Blog: June, 2012
San Jose Passes New Incentives for More Active Streets Downtown
Many downtown areas have policies in place that restrict ground-floor storefronts for walk-in businesses such as retail, restaurants and entertainment. The idea is to encourage people to continue exploring (and hopefully shopping) on foot. But in an economic downturn, when retail stores may remain vacant for years, dark storefronts can create dead spaces of their own, further challenging the success of surviving retail tenants. With ground-floor retail vacancy rates hovering between 15 and 20 percent for several years in a row, San Jose has adopted a temporary policy change allowing non-retail uses such as banks and business support services to occupy certain ground floor spaces without a special use permit — an investment of time and money that the city says has deterred several companies from locating downtown. The city also argues that ground-floor space occupied during part of the day is better than ground-floor space vacant all day. In addition, co-working spaces like NextSpace, which are not considered retail uses but do generate a lot of foot traffic throughout the day, are showing us that new forms of business uses can activate the street and should be encouraged to locate where they can enhance the vibrancy of pedestrian areas.
The temporary policy change allows for the elimination of the special use permit requirement for businesses of less than 20,000 square feet on non-corner street frontages that have one of the following uses: business support, financial institutions, financial services, office, business and administrative, day care centers and radio and television studios.
The upside to this action is the opportunity to fill vacant storefronts in the short term. The potential downside is that, once the economy turns around, “non-active” business uses may remain in locations meant for retail. Additionally, there is the potential to drive up rental rates on the ground floor, as business users can currently pay higher rent than a local retailer. For these reasons, the city, together with the San Jose Downtown Association, will track both vacancy and rental rates going forward and review the impact of this change in two years.
Going for height in the rental market
While the city is still feeling the impact of the economic downturn on the commercial side, San Jose, like many cities around the bay, has seen its residential rental market take off. According to a recent Marcus & Millichap Research Services report, San Jose’s rental vacancy is expected to be the lowest of the three major bay cities at 2.7 percent by year’s end (compared to 3 percent in San Francisco and 3.2 percent in Oakland). That said, obtaining financing to build high-rise residential continues to be a challenge in San Jose, especially on the tail end of very slow sales in the newest residential towers downtown. In order to take advantage of this demand for rental units, and also encourage higher residential density in the downtown, the San Jose City Council recently passed a number of temporary incentives to encourage high-rise developments. The following incentives apply to the first 1,000 units of new residential high-rise development of 12 stories or higher that break ground in the Downtown Growth Area by the end of 2013:
1) An expedited, 120-day review process of entitlements for any proposed high-rise development (this applies to high-rise development anywhere in the city)
2) The elimination of a city requirement to install an expensive breathing air replenishment system in high-rise buildings
3) The continuation of a 50 percent reduction in park fees for high-rise residential constructed in the downtown
4) A 50 percent reduction in construction taxes (this is also applicable to any commercial building constructed in the downtown, regardless of height)
5) Deferral of fees owed until the Certificate of Occupancy is issued
6) Waiver of minimum parking requirements with a long-term commitment from the developer to offer free participation in the VTA’s EcoPass program, as well as car-sharing services and enhanced bike parking facilities
Taken together, these two recent actions demonstrate the city’s desire to chip away at a slow commercial market while taking advantage of a strong rental residential market in the downtown. While it is true that the fee reductions will impact the funding parks and transportation improvements, if there’s no development in the near term, these departments won’t receive any funds at all.
Ocean Beach Master Plan Final Document
At last, the final Ocean Beach Master Plan document is ready for viewing and download! Many thanks to everyone who participated in this groundbreaking effort, including community members, advocates and public agencies. Check back here for updates on our implementation efforts.
The viewer below allows easy zooming and page-turning to make this very large document readable. Click the "Expand" button below in order to see it at full-screen size. Then zoom in using the scroll bar (white circle) at the top left.
