Friday, December 14, 2012

Supervisors reject Fell/Oak appeal

When reading accounts by bike zealots of any of the city's anti-car, bicycle projects, you enter an alternate universe, where all these projects are by definition "improvements."

In Streetsblog's account of the hearing on the appeal of the Fell/Oak bicycle lane project, there are a number of errors and misunderstandings:

The appeal, largely seen as a gambit to slow the project, was filed by Mark Brennan, a developer who owns a building on Oak and Divisadero Street; Howard Chabner, a disability rights advocate; and Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association. Another appeal could be filed at the state level, though it’s unclear if the opponents plan to do so.

The appeal was not a "gambit" but a serious attempt to get the city to reconsider the project, including a substantive legal argument should the appellants decide to litigate the issue. Any litigation would be filed in the local Superior Court, not "at the state level."

At issue was the Planning Department’s determination that the project didn’t require an EIR under CEQA because it only includes “minor alterations” to existing streets and won’t remove traffic lanes, except for a part-time turning lane on Oak. The project will re-purpose about 100 on-street car parking spaces from Fell and Oak to create protected bike lanes separated from motor traffic by concrete planters...Although CEQA doesn’t require an EIR for any of the changes in the project, since they’re considered “minor alterations” to the street, Chabner argued that they go beyond that definition when taken altogether, and that the impacts of a separate plan to overhaul nearby Masonic Boulevard should be considered as well.

The bike advocates have always had a sketchy understanding of CEQA. They're still bitter--the Bicycle Coalition called us "nitwits" and "cranks" after the original injunction---that the court ruled that the city had to do an EIR on its massive Bicycle Plan project under CEQA, which requires that any project that even might have an impact on the environment must undergo environmental review before it's implemented.

They apparently thought that both their good, green intentions and the fact that bicycles don't use fossil fuel should exempt such "improvements" to our streets. Since taking away street parking and traffic lanes on busy city streets surely could have a negative impact on the city's environment, the court ruled against the city, which infuriated the bike people. (The General Rule Exemption the city is invoking to justify this project is what the city invoked for the Bicycle Plan back in 2005. Judge Busch gave that argument the brush in his decision against the city.)

From the appellants memo opposing the Fell/Oak project:

The Project does not qualify for an exemption under Guidelines Section 15301 (also referred to as "Class 1"), the Existing Facilities exemption. That exemption is for the "operation, repair, maintenance, permitting, leasing, licensing, or minor alteration of existing public or private structures, facilities, mechanical equipment, or topographical features, involving negligible or no expansion of use beyond that existing at the time of the lead agency‟s determination." (Emphasis added) "The key consideration is whether the project involves negligible or no expansion of an existing use."

Hence, this project surely doesn't qualify as a "minor alteration" of an "existing use," since that space is now used for parking. More than 100 parking spaces will be eliminated---or "repurposed," in Streetsblog's murky jargon---on Fell and Oak Streets for a bicycle lane separated from traffic by planter boxes

The city is not merely repairing or maintaining the existing bike lane on Fell Street; it's creating an entirely different, expanded bike lane by eliminating scarce street parking. And there is no existing bike lane on Oak Street. Since the bicycle project on nearby Masonic Avenue, already okayed by the city, will do something similar by removing all the street parking---167 parking spaces---on Masonic between Fell Street and Geary Boulevard, the city should do an EIR that covers both projects, which are clearly related and in the same neighborhood:

Supervisor Scott Wiener questioned the legal implications of defining the removal of car parking as an environmental impact under CEQA. "If you require an EIR to remove net 55 parking spots, what about adding net 55 parking spots?" he said. “What about taking a surface parking lot, if I buy it, and I decide to develop a building there — would that require a full EIR for a two or three story building?” While the hearing was held strictly to address the issue of the project’s exemption from an EIR, opponents also made arguments against the merits of the project itself (though Wiener urged them to keep the discussion on topic).

Supervisor Wiener is apparently considered an intellectual on the Board of Supervisors, but it's hard to see why. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king? He urged everyone to focus on the exemption issue, while peppering appellant spokesman Howard Chabner with hypotheticals. 

