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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


Answering that question involves asking another: what’s behind the figure of 40,000 new jobs that supposedly justifies the displacement of 1,800 PDR workers? Surely it’s something more substantial than a stand-alone subway line that’s only 1.7 miles long.

Indeed it is. Just as the old urban renewal depended on the federal government for legitimation and largesse, the Central SoMa Plan relies on translocal powers to validate its mission and, its proponents hope, subsidize its implementation. The preparation of the plan itself was funded by a $250,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). As Mayor Ed Lee announced in October 2012, the federal government has dedicated $942 million to the Central Subway Project. MTC has kicked in an additional $100 million.

But the main impetus for the Central SoMa Plan’s big numbers—to be precise, 46,960 new jobs and 23,449,400 million square feet of new development—comes from Plan Bay Area, the controversial regional “blueprint” that was adopted last July by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments.

Plan Bay Area was mandated by California Senate Bill 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008. That law requires each region in the state to coordinate land use and transportation planning to meet the State Air Resource Board’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and to do so using “the most recent planning assumptions,” which is to say, smart growth.

The prodigious numbers set forth in the Central SoMa Plan reflect the even more prodigious projections of Plan Bay Area, which anticipates that by 2040 the Bay Area will add 2.1 million people (a 30% increase over the 2010 population of 7.2 million), 660,000 new housing units (a 24% increase) and 1.1 million jobs (a 33% jump).

Seeking to cut personal auto use and block sprawl, Plan Bay Area directs 60% of the new jobs onto less than 5% of the region’s land—specifically, into “Priority Development Areas,” urban districts identified by each local government as prime sites for transit-oriented, infill construction. To “incentivize” participation in the PDA process, $14.6 billion of federal funds controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will go to jurisdictions that focus new housing in PDAs. (The regional agencies haven’t quite caught up with the latest word in smart growth, which prioritizes, as they like to say, urban infill near near jobs over infill near housing.)

Central SoMa is in one of San Francisco’s 12 Priority Development Areas, the Eastern Neighborhoods, which means it’s responsible for absorbing a substantial amount of the city’s designated share of regional growth—in all, 280,490 more residents (a whopping 35% increase over 2010 population), 92,840 new housing units (a 25% jump) and 191,000 new jobs (a whopping 34% increase).

The city’s job allocation represents 15% of the new employment projected for the entire Bay Area. The Central SoMa Plan embraces that assignment but concedes that it’s “ambitious.” For the last 40 years, employment growth in San Francisco has lagged behind the rest of the Bay Area. And for more than half a century, the city has seen no “significant net increase in jobs,” due to the departure of many big firms for the suburbs and the steep decline of “traditional industrial and manufacturing” activity.

Nevertheless, the planners discern “signs of hope.” Most promisingly,  “office-based ‘knowledge’ sector jobs” have flooded into the city. The Central SoMa Plan welcomes that surge, for several reasons. “Knowledge workers”—sorry, but I can’t use that expression without quotation marks—like to take transit. Making it even less probable that they will drive to work, they also like living in San Francisco, “instead of either living in more suburban areas or enduring the long commute down the Peninsula (even on free corporate shuttles).” They “appreciate the economic and social diversity that South of Market provides, relative to both San Francisco’s Financial District and Silicon Valley’s suburban corporate campuses.” In particular,

they like working in the large-scale, formerly industrial buildings that dot the SoMa townscape, which is fortunate, since the area covered by the Downtown Plan—the Financial District, Mid-Market, Yerba Buena Center, and part of the Transit Center District—has “little capacity left for growth.”

So popular are SoMa’s old factories and warehouses and other venerable commercial structures that they now rent for as much or more than Financial District high-rises. Assuaging concern about the limited supply of these rugged venues, the plan says that new construction can replicate their characteristic features: large, open floorplates, high ceilings (12 -15 feet clear, as opposed to the standard 10 feet), and, to avoid the impersonality and staidness associated with skyscrapers, a typical height of 4 to 8 stories, maxing out at 10-12 floors.

Just so, the planning department is reviewing an application from Barrett Block Partners to replace most of the 700 block of Harrison, including the once-handsome, single-story, brick 1906 building that houses Interior Motives, with 730,940 square feet of new office space divided between a 9-story mid-rise and a 16-story high-rise. As described by the applicant, “[t]he proposed program utilizes large floor plates for high-tech companies,” and the lower structure would have “the higher floor-to-floor heights”—in this case 15 feet—“that are desirable for technology-oriented users.”