You can also download the whole document >> [70MB, 210 pages]
Unfortunately, we lack the funds to provide hard copies of the full document. If you would like one, stay tuned. We will be arranging a print-on-demand service where you can purchase a copy.
The Sunol AgPark: Farming City-Owned Land Outside SF
Thirty miles east of San Francisco, four farm businesses are growing food for market amidst the hills of Sunol. Though the rows of tomatoes, strawberries, kale, and other crops are typical of the region the land use arrangement at the site, known as the Sunol AgPark, is anything but typical. That’s because the park is on public land owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) directly adjacent to the Sunol Water Temple. In 2006, the PUC began an innovative land stewardship partnership and lease with the non-profit organization Sustainable Agriculture and Education (SAGE), who, in turn, subleases the 18 acres to local farmers.
In other words, for-profit farmers are cultivating publicly owned land managed by a nonprofit. It’s an arrangement that works for the PUC, SAGE and the farmers. From the PUC’s perspective, farming is compatible with this site, as it is with many others they own between San Francisco and Hetch Hetchy. By permitting agriculture next to the Water Temple, they reduce their maintenance costs and are able to provide a community benefit, not only to the farmers and their customers, but also to the thousands of visitors and schoolchildren that the PUC and SAGE bring to the site each year for educational tours. For the farmers, the AgPark provides protected land with existing agricultural infrastructure, proximity to urban markets and technical assistance — at rates comparable to farmland with similar amenities available on the private market. And for SAGE, the AgPark increases awareness of the value of local food systems and the importance of preserving agricultural land around cities while covering a portion of its own operating costs.
The AgPark began with a nine-year lease, and it is a model that, if successful, has the potential to be replicated throughout the Bay Area and beyond. The Public Utilities Commission alone owns 84,000 acres outside the city of San Francisco. Other water agencies, utilities and public land stewards in the Bay Area also control thousands of acres of land. Much of the PUC’s land is managed to preserve water quality or otherwise support the function of the water, sewer and power systems they operate. But, recognizing that much of the land could have a secondary use beyond its primary utility function, such as organic farms in a protected watershed area, the PUC adopted a new framework for considering secondary land uses in March.
The Sunol AgPark is a pilot project that, in addition to its educational mission, is helping explore the viability of agriculture as a secondary use on publicly-= owned land. The potential for expanding the model is tantalizing. Time will tell whether it continues to work for the public utilities, nonprofit land managers and the farmers.
June Election Results: SF Votes to Save Murals — and Recology
The shortest primary ballot in 16 years and the lowest turnout ever (30.83 percent) for a presidential primary. San Francisco’s ballot is experiencing a lot of interesting firsts in recent elections, but while the number of measures appears to be dwindling, their content is consistent: expensive implications.
This election, San Franciscans considered two proposals to change city services. Proposition A, a proposal to require the city to use competitive bidding in the award of contracts for waste collection, was defeated by 76.6 percent of the vote. Proposition B, a nonbinding policy statement to restrict commercial activity in Coit Tower, a popular tourist destination that has degraded with time, passed with 53.5 percent of the vote. SPUR opposed both propositions.
The results of Prop. A were very similar to previous attempts to change how waste is collected in the city. Efforts in 1993 and 1994 both went down to similar margins of defeat. But while some may read this as a vote against competitive bidding, it might be more about the city’s partnership with Recology — a regulated monopoly that has helped the city achieve record levels of waste diversion — and the associated costs of the measure. Prop. A would have required the city to own all supporting infrastructure for the waste stream (all currently owned by Recology) by 2018. That means the city would have been required to acquire significant real estate in a quickly recovering market and build sorting and transfer facilities, parking lots and other supporting infrastructure in just six years. In San Francisco. With no funding source. Voters may value the effectiveness of the city’s partnership, but they clearly balked at requiring the city to make significant financial investments in infrastructure that is already ably serving the city.
