Blog: March, 2011
How Leftover Urban Spaces Can Fix Big Problems for San Francisco
The City of San Francisco owns 1,625 parcels of unmaintained paved land, odd alley-like spaces behind industrial buildings and beneath overpasses. Most are no wider than a city street, but together they have a combined surface area half the size of Golden Gate Park.
That’s a lot of city-owned land just sitting there collecting plastic bags. Their shape, size and location — often alongside highways or near industry — make these leftover lots unusable for traditional development. But what if there was a way to reclaim them for public use?
That’s the question UC Berkeley architecture professor Nicholas de Monchaux asks with his project “Local Code: Real Estates,” on view at the SPUR Urban Center gallery through April 20. Inspired by the artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” project from the 1970s, de Monchaux has proposed a reinvention of these spaces as a hybrid of public park and public infrastructure.
For “Fake Estates,” Matta-Clark spent three years combing public records to find 15 abandoned sites in New York City. Thanks to today’s GIS (geographic information systems) technology, de Monchaux and his students were able to identify a remarkable 1,625 sites in San Francisco using a database maintained by the Department of Public Works. The exhibit lays out a detailed proposal for the adaptive reuse of more than 1,000 of them, each tailored to local conditions. In an interview with the New York Times’ Allison Arieff last year, de Monchaux called the sites “a whole archipelago of city-owned lots lying fallow.”
Though the proposals call for removing pavement and replacing it with vegetation, these aren’t simply parks; they’re primarily a means to improve stormwater retention and air quality and mitigate the heat-island effect, the temperature rise that asphalt and buildings bring to highly developed areas. In a talk at the exhibit opening, de Monchaux pointed out that these abandoned sites appear most frequently in underserved and low-lying areas where asthma and crime rates are high and drainage is poor: exactly the kinds of places that most need intervention.
In the gallery space, de Monchaux represents these plans in two ways. First, 8.5-by-11 reproductions of the 1,000-plus plans paper the walls from floor to ceiling. Second, he has built scale models for more than 200 of them. Carved from salvaged doors by a CNC router and mounted on metal posts, the models describe a landscape of creative reuse that transforms the city’s leftovers into integral parts of a connected whole.
Perhaps the most compelling piece in the exhibit is a map of existing funding that De Monchaux says could be diverted to build out all of the proposals. One of his boldest assertions is that his plan would eliminate the need for new stormwater-retention infrastructure: San Francisco could save more than half a billion dollars by remediating these odd lots instead.
Watch a video of what these reclaimed spaces might look like:
Nicholas de Monchaux’s Local Code: Real Estates
Bay Area Work Trends Lead to Increased Density
Co-working studio [Photo by flickr user ahopsi]
According to a piece in Sunday’s Chronicle, tech employment in San Francisco is approaching its dot-com peak:
"The city had an estimated 32,180 tech jobs last year, compared with 34,116 in 2000, according to an analysis of state employment data by real estate consultant Jones Lang LaSalle. In 2004, the number of tech jobs had fallen to 18,210."
The most interesting thing about the growth in jobs is that it hasn’t been accompanied by proportionate growth in office space; while dot-com companies occupied 325 square feet per worker in 2000, today they occupy about 175, and that number has been falling each year. The Chronicle speculates that this is driven by the relative frugality among today’s dot-coms, which is certainly possible. While there are lots of companies out there, venture capital firms have generally been making smaller investments during this cycle.
But according to analysis we're doing here at SPUR, the increasing density of the workforce could also be due to the following trends in Bay Area work:
More telecommuting: Many more are working from home or at non-traditional offices. This is due to an increase in self-employment and to the rise in telecommuting among tech workers. While San Franciscans aren’t necessarily telecommuting more now than in past years, data from the 2005 and 2009 American Community Surveys do show increases in many other Bay Area cities, like Berkeley (where 12% of residents telecommute), Mountain View (7%) and Oakland (6%).
Mobility strategies: Everyone knows that smartphones make knowledge workers more mobile. This means that a lot of work can, and does, happen outside of the office. It also means that at any given moment during the work day, as few as 30 percent of workers are at their desks. Companies see this low utilization and decide to reduce overall private space for workers. This leads them to move to open-plan layouts and shared offices, as Deloitte did last year. Part of the motivation is to cut costs, but the trend also reflects a re-purposing of space as companies forgo private offices in exchange for more meeting space.