Tech companies’ partiality to old industrial and commercial buildings has been obvious since the first dot-com boom in the late Nineties turned SoMa into Multimedia Gulch. Less apparent is how that attraction serves smart growth’s high density agenda. The executive suites and private cubicles of the typical high-rise average out to 275 square feet for each worker. Today’s flexibly designed offices, with their mobile employees laboring at shared tables and workstations, can reach densities of more than one worker per 200 square feet.


Despite its repeated homage to diversity, the draft Central SoMa Plan touts only one kind of job growth: employment in offices—above all, tech offices. In facilitating that growth by decimating SoMa’s Production, Distribution and Repair economy, the plan recapitulates the motives of the old urban renewal: expand downtown into San Francisco’s industrial districts, pushing out their businesses and workers.

In another sign that history sometimes does repeat, downtown’s full  colonization of SoMa is being lauded by one of the key boosters of the old urban renewal, an entity that is also one of the most influential pressure groups in the city today: the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association or SPUR. From 1959 to 1977, the R stood for Renewal. The organization changed its name but not its main agenda: lobbying for big real estate interests and the development opportunities they seek.

One thing, though, has changed: nowadays the pursuit of such opportunities is associated with the environmental amelioriation promised by smart growth. In San Francisco and other cities, the huge projects entailed by the old urban renewal were billed as an antidote to slums. By contrast, the expanded, high-rise, office-dominated downtown envisioned by the Central SoMa Plan is championed as a way to achieve a low carbon future.

That’s the guiding principle of SPUR’s 2009 white paper, “The Future of Downtown San Francisco: Expanding Downtown’s Capacity for Transit-Oriented Jobs.” Like the Central SoMa Plan, the report identifies the need to slow climate change and the imperative to cut back on personal auto use as its prime motives. It too assumes that over the next few decades the Bay Area and the city will experience exponential growth, and that a conscientious environmentalism dictates that to the greatest extent possible, new development be aimed at limiting private auto commutes by funneling jobs into “densified” urban places with abundant transit.

San Francisco, SPUR observes, is “the only employment node in the region where most people travel to work without bringing their own car.” It follows that the city should become a regional “employment center” and a magnet for high-density office development and jobs.  That goal can be realized only by eliminating current constraints, which range from “restrictive zoning” to woefully inadequate transit capacity. SPUR’s “highest long-term priority” for transportation is a second new SoMa subway, “designed and built by BART,” that would carry workers from the East Bay into and out of the expanded downtown.

Though “The Future of Downtown San Francisco” casts a wider net than the Central SoMa Plan, much in the report, including a call to turn “the Fourth Street corridor” into a dense office district, reads like a template for the official document.

But SPUR is also more aggressive and less politic than the city’s planners.

In 2009 the organization’s definition of downtown already included what the report calls “SOMA” and “Lower SOMA.” More provocatively, SPUR wants to raise the cap on annual office development—875,000 square feet for large buildings and 75,000 square feet in buildings under 50,000 square feet—established by the passage of Proposition M, so that the city can “meet regional smart growth and carbon emission reductions targets.”

The rhetoric of diversity that permeates the Central SoMa Plan has no place in “The Future of Downtown San Francisco,” which is to its authors’ credit, since they aim to make the neighborhood a less diverse place. Consider the report’s position on housing, a subject to which the 66-page document devotes less than a page. SPUR envisions downtown as an employment center that houses only 40% of the prospective new office workers, the same share of downtown workers who resided in the city in 2009. The other 60% would live in downtown’s “catchment area,” more familiarly known as the East Bay and the Peninsula.

Here equity and displacement issues get even less attention than they receive from the none-too-attentive Central SoMa Plan. The SPUR report nods to PDR, asserting that “if an area is rezoned from light industrial to office uses (and becomes built out as a dense office district), the area will likely produce more light industrial jobs than the prior zoning,” because offices have a far higher worker-to-square-footage density than industrial enterprise and generate “a tremendous demand for light industrial suppliers.” Not a word about where those suppliers will locate their businesses.

There’s also a paragraph about the “difficulty of reconciling the varying needs and interests” of the neighborhood’s residents—“many of modest means”—the historic resources, and the “service and light industrial type jobs that support the city’s knowledge exports” in the area south of Harrison. What such a reconciliation might involve, the reader is left to imagine. (more after the jump)

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