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- August 23, 2012By Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director
This November, San Francisco’s Prop. F asks voters to approve an $8 million planning process to find a way to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the city’s most important water system asset. SPUR believes that this is a bad idea for many reasons, and we strongly oppose Prop F (stay tuned at www.spur.org/voterguide for our full ballot analysis in early October).
The measure also calls for a task force to develop a long-term plan to improve water quality and reliability, and to identify new local water sources to supplement water currently diverted from the Tuolumne River into the Hetch Hetchy system. As we have said before, it is so obviously a good idea to plan for alternative supplies that such endeavors are already well underway in San Francisco (and we certainly don’t need a ballot measure to compel us to do planning that is already being done). The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is working to site recycled water facilities in the city, develop groundwater supplies on the west side and make deep gains in conservation — no small feat in the most water-efficient city in California. By agreement with its wholesale customers, who use two-thirds of the water from the Hetch Hetchy system, the SFPUC must develop 10 million gallons a day of these additional supplies in San Francisco by 2018. This represents about 13 percent of the city’s current daily water use.
Not all of these alternative water supplies are created equal. Regulations — and common sense — currently prohibit us from drinking recycled water (i.e. treated sewage water), graywater (used kitchen, laundry or bath water) or seepage water (water that seeps into basements and needs to be pumped out), none of which are treated to drinking water standards. But these water sources are perfectly fine for uses such as flushing toilets, filling cooling towers or irrigating parks and can be used to offset our potable water demand. This way, we can save the very best Hetch Hetchy water for drinking.
To support this idea of matching supplies to appropriate uses — which is more efficient, sustainable and drought-resilient than using the same source for every use — the SFPUC recently evaluated the feasibility of “onsite” supplies to meet nonpotable demands.These are water supplies such as rainwater, graywater, blackwater (sewage) and seepage water that are generated, partially treated and reused on the same property. The SFPUC studied how much Hetch Hetchy water could be saved by aggressively encouraging the use of onsite supplies to meet nonpotable demands for residential, commercial and municipal open space uses. The study looked at the theoretical maximum available supply from sources such as rainwater or graywater and then looked at maximum feasible onsite demands for such sources. It concluded that in 2035, with 100 percent participation in these programs, San Francisco could save 3.4 million gallons a day.
Let’s put 3.4 million gallons a day in perspective. This savings is significant for a conservation program. It’s more than we will get from any one recycled water facility. It would add a significant extra and drought-resilient supply of local water, over and above the 10-million-gallon-a-day alternative supply portfolio San Francisco is developing from recycled water, groundwater and conservation. It would be a huge boon to the Tuolumne River and its ecosystems if we could put that extra water back into the river. We should pursue this new supply with gusto, first by making it easier to do onsite nonpotable reuse (which SPUR has strongly supported), then by creating greater incentives to do so.
But it will never replace the 74 million gallons a day that Hetch Hetchy delivers to San Francisco. We can’t reduce reuse, and recycle our way out of needing our region’s most important water system.
- August 22, 2012By Tony Vi
Los Angeles is in the midst of discarding its stereotype of exclusive auto-mobility and reshaping itself as a transit metropolis. (See the August/September issue of The Urbanist for more on the expansion of transit in L.A.). Pedestrian plazas, food trucks, CicLAvia (L.A.’s version of Sunday Streets), planned bike sharing, 1,600 miles of planned new bike lanes, and $40 billion for transit over the next 30 years all indicate this change. Metro, the region’s transit agency, has an estimated 1.4 million riders a day. (In comparison, the Bay Area’s seven largest transit agencies have a combined average of 1.5 million weekday riders.) Iconic boulevards, such as Sunset and Atlantic, are becoming places for people rather than just cars.
Can the Bay Area follow in Los Angeles’ footsteps in re-envisioning its boulevards and arterials?
