Friday, January 28, 2005

Positive Alternatives to UC Plan

There are now two positive alternatives to the still-terrible UC plan to put 424 housing units on the old UC Extension site. First there's my favorite (I get to go first, because it's my blog): use most of the nearly 6 acres for a park, with open grassland and some trees on the hillside, retaining one or more of the historic buildings for a branch library. That part of town badly needs both a park and a library. The only park in the area is Koshland Park, which is really a playground for kids, not an exceptional public space like Alamo Square or Dolores Park. And the closest library may be the Main Library in the Civic Center.

And there's the New College alternative: neighborhood opponent of the UC proposal Warren Dewar is talking to New College President Martin Hamilton. According to Dewar, Hamilton is interested in a new location for New College, which is outgrowing its present site in the Mission. Everyone tells me that this is more practical than the park/library idea, which will immediately run into questions about how to pay for it. Poor little San Francisco can't really afford to improve its neighborhoods, you understand. How about some kind of ballot measure designed solely to both repossess the UC Extension Site for the city and make it into a park/library? Future generations would thank us.

The New College alternative would preserve the Public Use zoning the site now has---and has had for the last 150 years---while retaining it for educational purposes, much like the old UC Extension. On the other hand, this alternative will bring a lot of traffic back to the neighborhood, since New College has more than 800 students. But New College is a genuinely progressive institution and would no doubt be open to taking down the wall that now surrounds a good part of the site and opening up more---especially the beautiful old gym, which will be torn down under the UC/Evans plan---to the neighborhood.

(This is now the calm before the traffic storm for this whole area, since the UC Extension site hasn't been used much for months. One way or another, it will be used again and traffic will return. And then there's the alarming Octavia Blvd. experiment unfolding a block away. This summer the road work will be done, and the new freeway entrance/exit will open up south of Market, pointing right at the Market/Octavia neighborhood north of Market. A lot more traffic will be coming into the neighborhood this summer. Finally, there's the more than 1000 new housing units planned for the near future on the old freeway parcels, which will bring still more people and traffic into the area. The Planning Dept. calls this, without irony, "building neighborhoods" and "place-making." Instead they are misguidedly setting the stage for some big problems in that part of the city.)

At the HVNA meeting last night, Supervisor Mirkarimi said he was against changing the site's zoning to allow UC to build a huge, for-profit housing development there. If UC can't get the zoning change, they can't develop the property. Let's hope Mirkarimi sticks to his guns in opposing the zoning change. The fact that there are positive alternatives to the awful UC proposal will help give him the political cover to do so.

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The Market/Octavia "template"

Last night, at the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association meeting, District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the gathering that the Market/Octavia Plan should be a "template" for neighborhoods all over the city. 

Either Ross hasn't read the plan or he hasn't read it very carefully. He's apparently mostly talking to the Planning Dept. and boosters for The Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan, a deeply delusional document which, if passed as part of the General Plan, will threaten city neighborhoods for years to come. 

Like the Housing Element passed last year, the main thrust of this document is to waive zoning rules on density and height limits and parking requirements for new housing in the Market/Octavia area to encourage housing developers. 

Ross seems to buy the current line in progressive circles---encouraged by John King's recent gushing review in the SF Chronicle---that the Market/Octavia area is already a great victory in modern urban planning, even though Octavia Blvd. won't be finished until this summer. There are also 900 new housing units in the works for the old freeway property that lines Octavia Blvd., and they presumably won't be done for several years.

In short, the jury is still way out on the Market/Octavia area. The old freeway entrance/exit was torn down in that neighborhood, and, when the road work is done this summer, the freeway entrance/exit will be on the other side of Market St. across from Octavia Blvd. 

Hence, we're going to have freeway traffic that formerly emptied onto Fell St. entering and exiting the freeway from the southern side of Market, with a lot of it pouring through the heart of Hayes Valley on Octavia Blvd. If nothing else, that's going to a horrendous intersection! We won't know how bad the traffic is going to be until later this year, though, ominously, there are now six lanes under construction on Octavia Blvd. to handle that traffic.

Last night it was good to hear Ross's skepticism of UC's still-appalling proposal to put 424 housing units---it was 500 until this week---on the old UC Extension site[Later: Ross rolled over for UC and City Hall]. But he needs to understand that the grotesque, neighborhood-destroying UC plan is a logical extension of the principles of the Market/Octavia Plan. Those principles essentially involve waiving density and height limitations in an already densely-populated neighborhood, along with allowing developers to build new units without parking spaces, which developers love, because it's cheaper. 

The idea of the latter principle is that, in a city where transit-first principles are law, not requiring a parking space for each new unit somehow encourages people to not own and use automobiles. 

Since the new housing units are near the Market St. transit corridor, the theory goes, many of the new residents won't need to own or use a car. This seems like fantasy to me. Surely those who rent the new market-rate units in that area will be able to afford cars, and when people can afford a car they usually have one.

That's why what I call Free Market Progressives who support the supposedly wonderful Market/Octavia Plan also support the shockingly bad UC proposal to put 424 new housing units on the extension site near the Market/Octavia neighborhood. I noticed that prominent progressive activists Tes Welborn (HANC) and Katherine Roberts (Trees Not Cars) were both at the AF Evans/Mercy---the developers chosen by UC---schmooze session last Tuesday night. And both were vocally in favor of the UC proposal.

The greatest threat to the city's neighborhoods in generations is this unholy developer/progressive alliance. These "We Need Housing" progressives are now in sync with profiteering developers to increase height and density in the city's neighborhoods.

Many people were puzzled when Joe O'Donoghue, head of the Residential Builders Association, endorsed Matt Gonzalez rather than Gavin Newsom in the last mayoral election. It is now clear why: Matt, while opposing box stores in the neighborhoods, was a housing uber alles guy, ready to rewrite the city's planning code to encourage housing development in the neighborhoods. 

One concedes that progressives have good intentions here. There is indeed a chronic housing crisis in San Francisco, with rent and housing costs well out of the reach of most working people---and even many middle-class people, for that matter. But the We Need Housing at any cost approach reflects what is really a free market approach to the city's housing problem, that is, build so much new housing that the supply will exceed the demand and prices will go down.

But San Francisco is a small geographical area, a mere 49 square miles. If housing development isn't done very carefully, we will surely throw the baby out with the bath water, which we are in the process of doing right now.

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The District 5 Solution

June Bonacich of San Francisco wrote to the Examiner the other day:

"Despite my already bringing in my own bags as often as possible, I still have a huge pile of bags at home. Just tell me where to bring them to anyone that can't afford the 17 cents" (Letters & E-mail, SF Examiner, Jan. 27, 2005).

I don't know anyone who can't afford to pay the 17 cents, but D5 recyclers take their plastic bags to Cala Market at Haight and Stanyan. Just inside the door, there's a bin for the bags.