Blog: May, 2012
Reforming City Support for Urban Agriculture in San Francisco
Seven city agencies spent nearly a million dollars supporting urban agriculture projects in San Francisco in 2010-2011. Yet there is no single staff person responsible for coordinating that funding, nor any overarching goals for how the money is used. Urban agriculture legislation introduced on April 24 by Supervisor David Chiu, however, would change that.
The proposed ordinance, which implements a number of the recommendations in SPUR’s recent report Public Harvest, would:
- Set goals, with outcomes and timelines, such as: an audit of city-owned buildings to identify rooftops suitable for urban agriculture; five new resource centers for compost, mulch and tools; a streamlined application process; a reduction in community garden waiting lists to no more than one year wait time; 10 new urban agriculture projects on public land where residents show desire for the projects;
- Create an urban agriculture program that would coordinate the efforts of city agencies, engage with community groups to reach the goals of the legislation and generally support city gardening and farming; and
- Require the mayor and city administrator to publish an evaluation of existing efforts and a strategic plan for the new urban agriculture program by the end of 2012. Importantly, this evaluation and planning process explicitly calls for SPUR’s top recommendation, which was for the mayor and city administrator to decide whether a city agency or a nonprofit partially funded by the city will serve as the main institutional support for urban agriculture.
Those provisions combined aim to reduce the duplication of effort among agencies by creating a one-stop shop that would: provide a streamlined application process for starting projects on public land; serve as an information clearinghouse for the public and for agencies; and offer technical assistance to city gardens and farms. The legislation’s annual reporting requirement would also increase accountability by shining detailed attention on the city’s progress toward reaching the goals, as well as by providing an accounting of how agencies spent their funding. And, by requiring a strategic plan and having staff assigned to coordinate among agencies, the new urban agriculture program could ensure that existing funding is used more efficiently.
The legislation, however, wouldn’t be a cure-all. Even if the law is passed, successful implementation will require buy-in from the mayor’s office and individual agencies, which would ultimately decide how much priority and staff time they put toward improving existing programs. The legislation sets targets for new sites on public land, but the specific locations and the money to start the projects must still be found. And, for residents on community-garden waiting lists, the bill provides no immediate relief. Instead, the legislation builds the institutional capacity within the city to provide more land, resources and support in the coming years.
Though it won’t solve any challenges overnight, the legislation is a crucial step forward. SPUR supports the legislation and we will be tracking its progress through the Board of Supervisors.
Business Tax Reform Heads to November Ballot
As the deadline rapidly approaches to submit measures for the November ballot, the City and County of San Francisco is moving ahead aggressively with its effort to reform the city’s business tax. While the city has made significant progress in recent weeks, there are some signs that the complexity and commitment to reform are being further complicated by increasing calls for a tax that would not just replace revenue from the existing payroll tax but bring the city additional funds.
City Controller Ben Rosenfield and Chief Economist Ted Egan have for the last few months been hard at work designing a replacement for San Francisco’s payroll tax. The controller’s office originally modeled two different proposals to replace the city’s current payroll tax: a modified payroll tax that would lower rates and broaden the base of payers, and a gross receipts tax based on rate schedules defined by industry. In the last month, however, that process has narrowed to focus solely on a gross receipts tax proposal. (Read the controller’s latest report on that effort.)
Gross receipts taxes are widespread in California, but they all have one important thing in common: They are extremely complicated. The tax must address dozens of different industries, as well as companies’ differing abilities to pay — and their varying ability to move to other places to conduct business. All this means there are many more levers than with a simple payroll tax. (San Francisco’s existing payroll tax is a straight 1.5 percent of all payrolls over $250,000 per year.)
But with a multitude of levers also comes significantly more flexibility. For example, the controller’s current proposed structure consists of six separate schedules. These schedules group companies that have comparable ratios between payroll (an expense) and gross receipts (how much money a company makes). For example, a real estate management firm may have few employees and high gross receipts from rent and other fees paid by tenants. Conversely, a restaurant might have a large number of employees and lower overall receipts. These two very different operating models are treated identically under the city’s existing payroll tax, but a gross receipts tax would provide different schedules for types of companies with different cost structures.
Another goal of the controller’s effort is to attempt to make the tax structure progressive in order to encourage job growth in small businesses and start-ups. Within these schedules there are a number of different rates (see sample schedule below) so that companies generating more revenue within each category would pay marginally higher rates. Likewise, start-up businesses that are not yet generating revenue — but may have significant payroll as they build products or services — would have more breathing room than they do in the current structure.
While the process to date has been one of the most inclusive in memory — with dozens of industry meetings and numerous iterations — the devil will ultimately be in the details for any proposal submitted to voters. There will be many winners and losers in any transition to a new tax (see below), which means achieving some form of consensus could determine a measure’s success or failure.
