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- October 19, 2012By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
Recent years have been filled with experts decrying the sorry state of public finance in California. And with good reason. Three California cities have filed for bankruptcy protection since June. Since 2008, local governments in California have shrunk by nearly 190,000 employees (11.2 percent) and property values over the same period declined statewide by 21.3 percent. Meanwhile, the state budget experienced consecutive annual budget deficits of $60 billion (2009-10), $19.3 billion (2010-11), $26.6 billion (2011-12) and $16.6 billion (2012-13).
What comes next?
The Institute for Government Studies at the University of California at Berkeley convened an impressive panel of experts last month to move that debate forward. Discussions covered more than the magnitude of the problem — although there was plenty to say about that. There was also talk about the factors contributing to the crisis and what we might be able to do about it.
While few disagreed about the overall state of finances in California, panelists spoke of a combination of factors that may have led the state deeper into recession:
· Existing structural challenges have been exposed by the recession. The recession has revealedfundamental imbalances between receipts and expenditures, such as weaknesses in the financing of state and local pension plans and retiree healthcare obligations. These systems were designed to be sustained through continual growth but they had never before been tested by a downturn like the one we’ve recently experienced.
· State actions to balance budgets may have intensified the impact on local governments. Steps taken by the governor and state legislature to stabilize state finances and limit the impacts of the economic downturn — such as the elimination of redevelopment agencies — may have compounded the impacts of the recession on local governments. The elimination of redevelopment agencies was projected to save the state up to $1.7 billion, but it has also left cities without financing for affordable housing or other redevelopment initiatives.
· One-time solutions have been exhausted.With a sustained downturn, the collection of strategies used to weather a short-term recession have long since been used. What is left are much more painful discussions about service reductions, e.g. closure of state parks.
· Competing traditions have left the state paralyzed.State and local governments in California have been constrained by competing traditions: an appetite for generous public services and a citizenry actively engaged in ballot-box planning. Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that capped property assessments, and Proposition 218, which requires voter-approval for new revenues, are significant barriers and have constrained the ability to generate revenues to sustain funding levels.
· Irrational optimism is preventing necessary decisions. Worse than a “perfect storm” of economic factors is the weight of history in how California moves forward. Despite the depth of the recession and the impacts of state and local reductions, there is still an overwhelming belief that the state can grow out of this problem as it has in the past. Nowhere is that belief stronger than with the growing challenge of funding public employee pensions and retiree healthcare, with a projected shortfall of between $200 billion and $500 billion just for state pension funds, depending on the estimate. Unfunded retiree healthcare obligations add an additional $60 billion. There is little agreement about how to mitigate those challenges.
The pension issue is emblematic of the broader paralysis of the state. There is consensus on the existence of the problem, but no agreement whatsoever on just how bad it is or how it should be solved. In spite of critical funding constraints, there is no agreement over whether to raise additional revenue or to reduce benefits. Financial experts appear to agree that state and local pension systems need to revisit how pensions are calculated, but enacting changes for anyone but current employees — the bulk of the current unfunded liability — is an extremely difficult proposition. A few cities have attempted to tackle the task: San Francisco negotiated changes to its system, and both San Diego and San Jose passed reforms at the ballot; Los Angeles is still on the horizon. The pension reform proposal for the State of California, signed into law last month by Governor Brown, leaves the benefits of current employees untouched but requires them to share in the expense of increased benefit costs.
And these are exactly the types of challenges that have driven several California cities into bankruptcy — Mammoth Lakes, Stockton and San Bernardino in 2012 alone. The structural costs of labor, healthcare and pension benefits have in these cases eclipsed the ability of cities to provide core services. In some instances cities are closing recreation centers simply to retain public safety services. We have clearly arrived at a time when we must prioritize services and invest limited resources wisely.
California, both the state and to some extent its cities, is at a crossroads: Either we operate within the constraints of this “new normal” or we come to agreement on solutions that can be jointly sold to legislators and taxpayers. In the past, consistent growth and fleeting downturns have allowed California to in many ways paper over the major challenges and rely on one-time fixes to weather the occasional storm.
It’s clear that time is over.