The success of Prop. B is the result of several different factors. Built in 1933, Coit Tower contains a series of murals that were completed as part of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project and have fallen into substantial disrepair in recent years. There have been disagreements over jurisdiction — the tower is managed by the Recreation and Parks Department and the murals by the city’s Arts Commission — which have led to inconsistent funding for curation and preservation of the building and the murals. But the outcome may have hinged on a more recent discovery: A conservator’s report revealed significant disrepair at the site just one week before the election, followed by an emergency infusion from the city of $1.7 million to fund repairs to the tower and murals. Clearly there is a problem here; Prop. B certainly drew attention to the condition of things at the tower, but this nonbinding resolution may have come disguised as a solution. It won't restrict potentially damaging activities at the tower unless the Board of Supervisors enacts legislation consistent with this policy declaration.
The interesting lessons of this election have less to do with the measures than with how voters make decisions. When proposals tap into a genuine frustration with existing services, voters will support even nonbinding policy statements in hopes that they might send a message to city officials — regardless of the measure’s potential impacts. Prop. B elevated an issue and thereby helped to secure additional public funding for a historic resource. However, the measure’s suggested restrictions on facility operations — and the resulting revenues — may have been lost amidst concern over the murals. But when proposals carry significant unknown costs and threaten to disrupt functional service relationships — as with Prop. A — voters are apparently not shy about rejecting them resoundingly. Prop. A clearly did not pass muster.
In spite of the lean primary ballot, it appears that we may return to a more typical laundry list of measures in November, with business tax reform, bonds and more coming to the voters for their stamp of approval. Even before the polling places closed for the June election, there were more than 10 initiatives either proposed or on the way to the November ballot. But with recent ballot reforms (pushed by SPUR in 2007), perhaps only half of those will ultimately make it to the ballot.
For those of us who remember the “good old days,” with upwards of a dozen measures just in San Francisco, that sounds like a half-day at the office.
SF Takes Steps Toward New Urban Ag Program
San Francisco may soon have a new urban agriculture program. On June 11, the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation introduced earlier by Supervisor David Chiu that seeks to increase the coordination, efficacy and breadth of city support for urban agriculture. Based on recommendations from SPUR's report Public Harvest as well as calls for change from community organizations including the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, the ordinance now moves to the full board for two consecutive votes, with the first vote likely on June 19.
The version of the legislation that passed the committee included a number of amendments to the original version. Some of the notable changes include:
- Strategic plan: The strategic plan for implementation of the legislation must be presented to the board for approval
- Funding: For the coming fiscal year, the urban agriculture program should have funding sufficient for at least one full-time staff person
- Timelines: The strategic plan may set new target dates for the goals listed in the legislation
- Job training: The program needs to find ways to link urban agriculture with job training and employment opportunities, especially in the private sector
- Land Use: The program must ensure that existing urban agriculture spaces are fully utilized
Though the board agreed to numerous changes, they retained the core components of the legislation. Given the support demonstrated at the hearing by both the supervisors and community advocates, including SPUR, the ordinance appears headed toward passage.
Assuming the legislation becomes law, the most pressing issue becomes how to translate the text of the ordinance into meaningful change. Prime among the questions of the law’s implementation is how the urban agriculture program will be funded. The mayor and Board of Supervisors are in the process of negotiating the city budget, and it is not yet clear what funding, if any, will be included to support the new program and ensure that the ordinance’s call for at least one full-time coordinator is reinforced with budget dollars. The city administrator and mayor will face another large question: Which city agency or nonprofit should manage the program and ensure that the goals of the legislation are met? They have until December to evaluate the various options and submit an answer to the board and public.
The Land Use Committee’s approval of the ordinance has moved the legislation very close to becoming law. And it has moved city agencies, nonprofits and community advocates into the more difficult conversation about how, exactly, the city will create a program that better serves San Francisco’s many gardeners and farmers.
