Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The lame duck UC Extension proposal

Last Monday night's HVNA-sponsored meeting on UC's proposal for the old extension parcel---a 424-unit commercial housing project on the 5.8-acre site---was, like the April 25 meeting, an over-produced affair that was more form than content. Peter Cohen of Urban Solutions again was the "facilitator" for the short, 90-minute meeting that was supposed to focus on the Policy Guide for the site issued by the Planning Dept. in December, 2004.

The Planning Department's John Billovits, complete with Powerpoint presentation and laser-pointer, began with an unhelpful tour of basic planning concepts. He joked in the beginning of his presentation that he was pleasantly surprised that so many people---there were 40 of us in the basement of the Baptist Church at Octavia & Waller & Market---were interested in the planning process. As he knew, we were there because we were interested in one particular planning issue---the grotesquely large, for-profit housing development UC wants to put on the old Extension site in the lower Haight. Nevertheless, Billovits proceeded as if we were interested in a lecture on City Planning 101, so that's what we got. When he got around to the Policy Guide, he insisted unconvincingly that neither the Guide nor the Planning Dept. takes a position on the merits of the UC proposal, that they are neutral "keepers of the process" in the controversy.

This is disengenuous when you read the Policy Guide's Recommendations on pages 11 and 12 of the document: "...[T]he most appropriate form of development on the site, if it is to be redeveloped, is predominantly residential with a mix of densities, affordability levels and unit types." Planning recommends that the site be used to "maximize opportunities for new housing and other uses that bring new people and activity to the area." And "automobile parking should be minimized at this location." (This is in line with Planning's bias on behalf of the anti-car bicycle zealots in the city, since they recently had both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors vote to make the 200-page Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan with no environmental review.)

That neighborhood is already a densely-populated area, so why should bringing "new people and activity to the area" be a Planning priority? In fact, the Market/Octavia Plan (page 40) already calls for 5,000 new housing units in the area over the next 20 years, which means 10,000-15,000 new people.

(The idea of making most of the site into a park apparently is not "appropriate" enough to rate a mention by Planning, though one resident mentioned it last night. I seem to be one of the few who think making the parcel a park would be wonderful for both the neighborhood and the city. The Market/Octavia neighborhood needs a park. But some residents of the City That Knows How counter that idea with the question, "How are we going to pay for it?," as if San Francisco is Bangladesh and can't afford to make improvements in its neighborhoods. The Board of Supervisors could put the issue on the ballot with a measure that includes a tax or a bond to finance making the site a park, while saving and rehabilitating the historical buildings, including the gym. One of those buildings could also be turned into a branch library, which the neighborhood also needs.)

The Planning Dept.'s bias toward increasing housing density in the neighborhood is already on record in the appalling Market/Octavia Plan, which essentially waives density rules, height limitations, and parking requirements for new housing units in the area, not to mention advocating residential highrises in the South Van Ness and Market area (see pages 34-36 of the Plan). And the UC Extension site is smack in the middle of the Market/Octavia Plan.

But the alternative that people seem more interested in---and it's also a good one---is the New College alternative. New College had several people at the meeting Monday night, and they repeated their interest in the site, emphasizing their history of community involvement and their non-profit status.

As at the April 25 meeting, during public comment no one supported the UC plan.

Since D5 Supervisor Mirkarimi went on record at the last meeting---he stopped in last night but didn't speak---as opposing the project and the zoning change that would make it possible, 424 units of housing on the site is looking more and more like a lame-duck proposal. It has little support in the neighborhood, and it's beginning to seem less and less likely that the Board of Supervisors will allow the zoning to be changed from Public Use.

How to proceed? Supervisors Mirkarimi and Dufty should ask the City Attorney to research a legal strategy to take the parcel away from UC, which has essentially abandoned and neglected the site, even as it leases expensive office space at 425 Market St. to house the extension operation. UC of course won't tell us what they are paying for the space at 425 Market---or the space on Third St., either---but why didn't they put all that lease money into rehabbing the Extension site? The answer: They want to cash in their chips. After more than 80 years of tax-free use of the site, the UC Regents want to turn it into a cash cow for the imperial UC system.

An indication of how poorly Planning understands the neighborhood came when one of the planners thought that the route of the Muni's #22 bus ran by the UC extension site. A ripple of critical comments went through the audience as the embarrased planner was corrected. And the Planning Guide itself leaves out the #6 Masonic Muni line from its list of contiguous transit lines (page 7).

The Planning Dept. thinks it knows how to build neighborhoods, which it calls "good place-making" (Market and Octavia Plan, p. 1). But all it really knows how to do is provide incentives for developers to build in areas where it has changed the zoning to make it more profitable. Unfortunately for the Market/Octavia neighborhood, it's right by Market St. and is "well-served by transit," which marks it for over-development as part of Planning's hubristic "Better Neighborhoods" program.

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