- October 18, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
San Francisco is known internationally for its celebration of food. The city can boast of top restaurants; nationally acclaimed grocers, bakers and butchers; a thriving fleet of food trucks; and bountiful farmers’ markets. But these food retailers are not distributed equally across the city. While San Franciscans in many neighborhoods can take a short walk or ride and find a greengrocer or supermarket, in some parts of the city, food access is more difficult.
The Department of Public Health has mapped the distribution of existing food retailers as part of its Sustainable Communities Index program. The results show that a number of neighborhoods — including Treasure Island, the Tenderloin, Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley, among others — have limited to no fresh food retail options.
While a full service grocery store is never more than a couple of miles away in a city as dense as San Francisco, the lack of quality, fresh food access within a convenient distance has both quality of life and public health impacts. Week to week, having to travel further for groceries – whether by foot, transit or car – takes up time and money. This travel is an additional cost that few San Franciscans would enjoy, but it’s especially difficult for low-income residents, many of whom live in neighborhoods with the least convenient access to fresh food.
In addition to the quality of life impacts, a neighborhood’s access to fresh food is also strongly connected to the health of the neighborhood. As Policy Link, a national non-profit organization pointed out in its Grocery Gap report, proximity to fresh food is strongly correlated with levels of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases. Though recent articles in the Washington Post and New York Times have questioned how much the introduction of a new food retailer into a neighborhood positively impacts public health, food access advocates have in turn raised questions about the studies that are cited and pointed out that providing fresh food retail outlets is only one part (albeit an important part) of a campaign to improve diet-related public health.
Recognizing the importance of food access, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced legislation on September 25 to better coordinate the city’s efforts on the issue. The ordinance would establish a Healthy Food Retailer Incentives Program housed in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. On the supply side of the equation, the program would be responsible for coordinating the city’s food access initiatives within a “one-stop shop” that links new or existing small food retail businesses (those less than 20,000 square feet in size) with incentives and technical support ranging from permit expediting and design assistance to grants and loans. The program is also structured to encourage convenience stores and small grocers to reduce the amount of shelf space they dedicate to tobacco and alcohol products. On the demand side, the legislation calls for the new program to pair its support for businesses with community engagement (like that piloted by the Food Guardians and the Southeast Food Access Working Group.)
Promoting healthy food retail has the additional potential benefit of providing economic development. Studies have shown that grocery stores and thriving corner stores can not only provide jobs but can also serve as anchor retailers that lift the fortunes of nearby businesses.
Even with a new coordinated focus from a city agency, addressing food access will not be easy. The changes will take money: retailers investing in new store designs and products, and consumers buying enough fresh food to make it pencil out for the retailer. And gauging the impact will take time. Supervisor Mar’s legislation has energized conversation about what the city can do to better address food access, and SPUR will continue to track the proposal’s development.
- October 10, 2012By Jennifer Warburg
On September 21 SPUR celebrated PARK(ing) Day with an original form of alchemy: transforming asphalt into mini-golf and pizza.
The annual event, celebrated in more than 160 cities, invites the public to reimagine metered parking spots as new types of urban space. The 2012 celebration saw artists, designers and business owners around the world taking to the streets to create everything from temporary hair salons to bicycle repair shops to green space.
This year SPUR’s PARK(ing) Day creations included a parklet featuring lounge chairs and live music — built in partnership with Transform — outside our San Jose office and, in San Francisco, a miniature golf version of Golden Gate Park, complete with Stow Lake, the bison paddock and Ocean Beach. The mini-golf parklet, built over a five-week period by SPUR members Steve Fox and Leslie Crawford, was recognized on sites from Architizer to The Washington Post as a favorite contribution.
PARK(ing) Day happens just once a year, but its effects have been significantly more lasting. In the seven years since the concept first debuted, PARK(ing) Day has become the progenitor of a distinctly San Francisco model of iterative placemaking, using temporary interventions to build momentum for permanent improvements to the public realm. It began in 2005 when the San Francisco-based design studio ReBar reconceived a parking meter as a short-term lease to experiment with public urban space, then invited others to follow suit. The next year there were 47 PARK(ing) Day creations in thirteen cities. And the year after that, hundreds.
