THE RETURN OF URBAN RENEWAL

From the 1950s through the 1970s, San Francisco underwent the wrenching experience known as urban renewal. Sponsored by government policy, lavished with federal funds, and pushed by local elites, urban renewal initiated the dramatic post-World War II transformation of the city. Longtime industrial districts were obliterated by the expansion of downtown. Thousands of people were forced out of their homes, and thousands of small businesses were evicted from their places of work, which were demolished to make room for insular mega-projects such as the Geary Expressway, Moscone Center, and the Golden Gateway Apartments.

Thanks to extraordinary grass-roots resistance, South of Market avoided complete destruction and emerged with robust community-based institutions that have enhanced its livability and defended its tattered integrity for almost half a century.

Now that livability and integrity are threatened. The Central SoMa Plan, now working its way through the planning system, is a sweeping proposal whose draft version resembles the old urban renewal, tricked out in the current fashion of professional planning, “smart growth.” Staked on SoMa’s red-hot real estate market and the district’s appeal to tech firms, the plan would remake the area stretching from Market to Townsend and Second to Sixth Streets into a full-fledged extension of downtown, replete with high-rise offices, hotels, and residences, all in the name of dense, “transit-oriented development” and “sustainability.”

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Can PDR industry mix well with market-rate housing?

 

With the draft published last April, the planning process is well underway. But the requisite Environmental Impact Report won’t be finished until early 2015, so there’s ample time to demand changes that direct market forces so as to strengthen, not destroy, the neighborhood’s unique character.

In fact, a bold alternative that seeks to do just that has been put forward by the same community-based organization, Tenants and Owners Development Corporation (TODCO), that rose up out of the fight against urban renewal in the 1970s. But even TODCO’s Central SoMa Community Plan accepts as inevitable the removal of zoning protections for businesses like Interior Moves, known in local plannerese as PDR, or Production, Distribution and Repair.

Another challenge: the Central SoMa project’s low visibility. In the making since 2011, the plan has received little attention from the media. Meanwhile, the city’s progressives have been absorbed in crucial fights against escalating evictions and overdevelopment of the waterfront. This is a timely moment for them to add Central SoMa to their agenda.

In mid-November the planning department invited the public to weigh in on refinements to the draft. When accepting that invitation, here are some things to keep in mind.

A GREAT CITY IS NOT A SUBURB

At first glance, the Central SoMa Plan may seem to be the antithesis of the old urban renewal. Wielding a suburban attitude, the planners of the early post-War era rammed expressways through cities. They separated homes, shops, and workplaces, so that in order to “go somewhere,” you had to get into a car. Contemptuous of the past, they gutted old neighborhoods. Density signaled blight, and diversity meant chaos.

In many ways, the smart-growth program advanced by the Central SoMa Plan looks like the exact opposite. Today, the private automobile is not the enabler but the enemy, polluting the air, crowding the roads, fostering sprawl, and overheating the globe. Accordingly, the plan’s first goal is to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit.

Central SoMa already has access to BART, Caltrain, and Muni. But the city’s original rationale for permitting massive new development was the advent of the Central Subway, whose construction is tearing up Fourth Street below Market and Stockton above it. Fourth Street runs down the middle of the plan area, and until last September, the proposal was called the Central Corridor Plan.

To pencil out, mass transit needs mass ridership. According to smart-growth orthodoxy, the way to get such patronage without encouraging sprawl is to mix uses, build densely, and locate new construction in “transit-rich” areas.

It turns out, however, that people are most likely to use transit when it’s close to their work, not their homes. Building on that recognition, the plan favors the densest kind of job environment—so-called “creative” offices—as it authorizes 5.5 million more square feet of new commercial construction (added to the nearly 4 million currently allowed in Central SoMa).

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 — to the nearly 10 million square feet permitted in the area by current zoning. That adds up to 23.5 million square feet of commercial and residential growth in the area. (more after the jump)