The eventual success or failure of business tax reform in San Francisco is only partially dependent on the structure of the proposal itself. The other side of this coin has to do with revenue. By design, all proposals to date have taken a “revenue neutral” approach; they attempt to simply replace revenue from the payroll tax and not generate additional funds for the city. However, that original intent is increasingly in doubt as the June deadlines for the ballot approach. Supervisor John Avalos, officials from Service Employees International Union 1021 and others have indicated their desire for any changes to the tax to generate additional funds. Whether or not those hopes are eventually included in the mayor’s tax reform proposal, it is increasingly likely that a separate measure to increase revenues could also be on the ballot in November. Could the controller’s measure include some additional revenue in order to neutralize these efforts?
The final stretch of negotiations will be critical to the success of the city’s business tax reform efforts. With the multitude of different moving pieces — both within the negotiations over rates and financial impacts, and apart from the negotiations around new revenues — this is still a fragile coalition. We hope a balance can be struck that will allow for the city to successfully transition to the gross receipts tax currently on the table. It would allow for greater stability over time, more equity and built-in incentives for new companies and industries to grow and thrive in San Francisco. But we must be mindful of the delicate balancing act required to get there.
At Last: Progress on Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit
After more than six years of planning, and six months after the release of a draft environmental impact report, we now have a clearer picture of what bus rapid transit on Van Ness Avenue might look like. This past Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) unanimously approved a combination of two out of the four designs under consideration.
Bus rapid transit (BRT) is similar to light rail in efficiency, but it uses buses instead of trains on tracks, which makes for lower costs and greater flexibility. Systems typically feature three ingredients:
· Dedicated lanes, usually in the center of the street
· Unique branding to make buses highly visible
· All-door boarding and proof-of-payment systems, often with payment required to be in the station area
The proposal for BRT on Van Ness would include all of these elements at nine dedicated stations between Mission and Lombard streets (see map below). Outside of these special stations, the Van Ness/Mission bus would function as it does today, mixing with cars in the far right lane of traffic.
The current draft environmental impact report / environmental impact statement included four alternatives for bus rapid transit on Van Ness (including a “no build” option that would keep bus service the way it is today). The version that passed the SFMTA board combined options 3 and 4 from the draft into a blended solution with a dedicated center lane and right-side boarding.
SPUR argued in a recent letter to the boards of SFMTA and San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) that the blended alternative has four main benefits:
· It demonstrates the biggest travel-time reduction, reliability improvements and ridership increases
· It uses existing vehicles with right-side boarding
· It maintains as much of the existing median as possible
· It creates a new urban design amenity on Van Ness by breaking up the street with a more inviting design
The same day that the SFMTA approved the proposal, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority pushed the same decision back for one month. But this a minor lag for the long-delayed project. Meanwhile, momentum for bus rapid transit is growing throughout the Bay Area — in the East Bay, South Bay and on Geary Boulevard.
We are excited to see the Van Ness project take its next step and hope for strong support from the SFCTA next month, as well full certification of the final environmental review this fall. We recognize that transit projects of this scale take time, but we look forward to riding the bus when it (finally) opens in 2017.
Why We Need Hetch Hetchy More Than Ever
Have you been to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite? Everyone who drinks water or takes a shower in San Francisco should go. It is spectacular: a miles-long placid blue lake nested within towering granite cliffs, from which waterfalls cascade. To visit the waterfalls or Yosemite’s northern backcountry, you walk across O’Shaughnessy Dam. It marks the first catchment in a 160-mile long water system that brings high quality, superb-tasting water to 2.6 million residents of the Bay Area every day.
Standing upon it will give you the chance to appreciate the sublimity of both nature and human achievement. O’Shaughnessy Dam and the waterworks that connect it to the Bay Area are a marvel of engineering. The water shunted through them — about 218 million gallons a day — arrives in most city taps by gravity alone. This is also a place imbued with history: San Francisco’s congressional delegation won the right to build the dam in 1913, to secure a reliable source of water in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. This effort was famously and vociferously fought by John Muir and was the subject of a national debate for years; the loss later galvanized the Sierra Club to successfully oppose large dams in Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park.
It would be almost impossible to build a new dam there today. (In fact partially because it is so difficult and destructive to build large dams, we are running out of new supplies of water in California.) But tearing O’Shaughnessy Dam down now in order to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley would be a disaster.