As PARK(ing) Day caught on around the world, a bell went off for San Francisco officials and activists accustomed to being constrained by limited resources, a change-resistant public culture and a regulatory review process so punitive that, on small projects, clearance could cost more than construction. Temporary, reversible projects, on the other hand, could be fast-tracked, and impacts studied in situ, all while changing both the fabric of the city and the discourse around it. Parklets in parking spots, plazas in alleys, Sunday street closures, separated bike lanes, retail hubs on vacant lots and urban farms — all have been the fruit of this like-mindedness between artists and policymakers around the benefits of travelling the temporary to permanent continuum.
The impact of this San Francisco model is powerfully on display at the 2012 Venice Architectural Biennale, where the United States pavilion won an honorable mention for its arsenal of DIY, mirco-urbanism projects — models of iterative placemaking that are heir to PARK(ing) Day’s provocative intervention. Not surprising, a significant number of the firms representing the U.S. are from San Francisco.
These developments are very exciting. Temporary interventions invite the community to inhabit and test new spaces and programs and give shape to the permanent solution. But temporary cannot be a substitute for permanent. It cannot become the only option for creating and maintaining public space. The real legacy of the San Francisco model will lie in leveraging these temporary experiments into high-quality public spaces with an enduring civic presence.Tags: community planning
- October 2, 2012By Benjamin Grant, Public Realm and Urban Design Program Manager
SPUR’s San Jose office is convening a task force of city officials and planning and development thought leaders to tackle a vexing question: How can the nation’s tenth largest city transform its historically suburban built environment into one that supports an active street life, greater use of transit and a stronger urban fabric? San Jose has charted an ambitious course through its new 2040 General Plan; one of the major goals is to concentrate development in key areas called urban villages. These villages, mostly located along major transit lines, aim to support reductions in solo driving and associated carbon emissions while creating a more engaging, livable city that can compete for the creative workforce that is driving today’s tech economy.
As the city initiates a local planning process for these areas, a critical opportunity emerges to get the placemaking details right. SPUR’s initiative will focus on physical planning and urban design. We will address site planning; building placement, orientation and access; the design of streets and blocks; the design and use of open space; and the organization of land uses. In short, we will look at all the ways a land use program is translated into a place that either does or does not support walking, cycling and transit.
Efforts to achieve better urban design outcomes are nothing new in San Jose. In fact, sound urban design principles have been articulated repeatedly in city guidelines since the 1980s. But despite great strides in the downtown and some gradual improvement elsewhere, development in San Jose is still overwhelmingly auto-dependent and has not produced the kinds of pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhoods that can truly support a shift away from the private car. Financial pressures and fierce competition for employment uses have hampered the city’s ability to uphold the principles espoused in its plans.
SPUR’s task force will reach well beyond planning and urban design, drawing from all the disciplines that shape the built environment, from development and traffic planning to lending and marketing. We will drill into the policies, processes, decisions and compromises that shape real-world projects and identify impediments to urban design excellence. We will also develop a collection of precedent projects from places similar to San Jose to show what success can look like — and how it can happen under complex real-world constraints. Finally, the task force will produce a report recommending changes to the development process that can yield improvements on the ground. Once these recommendations are in place, SPUR will support their implementation through the urban village planning process and help city officials make this ambitious vision everything it can be.
Read the San Jose 2040 General Plan >>
Keep up with this project — join SPUR’s San Jose mailing list >>Tags: community planning
- October 1, 2012By Shannon Fiala, Ocean Beach Master Plan Assistant Program Manager
Over the past two months, the National Park Service, Public Utilities Commission and Department of Public Works collaborated to move more than 73,300 cubic yards of sand from the north to the south end of Ocean Beach to provide protection against erosion. This process stabilizes the coast temporarily and provides useful data about coastal erosion rates. In addition to reducing the need for more engineered erosion protection measures, such as large piles of boulders, the Ocean Beach Sand Management Project also restores public access on the north end of the beach, where sand had built up, blocking the promenade and stairwells.
Why does sand erode in some places and accrete in others? Sand accumulates at the northern end of the beach through a complex interplay of natural sediment dynamics and management practices. Among other things, United States Army Corps of Engineers annually dredges the Golden Gate Marine Shipping Channel through an offshore sandbar and places the dredged sand in two sites, where it is picked up by ocean currents and eventually deposited on Ocean Beach. The effects are especially notable during the spring, when shifting winds and currents deposit significant amounts of sand and create large sand mounds in the north. This system is part of a pattern of sediment circulation that moves sand from the Golden Gate to about the middle of Ocean Beach, gradually pushing it northward. (See a video of this process in action.)