Co-working: Particularly among the startups that are adding to that tech-job number in SF, co-working arrangements are popular: firms (or individuals) join together to share office amenities like conference rooms and kitchens. These setups cut down significantly on space needs.
Whatever the reasons, the move to smaller office footprints should play to San Francisco’s strengths. Working in San Francisco usually means being able to commute without a car, which means firms don't have to build the amount of parking needed in places like Silicon Valley. San Francisco also has dense urban districts packed with amenities, which can complement a scaled-down workplace. In some ways, San Francisco makes life hard for a growing firm. But while addressing those challenges, the city should not lose focus on what it has to offer. After all, these young tech firms are in the city for a reason — and it’s not because it’s cheap.
The Weekly Snapshot
Teaching Urban Design
This year, Parsons will offer the nation's first ever undergraduate degree in Urban Design. Urban Omnibus talks with Victoria Marshall, the program's director, about her goal of teaching "how to see the city as a designer."
A 2001 study found that building fuel-efficient cars would save more oil than land and ocean drilling could ever hope to gain. On the heels of these findings, author Deron Lovaas suggests that our next move should be to create more oil-saving opportunities in cities and suburbs.
In order to investigate how information technology could improve experiences of public transit, Latitude Research and Next American City followed eighteen drivers for one week as they went car free. Their findings suggest that although car-owners value the freedom driving provides, mobile information solutions could replicate this sense of autonomy.
In hopes of expanding its stores into large U.S. cities, Walmart is embracing mixed-use, pedestrian friendly and transit-oriented development for the design of its proposed Washington D.C. location.
A photo series reveals the often overlooked beauty that can be found in our everyday infrastructure.
Budget Update--High Speed Rail Funding In Jeopardy
If the Fiscal Year 2011 budget debate in Washington has been dramatic, it has also unfolded utterly predictably. But though threats to HSR funding were foreseeable, their ultimate effect is still highly uncertain.
The GOP-controlled House proposes cuts to HSR that do three things:
1. Eliminate all 2011 funding for high speed rail projects
2. Rescind unobligated funds for high speed rail appropriated in 2010 and 2009
3. Bar other states from using the $2.4 billion in high speed rail funds rejected by Florida, as well as the $614 million passed up by Wisconsin and Ohio.
According to Californians For High Speed Rail, if these cuts pass, they could jeopardize “$2.3 – $3 billion in expected federal funds” for California’s HSR project alone.
But can the unobligated funds be rescinded? The answer is unclear. Most reside in a legal grey area were they have been “committed” but not “obligated.” And as has already been the case with questions about high speed rail funding (ie. the legal right of Florida Governor Scott to reject federal HSR funds), the answer might require a court ruling.
All this might be avoided however, if a more moderate appropriations bill than the House proposal is ultimately passed. An alternative taking form in the Democrat-controlled Senate is expected to preserve high speed rail funding.
Within the next week a conference committee will convene to hash out a compromise appropriations bill that both houses of Congress can approve. While the committee hasn’t yet been announced, certain to play a key role are the senior members of the House and Senate appropriations committees, including:
Daniel Inouye, Democratic Senator of Hawaii and Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee
Patty Murray, Democratic Senator of Washington
Norm Dicks, Democratic Congressman of Pennsylvania, Ranking Member, House Appropriations
Thad Cochran, Republican Senator of Mississippi, Vice Chairman, Senate Appropriations
Mitch McConnell, Republican Minority Leader, Senator of Kentucky
Harold Rogers, Republican Congressman of Kentucky, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee
If you have a stake in the fight, these are the people to call. Their decision in conference is the one that matters.
An Update on Van Ness BRT
Several weeks ago, I attended a briefing at the SFCTA on the progress of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project. BRT along Van Ness is currently in the midst of final environmental studies and preliminary engineering. Public comment will be solicited this spring on the Environmental Impact Report, after which the project team will recommend a preferred alternative for adoption by the Authority and SFMTA boards.
