The long-range planning staff waited patiently for the public to finish commenting at the Planning Commission's first hearing on their draft rezoning of the formerly industrial "Eastern Neighborhoods" and they promised to take those comments back to the Planning Department to revise their recommendations accordingly. I just can't wait ...
The "Proposed Permanent Zoning Controls" under consideration by the Commission open the majority of the North Mission, eastern SoMa and the Lower Potrero/Showplace Square areas to dense market-rate housing and relegate the surviving service and light industries -- dubbed PDR (Production, Distribution and Repair) by Dr. Amit Ghosh -- to Industrial Protection Zones called "PDR-only zoning." Under a mandate from the Board of Supervisors first expressed in 2001, an Environmental Impact Report is nearing completion and the staff has begun to flesh out their own vision for the future. Judging from the sparse attendance at last week's Planning Commission hearing, the public is greeting this final report with a collective sigh of exhaustion. They appear ready to accept almost anything -- so long as it doesn't encumber their personal pet projects -- if Dr. Ghosh will just move on.
I expressed my frustration with a zoning proposal built around the struggle between housing and PDR. There were certainly excesses committed during the economic boom of the late '90s but correcting those flaws requires good planning ... not an obsession with the past. Industrial Protection Zones should be a short term response while new permanent controls are developed.
The utopian notion that you can segregate land where people live from where they work might be valid for the sprawling cities of Southern California or the blighted Midwest but in San Francisco's mere 49 square miles, one can hardly identify an area for such zoning that does not impact peoples' homes. I remember the outrage precipitated by Gavin Newsom's ill-fated SoMa Entertainment Zone proposal ten years ago. "People live here too!" was the refrain. By down-zoning those neighborhoods to become IPZs, the Planning Department's staff relies on either the neigbors' ignorance of the planning process or their own willful deception. Staff actually chose to exclude the residents of the North Mission from their mailings announcing the Eastern Neighborhoods workshops out of deference to the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition's rush to enact their "Peoples' Plan."
We cherish this city for its mixture of the arts and entertainment, its educational institutions and its neighborhoods, with their diverse demographics and natural mixture of service and industrial uses and retail and commercial outlets. To turn the vast majority of these formerly industrial lands into upper income housing tracts implies that the destiny of this city is to become another Orinda.
Western SoMa made the transition from the old industrial zoning to vibrant mixed-use zoning in 1990. A community-based planning process produced zoning unique to the South of Market, with SLR (Service, Light Industrial and Residential) as the primary category and SLI (Service and Light Industrial), with its emphasis on industrial protection and affordable housing, as secondary. I understand PDR. I work with my hands, running a printing press, and I'll acknowledge that business isn't what it used to be, but walling me off in an IPZ certainly won't help. It's SoMa's unique mix of artists, entrepreneurs and small businesses that's keeping my business going.
I had been assured that this report would not impact western SoMa's zoning. We were so disgusted with the Eastern Neighborhoods process that we opted out and created our own community-based process, led by the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force. So it came as a bit of a surprise to read in the report that "the Department will recommend that the SoMa planning council [sic] consider the delineation of PDR-only and PDR mixed use districts." What part of "we like the current mixed-use nature of South of Market" don't they get?!
PDR is a vacuous notion. It's never adequately defined other than when it's applied to what is currently there. Planning is supposed to be about a vision of what might be. I have my own acronym, S.L.A.C.K., which includes service and light industrial uses, the arts and crafts and knowledge-based institutions. If you add in community-serving retail and commercial uses, you end up with a model with more intellectual depth ... and it even includes a vowel, making it pronounceable.
After three years of a top-down planning process, in this latest report, staff finally invents a new zoning proposal they call "Urban and Mixed-Use Zoning." It is defined as an attempt "to create districts that are urban, balanced and genuinely diverse, and to do so in part by ensuring the presence of some PDR activity." Sounds a lot like SLR, doesn't it? But compared to the predominately PDR-only zoning favored by the report, Urban Mixed-Use zoning would cover only a fraction of the land that is to be walled off from the residential-only zoning. Urban Mixed Use zoning is where the rezoning of the Eastern Neighborhoods should have begun.
Just because an old industrial location sits empty -- as with the recently-bankrupted 185,000 square foot Wonder Bread facility -- that does not mean we have to surrender all of that space to housing. Developers have a moral obligation to replace that element of the urban fabric with a comparable economic engine. And if they whine that those numbers don't pencil out, well ... get out of the way for the next developer who has a sharper pencil.
Fritz Maytag occasionally sounds the hue and cry when a developer casts an eye on property abutting the revered Anchor Steam Brewery at the base of Potrero Hill. But Fritz has always had neighbors. There are old Victorians within a block of the brewery and once upon a time that was a successful mixed-use community. My old next door neighbor Doug Cowles used to boast that he had worked at every brewery in South of Market ... Falstaff, Hamm's and the Jackson Brewery among others. Maytag doesn't need an IPZ to preserve his future in San Francisco. Leave the blighted industrial relics to the rust fields of the Midwest.
We need enlightened urban planning that creates zoning controls that allow Fritz's neighborhood -- and all of the Eastern Neighborhoods -- to evolve into the kind of sustainable new urban villages that will define San Francisco in the 21st Century.
Jim Meko is a South of Market activist, currently serving as chair of both the SoMa Leadership Council and the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force and is a member of San Francisco's Entertainment Commission. Here at the Bulldog, of course, he's expressing his own personal opinions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.