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News + PoliticsThe attack on Soma: City wants to create a...

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

We’re not talking about large-scale, heavy manufacturing, which left San Francisco long ago, but about small firms engaged in Production, Distribution and Repair. They include wholesalers and delivery services, specialty manufacturers, construction contractors and suppliers, repair and maintenance providers, publishers and printers, utilities, media services, and producers of audio, film and video.

Operating out of the limelight, these unassuming companies have scant public recognition. But as described in “Made in San Francisco,” the illuminating 2007 report prepared under the leadership of former District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, “Back Streets Businesses” provide essential support to the city’s larger economy, including its primary components such as tourism, retail, and office-based enterprise.

Interior Moves, for example, works with decorators at the San Francisco Design Center who in turn assist individual and corporate clients. Central City Glass, just down the street, furnishes windows, mirrors, and tabletops to upscale restaurants and retailers. “Made in San Francisco” documents many other such linkages. Production, Distribution and Repair companies also bolster the city’s middle class by providing stable, well-paying employment for people without four-year college degrees.

Unfortunately, the city’s Production, Distribution and Repair businesses face tough challenges. At its peak, in 1980, PDR supported 165,000 jobs. According to the planning department, by 2012 the number had fallen to between 63,000 and 72,000. A major factor in that shrinkage is the dwindling supply of affordable PDR-appropriate space. Only 6.8% of the city’s land is zoned for industry, the lowest percentage of any major city in the U.S.

The dearth of industrial space reflects four hard facts:

  • San Francisco is a built-out city that sits on only 47.5 square miles of land.
  • High-end housing and offices have been allowed, if not encouraged, to spread into industrially zoned areas.
  • The odors, late hours, truck and forklift traffic, and noise that often accompany PDR activity are incompatible with that sort of housing and offices.
  • Back Streets Businesses cannot afford office or housing rents.

Which brings us back to Central SoMa Plan. There are now about 5,600 PDR workers in the Plan Area. About 2,300 of them ply their trades south of Harrison in venues where PDR is protected by current zoning—either Service/Light Industry (SLI) or Service/Arts/Light Industry (SALI), both of which ban offices and market-rate housing. In the SALI zone, any kind of housing at all is prohibited.

The bulk of the new growth potential created by the Central SoMa Plan would come from replacing most of the SLI and SALI zoning with Mixed-Use Office (MUO), which allows just about everything except adult entertainment and heavy industry: offices, housing, general commercial, PDR. In October, the Board of Supervisors added large hotels to the list of permitted uses.

Mixed Use-Office, says SoMa Leadership Council Chair and PDR advocate Jim Meko, “is zoning for people who don’t like zoning.”

Straining to counter that impression, the plan acknowledges that “some uses may conflict with others when they are in very close proximity,” a problem that, it avers, “will require the use of zoning and other tools to try to minimize conflicts.” It’s a baffling claim, given that such conflicts, avoided by the current zoning, are encouraged by the promiscuous MUO.

The city’s real motive for shrinking Central SoMa PDR emerges along with more tortuous rationalization in the plan’s Appendix B, which addresses “Questions & Concerns”—in other words, the controversial aspects of the project. The first question up asks about the plan’s ramifications for PDR uses.

In response, the plan first throws PDR a sop, avowing that “Production/Distribution/Repair… jobs are critical to the economy and job diversity of San Francisco.” It then contends that something else is far more critical: the city’s “need to direct growth to transit-rich areas.” Meeting that need means that “some existing PDR uses on parcels currently zoned SLI or SALI would potentially face a greater risk of displacement from higher paying uses” that are also “more intensive transit-oriented uses, such as offices and housing.”

More precisely, replacing the SLI and SALI zoning with the Mixed-Use Office designation would eliminate protections for about 1,800 PDR workers, or one-third of the PDR jobs now in Central SoMa.

The plan asserts that “such a zoning change does not guarantee the loss of PDR jobs.” For one thing, “a ‘new school’ model of boutique manufacturing and other small-scale PDR uses” is setting up shop in Central SoMa. Regrettably, no examples or explanation (how do they pay the rent?) are provided. In any case, Production, Distribution and Repair encompasses far more than boutique manufacturing.

We’re told that “60% of the existing PDR jobs in the Plan area are in districts where office and housing is allowed and co-exists.” Again, in contrast to the plan’s handsome drawings of street re-configurations, 3-D visualizations of proposed urban form and illustrated discussion of building types favored by the tech sector, no examples or explanation of such co-existence are to be seen.

The plan also ventures that its implementation would “would accommodate space for up to 40,000 new jobs overall, of which several thousand would likely be higher-paying jobs for people without a four-year college degree, thereby creating new opportunities for the segment of San Francisco’s workforce who are employed by PDR businesses.” Even if that’s true, exactly what opportunities are these? And are the businesses providing them going to be located in SoMa or even in San Francisco? Where? Silence.

Glancing at the space issue, the authors of the Central SoMa Plan report that San Francisco has commissioned “a PDR ‘intensification’ study” of  “the conditions under which new PDR development is available.” Curiously, they doesn’t disclose that the study, completed four months before the publication of the draft plan, found that the scheme it was asked to research, using new office space to subsidize PDR on the ground floor, is (unsurprisingly) a financial non-starter.

In another propitiatory gesture, Appendix B declares that “the City is strongly committed to the preservation of PDR uses, as signified by the 2008 creation of the very restrictive PDR zoning districts in the Eastern Neighborhoods,” one of which, East SoMa, overlaps with the southeastern Central SoMa Plan area.

But the Central SoMa Plan proper states that when the Board of Supervisors adopted the SLI zoning, it was understood that “PDR businesses would not be strongly protected” in the future. The East SoMa Plan does contain those very words. But it also incorporates one of the “Key Principles” that, it says, “inform all the objectives and policies” of all the Eastern Neighborhoods Plans:

Reserve sufficient space for production, distribution and repair activities, in order to support the city’s economy and provide good jobs for residents.

It appears that the city’s mode of choice for dealing with PDR is equivocation.

That said, one passage in Appendix B makes the city’s position clear:

“Given the relatively small percentage of the City’s PDR jobs in [Central SoMa], the other efforts citywide to protect and encourage PDR, and the opportunity represented by the rezoning in this location, on balance this”—the  likely destruction of 1,800 jobs by an incursion of market-rate, transit-oriented development—“is a reasonable trade-off.”

Is it? (more after the jump)

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