The Van Ness BRT project is true Bus Rapid Transit – it is not a simple rebranding of an existing line with a new paint scheme and logo. Van Ness BRT calls for the conversion of one lane in each direction to a dedicated bus lane, with overhead wire to power clean electric buses. The project will feature all-door, level boarding and proof of payment to speed up passenger boarding and drop-off. Buses will get transit signal priority for green lights at intersections, and traffic signal optimization will be implemented along the corridor to time all traffic lights.
A review of the three design alternatives can be found on this fact sheet. Alternative 2 converts the rightmost lanes to bus-only lanes while retaining the existing center landscaped median. Alternative 3 is a center-lane dual median option that creates two dedicated bus lanes completely separated from traffic. Alternative 4 converts the inside traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes, and places BRT stations on the center median.
Van Ness BRT is expected to yield a multitude of benefits. The BRT project is expected to decrease transit delay by 33-43%, compared to no project at all. Travel time for transit will decrease 18-32%, and transit reliability is expected to improve as well due to stop consolidation.
The Authority's study shows how corridor-wide performance will increase with the implementation of BRT. Person-throughput, the volume of people traveling through Van Ness Avenue, will see an improvement by up to 12% according to the SFCTA. BRT will provide time-savings and better performance for transit riders at the same operating cost. With projected increased transit ridership, the transit lane would carry more than each auto lane, and at some areas would carry more than the two auto lanes combined.
Overall safety on Van Ness is expected to improve with BRT implementation. The project will bring features to reduce the types of collisions most often observed on Van Ness Avenue. Broadside collisions will be reduced by eliminating most left-turn pockets and installing a protected signal phase for the remaining left turns. Rear-end collisions will be addressed by reduced stop-and-go auto traffic and more visible traffic signals on mast arms. Pedestrian-auto collisions will be reduced with pedestrian countdown signals, wider pedestrian refuges and corner bulbs at crossing locations. Finally, sideswipe collisions will be reduced by separating the buses into their own lanes from mixed-flow traffic.
SPUR’s analysis of Van Ness BRT as part of our Critical Cooling report suggests that the project will have obvious benefits on the city’s transportation network, and will also have a potential carbon savings of 600 metric tons a year. Additionally, Van Ness BRT plays a key role in helping to build out San Francisco’s Rapid Transit Network. Creating a rapid transit network is critical to reversing Muni’s downward spiral.
The whole project is expected to cost $118 million. 64% of the total is derived from Small Starts and anticipated funding, while the rest will come from Prop K and other federal and local dollars. Construction on Van Ness BRT is expected to begin in mid to late 2013, with revenue service slated for mid 2014.
For more information, visit http://www.sfcta.org/content/
The Future of Redevelopment Debate
Early this year Governor Jerry Brown shocked state and local leaders with his proposal to eliminate all of California’s 425 redevelopment agencies. Since then, debate has raged in the press over the ramifications of shuttering these agencies. While the future of San Francisco’s own redevelopment areas is in question (Transbay, Treasure Island, Hunters Point), similar questions arise across the state.
On Thursday, March 3, SPUR and the Bay Citizen brought together Fred Blackwell of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and Karen Chapple of UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning to argue the merits and liabilities of eliminating redevelopment agencies.
Fred Blackwell began by acknowledging redevelopment’s contentious history and mixed-record of achievement, but he insisted that well-functioning redevelopment agencies are essential to economic growth, sustainable development and social justice, pointing to successful projects in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, Yerba Buena and Hunter’s Point. Blackwell maintained redevelopment funds have been crucial in convincing developers to take on the steeper costs of building in those areas, and the payoff has been revitalization, job creation and the redirection of suburban sprawl back into the urban core.
Karen Chapple commended Blackwell for his effectiveness in leading the San Francisco Redevelopment agency, but speculated that “San Francisco’s may be the only good redevelopment agency out there.” By contrast, she said, most redevelopment agencies lack oversight and are riddled with redundancies, inefficiency and corruption. Many spend public funds overwhelmingly on administrative and planning and personnel salaries without showing results. Even agencies with the best of intentions don’t generally pay for themselves, Chapple argued. They don’t spur sustained growth and end up, in effect, simply subsidizing developers—“the last group that needs the aid of public funds.” Chapple concluded that there are much stronger economic arguments for investing in education and social programs.