While the northern end of Ocean Beach has been widening due to these natural and manmade factors, the southern end of Ocean Beach experiences a net loss of sediment as circulation patterns move sand southward. Winter storms will probably cause additional erosion near Sloat Boulevard. Unchecked, this erosion is likely to have environmental consequences and damage city infrastructure, including San Francisco’s wastewater treatment system.
Going forward, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to eliminate the need to move sand by truck and will deposit dredged sand directly where erosion is worst. The Corps will move four times this year’s volume of sand from the Marine Shipping Channel and pump it directly onto the beach near the intersection of Great Highway and Sloat Boulevard. This beach nourishment project is fundamental to recommendations SPUR has made in the Ocean Beach Master Plan. It is also part of the Coastal Regional Sediment Management Plan, a new interagency effort between the Army Corps and the California Natural Resources Agency. That process will study sediment management options from Baker Beach in San Francisco to Shelter Cove in Pacifica, including beach nourishment, artificial reefs and managed retreat.
As SPUR and our partners continue to plan for climate change and sea level rise at Ocean Beach, these kinds of nimble, adaptive multi-agency efforts will become increasingly important. Projects like these help bridge the gap until SPUR’s Ocean Beach Master Plan recommendations can be implemented.
- September 28, 2012By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
San Francisco’s technology sector is booming once again, the real estate market appears to be in full recovery mode and office vacancies are at record lows. The city’s economy is quick to catch fire, but it’s also prone to downturns. This has benefited the city’s coffers and the public services they support, but it forces difficult decisions when fortunes turn for the worse.
These boom and bust cycles have exposed the importance of consistent sources of revenue for the city. Repeated economic fluctuations — as well as the recent recession — have shown the inherent volatility of the city’s business tax. A flat 1.5 percent tax on all payroll expenses above $250,000, the business tax is the city’s second largest source of revenue for the general fund (it brings in approximately $410 million per year), behind only the city’s property tax. But the payroll tax has fluctuated dramatically from year to year. In fact, it has increased more than 10 percent year-over-year four times in the last decade and actually declined on four separate occasions in the same period.
Growth in Property Taxes, Business Taxes and Employment in SF
To address this volatility, Proposition E on the November ballot would replace San Francisco’s payroll tax with a gross receipts tax, a more common and more stable tax structure found in cities throughout California.
As we explained in a previous post, the gross receipts tax is common in California, but it wasn’t the first choice of the state’s largest cities. From 1970 to 2001, San Francisco’s business tax required companies to pay either the city’s gross receipts tax or the city’s payroll tax, whichever was greater. Los Angeles used a similar system. Following legal challenges in both Los Angeles and San Francisco (the requirement to pay the higher of the two options was found to be unconstitutional), San Francisco agreed to a settlement of approximately $80 million and subsequently eliminated the gross receipts tax and applied a flat tax of 1.5 percent of payroll to all businesses. Meanwhile, Los Angeles implemented a gross receipts tax.
In the decade since the legal settlement forced the city to choose between the payroll or gross receipts tax, there has been general agreement that San Francisco’s business tax needs to be reformed but little consensus about how that might happen or what might succeed the payroll tax. SPUR and much of the business community have argued that we should restructure the city’s tax system to remove disincentives to hiring inherent to the payroll tax. Reform has been attempted at least three times in the last decade, but those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Instead, the city has more recently adopted a new tactic: payroll tax exemptions, also known as “governing by exception.”
Since 2001, the city has granted payroll tax exemptions to a number of companies to keep them from leaving San Francisco once they grew large enough to be affected by the payroll tax. Prior to 2011, these exemptions were used exclusively to grow the biotechnology sector. But in 2012, separate exemptions were also granted for stock-based compensation and for new businesses locating in the Mid-Market area, exemptions targeted largely at growing technology companies. These incentives have unquestionably been effective: Zynga and Salesforce maintained their corporate headquarters in the city, and technology companies have been attracted in droves to Mid-Market, starting a renaissance that has failed to take root in the neighborhood ever since the construction of BART down Market Street.
