The attack on Soma: City wants to create a new downtown, wiping out culture and thousands of blue-collar jobs

48hillssoma1

By Zelda Bronstein

(first of a series on South of Market development)

Four years ago, Donny Beckwith lived and worked in San Francisco. He and his wife rented a one-bedroom apartment on Nob Hill for $1,450 a month. “It was perfect for us,” Beckwith says. But when they started a family, they needed more space. “There was no way we could rent anything else in the city, and it was a good time to buy a house.” They bought one—in Castro Valley.

Beckwith still works in San Francisco, commuting to the same job he had in 2010. He manages Interior Moves, a South of Market business that receives, inspects, and installs high-end furniture. But if the city’s Planning Department has its way, he and the firm’s 13 other employees won’t be working in San Francisco much longer.

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The planners want to change the zoning for a large swath of SoMa, including the 700 block of Harrison, where Interior Moves is a tenant. The new rules would allow the construction of offices, hotels and market-rate housing—now all prohibited—and would raise maximum building heights from 85 to 130 feet, or, in a “high rise alternative,” up to 400 feet. Rents would soar.

That, says Beckwith, “would drastically change our business. We’d have to go to the East Bay and cut our staff in half.”

They wouldn’t be the only ones. The planners themselves say that the proposed zoning would probably put at least 1,800 jobs “at risk.” That could mean the displacement of hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses.

While the displacement of residential tenants has become big news in this city, local blue-collar jobs and businesses are getting forced out of San Francisco, too – and if history is any precedent, the city is asking for a fight. (more after the jump)

  • This article is really important and I appreciate it.
    It also would be a lot easier to read if I didn’t have to click through 7 pages!

  • Michael Singsen

    excellent reporting…thanks Tim…I will share this

  • This is an important story. But it’s kinda long, and not everyone is going to take the time to wade through it, which is unfortunate. I would encourage the author to include a one or two (at most) paragraph executive summary at the beginning, so that those who don’t have the time can get the gist of it and understand why it’s important. Just a suggestion. I know it’s a pain for the author, but it will result in a wider readership.

    Thanks for your work, both Zelda and Tim.

  • Tom Rubin

    OUTSTANDING article; we can just hope that it is widely read, understood — and acted upon. Let’s all keep this moving to the people who need to see it.
    A note on the Central Subway. This was, of course, to a major extent, a political deal to provide “something” in the way of a transportation replacement to the important Chinatown business, community, and political powers who were upset about the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway after the World Series earthquake. Well, it has been well over two decades and it is difficult to see all that harm that was suffered, but, this is one of those a-deal-is-a-deal things, so the politico’s had to follow through.
    The result was the extension of the Third Street light rail line into what is now known as the Central Subway — which, actually, is not much of a substitute for Embarcadero Freeway (for example, it does almost nothing for someone coming from the East Bay), and, when you are going after major Federal dollars, even when you have the then-Speaker of the House/now Minority Leader pushing for this project, you need to do a lot of justification — and smart growth and Plan Bay Areas most “interesting” ideas on the preferred urban form became part of this.
    So we would up with a bit of a perfect storm, where a lot different projects and concepts from different groups came together to mutually reinforce each other.
    Getting back to the Central Subway, keep in mind that the promises have frequently changed, but as the cost grew from the $647 million in the 2003 voter’s handbook to the current $1,578 million (which is a dead lock certainty to be exceeded), the ridership changed from a daily total of 61,000, including 20,500 from people who had not formerly used transit (2006 Federal Transit Administration Annual Report to Congress), to the most recent 31,100 total — with 5,000 new riders.
    … and these ridership projections are for 2030, when a significant portion of the new development is assumed to be in place.
    … and the preexisting riders will be forced to change their current transit travel, which, in many cases, will mean added transfers and a longer travel time.
    There now appears to be a very high likelihood is project may have the distinction of being the first light rail project to exceed $1,000,000,000 per mile — to carry 5,000 new riders.
    In two words, Woo Pee.

  • SF Old Schooler

    Change is called “attack” when it’s perceived as negative and personal. Otherwise you’d be loving it for the pretty new buildings.