If their signature-gathering campaign is successful, a small group of environmental advocates, led by Restore Hetch Hetchy, will give you the opportunity this November to vote on a measure that would require the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to develop a plan to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The proposed ballot measure calls for the creation of a task force that would spend $8 million to develop a long-term plan for improving water quality and reliability, remediating environmental damages caused by the water supply system, and identifying new water and renewable energy supplies so that Hetch Hetchy Valley could be returned to the National Park Service.
This ballot measure is so problematic that SPUR has taken early action to oppose it.
SPUR wholeheartedly agrees that planning for water quality and reliability is important. In fact, this is so obviously a good idea that the SFPUC and other end users of Hetch Hetchy water have been doing it for years. In 2007, in approving the environmental impact report for the Water System Improvement Program — an investment of more than $4 billion to shore up the seismic reliability of the Hetch Hetchy water system — the SFPUC gave itself, and its wholesale customers on the peninsula, ten years to develop a plan that would identify reliable alternative sources of water to meet the region’s future growth in demand, rather than diverting more water from the Tuolumne River. The SFPUC and other Hetch Hetchy users are currently implementing plans to meet this demand through recycled water, groundwater and conservation. (Read SPUR’s analysis of this plan.) So the idea of planning for new water supplies need not be on the ballot.
In terms of quality, Hetch Hetchy water is so pristine that it is one of only a handful of water supplies in the country that doesn’t need to be filtered, a process that is expensive and energy intensive. The SFPUC tests its quality more than 100,000 times a year to ensure that it exceeds all safe drinking water standards.
The main problem with the measure is that in spite of appearing to be about studying best options or planning for future water supplies, it has pre-determined the solution: draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
The idea of punching a hole in or removing the dam and allowing the valley to be restored to its pre-development conditions has been around since the late 1980s. Over the last 35 years, the idea has been studied by the Environmental Defense Fund, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service, UC Davis, and several state agencies. Some of these studies determined that the idea of draining the reservoir was technically feasible but incredibly costly.
In 2006, the California State Department of Water Resources (DWR) and Department of Parks and Recreation evaluated the cost estimates of multiple feasibility studies conducted between 1988 and 2005. DWR’s meta-study found a range of costs from $3 billion to $10 billion for restoration and replacement of water and power sources. Restore Hetch Hetchy and the Environmental Defense Fund’s own studies support a lower cost estimate, ranging from $1 billion to $2 billion. DWR also found that the planning studies necessary to refine the costs and benefits of restoration would cost $65 million alone.
Even if we could obtain the several billion dollars necessary to carry out this endeavor (neither private nor public sources have yet been identified) some of the tasks involved may not even be possible. Here are just some of the hurdles we would need to cross:
• Identify water supplies to meet about 18 percent of the region’s water demand in dry years (which occur about 20 percent of the time)
• Permit and build 40 to 90 megawatts of renewable power to supply almost all municipal demand in San Francisco
• Build and operate a water-filtration plant, because water stored further downstream than Hetch Hetchy will have to be filtered
• Engineer and design a series of expensive and complicated infrastructure projects to re-engineer major components of the regional water system, then get those changes through the environmental review process
• Somehow convince senior water-right holders like the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts on the Tuolumne River to let us store our drinking water in their reservoirs
• Also convince them it would be a good idea to raise the heights of their dams so we can enlarge these reservoirs with our extra water, flooding anew many miles of the Tuolumne River and acres of currently dry land.
Yes, the plan to drain Hetch Hetchy involves causing new ecological damage. We would be trading flooded acres in one place for flooded acres in another.
At SPUR, we have done a lot of work on climate change adaptation. From this work, we have concluded that it is not wise to reduce water storage facilities considering the realities of a growing population and climate change. A bigger population will increase demand, meanwhile climate change could significantly reduce supply through drought and hydrological cycle changes. Hetch Hetchy, unlike other water storage facilities in California, is relatively buffered from near-term climate change because of its high elevation. And it is the largest single source of water supply for the Bay Area. In the future, we will certainly need diverse supplies to rely on in a prolonged drought, but we will also need Hetch Hetchy more than ever.
Loss of the reservoir would decrease the Bay Area’s water and energy security, requiring new water storage (possibly in reservoirs not owned by San Francisco) and the development of new water and energy supplies. Such new supplies are not guaranteed to have the low greenhouse gas emissions profile that Hetch Hetchy water and power do — and they could worsen climate change while increasing our vulnerability to it.
So visit Hetch Hetchy. Stand on O’Shaughnessy Dam and feel the cool updraft. Appreciate what nature created and what the city built there long ago. Dams, including this one, don’t last forever, and perhaps in a few generations the conversation about a different future for the Hetch Hetchy Valley may be worthwhile. Then, we’ll need to weigh our options for other new large water supplies, all of which will have enormous environmental tradeoffs: think of building a desalination plant, fighting with Los Angeles over the Sacramento Delta, building a peripheral canal or siting new large dams in presently undammed Sierra mountains and foothills.
