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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

Last May SPUR Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky posted a comment on the organization’s blog under the headline “Central Corridor: A Good Plan, But It Needs More Height.” Calling the draft “a great step in the right direction,” Karlinsky praised the “greater flexibility in zoning” and the “greater variety of uses” it would allow, the “streetscape and circulation improvements that would make it easier to get around by foot and bicycle,” the proposed park between Freelon and Welsh, and the idea of making the area an “eco-district.”

There was just one problem: the plan’s recommendation for a “mid-rise” Central SoMa. That idea, Karlinksy conceded, honors the “existing urban form characterized by older commercial and industrial structures.” It also reflects “tech companies’ preference for the larger floorplates typical of such buildings.” Nevertheless, significant height variation has benefited “many successful urban areas, including San Francisco’s downtown.” In any case, planners need to the take the long view: what companies want and need now might well change in the next decade or two. SPUR endorses the plan’s “high-rise” option, amended to allow even taller buildings than it now contemplates.


One of the old urban renewal’s most vigorous and effective opponents was TODCO. Established in 1971, TODCO carried on the fight against displacement and downtown expansion that had been initiated by the poor and elderly inhabitants of dilapidated residential hotels and apartments on Third Street that were slated for demolition. A federal lawsuit forced the city and the redevelopment agency to provide four sites in the Yerba Buena Center (now the site of the Moscone Convention Center) to replace the destroyed housing and to fund the new development with hotel tax money. TODCO built, owns, and manages nearly 1,000 units of permanently affordable housing on eight properties that serves the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, and residential hotel tenants.

The Central SoMa Plan has revived TODCO’s historic opposition to a southward-encroaching downtown. Last May, the organization published a 95-page-and-counting (it’s a work in progress) rejoinder to the city’s draft, its manifesto bannered across the cover:

Central SOMA Corridor Community Plan.

We are not a “corridor.” We are the South of Market. We are a neighborhood. We are a community. That is our best future—both for SoMa and all San Francisco.

 The first page cites “the frank admission” made by an unnamed member of the city planning department (it was apparently Planning Director John Rahaim) during the 2011 launch of the “Central Corridor Study:” “Let’s face it, this is really about expanding downtown…”

Later retracted, that statement, says TODCO, exposed the city’s “initial goal: to build many more office buildings in Central SoMa for the City’s new Tech Industry,” with the forthcoming Central Subway—“just a modest addition to the current MUNI service here”—as its announced rationale.

Declaring that Community/Neighborhood Building must always be of equal/greater importance than downtown office buildings,” TODCO proceeds to flesh out that conviction.

The operative word is “flesh.” Whereas the official plan begins at the global level (the threat of climate change) and projects abstractions (smart growth, transit-oriented development) down through the state, the region, and the city to a place it initially called The Central Corridor—who in San Francisco would tell you that he lives in “the Central Corridor?”—TODCO refracts civic considerations through hard-earned local knowledge.

Instead of the city’s lofty approach, we’re offered a fine-grained, historically informed overview of the ingredients that make up SoMa’s special character, an annotated glossary (inexcusably omitted from the city’s plan) that decodes the alphabet soup of zoning categories, a review of neighborhood demographics, and much more, all rendered in everyday English and supplemented by maps whose specificity rivals that found in the best travel guide books.

(To get a bird’s eye view of coming development, check out the map showing the location, size and status of the 20 office and hotel projects currently proposed, approved, or under construction in the plan area.)

But for all its focus on the neighborhood, TODCO is no Nimby. The organization’s swipe at the city for viewing SoMa as ripe for annexation to downtown and conversion into a high-rise office district filled with tech companies should not be confused with a wholesale rejection of high-rises, office development, or the tech industry. TODCO has places for all three, albeit not always the ones suggested by the city’s planners.

Far from resenting techies, the Central SoMa Community Plan salutes them for having compensated for the “very severe contraction” in San Francisco office demand from the corporate and financial sectors, and for having provided, along with the thousands of new residents in Yerba Buena and Mission Bay, the clientele that’s turned Fourth Street north of Townsend into a lively neighborhood shopping district. TODCO wants tech to stay in SoMa and flourish — as long as its presence benefits the community and upholds the area’s uniqueness.