Our region has an abundance of boulevards connecting multiple destinations and different land uses. Streets like Geary in San Francisco, San Pablo and International in the East Bay and El Camino Real, Bascom and Stevens Creek in the South Bay are all “boulevards” in this sense. These streets are natural corridors for transit, as they can form a grid network. Transit systems that focus on connecting multiple destinations have been found to have high ridership and low cost per rider, even when riders must transfer buses for transit trips. Multiple destinations along corridors can encourage two-way travel for transit routes. Instead of running express routes, where buses often run full in one direction and empty in the other, having many destinations along a corridor can keep buses productively full (as it does in decentralized Los Angeles). This allows transit corridors on boulevards to become places for people and activity.
Downtown Los Angeles Metro Service
While the Bay Area is not as decentralized as the Los Angeles region, boulevards and arterials in the Bay Area do provide similar opportunities for infill development that could create destinations and form a network for future growth in employment and housing. This is especially important as the Bay Area embarks on a regional planning effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by linking transportation and land use. Many arterials already have transit service and low-density, auto-centric development, making them ideal for infill and revisioning as places for people. Corridor planning efforts, such as the Grand Boulevard Initiative for El Camino Real in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, are important steps for revitalizing boulevards and arterials.
Boulevards Connecting South Bay Bus Rapid Transit Lines
However, there are many challenges to recreating boulevards:
- The high volume and speed of traffic make boulevards less livable
- Street design guidelines prioritize congestion mitigation
- Outdated zoning and parking requirements prevent infill development
- Multiple jurisdictions can have authority over one boulevard, making change difficult
The fear of congestion that could result from removing travel lanes, dedicating lanes to transit only and calming traffic is one argument against changing arterial streets. But cities need to look beyond increasing mobility and mitigating congestion. Congestion is a byproduct of economic prosperity, and eliminating it can remove urban vitality. Cities also need to develop strategies to overcome barriers to infill development, such as updating zoning codes, reducing parking requirements, incentivizing transit-oriented development, streamlining approval processes, and investing in street design and open space. Transit agencies need to increase transit frequency and service on arterials and connect feeder routes to serve growing areas of activity.
The Bay Area is fortunate to have arterials that form a network of potential infill destinations. What remains is for the region to encourage denser infill development and create high-frequency transit corridors on existing boulevards.Tags: transportation
- August 21, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
For more than three decades, San Francisco's Heart of the City Farmers’ Market has been operating at UN Plaza, along Market Street and within sight of City Hall. The market is unique not only for its central location but also for its dedication to offering fresh produce to low-income customers living in the nearby Tenderloin neighborhood while also supporting the livelihood of California farmers.
Since its start in 1981 as a joint project of the American Friends Service Committee and Market Street Association, Heart of the City Farmers’ Market has been governed by its farmer-vendors. As a result, the farmers have worked to keep stall fees – what they pay for space at the market – low. Currently the fees are $30 per day, per 10 foot by 10 foot stall, which may be the lowest rate in the city. The low stall fees are a prime reason this farmers' market is known not only for its variety but also for its affordability.
The market is also known for its size. With more than 50 farm stands and nearly 20 prepared-food vendors selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, eggs, bread, tamales, rotisserie chicken and more, the market is bigger than most other markets in the city except the Ferry Building and Alemany Markets. According to Kate Creps, Heart of the City market manager, most of the farmers travel 1.5 to 3 hours to reach the market, though some travel further, including Dates by Davall, who drives more than 8 hours one way to bring his produce from the Coachella Valley, east of Los Angeles.
The market also distinguishes itself by its commitment to support the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets. More than 75 percent of all CalFresh electronic benefits used at farmers’ markets in San Francisco are redeemed at Heart of the City.
The organization just reached a new milestone this month with the addition of a Friday market, complementing its existing Wednesday and Sunday gatherings. While it’s still to be seen whether demand is sufficient to sustain the Friday market, it's an exciting development in a neighborhood with no full-service grocery store. Starting a new farmers’ market is difficult in general, but that’s especially true in low-income areas, with the close of the Bayview farmers’ market providing an example.