Plan for New Transit Center District Moves Toward Adoption
Update: Mayor Ed Lee signed the Transit Center District Plan into passage on August 8, after unanimous approval by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Things are heating up again for San Francisco's Transit Center District Plan. On May 24, the SF Planning Commission voted 5-1 to certify the final draft of the environment impact report that will move the plan forward to the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee. In addition, the commission voted to approve amendments to the general plan, planning code and zoning code that will be necessary to implement the plan. It will go before the Board of Supervisors for adoption sometime in July. SPUR has long supported this plan, recognizing its potential to transform San Francisco and the region.
What Is the Transit Center District Plan?
The Transit Center District consists of approximately 145 acres surrounding the new Transbay Transit Center, currently under construction on Mission Street between First and Fremont.
The plan aims to create a new downtown neighborhood made up primarily of office and retail space, with a notable amount of residential space as well. The plan will enhance the area’s established patterns of land use, urban form and public space, creating a vibrant new neighborhood.The Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) selected Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and developer Hines to design and build a high-rise tower next to the new terminal. The team has proposed a 1,070-foot tower, the tallest in the city. There are several shorter towers proposed for the district, ranging in height from 150 to 850 feet. These towers will provide major sources of new job space and housing over the coming decades.The Transbay Transit Center, the centerpiece of the plan, will not only provideexpanded bus facilities, itwill also include an underground rail station to serve as the San Francisco terminus for Caltrain and California high-speed rail. Because the project is not fully funded, the TJPA has divided its construction into two phases: the above ground terminal and the undergroundextension of Caltrainfrom its current station at 4th and King streets. (Note: Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR’s executive director, is a member of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the governing body for the transit station construction project.)
The downtown core can, and should, absorb more jobs and housing. Since the California Legislature adopted Assembly Bill 32, which mandates statewide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and Senate Bill 375, which requires regions to adopt land use plans that will bring about these reductions, there has been increasing momentum to encourage transit-oriented development around the state. San Francisco had already designated a redevelopment area adjacent to the Transit Center that calls for 2,700 units of housing (with 35 percent of it affordable). The new Transit Center District Plan, which overlaps some with the redevelopment area, will add zoning for a total of about 9 million square feet of space, of which about 6 million is anticipated to be office space. That’s an increase of about 33 percent and enough to provide nearly 35,000 jobs. As highlighted in SPUR’s report The Future of Downtown San Francisco, downtown is the logical place for dense employment near transit. The Transit Center District Plan brings these principles to life.
Costs and Public Benefits
To achieve the plan’s objectives and create the district envisioned, a broad range of public improvements and related programs are needed. The budget for the entire Transit Center and district are projected at $4.2 billion.
Approval of the Transit Center District Plan will provide much needed funding for the extension of regional rail to downtown San Francisco and other public infrastructure improvements. The Transit Center District Plan will also provide $590 million through a new neighborhood that has been zoned to generate fees for the city. To achieve the plan’s vision, development projects must generate enough funding to pay for infrastructure and public improvements proposed in the plan. Two proposed funding mechanisms are intended to strike the balance to achieve these requisites. First the city assessed new impact fees to be paid by developers who build in the district. Second, the area will establish a Mello-Roos Community Facilities District for new development projects, which will levy additional property taxes to pay for neighborhood improvements. Of the revenues projected to be raised from building out the plan, up to $420 million would be available for the Transit Center and rail extension, and $170 million would go to street and open space improvements to support growth in the district. Currently, a 5.4-acre park is planned atop the Transbay Transit Center. Making this park publically accessible is a critical element of the plan’s objectives for increasing open space. The plan also calls for more pedestrian and bike improvements, as well as sidewalk and street improvements to further solidify this as a viable neighborhood and jobs center.
This plan area has long been one of SPUR’s top priorities. It will be a national model of transit-oriented development. For urban design reasons, environmental reasons and economic reasons, we think this is the right plan in the right location.