But something else has happened in the years since the city opted for the payroll tax: Two significant downturns and three economic booms have driven uneven growth. In fact, the city’s budget has increased by nearly 50 percent in the last 10 years while inflation grew only 31 percent. These cycles have been further exacerbated by the fact that these funds are driven by less than 10 percent of businesses in the city: Only 7,500 of the city’s more than 96,000 registered businesses pay business taxes.
Business taxes are certainly not the only reason that companies come to — or stay in — San Francisco. There are myriad factors that play into location decisions. But given the volume of voices that have called for tax reform, as well as some prominent relocations of major companies, it certainly can’t be ignored.
Proposition E would replace the city’s payroll tax with a gross receipts tax. Gross receipts taxes are significantly more complex than a payroll tax, but also have a number of different benefits:
- Slower growth and more jobs.The proposed gross receipts tax will grow more slowly over time than the payroll tax, and is projected to generate more jobs than the existing tax.
- Greater stability.Through various economic cycles, payroll tax revenues can vary wildly; gross receipts tax revenues are projected to be significantly more stable and predictable over time, with less dramatic shifts in revenue than with the payroll tax.
- More equitable.The payroll tax is a flat rate for all companies, regardless of size or profit margins that can vary dramatically by industry. By contrast, gross receipts will bundle industries by their ratios of payroll to gross receipts to approximate ability to pay. This structure generally mirrors that used in other California cities with gross receipts taxes, but it simplifies that structure with fewer schedules. What’s more, the gross receipts tax will apply to businesses located in tax shelters such as the Presidio of San Francisco. (Tenants there have enjoyed payroll tax exclusions under federal statute. Prop. E would end these tax shelters.)
How does a gross receipts tax work? To be honest, it can get very complicated, very quickly. But there are four main ways that Prop. E changes how businesses will be taxed in San Francisco:
- Industry-based rate schedules. Separates the business tax base into seven groups based on industry sectors. This structure mirrors that used in many other California cities but simplifies the structure with fewer schedules.
- Progressive rates. Transitions tax rates from a flat tax to a structure in which rates increase as earnings increase. Companies pay a higher rate as they earn more. Conversely, companies pay a lower rate if they earn less.
- Marginal rates. Creates tiers of rates that apply only to the specific range of gross receipts, rather than the entire amount of gross receipts, similar to personal income taxes. For example, a company in schedule 1 (see sample below) would pay 0.1 percent tax on gross receipts from $1 million to $2.5 million and 0.35 percent on all gross receipts from $2.5 million to $25 million. Companies in all schedules are exempt from the tax until they make at least $1 million.
- Broadens the tax base. Increases the number of businesses paying the payroll tax to 15,500 from only 7,500 in 2010.
Sample Gross Receipts Schedule Under Prop. E
Schedule 1: Retail trade, wholesale trade and certain types of services.
More important than the sum of these benefits is the road traveled to develop Prop. E. Discussions with such far-reaching implications are frequently contentious, and several reform attempts in the past decade have ended with no change at all. This process, however, was marked in its collaboration and communication. In the first six months of this year, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu worked with City Controller Ben Rosenfield to conduct a months-long outreach process. Involving literally hundreds of companies and other stakeholders, and informed by detailed analysis, the final proposal is the result of sustained engagement and extensive collaboration. This level of complexity seldom yields perfection, but this is certainly a preferable route to contentious fights that lead to no change.
One of the compromises achieved by this process was around new revenues. Though not the original intention, Prop. E generates $28.5 million of new revenue for the city’s General Fund. These funds are not programmed for anything specific at this point, but strong commitments have been made to direct funds to SPUR priorities such as affordable housing and the Housing Trust Fund, as well as to Muni maintenance and operations.
Given this level of complexity, the road to passage will be anything but easy for Prop. E. With a number of other important measures on the November ballot, tax reform is a topic to which few voters pay attention. Previous efforts, while not as well developed or supported, have suffered at the ballot for lack of understanding. And regardless of the collaboration and extensive agreement, the minutiae of the measure could complicate matters significantly when it reaches voters.
But for all of these reasons, Prop. E also presents a tremendous opportunity. The stars seldom align to present the voters with a unified front for such a complex change, and we should seize the moment — and the momentum — to make the transition.
This is the time for San Francisco to move past the payroll tax. Join us in supporting Prop. E on November 6.
Still have questions? Look for our complete ballot analysis in the SPUR 2012 Voter Guide.
