Blog: November, 2011
Public Utilities: Water, Power, Sewer … Food?
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission took two steps in support of urban agriculture at a recent meeting. The first step was making it easier for community gardeners and urban farmers to install new water hookups at their sites. Currently, the price of a new water meter installation is approximately $8,500. That high cost barrier has led many garden projects to source their water from a neighboring property rather than build their own connection with the water system, resulting in a losing situation for both gardeners and the PUC. For the gardeners, hooking into an existing water meter means they pay for water as if they were a water customer in a building. That rate includes the standard wastewater charge, even though water that irrigates a garden (and trickles into the soil) doesn’t add to the load on the wastewater and sewer system. For the PUC, any project piggy-backing on a neighbor’s water account makes it difficult to track the water usage of urban agriculture.
To solve the problem, the PUC approved a program to waive most or all of the cost of installing a dedicated landscape irrigation meter. Projects using these meters will not get charged for wastewater, reducing their overall water bill, while the PUC will gain a way to measure water usage.The commission set aside $100,000 for the program and will allow applicants to apply for a fee waiver of up to $10,000 for a new meter. The program could ultimately provide 10 free water hookups to qualified applicants that meet specific criteria. Applications will be considered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
While gaining access to a water meter can be difficult in San Francisco, accessing land is even more difficult. Citing the Mayor’s Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food from 2009, which encouraged city agencies to identify vacant land suitable for urban agriculture, the commission took a step toward addressing this challenge, as well. Specifically, it approved a feasibility study at two pilot sites: College Hill Reservoir and the Southeast Treatment Plant. The staff will present the results of its study before the end of January 2012.
The PUC has a unique amount of leeway when it comes to what kinds of projects it can consider at these sites. Unlike nearly all the land under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Parks Department, the PUC’s sites are either not currently publicly accessible or not currently used as recreation areas. Establishing a garden or farm on this land could activate unused space, rather than replace an existing use. Commercial operations run by a non-profit or for-profit could fit well on PUC land, whereas they would be more controversial inside an existing park. At the same time, the PUC could ultimately decide that a traditional community garden fits best on both sites. Many types of urban agriculture could fit well on PUC land.
Many questions remain to be answered. One thing, however, is clear. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is demonstrating a strong commitment to urban agriculture that can serve as a model for other city agencies.
Inventing a New Kind of American Dream
At this year's Silver SPUR Awards Luncheon, SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf reflected on the contrasts between what he called "the totally dysfunctional state of our country right now and the remarkably functional state of our city and region." We are at a moment in history, he says, where solutions to the big problems are not coming out of Washington — they’re coming out of action at the local and regional level.
Watch the speech:
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New Blueprint of a City: San Jose's 2040 General Plan
The General Plan, while simple in name, is one of a city’s most important documents. It determines how, where, when and if a city will grow. It shapes what our neighborhoods look like, where our places of work are located, and where our parks, schools and homes intersect — or don’t. It directs development to be pedestrian, bike or transit-oriented — or not. And it can make or break a city’s long-term success, since the policies and direction it lays out remain in place until a new General Plan is created, which can be years or decades away depending on the jurisdiction.
For San Jose, the 10th largest city in the United States, it’s been almost two decades. The city was overdue for an update and needed a strategy to direct growth to accommodate a forecasted 470,000 new jobs and 120,000 new housing units through 2040. After a four-year planning process, the San Jose City Council adopted the Envision San Jose 2040 General Plan on November 1. The document notes five community priorities: promoting economic development, ensuring fiscal sustainability, providing environmental leadership, building in targeted areas called “urban villages,” and promoting transit use. These five were emphasized in addition to the other key concepts of community-based planning, prioritizing downtown as a destination, maintaining the urban growth boundary and designing for a healthy community.
The big idea in the plan is to create urban villages, specific areas that will provide active, walkable, bicycle-friendly, transit-oriented, mixed-use urban settings for new housing and job growth. The urban villages identified fall into four categories: regional transit, local transit, commercial and residential areas. All are are located along existing regional and local transit lines or in locations identified by their potential for redevelopment or enhancement. In a sense, the new San Jose General Plan follows the current convention of American planning, protecting most of the city from change, while designating a smaller number of sites for intensive development. But you get a sense of the enormous scale of San Jose’s ambition from the number — 70! — of designated urban villages.