In one of the most emotional moments of the night, Blackwell lamented that the statewide debate “has been framed as redevelopment vs. social services, while the jails remain fully funded.”
Ironically, earlier in the day on March 3, the conference committee in Sacramento had voted 6-4 to eliminate redevelopment agencies. The fate of redevelopment is now part of the negotiations between Governor Brown and Republicans over the entire budget package.
Note: “The Future of Development” was the first in an ongoing series of “Debates Worth Having” hosted jointly by SPUR and the Bay Citizen. Register here for the next debate “The Pros and Cons of Saltworks ” to be held at the SPUR Urban Center on March 29.
Karen Chapple posted her summary of the event here.
Initial Vision Scenario Released for the Bay Area
The Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission released their Initial Vision Scenario for growth in the Bay Area at a meeting in Oakland today. By 2035, the scenario assumes the Bay Area will grow by 2 million people (to 9.4 million) and 1.2 million jobs (to 4.5 million). The scenario is the first major milestone in the development of the Bay Area’s Sustainable Communities Strategy, a plan designed to accomodate growth while reducing greenhouse gases from driving, which is required of each region in the state by SB 375, California's 2008 Climate Protection Act.
Highlights of the scenario’s assumptions:
- 97 percent of new household growth is on existing urbanized land
- 60 miles of dedicated bus lines in San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties
- San Francisco adds 90,000 households (26 percent growth rate)
- San Francisco’s jobs grow from 545,000 to 714,000 (31 percent growth rate)
- Achieves a region-wide 12 percent per capita reduction in greenhouse gases. (Note: This is short of the 15 percent per capita goal. But most of the reduction is from the assumption of slow economic growth, not from an urbanist land use vision).
This scenario is a good start, but it doesn’t get us to a truly sustainable vision for the Bay Area. SPUR is interested in subsequent scenarios testing a much more transit-oriented growth pattern for jobs and houses. To get residents out of their cars, many more jobs have to be located within a quarter mile of regional rail and many more households within a half mile of any transit.
Stay tuned to the SPUR Blog for more updates.
Largest Mall in the World is a Chinese Ghost Town
The world's largest mall, located in Southern China, is a vast ghost land with occupancy rates that hover at 1%. The mall, built to serve what may someday become a Chinese mega-city, is a glimpse at what can occur when development precedes growth.
A Place-Based Approach to Food Access: Creating a Healthier Future for Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama, the country's second most obese city, is creating a new system of outdoor markets to increase resident's accessibility to fresh, healthy food as well as to create vibrant neighborhood hubs in a city where public space is lacking.
Greenest Homes Are Those Near Public Transportation
A new study by the Environmental Protection Agency finds that homes located near public transportation use less energy than homes specifically designed to be "energy efficient," such as ones with Energy Star ratings.
Volunteers Dream Up Ways to Change Menlo Park Neighborhood as Facebook Prepares to Move In
In preparation for its corporate relocation to Menlo Park, Facebook hosted a one-day design charrette with more than 150 architects, planners and community members in order to spark a dialogue on how to turn the neighborhood into a vibrant business and residential area.
Bay Area's Growth Slowed to a Crawl, Census Finds
According to the 2010 Census, the San Francisco Bay Area saw the slowest rate of growth in its history last decade. Some worry that the slowing growth rate will contribute to a loss of political power for the region as congressional boundaries are redrawn.
2011 Piero N. Patri Fellowship
Call for Applicants
SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, is pleased to issue a call for applicants for a twelve-week fellowship in the summer of 2011.
The Piero N. Patri Fellowship in Urban Design is a hands-on position for a graduate student or 2011 graduate in landscape architecture, urban design, or architecture. The fellowship provides the opportunity for the Fellow to gain firsthand experience working in the urban design and planning field on a project that will have a positive impact on the city of San Francisco and the Bay Area.
Projects are intended to provide career-related work experiences that will challenge graduate-level students, contribute to San Francisco, contribute to SPUR's mission, and reflect the values of Piero N. Patri. SPUR will cooperate with the Fellow in obtaining academic credit, if his or her institution allows. The selected Fellow will be based in the San Francisco office of AECOM Design + Planning (formerly EDAW), where desk space, computer resources, and professional mentorship will be provided.