- September 26, 2012By Egon Terplan, Regional Planning Director
At a workshop on September 21, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Board reaffirmed its support for a bus-rapid transit (BRT) project on El Camino Real in Santa Clara County. The project takes a 17.3-mile route from the HP Pavilion in San Jose through Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos and north to Palo Alto. This corridor already has the highest transit ridership in the county between the 22 local bus and the 522 rapid bus.
Over the past year, the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale demonstrated their skepticism of BRT by voting against dedicated bus-only lanes on El Camino Real, the “Main Street” of Silicon Valley. Given how such local decisions can negatively impact regional transit service, the VTA board could have elected to slow down or abandon the BRT project altogether. Instead, board members decided to continue with BRT on El Camino Real in a project that includes dedicated bus-only lanes in the City of Santa Clara and mixed-flow travel (i.e., buses travel in lanes with cars) in cities to the north.
The map below shows the project’s current mix of dedicated lanes in the City of Santa Clara and mixed-flow travel in other cities:
In an important move pushed by TransForm, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the South Bay Labor Council and others, VTA agreed that the project’s environmental impact report will also study an alternative plan that would use dedicated lanes throughout the corridor.
Here’s how this alternative plan would look:
As TransForm argued:
VTA should not close the door for cities to adopt dedicated lanes as more information comes to light over the course of the planning process. In particular, VTA should study both a mixed flow and dedicated lane alternative in the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) so that decision makers will have more information to base their opinions on in the future.
The decision to study dedicated lanes throughout the corridor will cost a little more money in the short run, but in the long run, by including both alternatives in the environmental impact report, VTA will have cleared the far better BRT alternative in the event that other South Bay cities become supportive of dedicated lanes.
The next step in the El Camino Real BRT project is for VTA to formalize these recommendations at a November board meeting. SPUR looks forward to working with partner organizations and VTA on the successful implementation of BRT along El Camino Real and other Santa Clara County corridors such as Stevens Creek and Santa Clara-Alum Rock.Tags: regional planning
- September 15, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Richard Carranza has been an educator for more than twenty years. He has seen firsthand how student learn better when they’re healthy and nourished. And, as a father of two daughters enrolled in the city’s public schools, he’s heard firsthand that students want better food in their cafeteria. Professionally and personally, he understands that school food is integral to the lives of students and the success of the District. And, as the new Superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), he is in a position to improve the school meals program.
But, as Superintendent Carranza made clear at a September 6 forum at SPUR, he and the District face significant obstacles.
Primary among the challenges is funding. The $18 million budget of the school meals program is supported mostly by revenue from the 27,000 breakfast and lunches as well as the 6,000 snacks that Student Nutrition Services serves each day. In San Francisco, like in many other urban school districts nationwide, the majority of the students eating school meals receive the meals for free. In exchange for providing the meal, the federal government, in the current school year, will send the District a reimbursement of about $2.90 per lunch and $1.55 per breakfast. The students who don’t qualify for a free meal pay $3.00 per lunch and $1.50 per breakfast. The combined revenue of reimbursements and sales is used to cover the costs of the school meals program: food, labor, distribution and management. In San Francisco, the revenue has not been enough to cover the costs and the District has offset shortfalls in the school meals program by transferring money from the District’s general fund. Student Nutrition Services has begun reducing this deficit in the past two years and may be able to increase efficiency more in the coming years. But, even with greater efficiency, the District will continue to face a difficult fiscal position so long as increases in food and labor costs continue to outpace increases in the federal reimbursement rate.
Compounding the difficulty of raising revenue is the criteria that defines who qualifies for a free or reduced meal. The federal government, which sets the standard, has one threshold for the entire lower 48 states, with separate rates for Hawaii and Alaska. A family of four only qualifies for a free meal if their household income is less than $30,000 per year – regardless of whether they live in San Francisco or a small town in Mississippi. In San Francisco, 50% of public school students meet that threshold, which is a sobering statistic. But, according to the Food Security Task Force, a family of four in San Francisco could be food insecure even with an income twice that. The result is that many hungry students receive free meals from the District, which has a policy of feeding any hungry student regardless of their ability to pay, but the District cannot receive a full reimbursement for that meal because those students don’t fall within the poorly calibrated federal definition of poverty.
