's atrocious proposal to pack 500 housing units into an already densely populated neighborhood will get no help from the city's Planning Department. In fact, this document means that Planning will help UC/Evans push their grotesque proposal through the process.

The best chance we have of stopping UC's proposal is to make it a political issue for our supervisors and members of the Planning Commission; they must understand that this and every neighborhood in the city near a "transit corridor" is in danger of being trashed by similar out-of-scale housing developments, because "We Need Housing."