Describing the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, though, doesn’t do it justice. So stop reading and mark your calendar for a Wednesday, Friday or Sunday starting as early as 7 a.m. Bring a shopping bag, appetite or both, and enjoy this special market yourself.
- August 9, 2012By Leah Toeniskoetter, SPUR San Jose Director
In January 2010, San Jose passed an inclusionary housing law to help do three things: address the city’s affordable housing needs, meet the state’s requirement for regional fair share housing and promote economic integration. But now a successful legal suit has thrown the future of this law into question. To understand what’s at stake, this post takes a look at how the 2010 ordinance was designed to work and what the lawsuit could mean for San Jose and other California cities.
Before 2010, San Jose’s inclusionary housing policy applied only to redevelopment areas, but the 2010 ordinance expanded the requirements citywide. The ordinance applies to residential developments of 20 units or more and requires that 15 percent of units in for-sale housing developments be made available for purchase by income-restricted households at below market rates. Additionally, 9 percent of the dwelling units in rental developments must be priced for moderate-income households and 6 percent for very low income households. (“Moderate income” is defined as $53,000 for a 1-person household and $75,700 for a 4-person household, and “very low income” is $36,750 for a 1-person household and $52,500 for a 4-person household.)
The ordinance creates an incentive for developers to build the inclusionary units on-site, but it also provides them with other options to fulfill their affordable housing obligations. For example, developers can pay an in-lieu fee that helps to fund future affordable housing initiatives in the city, build affordable units at a separate location or dedicate land for future affordable housing developments. Additionally, the ordinance places deed restrictions to ensure that the inclusionary units remain affordable well into the future. In the event that an owner of an inclusionary unit were to sell the home to a buyer who does not meet the income requirements, the city would capture a portion of the appreciated value of the home. Those proceeds, similar to the developer in-lieu fee, would pay for future affordable housing.
The ordinance is meant to help San Jose reach its housing goal of providing more than 19,000 affordable housing units between 2007 and 2014, as determined by the Association of Bay Area Governments and in accordance with the state-required regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) process. The city had already implemented precedents for this concept in large-scale development plans, including the redevelopment of the former Hitachi industrial campus and North San Jose’s Specific Plan, where a portion of the new homes built would be affordable as a way of ensuring a diverse community.
San Jose’s inclusionary housing ordinance was slated to go into effect in January 2013, but following its adoption the California Building Industry Association (CBIA), with assistance from the BIA Bay Area, filed a lawsuit to overturn it. The plaintiffs argued that the city did not show proof that market rate housing adversely affected the community or created the need for affordable housing. Proving evidence of a relationship between the impacts of a development and the requirements put on the developer, called a “nexus,” has been established as a constitutional standard in previous land use lawsuits. In certain cases cities will undertake a nexus study to prove the relationship before proposing fees or requirements. However, it is very unusual for jurisdictions to do nexus studies to justify their inclusionary housing ordinances. Normally, cities can rely on the “police powers” afforded them under state and federal law in order to enact inclusionary housing laws for the purposes of regulating land use or protecting the health and well-being of their citizens. This is nothing new in California cities: The California Coalition for Rural Housing compiled a database that indexes 145 inclusionary policies in different jurisdictions statewide, nearly half of which are enacted in other Bay Area cities.
In May 2012, the lawsuit against San Jose’s inclusionary housing ordinance prevailed and Santa Clara County Superior Court overturned it. San Jose is in the process of appealing this decision, and the outcome could have implications for any California city that passed similar measures without a nexus study.
Until the appeal is heard, no part of the law can be enforced, and San Jose cannot rely on its inclusionary ordinance to provide affordable housing. Meanwhile, it and other California cities can no longer rely on redevelopment funding that came from tax increment financing, 20 percent of which (and in San Jose’s case, up to 40 percent) was used to fund affordable housing. Since 1988, these funds have helped finance 175 developments in San Jose, providing 13,920 affordable units. The economic meltdown, coupled with these cuts to funding, has left the city significantly behind in meeting its RHNA goals for the 2007-2014 period. (These goals are mandated by state housing law as a way to quantify the need for housing within each city during specific planning periods,) And there is no new source of funds on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the need for housing that is affordable to the local workforce, across the spectrum of incomes in San Jose, remains as high as ever. Affordable housing developers are still trying to pursue projects in San Jose, and the city’s housing department plans on continuing to support affordable housing. Their goal is to provide funding for affordable housing units currently in the pipeline, despite limited funding.