  • Stephen Nestel

    Great article. Displacement of ordinary people and businesses is a huge issue often overlooked by planners and politicians. Whether it is to build a new ballpark, shopping mall, or Smart Growth utopia, the human costs must be considered. After all at the end of the day all real estate development is about MONEY (even when cloaked with greenwashed, feel good-isms like “Smart Growth”) . Thanks for spreading the word.

  • Mike

    When I read something like “we’d have to move to the East Bay and cut our staff in half ” and there’s no supporting explanation for why that is the case, I can’t help but think it’s a bunch of bullshit.

    It’s also not clear how Interior Moves would be negatively impacted. It sounds to me like the neighborhood would be gaining a lot of potential customers for that kind of business.

  • Bryan

    “The plan also makes room for plenty of new housing. It adds 4 million square feet of potential new residences — the vast majority of which will be “market rate,” which means luxury condominiums….”

    The City really needs to give developers more incentive to offer BMR housing in their projects instead of allowing them to just take the minor “financial penalty.” Sure, that developer fee is paid into the BMR program, but what we really need is a greater number of BMR units available.

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  • surfbathing

    As a 20 year resident and small business owner (furniture, lighting design & fabrication/ commercial interior design & construction) on their way out (of business & town likely as not) due to the sale of the property that my shop, office & home occupies this I read this with visceral interest.

    The elephant in the room in this and the many other land-use articles that I read is the nearly suburban development of most of residential SF. Certainly those developing these areas in the late 19th & early 20th centuries could not have foreseen the population pressure we now face but today’s reality may soon obligate difficult decisions in these parts of town.

    Do we maintain the status quo and preserve what may be an unworkable architectural heritage that has become intrinsic to SF’s identity or do we encourage more dense residential development (like the Tenderloin, Nob Hill and other such mid-rise developed residential parts of town is possessed of) in parts of town where residents have become accustomed to garages and rear yards?

    In a city as geographically constrained as SF is it may be time to sacrifice the sacred cows of single family homes and low unit count buildings, not to mention the “rear yard open space”. Certainly these losses would change the character of the city, perhaps for the worse, but would reflect a correction of an unsupportable spatial luxury in 49.5 square miles of what will eventually become more densely inhabited a city than ever was expected by the likes of Henry Doelger.

    Times are changing here and regardless of the DCP’s goals with their many plans the market will discover work-arounds to meet the needs of capital speculation in real estate. We saw this with DCP’s well intended “live/work” zoning proscriptions of the ’90’s and we will see it again. Personally I’d throw my lot in with TODCO and push some of the rest of the city’s neighborhoods to pick up some of the slack that Eastern SOMA is being asked to shoulder essentially alone, but no one is asking me or any of my friends who own industrial businesses SOMA that aren’t auto repair related for our opinions.

    Ultimately the new population of suburban immigrants to SF will get the city they seem to want and I feel they deserve- one constructed as a simulacra of the romanticized urban space they hadn’t the courage to occupy before it was defanged and made anodyne. Let the “knowledge workers” peddle their advertizing, shop at their urban-aesthetic Safeways and pay extraordinary prices for uninhabitably small spaces. It’s just a shame that there is so much collateral damage while they whitewash the town….

  • zouaf

    “I’m sure there’s a higher and better [more profitable] use for all that property down there, but pretty good working-class jobs trump that and need to be protected.”

    Do they? I like SoMa’s grit and varied character, but at some point you have to question the fairness of using zoning laws to stop a handful of jobs and businesses from being priced out. There is so much demand for housing and office space in San Francisco. I don’t think it’s fair to say that current tenants should take priority over making the neighborhood denser.

    • JB

      Thank you, you seem to be the only who gets it here. This is the City and strange socialist types trying to force property owners to continue to suppress their property values just because a couple of people don’t want change. It actually reminds me in a way of what the Telegraph Hill Dwellers do around North Beach. It’s great that people are passionate about their neighborhoods, but the citizens of San Francisco do NOT have the right to suppress the rights of property owners just because they want something else there. If you want something shell out your own money, buy property and try to develop it yourself, but don’t expect others to sacrifice their hard work just because you want the city to turn back the clock.

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