The plan also promotes the physical health of the community by way of designating land uses to promote walking, access to healthy food and backyard agriculture. And unlike previous plans, Envision San Jose 2040 will come before the city council every four years to review the phasing priorities of the plan, track progress and provide consistency through changing future councils. These straight-forward concepts and priorities mark a defining departure from the car-centric, sprawling, bedroom community that San Jose started with as a result of poor land use planning prior to the 1970s.
The success of San Jose’s 2040 General Plan will depend on its implementation, its ability to provide clarity and assurance to the development community through the urban village policy framework, an appropriate update of the zoning code to correspond with the new land designations and, ultimately, the fortitude of the planning staff and city council to adhere to the plan as staff and city counsels evolve and change.
Deadline for public feedback extended until November 23
Project Materials - Now available in Chinese!
The 2011 Election's Real Winner? Getting Back to Basics
With Election 2011 finally past, San Francisco voters have sent several very clear messages to our local officials. Outside of the much-discussed mayor’s race, there were some important items on the ballot this year, and voters appear to have ignored the noise and focused on the business at hand. Not only did we have the shortest ballot for a mayoral election in more than 50 years, but we managed to address some of our most pressing challenges. What was on voters’ minds?
1. We need to invest in infrastructure. Bonds for both schools and roads passed, signaling that voters are focused on the fundamentals. Proposition A was the third in a series of three bonds to retrofit the city’s schools, and it passed with more than 70 percent (but required only 55 percent). Proposition B, however, was a more unconventional funding approach for the city’s streets and roads. While issuing debt may not be the most desirable mechanism for these types of repairs, voters clearly recognized a pressing need for investment, and perhaps acknowledged that further delay could cost taxpayers significantly more.
2. Cost containment is a priority, and pension reform is a major piece of that puzzle. While many may not quite understand the technical complexities of the city’s pension system, voters clearly grasp the need for city workers to share in the pain during this down economy. There aren’t many places workers can find defined-benefit retirement plans these days, but that really wasn’t the point. Voters clearly supported the consensus-based process that led to Proposition C, which passed by more than 69 percent. Meanwhile, the competing pension proposal on the ballot (Proposition D) was defeated by an equal margin (66 percent against). We can only hope voters recognize that this is a $1.2 billion downpayment on what is a much larger problem funding pension benefits. A statewide conversation on this is also coming soon.
3. Keep your hands off our ballot. Changing the ballot initiative process is never easy, but voters either disagree about the reforms of Proposition E or weren’t sure what the implications were. There were many conflicting analyses of Prop. E — including many inaccuracies — but ultimately voters opposed the idea of initiative reform, even if only for measures originating at the Board of Supervisors. SPUR continues to support ballot reforms that make sure voter approval is reserved for matters that cannot be handled by elected officials. The ballot is a blunt (and expensive) instrument both for enacting ordinances and amending them. It’s important to remember: For every measure approved by voters, every little change must again be approved by the voters, no matter how large or small.
4. Now is not the time for taxes. Bonds are fine, just not taxes. Proposition G — Mayor Lee’s sales tax proposal — required support from two-thirds of voters for approval. Unfortunately, it didn’t even make it to 50 percent. While it could be said that the measure was not the right solution to the city’s revenue woes, it was also a signal that voters did not think that regressive tools such as sales taxes were the right tool in a down economy — even for public safety and social services.
In many ways, it could be said that this election was about a return to priorities, even in spite of the meager turnout (barely 40 percent, at the last tally). With the considerable funds spent on the mayor’s race, it’s amazing that some very important measures on the ballot were able to break through the noise.