This year the design fellow will study the “paper streets” and other public rights-of-way in the eastern neighborhoods of San Francisco. “Paper Streets” are city public street right-of-ways that are not paved, improved or maintained by agencies. The eastern neighborhoods are a rapidly developing portion of the city that host a compact variety of land uses ranging from important job producing industrial facilities, waterfront uses, small businesses, and residential enclaves. The fellow will study the paper streets and right-of-ways amongst this mix of land uses and their potential to add social, health and lifestyle, ecological, and infrastructural capacity to the public realm in this part of the city. The intention of the fellowship is to study these sites on a macro scale as they relate to larger urban design and planning initiatives such as the Blue Green Way, propose strategies for the use and connection of the “paper streets”, and select several strategic sites for more specific proposals at a micro scale in subsequent fellowships.
Fellow Selection Schedule
Application due: By e-mail at 5 p.m. on Friday April 1, 2011
Notification of fellowship winner: Mid April
Start of fellowship: Early June
Conclusion of fellowship: August 31, 2011
The Committee may communicate with candidates by e-mail, telephone, or in person during the evaluation period.
Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR
Sarah Karlinksy, SPUR
Gretchen Hilyard, SPUR
Marcel Wilson, Bionic
Scott Preston, AECOM Design + Planning
Alma de Solier, AECOM Design + Planning
Megan Walker, AECOM Design + Planning
David Beaupre, Port of San Francisco
David Alumbaugh, City Design Group, San Francisco Planning Department
Application Due Date- click below to download the pdf application.
Friday, April 1, 5 p.m., by e-mail to email@example.com
Format: One 8.5x11 PDF file (5mb max)
Items to include: completed application, 1 page letter of interest, resume, work samples (20 sheet maximum)
SPUR will publish the work resulting from the Fellow's project, and the Fellow will present the results of the project in a public presentation.
Applicants may view the results of past fellowships here:
Download EmBIKEadero: 2009 Patri Fellowship Project
Download Imagining Islais Creek: 2008 Patri Fellowship Project
Download Envisioning Warmwater Cove: 2007 Patri Fellowship Project
SFCTA's Long Range Transportation Plan Explores Future Transportation Patterns
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority is working on an update to the city’s Long Range Transportation Plan. As part of the update, the authority has been conducting analysis of transportation patterns in the city, and looking at projected growth, and its implications. Some of the results have already been released (pdf), and the findings should provide advocates and governments in the Bay Area some food for thought:
1. The growth in traffic across the city’s southern border isn’t going to stop. The region is expecting some improvement in the jobs-housing balance in the South Bay, but it won’t be enough to stop increases in trips across the SF-San Mateo boundary. This makes the search for steady funding for Caltrain even more urgent, and also raises the question of whether we need to think about road pricing on I-280 and US-101.
2. San Francisco will need to address transit time to stay competitive. Transit investments in the region have been flowing disproportionately to the suburbs, and as a result, the cost (in time and money) of traveling via transit is expected to decline throughout the Bay Area – except here in SF. Here in the city, we will face slower buses on congested streets, as well as commute patterns that don’t just flow to our transit-rich downtown, but areas like Hunter’s Point and Mission Bay that are much less well served. Effectively serving these emerging job centers will require new infrastructure; otherwise, we will see even more commuters turning to auto transportation.
3. Transit funding needs to better reflect where the transit riders live and work. San Francisco is home to 11% of the region’s people, and 16% of its jobs, but 69% of its transit trip ends. But since funding tends to follow population figures, the city simply does not get its fair share of investment, with money flowing to suburban extensions instead of increases in core capacity. Changing this will be a massive challenge politically, but it is essential if we are to continue having a healthy center city.
4. Better land use is going to be an essential part of fighting climate change. The SFCTA looked at several strategies for reducing carbon emissions through transportation policy, and the short version of the story is that they don’t get us anywhere near the goals we’ve set. Questions of improving land use – getting rid of surface parking, densifying transit-rich neighborhoods, and bringing office space back into the core – are out of scope for the SFCTA, but for the city at large, it’s a huge part of the solution.
The SFCTA is continuing its work on the long-range plan, and holds meetings (open to the public) with a Citizen’s Advisory Committee on the topic every quarter. Keep posted on the agency’s work at movesmartsf.com.