EASTERN NEIGHBORHOODS: LESSONS LEARNED?


Eight long years of focus groups, workshops and public hearings have sucked the very last few ounces of passion from the land use wars that once dominated the headlines and swept a progressive majority into city hall but, as the Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning process limps to its weary conclusion before nearly empty chambers at the Board of Supervisors, the issues that sparked this revolution remain largely unresolved.

It has become far more expensive to live in San Francisco. As condo towers rise along the Embarcadero and working class jobs continue to flee the city, the gap between the phenomenally wealthy and the very poor has grown.

Under the administration of Mayor Willie Brown, a pliant Planning Commission approved almost every development scheme that came before it. Throughout the southeastern portion of the city, land that had once been zoned for industrial uses suddenly began to sprout residential and office projects. Lofts rose next to cement plants. Expensive condos moved alongside gritty nightclubs. Auto body shops and other light industrial uses yielded to the dot com boom.

Local activists such as Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin, Sophie Maxwell and Jake McGoldrick were swept into office by a general sense that the city was being sold off to the highest bidder. The “Class of 2000″ demanded comprehensive community planning.

The Planning Department, under the leadership of Gerald Green, resisted all efforts to rein in development. Live/work lofts continued to be approved, exploiting legislation only intended to facilitate working artists occupying warehouse space and bringing housing to areas where the Planning Code never allowed for residential uses. Office space continued its incursion into industrial areas, utilizing “business services” legislation intended only to provide incubator space for multi media projects. When the Bryant Square development bulldozed dozens of artists’ studios and small businesses in the north Mission, hundreds marched on city hall.

EASTERN NEIGHBORHOODS PROPOSED

“Eastern Neighborhoods” was city hall’s response … a down and dirty rezoning process, originally confined to a one year time frame, with the intent to identify how much new housing could be built in the formerly industrial lands and how many jobs would be lost in the process. Options A, B and C were drawn up, with one option representing an extreme protectionist position, another a dramatic wave of residential conversions and the middle option, which planners hoped everyone would like which offered just the right balance between new housing construction and the preservation of “PDR,” their newly coined buzz word for production, distribution and repair (working class) uses.

It was at this point that South of Market rebelled. SoMa had been rezoned in the 1980s, long before Willie Brown and Gerald Green took the reins, and the neighborhood took on an exciting eclectic character. In fact, the South of Market zoning controls represented the first real mixed use zoning in the city, with designations like SLR, which represented Service, Light Industrial and Residential, RSD, which stood for Residential Service District and SSO, a buffer between downtown and the neighborhoods that allowed service and secondary office uses. SoMa’s zoning was working and represented a much more sophisticated template than the “too hot,” “too cold” and “just right” choices being spoon fed to the community by a patronizing Planning Department. The western half of SoMa was removed from the Eastern Neighborhoods process and has gone on to develop a model community-based process that has had a significant impact on the Eastern Neighborhoods process.

Eight long years have passed. Option B remains the general framework for the Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning. But the whole notion of building “Complete Neighborhoods,” a Western SoMa concept, has crept into the process. Affordable housing, mixed use districts, open space and public streetscape improvements, better transit, pedestrian safety, economic development, jobs and small businesses, historic resources, community facilities and services and public benefits have all made their way into the discussion … and, with varying degrees of success, appear in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.

THE PLAYERS

The players have changed over the years. Once headed up by the autocratic Miriam Chion of the Planning Department, Eastern Neighborhoods has since fallen under the tutelage of David Alumbaugh, who later moved on to head up Mayor Newsom’s Better Streets program, and currently rests with Ken Rich, who counts the days until his six month sabbatical begins following adoption of the plan.

In the neighborhoods, the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition (MAC), the Potrero Boosters and the South of Market Community Action Coalition (SOMCAN) continue to fight the same battles that originally spawned the process. The Mission Merchants and North East Mission Residents Association have contributed to the discussion. The Residential Builders Association (RBA), once dominated by the mercurial Joe O’Donoghue, has found new leadership and its members have developed a sophistication in land use principles that goes far beyond spouting the talking points of their early years. SPUR and the Housing Action Coalition have been largely absent from the process.

Within the Mayor’s office, which maintained a benign neglect of anything related to planning during Newsom’s first term, former Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) Jesse Blout and former Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) Matt Franklin began to assert management of the Eastern Neighborhoods program in recent years. As the housing market cooled off and subsidies to low income housing projects began to dry up, MOEWD began to dominate the discussion. The “Michaels,” Michael Cohen, current Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development and his assistant, Michael Yarne, are the major players as the plan moves to the Board of Supervisors.

