Thursday, March 22, 2007

John King: "Octavia Blvd. is a laboratory..."

When historians look back on this period of San Francisco history to explain how our beautiful city went so terribly wrong with its planning process, John King's name will keep popping up in the pertinent documents. 

As the architecture critic for the SF Chronicle, King has played an important role in pushing both residential highrises and the awful Octavia Blvd. King gets points for consistency: He's been pushing Octavia Blvd. since it was on the drawing board, long before it was reconfigured to handle traffic that used to pass over the Hayes Valley neighborhood on the Central Freeway. 

Both Octavia Blvd. and the surrounding neighborhood are now clogged with freeway traffic every weekday. Once city voters finally voted to tear down the Central Freeway ramp, something like Octavia Blvd. was inevitable. But what's odd about folks like John King is that they refuse to recognize what a catastrophe it is for that part of town.

King returns to the scene of the crime in his latest column with another delusional article justifying the havoc the city's Planning Dept. continues to wreak in the heart of San Francisco.

After praising plans for the new housing to be built on the old freeway parcels next to Octavia Blvd., King detects trouble on his Boulevard of Dreams---opposition to the Market/Octavia Plan:

Unfortunately, the scene also shows another facet of San Francisco: a planning process where competing ideals often translate to gridlock. There's a real danger that the rebirth of Octavia Boulevard could be stalled by politically tinged disputes over the future of the area around it. That would be a mistake---because the architectural forms and planning theories being experimented with can be applied citywide.

His reference to "gridlock" must have been a Freudian slip, since that's the kind of traffic we now have in Hayes Valley. Octavia Blvd. is the Devil's spawn as far as traffic is concerned. DPT calculated that Octavia Blvd. was close to maximum capacity six months after it opened in September, 2005, carrying 45,000 cars a day.

King of course provides no specifics on what exactly is happening with the planning in the area, because any discussion of the Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan leads into the black hole of an EIR that is completely out of control, with the Planning Dept. still tacking on thousands of pages long after the public comment period closed on that document. 

The result: it's not easy for anyone to determine exactly what the Plan is or is not. But this much is clear: The Market/Octavia Plan loosens city zoning laws on height, density, and parking on thousands of properties to encourage developers to build 6,000 new housing units and bring 10,000 new residents into an already densely-populated area.

Never mind all that traffic, King still sees the Octavia Blvd. area as part of a bold experiment in planning:

Octavia Boulevard is a laboratory, a former elevated freeway path[sic] recast as a five-block landscaped roadway that's becoming the centerpiece of the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Twelve empty lots once covered by freeway will be redeveloped and money from the land sales will fund neighborhood street improvements...

But despite the merit of the designs and the support of neighborhood leaders, they can't move forward. That's because of a civic jousting match over a plan for 70 blocks of San Francisco between Civic Center and the Castro District. The plan has been in the works since---wait for it---2002. It's an ambitious vision that tries to look at a complex area in holistic terms. The plan adjusts height limits and parking requirements, maps out how to landscape alleyways, and includes an ongoing survey to identify historic buildings.

Yes, you might call Octavia Blvd. the "centerpiece" of that unfortunate neighborhood, but it would be more accurate to call it a dagger through its heart. King's description of the Market/Octavia Plan is so disingenuous that I feel comfortable calling it a lie. 

"Ongoing survey to identify historic buildings"? That's one way of putting it, though it would be more accurate to say that the Planning Dept. is putting the Market/Octavia Plan EIR before the Planning Commission for approval without completing a historic landmark survey of the area that's required by CEQA

The plan "adjusts" height limits and parking requirements? It essentially eliminates these important city zoning rules on thousands of parcels in that area, making it a lot like a free-fire zone for developers.

Every side demands changes, and is happy to see the plan stalled unless[sic]. Transit advocates want even less parking, for instance, but some residents say tight parking limits are a bad idea. It's a San Francisco ritual. Skip the "community process," then pile on when it is time to vote. But while everyone angles for concessions, good projects get stuck. In this case, the Octavia projects could face delays because they're designed to conform to the proposed zoning.

The truth is that the housing designs King praises won't be built if the Market/Octavia Plan is not passed by the Planning Commission, because the plans don't conform to present city zoning regulations on height, density, and parking spaces. 

Transit? The M/O Plan contains no study of the effects that bringing 10,000 more people into that part of town will have on an already crowded Muni system. The Plan only exists because of Planning's fallacious "transit corridors" theory, but it ignores the serious problems Muni already has. 

The Market/Octavia Plan, which is anti-car---that's why the SF Bicycle Coalition likes it so much---wants to discourage people from driving, so it radically limits the parking in the area. It justifies this under the fiction that eliminating and limiting parking in the new housing units is not a significant impact under CEQA. 

And what "community process"? Planning schmoozed with a few folks---mostly the pro-development leadership---in the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and produced this radically flawed Plan.

Earlier posts on John King's neurotic fixation on Octavia Boulevard here, here, here, here, and here.

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