Thursday, September 01, 2005

How about a "Leave-the-Neighborhoods-Alone" Plan?

One of the many problems with the Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan is that the project area isn't really a neighborhood at all. The boundaries of the project area are expansive---all the way to Turk St. to the north to 17th St. to the south, to Howard St. south of Market, and the Van Ness-Market St. area. It encompasses most of the Hayes Valley neighborhood, part of the Upper Market St. neighborhood, and fragments of other neighborhoods/areas. In other words, the whole Better Neighborhoods program starts off with a lie---that specific, discrete neighborhoods are being targeted for "improvement."

The Market/Octavia project reflects the Planning Department's determination to put its Transit Corridors theory into effect, which essentially means waiving city height, density, and parking regulations to encourage developers to build housing in the area, including an unspecified number of 40-story residential highrises in the Market/Van Ness area. The Transit Corridors theory in a nutshell: People who occupy the new housing units won't need to own cars, because they will be close to the Market St. corridor; they can ride buses, streetcars, and bikes instead. Hence, the proposed radically increased population density in the project area is justified and supposedly manageable---on paper, at least.

This is not good planning; this is a reckless experiment in social engineering that will completely alter that part of town, increasing housing and population by 50% in the next 20 years (5,300 new housing units, according to Planning). It will also mean accelerating gentrification, as anyone who can buy a condo or rent a market-rate housing unit---90% of the projected units in the Market/Octavia Plan---in the area is going to be well-off.

The city's politically aggressive bicycle community supports the Market/Octavia Plan---and increased population density in the city, because in their minds it somehow makes riding a bike more desirable, especially since they are pushing the dubious idea of not requiring developers to provide adequate parking for the new units. If many residents of new housing units---no matter how wealthy---aren't allowed parking spaces for their cars, they will have to use bikes to get around. This is a counter-intuitive approach to market-rate housing in SF, to put it mildly. 

People with money and good jobs own cars; they are not going to ride bikes to visit the wine country, or to shop at Union Square---or ride Muni, for that matter, especially a Muni that provides standing room only for a good portion of the day. (Not to mention that riding a bike in an American city---any American city---is dangerous to the point of foolhardiness.) In short, this bicycle idea is a fantasy that, oddly, has the city's political community in its grip. To allow the bicycle zealots to undermine the need for parking in a city that, according to the DMV, has 464,903 cars, trucks, and motorcycles registered is pure folly, a triumph of a goofy "progressive" ideology over reality and good planning.

Of course Tes Welborn---who owns property in the area---and a small group of pro-development neighborhood activists at HVNA are pleased with the Market/Octavia Plan. But the rest of the city should be worried that whole sections of the city---not "neighborhoods"---are being targeted as free-fire zones for developers. (I won't get into the neighborhood process in the Rincon Hill area, where thousands of highrise condos for the rich are somehow going to be "mitigated" by big development fees extracted from the developers).

On the Better Neighborhoods Plus proposal: The assumption behind this presumably well-intentioned attempt to improve the planning process is that what we have in SF is mainly a process problem. I think it's deeper than that, since many progressives have joined with the Planning Dept. and developers to overdevelop parts of the city unfortunate enough to be anywhere near "transit corridors." We have both a political problem and a reality problem here. Progressives need to re-examine their assumptions before they can achieve any kind of clarity on the housing issue. Given the disastrous outcome in the Rincon Hill area, why should people in the neighborhoods trust the Planning Dept. to designate 40-acre areas of the city to duplicate the Market/Octavia, Rincon Hill experience?

What city neighborhoods need more than anything right now is for the Planning Dept. and misguided progressives to leave them alone. Even a project-by-project approach is preferable to the radical Better Neighborhoods approach---the Orwellian name should have been a tip-off---that is targeting wide swaths of the city for overdevelopment.

How about a "Leave the Neighborhoods Alone" program, instead of these grandiose Better Neighborhoods plans? Our arrogant Planning Dept. needs to back off and stop pretending that it knows how to build---or even improve---city neighborhoods.

From: Tes Welborn
Date: Aug. 29, 2005

I am upset by some of the false statements about the Better Neighborhoods Plan process. Ask anyone who participated in the Market-Octavia Plan or one of the other two in town -- you'll find a great deal of satisfaction with the community input into neighborhood design and limits. The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Assn. has been pleased with their input and resulting plan. What the Better Neighborhoods Plan does is look at a given area, convene the community, and make a plan for that area, what needs to be preserved, what amenities should be added, and how and where any development can occur. This is preferable to neighborhood activists having to fight one project at a time. We get to set out the terms ahead of any developers coming in, and make our neighborhoods more liveable now, as well.

Tes Welborn

"The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us." -- G.K. Chesterton

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