SPUR believes it is important to increase thesupply of housing at all income levels; when designed and located well, housing can become a tool for strengthening neighborhoods and local economies. We also believe that one type of housing need not be built at the expense of another. Instead, we must work collaboratively to obtain the necessary financial resources and regulatory tools to build it all.We hope the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance will be reinstated, and that San Jose will be able to find new resources to help construct badly needed affordable housing.Tags: housing
- August 2, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
San Francisco will soon have a new urban agriculture program. On July 17, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation — introduced by Supervisor David Chiu and co-sponsored by Supervisors Avalos, Cohen, Mar and Olague — that sets clear goals and timelines for how the city government can better support urban farmers and gardeners.
The following week, the board put funding behind the program when it included $120,000 for the initiative in the 2012-2013 city budget.
The supervisors made two amendments to the version of the legislation that passed out of committee before giving it the final nod:
1. The goal of reducing wait times for a garden plot at community gardens to less than 1 year by 2014 was changed to a goal of developing a strategy to reach that same target by the end of this year.
2. The language regarding creating resource centers was altered slightly to prioritize that the resource centers should be hosted at existing sites rather than opening new facilities.
Now that the ordinance is law, the following timelines and goals go into effect:
· To complete and publish, by January 1, 2013, an audit of city-owned buildings with rooftops potentially suitable for both commercial and non-commercial urban agriculture;
· To develop, by January 1, 2013, incentives for property owners to allow temporary urban agriculture projects, particularly on vacant and blighted property awaiting development;
· To develop, by January 1, 2013, a streamlined application process for urban agriculture projects on public land, with clear evaluation guidelines that are consistent across agencies;
· To create, by July 1, 2013, a “one-stop shop” for urban agriculture that would provide information, programming and technical assistance to all San Francisco residents, businesses and organizations wishing to engage in urban agriculture;
· To develop new urban agriculture projects on public land where residents demonstrate desire for the projects, with at least 10 new locations for urban agriculture completed by July 1, 2014;
· To provide garden resource locations in neighborhoods across the city, at existing sites where possible, that provide residents with resources such as compost, seeds and tools, with at least 5 completed by January 1, 2014; and,
· To analyze and develop, by January 1, 2013, a strategy to reduce the wait list for San Francisco residents seeking access to a community garden plot to one year.
While the above timelines and goals set an overall vision for what the new program must do, another crucial deadline in the legislation is December 31, 2012. By that date, the city administrator and mayor must present to the board a strategic plan for how the new program should meet its goals and a recommendation regarding who – meaning which agency or non-profit – should manage the program.
SPUR’s focus on urban agriculture will now shift from the legislation to its implementation. Many questions remain to be answered between now and the end of the year, and we will be working to ensure that the new urban agriculture program is as effective as possible.
- August 1, 2012By Tony Vi
Oakland and San Leandro have voted to approve a 9.5-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) line in the East Bay. The $150 to $175 million project will include dedicated center lanes for rapid buses on International Boulevard between downtown Oakland and San Leandro. Although the project will only have dedicated lanes for two blocks in San Leandro and excludes a direct rapid connection to Berkeley, the project is now closer to final approval from AC Transit’s board of directors. With this approval, AC Transit can begin preliminary engineering and design work, with construction to begin in 2014 and service to start in 2016.
BRT projects are in the works around the Bay Area, but progress has been intermittent. After a delay, San Francisco recently approved a preferred design for Van Ness BRT and has conceptual designs for Geary BRT. The Van Ness project is expected to open in 2017, and the Geary project in 2019.