How did each of the measures — and SPUR recommendations — fare?
|Measure A - School Bonds*||70.9%||29.1%||Yes ✓|
|Measure B - Road Repaving and Street Safety Bonds**||67.8%||32.2%||Yes ✓|
|Measure C - City Pension and Health Care Benefits||68.9%||31.1%||Yes ✓|
|Measure D - City Pension Benefits||33.5%||66.5%||No ✓|
|Measure E - Amending or Repealing Legislative Initiative Ordinances and Declarations of Policy||32.9%||67.1%||Yes ✖|
|Measure F - Campaign Consultant Ordinance||43.9%||56.1%||Yes ✖|
|Measure G - Sales Tax**||45.1%||54.9%||No ✓|
|Measure H - School District Student Assignment||49.97%||50.03%||No position|
* Requires 55% support to pass
** Requires two-thirds support to pass
Big Plans to Fix Big Problems at Ocean Beach
In late October, SPUR shared with the public a set of draft recommendations for the Ocean Beach Master Plan, a long-range vision for managing coastal erosion, infrastructure, access and ecology on San Francisco’s western coast. Though the beach faces many challenges, it is south of Sloat Boulevard that the issues come to head. This is where the ocean’s erosive scour is worst, and it’s also the home of the Lake Merced Tunnel and other expensive, recently built wastewater infrastructure. The beach here has been degraded by emergency armoring and exposed fill, limiting access and threatening both natural communities and a beloved local surf break. In short, it's a mess.
But from a planner's point of view, a confluence of challenges is an opportunity to solve for a number of different objectives at once. Of the six big ideas in the draft recommendations, here are two that propose the most significant — and exciting — changes to streets, public spaces and coastal management at the southern end of the beach:
KEY MOVE 1: Reroute the Great Highway behind the San Francisco Zoo via Sloat and Skyline boulevards
Stop defending what we don't need
To date, the city has been defending the Great Highway South of Sloat Boulevard with boulder revetments. Many officials agree that the road is a proxy for a much greater concern: the Lake Merced Tunnel, a 14-foot underground sewer and stormwater pipe that runs underneath the highway. The road is lightly traveled and frequently closed (most notably the southbound lanes were closed for nearly a year in 2010). Rerouting traffic from the Great Highway to Sloat and Skyline (which have capacity to spare) would allow a more flexible approach to coastal protection and create major restoration and recreation opportunities.
Tame an unsafe and overwide street
Sloat Blvd is six lanes wide, with diagonal parking in the median. Zoo visitors often park there and jaywalk across the street with small children. Re-routing the Great Highway inland would allow significant improvements to Sloat Boulevard, like moving parking to the south side along the zoo and adding a first-class bike route. The L-Taraval Muni line could be extended one block to terminate adjacent to the zoo. Counterintuitively, auto access to the region could improve, as traffic controls are upgraded and this important link is no longer subject to closure by erosion or flood.
Create a new gateway to the zoo and the coast
Drivers, cyclists and Muni riders would all arrive at the south side of Sloat, where they could visit the zoo and access the coast without crossing any streets. A new access point near the pump station would provide bike parking, restrooms and information, while a restored Fleishhaker pool house could host a visitor center with food and interpretive elements. Sloat's neighborhood businesses could thrive on a safe, attractive seaside street.
Give us back our coast
Removing the Great Highway South of Sloat would offer an amazing recreational resource for cyclists, pedestrians and beach users while allowing for a healthier ecosystem. Today's landscape of asphalt, rubble and boulders would be gradually transformed into a coastal trail linking Fort Funston to the rest of Ocean Beach and beyond, reminiscent of recent improvements at Land's End and Crissy Field. Infrastructure would remain, but the structures used to protect it would be designed with access, aesthetics and natural resources (like the bank swallow) in mind.
KEY MOVE 2: Introduce a multi-purpose coastal protection/restoration/access system
Remove the road, and take advantage of the opportunity
Unlike the Great Highway south of Sloat, the Lake Merced Tunnel is a significant piece of infrastructure and worth protecting in the coming decades. West of the zoo, the road is perched atop an erodable berm of construction fill, well above the pipe. Letting that vertical space go would allow a much more flexible approach to coastal protection. The solution outlined in the draft is conceptual and will require considerable study to ensure its feasibility, but the underlying ideas represent a new and more nuanced approach to the problem of erosion at Ocean Beach.
Armor the Lake Merced Tunnel with a low-profile structure
The Lake Merced Tunnel sits much lower than the roadway. If it can be protected with a low wall, cap or internal reinforcement, it can become a sort of "speed bump" under the beach. This is a significant engineering challenge, as it needs to be protected from wave energy, flotation forces (it is mostly empty most of the time) and seismic forces.