To that twofold end, the Community Plan adopts a position on office development that is strikingly different from the one advanced by the city, both in its assessment of needed space and its approach to the tech sector.

Rather than take its cue from the regional agencies’ growth projections, TODCO counts the San Francisco offices that have actually gotten built or have been awaiting construction since the 1985 approval of the Downtown Plan and the passage of Prop. M a year later. The amount of these “real projects” averages about 586,000 square feet a year.

That figure takes into account a crucial factor that the city’s planners ignore: the business cycle. “Once the feast/famine boom/bubble/bust cycles are averaged out,” says the Community Plan, the “long-term average office demand is much less than the projections typically hyped by development proponents.”

In 2009 SPUR estimated that the total citywide office space need between 2010 and 2035 would range from a “conventional” (Moody’s-based) figure of 18.6 million square feet to a super-smart growth (ABAG’s 2009 “3rd Scenario”) number of 57.6 million.

By contrast, TODCO, allowing for a moderate increase in new demand, boosts the historic long-term annual average of new offices by 25% and arrives at 750,000 square feet per year—well under the Prop. M limit of 950,000—or 15 million total square feet of office growth through 2034.

Where should all that new office space should go? The Community Plan identifies the four most likely candidates: Central Market/Civic Center, the traditional Financial District, Mission Bay and the Central Waterfront, and the SoMa Central Corridor (expanded by TODCO to stretch all the way to Dogpatch). Central Market/Civic Center is assigned 1.5 million square feet, in recognition of its relatively small capacity for more office growth. The other three areas each get an allocation of 4.5 million square feet of new office development over the next twenty years. The city’s plan authorizes the construction of 9.4 million commercial square feet in its own, less extensive version of the SoMa Central Corridor.

TODCO also takes a different approach to the tech sector. Instead of treating the industry as a monolith whose defining characteristic is a taste for large floor plates and high ceilings, the Community Plan distinguishes tech companies according to what type of office space they need and can afford.

  • Class D Space: very cheap but illegal; rank start-ups
  • Incubator Space: legal, shared, and cheap; i.e., The Hub in the former Chronicle Building
  • Class C Space: legal but with limited improvements or funky location; firm is launched but still small
  • Class B Space: upgraded larger buildings in desirable locations; significant growth/investment funding has been achieved
  • Class A : expensive properties; big-time success

TODCO warns that the continuing growth of the city’s tech industry is seriously threatened by “office gentrification.” Class A space is going to get built in any case. Class C, crucial to young but promising firms, is the endangered species. Most of it is housed in small, older buildings vulnerable to demolition, especially if the owners plan to assemble adjacent lots into large development sites. In today’s scorching market, once such space is gone, it cannot be replaced.

To promote the survival of Class C office space, TODCO takes a harder line than the city’s planners, who would allow the consolidation of small lots with a conditional use permit. Property owners know that such permits are almost always granted. So forget conditional use. TODCO would allow the consolidation of lots smaller than a half acre only if any existing building on any of the merged lots that has a floor-to-area ratio greater than 1.5 will not be torn down.

Besides showing a discriminating regard for the tech sector, that recommendation bespeaks TODCO’s solicitude for what it calls “the globally recognized SoMa Brand.” Like Class C and below office space, most of the businesses that contribute to the neighborhood’s edgy character are located in smaller and older multi-story buildings that sit on lots of less than half an acre.

They are where most of the ‘good stuff’ happens—the Tech start-ups, the local spots, the fresh ideas, the places that become loved, the ones that can’t be replaced by any real estate developer, ever, anywhere.

A mere two years ago, the planning department set base height limits for the area. The city’s Central SoMa Plan substantially raises them. TODCO wants to keep those limits.

Once again, however, the organization defies the Nimby stereotype. The Community Plan also specifies a few “Priority Commercial Development Sites”—including the 700 block of Harrison, three properties along Fifth Street between Bryant and Bluxome, and, most notably, the Caltrain station and opposite northeast corner and adjacent site—where a conditional use permit would allow buildings to rise above the existing limits. Development proposed for the Caltrain complex could go up to 320 feet. (more after the jump)

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