Meanwhile, the South Bay's plan to implement BRT on El Camino Real hit a hurdle when the Sunnyvale City Council voted not to study dedicated lanes for the project’s environmental impact report. The cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos have not yet decided on a preferred street configuration, but Mountain View and Los Altos have indicated a preference for buses to mix with cars and trucks in the far right lane, next to curb parking. This has prompted Vally Transportation Authority staff to recommend continuing the project with dedicated transit lanes only in Santa Clara, as the revised project would still provide benefits of faster travel and increased ridership with lower operational and construction costs.
Status of Bus Rapid Transit Projects in the Bay Area
The mash-up of dedicated, curb-side and mixed-flow lanes for BRT lines is indicative of the difficulty in gaining consensus on a transit corridor that spans multiple neighborhoods and cities. However, dedicated median bus lanes are the standard for BRT, as they minimize conflicts with other vehicles and increases reliability, thereby increasing transit speeds and saving transit agencies money. While we recognize the need to consider local conditions and concerns, we hope cities will keep in mind the regional benefits of providing a rapid transit corridor. BRT with dedicated lanes could form the backbone of a regional bus network that would connect and complement existing and future transit and land use investments.Tags: transportation
- July 26, 2012
Following extensive community outreach and planning — and months of negotiations over specific projects — the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has placed the $195 million 2012 Neighborhood Parks Bond on the November ballot. That's nearly $200 million that will help repair and upgrade facilities throughout San Francisco. The bond follows others in 2000 and 2008 to maintain and rebuild a parks system that makes up 12 percent of land in the city.
So what do we get for $195 million? Quite a bit:
· $99 million for neighborhood park improvements;
· $34.5 million for waterfront open spaces;
· $21 million for regional parks;
· $15.5 million to repair failing playgrounds across the city; and
· $12 million for a Community Opportunity Fund that leverages private funds for community-based park projects.
You can learn more about the details of the proposed bond on the Recreation and Parks Department’s website.
Following our 2011 Seeking Green report on new revenues for the Recreation and Parks Department (RPD), SPUR has been actively engaged in the bond planning process. This means more than picking which pools to repair and which wind-worn ballfields should get new sprinklers. We also learned a lot about how the department is working to improve project delivery. That can mean anything from how long it takes to design a project to how long it takes to conduct community outreach to how the city solicits bids for specific projects. Most importantly, perhaps, is how all of these pieces fit together to determine what these projects will ultimately cost San Francisco taxpayers.
It’s obvious to many that our parks need regular maintenance and funding to keep them clean and accessible. What might not be as obvious is just how much money — and how many people — it actually takes to keep up our parks. This is why we undertook the Seeking Green report to examine the needs of RPD. What we found is that RPD faces similar challenges to Muni: There is a pronounced difference between funding capital improvements and funding ongoing operations. Operations have simply not been a funding priority of our elected officials, and as a result RPD has been driven to pursue additional funding in the form of concessions and services.
There have been many questions — both in public discussions and in our own parks revenue task force — about the ongoing operating challenges facing the department and the city. It does not makes sense to spend money improving buildings or restoring parks if we can’t afford to open those buildings or operate those parks. There needs to be a sustained commitment to operations to support any capital program.
The challenge is a common one: voter-approved bond programs can only address capital needs; it is the mayor and Board of Supervisors who allocate annual operating funds. And while the two types of funding would be best considered together — for example, improving the efficiency of sprinkler systems can improve water efficiency and lower operating costs — that is unfortunately not how it works. The same is true for Muni: There are different pots of money available for building train tracks versus operating those trains on a daily basis.
The bottom line is that this parks bond must be considered as only one component of a very complex funding equation. As we recommended in Seeking Green, it is imperative that the department seek dedicated funding for operations to maintain the improvements completed through this bond program. In fact, our hope has been that the operating deficit would be addressed first. The city’s first biannual budget, signed by the mayor this week, inches this conversation forward with additional funding to meet RPD operating needs. But we hope the real conversation — a sustained commitment of the city’s general fund — will follow soon.Tags: good government
- July 26, 2012By Sarah Karlinsky, Deputy Director
After many months of work by SPUR and other housing advocates, the Housing Trust Fund, has made its way through San Francisco’s legislative process and been placed on the November ballot. We were very involved in crafting this measure, which would provide a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, encourage the creation of moderate-income housing and stimulate the production of market-rate housing.