Layer flexible, dynamic structures over hard structures
The structure protecting the Lake Merced Tunnel would be covered by a berm of cobble, stones that range from the size of marbles to that of softballs. These structures, modeled on natural cobble beaches, can be shaped dynamically by wave action and excel at dissipating waves energy. A second cobble berm farther inland, would protect existing force mains and high ground near the Fleishhaker Pool building. Large quantities of sand would then be placed over the cobble, providing a first line of protection and a sandy beach most of the time.
Restore the surface, give us back our coast
If infrastructure protection alone is the goal, then a traditional seawall or revetment would do. But this plan's goal is to serve multiple objectives simultaneously, and the recommended approach allows Ocean Beach to protect infrastructure while also improving recreational access, ecological function and character, in keeping with its status as a national park. Regular placement of sand and revegetation would offer an accessible beach environment, with a spectacular trail connecting Sloat Boulevard to Fort Funston. Cobble is passable and attractive even when sand has been washed away, as it might be in major storms. And the San Francisco Zoo could find a new expression of its conservation values through an improved relationship the watershed and the coastal ecosystem.
The Ocean Beach Master Plan will be finalized in early 2012. To view the complete draft recommendations, see the slideshow below:
Draft Recommendations and Online Feedback
We’d like your input!
This pdf (24MB) presents the Ocean Beach Master Plan Draft Recommendations. (It is shorter than the one in the previous post, which also provides a lot of background etc).
The issues at Ocean Beach are complex and challenging. If you’re new to the project, please spend some time with the materials on this site to familiarize yourself with the background. A general overview can be found HERE. Our animations are a great way to understand the coastal processes and infrastructure at Ocean Beach.
Click HERE to provide comments on each of the Draft Recommendations. While comments are always welcome, we are asking for feedback on the Draft Recommendations by the end of FRIDAY NOVEMBER 18th. This will help us incorporate your feedback into a draft plan document in a timely manner.
OB Master Plan Public Workshop #3 -- Draft Recommendations
For those that missed Saturday's workshop (10/29) or want a review, here is the presentation. It provides some project background, info on the public process to date, and a summary of the Draft Recommendations.
Stay tuned for lots more workshop materials, and an online feedback tool!
Please note: the coastal dynamics and infrastructure animations don't work in this viewer. They are both available on this site, below.
What San Franciscans Need to Know About Ranked-Choice Voting
In the weeks leading up to the November 8 election, San Franciscans find themselves up to their necks in news articles (from the Chronicle, the Mercury News and even The Economist) about our ranked-choice voting (RCV) system and how the tallying of voters’ first, second, and third preferences might affect the outcome of the mayoral election. In principle, ranked-choice voting is simple: If no candidate receives an outright majority of the first place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed according to those voters’ next choice. The votes are re-tallied, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and so on. In what amounts to an instant run-off, this process of redistributing ballots continues until a winner is declared.
As someone who studies voting systems (and spends free time poring over data from recent elections), I find the level of interest in RCV somewhat astonishing. Not long ago, the switch to using it seemed irrelevant to election results. Though San Francisco adopted this voting system in 2002 and it has been in place since 2004, prior to last year’s election, every candidate that led on the initial “first place” rankings was ultimately victorious. Sure, there were some close races, but most leading candidates saw their relative share of the vote increase in subsequent tallies. Only Supervisor Eric Mar had to sweat out the tallies of second and third place votes before ultimately emerging victorious.
As a result, the consensus was that ranked-choice voting was just like a plurality system: the leading candidate would end up winning. The 2010 election changed everything. The mayors of Oakland and San Leandro, Jean Quan and Stephen Cassidy, respectively, and two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Malia Cohen and Mark Farrell, came from behind to win. That is to say, they did not initially lead the race when first place votes were tallied.
Supervisor Farrell and Mayor Cassidy won exceptionally close races. Both narrowly trailed in the first round and narrowly won in the end. And Supervisor Cohen came from third to first in a deep field of 22 candidates. But the real shocker was the Oakland race. Mayor Quan trailed by a whopping 9 point margin (33.7%-24.5%) and ended up winning by two points.