A third significant challenge for the school meals program’s financial picture is that fewer students are choosing to eat the meals. They are, as the Superintendent put it, “voting with their feet.” The number of SFUSD students eating school meals (called the “participation rate”) is significantly lower than that of comparable districts and has declined since 2009. And, the fewer students who eat the meals, the less revenue SFUSD receives.
Despite these challenges, Student Nutrition Services has made considerable improvements in the past few years. They have, among others successes, installed a point of sale system that expedites meals service and provides valuable data to managers, reduced the paperwork for enrolling families in the free and reduced meals program, and improved the nutritional standards of the food that is served. This has helped SNS begin to reverse the deficit trend including recently lowering the deficit covered by the District’s general fund from $3.5 million in 2009-10 to $2.5 million in 2011-2012 (see: 2 hours and 43 minutes into the video).
Alongside these improvements, however, kids continue to vote with their feet. Many choose to eat bag lunches from home, off-campus, or not at all. As a study recently published by the San Francisco Food Bank details, many factors influence their choice: the amount of time they are given to eat, social pressure and stigma, the number of meal options, the cafeteria environment, and, perhaps most of all, the quality and appeal of the food itself. The report, which was inspired by a goal of “more kids eating better food” at school, provides an extensive list of recommendations for how SFUSD can improve the current program, including calls for: increasing the number of management staff (which the District has begun to do), remodeling of both kitchen facilities and cafeterias, soliciting greater participation in the free and reduced lunch program, and many management suggestions.
Long-term, though, the question for how to substantially improve the school meals program in San Francisco remains. Superintendent Carranza reported that the District is beginning a planning process to produce a 5-year strategic plan addressing the issue and is also reissuing its meal service contract for competitive bid among contractors. The challenges for improving SFUSD’s school meals program are considerable, but these steps and others outlined by the Superintendent are strong indications that there is a new energy, focus and commitment to tackling the issue at the highest levels of the District.
- September 13, 2012By Jennifer Warburg
It’s been an interesting month for BART. Not only did the transit system mark its 40th birthday on September 11, but during the week prior it experienced four of its top-ten most crowded days ever. Ridership exceeded 400,000 on three of those days, and the fourth, September 6, was a day with no special events to boost regular numbers.
BART's 10 All-Time Highest Ridership Days
This explosion of ridership followed on the heels of a pilot project that, every Friday in August, lifted the commute-hour restrictions on bringing bikes onto BART. The experiment was a test of the feasibility of relaxing the existing rush-hour bike blackout, and by all accounts it went smoothly, aided by the generally low ridership of Fridays in August.
BART’s bike plan, published in July, aims to double the number of passengers who reach the system by bicycle (from 4 to 8 percent) by 2022. The hope is to attract more bikes and fewer cars, which would reduce the need to build expensive car parking and contribute to regional goals to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
On its face, a plan to make trains more accommodating to bicycle commuters sounds great. But in terms of transit capacity, bikes present a challenge. One bike generally takes up the space of three people. And with ridership up, the system is increasingly struggling to fit commuters onto crowded trains and manage platform circulation during peak hours.
Transit best practices aim to maximize rider capacity in the most constrained parts of a transportation network. This usually means making more room for people on trains at peak times by removing the things — including seating and bikes — that reduce space for riders. This is the same argument that supports replacing automobile lanes with more room for bikes, which consume a tenth of the road space per person that cars do.
BART Manager of Access Programs Steve Beroldo acknowledges that the more crowded the system gets, the more difficult it is to accommodate bikes. He says some of the first lessons BART is taking away from the pilot concern ways to make more room for bicyclists by removing seats near the doors in all cars and encouraging modifications to queuing on platforms, in order to improve flow.
Optimizing bicycle accommodation on board trains is only one of BART’s strategies to improve bike access. Others include improving cyclist circulation within BART stations, increasing the amount of bicycle parking, helping to assure bicycle access beyond BART’s boundaries and supporting programs to encourage bike safety and awareness. SFStreetsblog provides great analysis of the plans, noting its emphasis on expanding secure bike parking.