This measure is a very big deal for San Francisco, especially now that the State of California has eliminated its redevelopment agencies. Roughly half of all redevelopment funds in San Francisco went to support affordable housing. Without redevelopment, San Francisco’s capacity to produce affordable housing is severely reduced.
The Housing Trust Fund is a general fund set-aside, meaning it would dedicate a portion of San Francisco’s discretionary budget to affordable housing uses. The 30-year fund would receive $20 million in its first year and increasing amounts thereafter, up to $50 million annually. After that, the yearly set-aside would be capped. Over 30 years, the Housing Trust Fund would generate more than $1.2 billion for affordable housing.
Unlike other set-asides, the Housing Trust Fund is largely funded by money that was previously devoted to affordable housing purposes before the state eliminated redevelopment. Under redevelopment, bonds for affordable housing were issued against future gains in property taxes that would result from redevelopment projects, a process known as tax increment financing. As that bond debt is retired, instead of going to a local redevelopment agency, tax increment monies will now flow into San Francisco’s general fund. The Housing Trust Fund recaptures that flow of tax increment that had historically gone to housing, plus roughly 25 percent of the portion that previously went to developing new infrastructure.
San Francisco is unique because it is both a city and a county. Because the tax increment funding not taken by the State of California now flows to the counties, most other cities will not be able to set aside their tax increment money the way San Francisco can.
What will the Housing Trust Fund be used for? The primary purpose of the fund will be to help build new affordable housing. The city typically funds permanently affordable housing for “very low income” and “extremely low income” households (50 percent and 30 percent of Area Median Income, i.e., $51,000 for a family of four and $31,000 for a family of four, respectively). Most of San Francisco’s affordable housing developments have been funded with city money, and the Housing Trust Fund will continue that tradition.
The Housing Trust Fund will also provide down-payment assistance to “moderate-income” families (i.e., a four-person household earning roughly $80,000 to $120,000 per year) and help them stay in their homes by providing foreclosure prevention assistance and funding for upgrades.
Finally, the Housing Trust Fund will help encourage the development of new moderate-income housing. Under San Francisco’s inclusionary housing ordinance, developers of new housing must build a certain percentage of their units as moderate-income housing. Those units can be built within the project itself (called “on-site” housing), or developers also have the option of building the units elsewhere or paying an in-lieu fee. The Housing Trust Fund reduces the on-site inclusionary requirement by 20 percent for most projects, thereby making it more attractive to developers to build the units on site. Additionally, the Housing Trust Fund caps existing affordable housing fees (except for areas benefiting from new upzonings, where new affordable housing fees could be added), making it easier for developers to plan around the existing fee structure.
Many of the groups that have worked on this measure are now turning their efforts toward the campaign to get it passed at the ballot in November. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact SPUR Community Planning Policy Director Tomiquia Moss at firstname.lastname@example.org or Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky at email@example.com
- July 25, 2012By Michael Alexander*
On the last weekend of April, as thousands watched, 40 giant pneumatic hammers pounded much of San Francisco’s Doyle Drive into recycled concrete and rebar. The following Monday morning, cars streamed across an elegant new viaduct over the Presidio’s Cavalry Valley and cruised through a new tunnel cut into the bluff between the San Francisco National Cemetery and the historic batteries that once guarded the Golden Gate from invasion.
After 22 years, a vision SPUR fought hard for was finally underway: the transformation of Doyle Drive from a clunky and dangerous artifact into a graceful entryway to the city. When the $1.1 billion project is completed in 2015, cars and traffic noise will no longer dominate many key landscapes of the Presidio national park.
