Typical San Francisco...
Larger agendas stall city's best-laid plans
Monday, February 18, 2008
If you want to see what's wrong with planning in San Francisco - and how the city suffers as a result - take a stroll down Octavia Boulevard.
A year ago, four empty lots along the way were awarded to architects and developers who won a civic competition. Neighborhood leaders helped draw up the rules. They praised the winning designs.
But today the land's still empty, and there's no telling when that might change. Those fenced-off lots are in limbo - victims of a larger process in which everyone has his own utopian demands, and nobody's shy about gumming up the works if he doesn't get what he wants.
The delay is especially frustrating because Octavia Boulevard should be a success story.
An elevated freeway once loomed there. Now that structure touches earth south of Market Street, replaced by a four-block boulevard designed to handle commute traffic in the middle and local traffic on the sides. The roadway is softened by trees and shrubs that, almost 30 months after opening day, already look great. A small neighborhood park on the north end is a wonderful segue from the boulevard to ever-more-prosperous Hayes Street.
The boulevard exists because Hayes Valley residents persuaded city voters to endorse their desire for change. And when it came time to fill the land left behind, neighbors kept their standards high.
Working with city officials, they crafted a truly progressive approach to redevelopment. Freed-up land would be used for housing, with 50 percent reserved for low-income residents. Land-sale proceeds would help pay off city costs related to the boulevard and other transportation and streetscape improvements.
But wait, as they say on late-night television, there's more.
When the first four boulevard lots went on the market in 2006, guidelines requested "excellence and innovation in urban infill and architectural design." In other words, the city said it wanted to do business with teams that would propose buildings of lasting merit.
"We weren't concerned about getting the most we could from those sites," says Rich Hillis of the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "As long as we received fair market value, we wanted good design."
The winners selected last February lived up to expectations.
Two of the sites - a pair of 16-foot-wide slivers between Fell and Oak streets - would be filled with scaffold-thin glass jewels designed by Envelope A+D, an Oakland firm. The parcel where the boulevard meets Market Street was awarded to a sleek design by Stanley Saitowitz with enticing retail spaces.
The most intriguing team won the largest site. A collaboration of five architectural firms and developer Build Inc. nabbed a full-block chunk where freeway ramps once connected to Oak and Fell streets.
The team's scheme is like the boulevard, refreshingly old-fashioned. It calls for 12 buildings, designed and built one at a time.
In a rational world you'd see construction crews out there by now, installing their Porta Pottis and getting ready to start. The land would be sold, the projects would be approved. Octavia Boulevard's potential would be taking three-dimensional form.
Instead, nothing's happened.
When those first four lots were put up for sale in the fall of 2006, Hillis and other bureaucrats assumed that the Planning Commission would soon approve a new long-range plan for a string of neighborhoods along Market Street from the Castro to Civic Center, Hayes Valley included. The work on the plan had started in 2000 - that's not a typo - and various drafts had kicked around since 2002.
Nope. The commission debated the so-called Market & Octavia Neighborhood Plan until April. The Board of Supervisors' Land Use Committee didn't hold a hearing until October. The committee's second hearing didn't occur until Feb. 11.
In between, activists who wanted changes they couldn't get from the commission held a series of meetings with Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who formally introduced the plan to the board. Mirkarimi's revisions follow the activists' cues, such as tighter restrictions on parking and doubling the developer fee beyond the one imposed by the Planning Commission.
Some concerns are neighborhood based and genuine. In other cases, it looks as if some activists want to up the ante here so that when they move to the next fight - over a larger area known in planning circles as the Eastern Neighborhoods, which includes everything from Potrero Hill to portions of the Mission and the industrial waterfront - they can tighten the screws even more: kick up the fees an extra notch or require builders to add more subsidized housing to their projects.
That's how the game is played in San Francisco, whatever political direction people are coming from: Always push for more, never feel qualms about changing the rules. And as long as Mayor Gavin Newsom slings mud with several supervisors, things aren't likely to change.
Now, neighbors and builders who don't like the activists' fiddling are raising a ruckus of their own. When the plan goes back to the committee next week, other supervisors might weigh in with revisions as well.
As for the four lots, the teams don't want to buy them because it isn't clear what the final costs will be.
I'm not saying there aren't legitimate changes that might improve the overall plan. But it's absurd that one small piece of the map - which evolved because of true community involvement - is jeopardized by the larger games.
Something eventually will get built. My fear is that the process will drag out so long the details won't matter. Whoever controls the land by then will just want to cut corners and move on.
If that happens, Octavia Boulevard won't be such a success after all. It will be yet another example of how in the endless battle over San Francisco's growth, the landscape - the one we all share - so often loses out.
And, if anyone's forgotten the designs for these 4 lots:
Architecture+Design (Burnham Place):