Fortunately, that time has not yet come, so this November, vote “no” on the “Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Planning Act of 2012.” Let’s keep Hetch Hetchy around for the forseeable future.
What Can the Bay Area Learn From the First Crop of Sustainable Communities Strategies?
In recent months, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego each passed their first Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) in response to Senate Bill 375, the 2008 state bill requiring each region in California to create a coordinated land use and transportation plan to reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions from driving.
We in the Bay Area have the advantage of being the last among the big regions to pass an SCS. What can we learn from the other regions about the implementation of SB 375 and the prospects for better regional planning statewide?
Last month, SPUR explored this question in a panel discussion with four of the state’s leading advocates for effective strategies: Ken Kirkey from the Association of Bay Area Governments, Eliot Rose from the Center for Resource Efficient Communities, Amanda Eaken from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Stuart Cohen from TransForm. Given each area’s distinct circumstances and politics, it is difficult to generalize about their SCS process, but several broad lessons stood out.
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) was the first regional agency in California to adopt an SCS, and the results were watched closely by the state’s other metropolitan areas. SANDAG has the advantage of being a region that includes a single county, as opposed to SCAG’s six, SACOG’s six and the Bay Area’s nine. The SANDAG SCS passed in October 2011, and the region has looked likely to meet the Air Resources Board’s green house gas emission reduction targets early, thanks in part to the overall decrease in regional activity accompanying the economic recession. But the SANDAG SCS has received ambivalent reception, with many observers questioning whether the plan went far enough. As Eliot Rose wrote, “complying with SB 375 is a different thing than actually using the opportunities that the bill presents to produce substantive changes in the way our communities look and the way that we get around, and SANDAG’s RTP illustrates this gap.”
SANDAG has devoted a commendable investment to transit, a proportion comparable with Los Angeles at 47 percent, but the San Diego region is still directing substantial new development to areas where transit is likely to remain limited. According to Rose, only 53 percent of the region’s growth is slated to occur in Smart Growth Opportunity Areas, with the rest scattered in suburbs and unincorporated areas, even after the 2035 horizon when the region is unbound by general plan assumptions.
The SANDAG plan is currently held up in litigation, and its perceived shortcomings have prompted a wider conversation about whether more aggressive standards should be adopted in order to hold regional entities to their policy commitments.
In Southern California, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) focused throughout its SCS process on overcoming the apprehension that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are bad for the economy. Organizers gathered compelling data from expert studies demonstrating the market demand for transit, multifamily housing and walkable communities. Most promising were the voter surveys commissioned by SCAG which showed a population that embraces smart land use planning and wants to live in communities with many transportation options.
By mounting an extensive outreach campaign across the region, the largest and most heavily populated in the state, SCAG leaders were able to bring about a major shift in funding priorities. $246 billion, nearly half the plan’s total revenue will be spent on public transportation, including the ambitious 30/10 Plan to build 12 key transit expansion projects in Los Angeles in the next ten years. The plan quadrupled regional spending on bike and pedestrian infrastructure, but the final figure still represents just 1 percent of the SCS budget, falling far short of the 14 percent of funds voters said they would like to see spent on active transit.
The SCAG SCS was passed unanimously on April 4, and the broad support it was able to garner represents progress for the region. But voters are notably ready to see even more commitment to smart land use and public transportation investment.
Sacramento’s regional planning entity, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), passed its SCS just a few weeks ago on April 26. The plan focused on local rezoning around identified transit priority areas, defined as areas within a half-mile of high quality transit: a rail stop or a bus corridor that provides or will provide at least 15-minute frequency service during peak hours by the year 2035. But the Sacramento delta region lagged behind the other regions in their prioritization of transit, allocating only 32 percent of their overall budget, compared with SCAG’s and SANDAG’s 47 percent and MTC/ABAG’s projected 67 percent. Sacramento also plans to spend significantly more on highways than the other regions.
SACOG has earned praise, however, for allocating nearly 8 percent of its overall budget for improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, far exceeding the other regions whose investments in active transportation remain a meager 1 percent. And Sacramento makes important steps in concentrating new growth within already built up areas, managing to grow by 39 percent, but increase its urbanized footprint by only 7 percent.
As the Bay Area's own SCS is finalized over the next year, our task is to continue to set a high bar—to keep shifting our investments towards more sustainable modes and high performing transport projects that are cost effective and support multiple regional goals such as reducing driving and expanding the economy. The other metropolitan regions are looking to ABAG and MTC’s Project Performance Assessment Process for improved economic, social and environmental goals with which to measure the merit of projects in the next SCS process.