At the Board, Sophie Maxwell has been a consistent participant from the beginning, having negotiated with Willie Brown, for better or worse, the original agreement that gave rise to the Eastern Neighborhoods process. Jake McGoldrick brought his experience battling the RBA’s “Richmond specials” to the Board for several tumultuous years on the Land Use Committee of the Board. This past year, Aaron Peskin, ostensibly the Board’s most gifted land use specialist, joined the committee. Chris Daly, always at the center of the storm on land use issues, has had to sit out this battle as his proximity to the Mission district boundaries forced him to recuse himself.

THE PLAN

PDR replacement is addressed in the current plan by the creation of several PDR zones that restrict housing. “Integrated PDR,” which looks a lot like office use, has been added into the mix. Of course, the entire Eastern Neighborhoods area was once an industrial zone, so the amount of land that remains zoned for light industrial uses leaves San Francisco dead last among major American cities in preservation of space for such job producing uses.

Affordable housing hit a wall as housing advocates ran out of ideas. San Francisco doesn’t have a problem producing luxury housing but the need for affordable housing continues to grow. In January of 2007, the Board of Supervisors sent the Planning Commission a message when they passed a resolution affirming their commitment to producing 64% affordable units within the newly rezoned area in keeping with the needs outlined in the city’s own Housing Element.

After proposing a host of ideas such as trying to induce developers to swap land for height increases, adding minor fees onto new construction to supplement MOH’s housing fund and making minor adjustments to the city’s inclusionary housing requirements in select areas (current law allows projects to meet their inclusionary requirements either on-site, off-site at a higher level or by making a comparable contribution to the MOH fund), the Eastern Neighborhoods process does not even remotely approach the Board’s original requirement.

In terms of building complete neighborhoods, the Eastern Neighborhood plan finds itself hamstrung by its own consultants’ findings which conclude that requiring adequate public benefits contributions does not pencil out. The plan’s ambitious goals to add parks in every neighborhood, provide adequate transit service and improve the public realm before allowing any new development to move forward ran up against a significant deficit in available funds.

The Board of Supervisor’s Land Use Committee proposed several mitigations:

* Metering: a requirement that the Planning Department report back every five years on how effectively the fees collected are going towards providing basic infrastructure needs. Unless the Board affirmatively recognizes that the stated goals are being met, provisions would kick in that require the zoning to revert to current standards until means can be found to support the growth resulting from the upzoning.

* Use it or lose it: a three year timetable on projects which benefit from the new zoning, requiring that a developer obtain the first site permit within that period of time or the original entitlements would be revoked and the project would have to reapply under whatever current standards apply.

* Design review: a mandatory review for large projects of the overall massing and scale, facades, lower floor design and streetscape improvements, parking and open space treatments. This stops short of a Conditional Use requirement, bypasses the Discretionary Review process and has an appeals process that involves the Board of Appeals rather than the Board of Supervisors.

In one last flurry of political gamesmanship, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd severed these three items from the main legislation before the Board. They face a final vote today. Although all three passed on first reading, none carried a veto-proof majority. In effect, an already watered down rezoning proposal will go to the Mayor with its few controversial provisions stripped out of the plan, standing alone and subject to what amounts to a line-item veto.

LESSONS LEARNED

Lessons learned? Eight years is too long for any neighborhood planning process. The original goals are but a distant memory. An eight year process without a firm set of principles contains no benchmarks upon which its success can be judged. The neighborhoods affected deserve more control over their future. Hundreds attended the original workshops, filled with hope, only to be numbed into submission by endless Power Point presentations from a top-down bureaucracy. In the end, only a handful of decision makers remained at the table. The process must be more transparent. High stakes political machinations threaten to gut the few remaining social impact controls from the process. Lo and behold, we appear to be faced with the decision: how much housing can we build and how many jobs must we lose in the process?

Countless cities all over the country are experimenting with far more community-driven processes. The Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force, while certainly not a perfect example, has been a notable exception to past Planning Department efforts and serves as a laboratory for more citizen involvement. Its influence is already apparent along Geary Boulevard and in the Japantown process. With some luck, Eastern Neighborhoods could be the last traditional planning process San Francisco will have to undergo.

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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 jim.meko@comcast.net.