For everyday commuting, secure, sheltered bike parking is a strategy many modern countries prioritize. The Dutch rarely allow bikes on any of their trains, instead providing abundant secure, affordable, front-door bike parking at almost all rail stations. BART’s bike plan notes that “providing plentiful and convenient bike parking is also the most effective tool BART has to encourage as many passengers as possible to leave their bicycles at the station, rather than bringing them onboard.” Bike stations at Embarcadero, Downtown Berkeley and Fruitvale BART stations are a small start toward an excellent network of bike-parking facilities. Additional bike-parking at Civic Center is expected to come online by the end of the year.
A strong regional bike-sharing program could also play a role in improving the number of users who reach BART by bicycle without needing to bring their bikes onto trains. Washington, D.C., Paris, Montreal and other cities have demonstrated that bike-sharing programs work very well in conjunction with transit, particularly for irregular trips (errand-running, meetings, etc.). According to Peter Harnik, a longtime biking advocate with the Trust for Public Land, “The bike-sharing program in D.C. has been spectacularly successful and is physically transforming the area into a much more bikeable and bike-friendly region.” So far, BART’s approach to bike sharing has been to adopt a wait-and-see approach as a long-anticipated regional pilot gets underway this year in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
On its first day of operations in 1972, BART drew 15,000 riders. To transit advocates, it’s encouraging to see the great growth in ridership numbers that had led to the 415,000 experienced on Monday of this week. Getting more people to leave their cars at home and ride transit is good for public health, equity, environmental quality and productivity.
But as BART looks forward to hitting 500,000 riders in one day, we have to weigh carefully how bikes are integrated with increasingly crowded trains. The reality of the Bay Area’s development pattern is that, after their transit trip ends, people will often still need to travel several miles to their final destination. Our mild weather makes bicycling a great way to solve this “last mile” problem. Whether we redesign future BART cars to hold more bikes during peak hours or instead focus on a better system of secure bike parking or bike sharing at stations is an important debate.Tags: transportation
- September 11, 2012by Sarah Karlinsky, Deputy Director
In recent decades, San Francisco’s waterfront has been home to some of the city’s most transformative projects, including Mission Bay, AT&T Park, China Basin and the South Beach neighborhood. Today the waterfront is once again where many of the city’s largest and most exciting development proposals are taking place. Several new plans along the bay — including Seawall Lot 337/Pier 48 (also known as Mission Rock), Pier 70 and the Warrior’s Stadium — are proposing to make their mark on the city. At the same time, San Francisco is hosting the America’s Cup races in 2012 and 2013. Throughout the fall, SPUR will be hosting a series of forums exploring planning on the waterfront.
Located just south of AT&T Park, Seawall Lot 337/Pier 48 is one of the most interesting development opportunities in the city. Currently home to a large surface parking lot serving AT&T Park, Mission Rock will create a mixed-use development featuring a large waterfront park on the northeast corner of the site. The plan also calls for breaking down the site into a series of small, walkable blocks (at a finer grain than those in neighboring Mission Bay). The Port of San Francisco is working with the SF Giants and the Cordish Company to further refine this plan. We’ll be hearing the latest on October 29 at SPUR’s forum The Future of Mission Rock.
To the south of Mission Rock and east of the Dogpatch neighborhood sits Pier 70, a 69-acre site that includes many beautiful historic structures desperately in need of repair and conservation, as well as a the largest floating dry dock on the west coast of the Americas. The Port of San Francisco has engaged in a lengthy planning process to find ways to preserve the waterfront’s rich history and create new parks while protecting maritime and industrial needs. At the same time, the plan invites new development to create a place for innovative industries and new residents. The port is working with Forest City to bring this plan to fruition. SPUR will host a forum on Pier 70 on November 29 and a walking tour on October 17.
Another major project on the waterfront is the plan proposed on Piers 30-32 and Seawall Lot 330 for a privately financed, multi-purpose entertainment and commercial complex that includes a new facility for the Golden State Warriors basketball team, complementary maritime uses and substantial new public access and open space on the pier. This project would host not just Warriors games, but conventions, performances and special events. Located just south of the Bay Bridge, Piers 30-32 are within walking distance of AT&T Park and served by Muni’s N-Judah and T-Third lines.
As always, SPUR will be tracking and weighing in on all of these important projects, which collectively have the potential to make an enormous positive impact on the waterfront, as well as helping enable the port to repair and seismically upgrade some of its deteriorating infrastructure. For more on SPUR’s perspective on waterfront planning, see our report Hard Choices at the Port of San Francisco.