A new conventional wisdom was born: that ranked-choice voting could jumble an otherwise orderly election. Just Google “ranked-choice voting” and “wildcard” and you’ll get a sense of this new fascination. Willie Brown opined recently that it might be preferable for a candidate to be in second place after the initial tally.
The empirical data, however, are far less interesting. They don’t reveal any secret voodoo to voting in a ranked-choice election or tricky ways to game the system. Here’s what we know: In a very close race, second and third choices can indeed tip the outcome. But clear frontrunners win — and usually expand their margins of victory.
Oakland 2010 was an aberration resulting from three unique factors. Here’s what they were and how they compare to what will most likely happen in this year’s San Francisco mayoral race:
First, voters in Oakland exercised all of their choices. Nearly 80 percent of voters cast a ballot with three unique choices. Typically, in San Francisco only about half of those who cast ballots in an RCV election vote for three different candidates. The other half do something else, like vote only for their first-place choice or perhaps only for first and second place — some even vote for the same person three times, hoping their vote will get counted more than once (it doesn’t). As a result, ballots are more likely to be “exhausted” in San Francisco (i.e., they do not accrue to any of the candidates remaining in the race as the field narrows) than was the case in Oakland. For example, in Oakland 88.4 percent of votes ended up continuing to the final round of tallying in 2010. In San Francisco’s four competitive races last year, only 81.8 percent of the ballots continued to the final round — 77.7 percent in Supervisor Jane Kim’s race, and just 46.0 percent in Cohen’s. In a survey that we at the University of San Francisco conducted with the Bay Citizen, only around half of those surveyed expressed a preference for three different candidates in the current mayor’s race. This means that if people vote in the election the way they did in the survey, we can expect a lot of exhausted ballots — and that means fewer chances of an unexpected upset.
Second, in Oakland, there were three leading opponents of front-runner Senator Don Perata. For voters who wanted to cast a ballot for “anybody but Perata” (and there was a vocal contingent opposed to him), it was easy to do so. Candidates Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan even adopted the “anyone but Perata” approach and encouraged voters to put each other second. In San Francisco this year, voters who oppose the perceived frontrunner, appointed Mayor Ed Lee, have 15 other options, including three citywide elected officials, a state senator, and two current and three former members of the Board of Supervisors. This long menu of choices will likely water down the opposition. Again, we can expect a lot of discontinued ballots.
And third, Perata was uniquely polarizing. Though he led the first place tally by 9 percentage points, he appeared on 8 percent fewer ballots than Jean Quan. Head to head, she was preferred to him. It wasn’t a fluke, she wasn’t lucky. She was preferred by voters. Ed Lee is not nearly as polarizing a figure as Don Perata. In our survey, 78 percent of voters expressed support for his job as acting mayor. That number has certainly fallen in the past two weeks as the campaign has heated up and allegations have been leveled against the organizations supporting the mayor. Still, it’s not yet clear that he will engender the kind of opposition needed to defeat a leading candidate.
All of that is to say that ranked-choice voting is not random. As with other voting systems, it favors incumbents and frontrunners — and that most certainly benefits Mayor Lee in this race.
It’s also true, however, that RCV doesn’t inherently produce the kind of outcome that the old two-stage runoff used to, i.e. one in which the winning candidate receives an actual majority of votes cast. Because of the high number of exhausted ballots in these elections, the candidate left standing at the end of the tallying is most commonly a plurality winner, meaning they may have gotten the most votes, but they didn’t get more than half. Of the 15 elections that came down to RCV in San Francisco since the voting system was adopted, 13 of the winners ultimately did not receive a majority of the votes cast in the election. Only Assessor Phil Ting (2005) and Supervisor Scott Weiner (2010) ended up with a true majority. That’s much less problematic in low-profile races. But it seems to me that the most pressing question for those of us interested in effective political leadership is whether the next mayor — be it a frontrunner like Ed Lee, City Attorney Dennis Herrera or Supervisor John Avalos, or someone else from the field — can effectively govern after winning an election by something less than a majority of the ballots cast.
Corey Cook is an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches American politics and conducts research on election results and political geography in California.