Chabner seemed taken aback by this stupidity and reminded Wiener that he was only dealing with the project that was the subject of the hearing. The answer to Wiener's questions, however, is obvious: of course you should have to do an EIR for a project that either adds or eliminates 55 parking spots in a city that has a lot of traffic and a chronic parking shortage.

Supervisor Wiener recently proposed legislation intended to reduce abuses of CEQA---a state law---as a tool for opponents to slow street improvement and development projects. However, the proposal was heavily criticized for giving too much leeway to developers and was rejected by the Planning Commission, which asked him to bring back a revised proposal next year.

Wiener couldn't get a single vote on the Planning Commission for this bogus "reform" proposal, probably because, unlike Wiener, the commissioners actually understand CEQA.

Wiener seems to think that CEQA and environmental review is a new issue facing the city since he was elected to the Board of Supervisors a few years ago, though the law was passed way back in 1970. Hard to see what's unreasonable about requiring developers---yes, even cities and counties---to do environmental review of large projects before they are implemented. 

Wiener tried earlier to use our successful litigation against the city and the Bicycle Plan as an example of obstructive CEQA delay, but apparently even he now understands that's simply untrue, since he didn't mention it the other night.

[Ted]Lowenberg repeated his assertion that bicycle commuters should instead be forced on to existing alternative routes via Hayes and Page Streets. SFMTA Project Manager Luis Montoya pointed out, again, that most people aren’t willing to use those routes, since they require climbing uphill at a 12 percent grade and increase the trip’s distance by 20 percent.” This project has been on the front minds of this neighborhood for decades,” he said. "People in this neighborhood and people who move throughout the city have said these streets don’t feel safe, they don’t feel comfortable, please do something about it.”

The safey issue has always been bogus, which, after an exchange with Montoya earlier in the year, I blogged about here. This project has always been about catering  to the city's bike lobby by making riding a bike on the Panhandle more "comfortable" for cyclists. Montoya is simply singing for his supper with his comments on the Page and Hayes Street alternatives to this project. 

It's simply a lie that riding a bike from Fell and Oak to Page and Hayes involves a burdensome uphill climb. He and the bike zealots talk about these streets as if the rest of us aren't familiar with them. The reality is that the anti-car lobby---which now includes both the Bicycle Coalition and Elizabeth Stampe and Walk SF---is pushing this project through just because they have City Hall support to get it done and not for any other reason.

No anti-car hearing would be complete without some bullshit from bike zealot Jason Henderson:

“There’s no significant impact on automobile intersection Level of Service,” said Jason Henderson of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association. “As much as I would like to get us away from using that metric, I do understand that metric, and this project has thoroughly looked at that.”

Funny how the city finds that its favorite projects will have no impact on anything. One of the city's favorite arguments is that under CEQA removing parking is not an impact, except when the city is arguing in favor of putting parking meters in the neighborhood:

More parking availability means that drivers will spend less time circling in search of parking spaces. Circling reduces safety, wastes fuel, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. Less circling will reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the quality of life in San Francisco's neighborhoods (page 27, MTA's Extended Meter Hours Study).

Odd that none of the "progressive" supervisors, except Supervisor Olague---if she still qualifies as a prog---wanted to comment at the hearing. Where were Campos, Avalos, and Kim? How's that for leadership? And Supervisor Chu just wanted everyone to know that parking was an important issue. No shit! Supervisor Farrell mumbled something about voting "to uphold the EIR," which of course wasn't the issue.

And empty suit Supervisor Elsbernd, termed out after eight years of utterly undistinguished service to the people of San Francisco, also mumbled something about the need to "reform" CEQA. Elsbernd's legacy to the people of his district: the Parkmerced project that will add 5,000 new housing units to that development in a neighborhood routinely gridlocked with the traffic on 19th Avenue.

All these dim-bulb supervisors will be retired on their generous pension plans when the ugly consequences of deliberately making traffic worse in San Francisco on behalf of a small minority of bike people become undeniable.

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