Getting big infrastructure projects built is hard enough, let alone when the project and its setting are fundamentally incompatible. As former vice-chair of the Doyle Drive Task Force and chair of SPUR’s Doyle Drive Committee, I had an intimate view of the planning process, the lessons SPUR learned about the priorities and beliefs of different agencies and organizations, and the need for SPUR to stay committed for the long haul.
1989 was not San Francisco’s best year. The Loma Prieta earthquake not only closed the Embarcadero Freeway but compromised the structural integrity of Doyle Drive, the roadway through the Presidio connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to the city street grid. In addition, the Army had announced that it would be marching out of the Presidio, its post at the headlands of the Golden Gate, leaving 1,400 spectacular acres, hundreds of historic buildings and millions of dollars of deferred maintenance to the National Park Service.
While these disruptions created stunning opportunities, the political, economic, organizational and design challenges were daunting. Doyle Drive was especially complicated. Constructed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District in 1937, its design was compromised by Army demands that it not hinder military activities or provide public access to the post. From the bridge’s toll plaza it sprawled across the Golden Gate headlands, then narrowed to span the pretty Cavalry Valley and its beloved Pet Cemetery on a tall, bulky viaduct and noisily ran across a bluff a hundred feet from the front rank of headstones in the Presidio Cemetery. Its eastern portion was an ugly viaduct atop more than a hundred closely spaced piers, which allowed military trucks passing underneath to carry supplies between Crissy Field’s warehouses and the Presidio’s Main Post. Its six narrow lanes had no center barrier and no shoulders.
Overlapping jurisdictions complicated things further. Doyle Drive was owned by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District and operated and maintained by Caltrans — on a right-of-way through a park run by the National Park Service and later by the Presidio Trust. To top it off, the road landed in the city’s Marina District, on Richardson Avenue and Marina Boulevard — whose residents militantly wanted traffic near their homes shifted to other families’ street.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors was the first to step into this jurisdictional morass and political quagmire, creating the Doyle Drive Task Force in the early 1990s to provide recommendations. Task force representatives of agencies, neighborhoods and community organizations like SPUR and the Sierra Club spent fruitless months mostly protecting their turfs as Caltrans presented a list of 26 (!) conceptual designs that sang to nobody.
The fundamental problem for most was that all the offerings were variations on the straightforward freeway built to modern standards: eight lanes, each 12 feet wide, plus shoulders, center barrier and massive off ramps — all of which would double the width of the existing road. Considering that this 1.6-mile road would connect the Golden Gate Bridge’s six narrow lanes primarily to Lombard Street’s six narrow lanes and Marina Boulevard’s four lanes, a freeway through a national park struck most as excessive. It could have been 20 lanes wide, and traffic would still be constricted at the necks.
But the highway engineers insisted, seldom mentioning but always aware that any variation from the standard highway manual could expose Caltrans to legal damages from accident claims. To be fair, they were also trying to respond to often-conflicting environmental, historic preservation and not-in-front-of-my-house demands.
Then, at the end of another meeting of re-re-restated positions (I recall once, in frustration, undiplomatically banging my forehead on the table), a local landscape architect and SPUR member, Michael Painter, asked to speak. But first he unrolled and taped to the wall a colored plan, nearly 20 feet long, of a very different concept. Here was a road that, at two critical points in the park, simply disappeared.
Alongside the cemetery, the road ran in a cut-and-cover tunnel with a landscaped top, so that people could once again walk to the historic battery bluffs. Traffic noise would no longer intrude on those visiting the resting places of the fallen. In front of the Main Post’s bluff edge, the road ran at grade but was covered by a 1,000-foot-long landscaped cap that reconnected Crissy Field with the rest of the park, allowing people to walk or bike over the hidden highway. From there to the park’s eastern end, a low viaduct would allow for expanding Crissy Field’s tidal lagoon and joining it to Tennessee Hollow Creek. A new turnoff would provide direct public access to the park.
For more than a year, task force representatives had proclaimed what we didn’t want. After 20 minutes, we finally knew what we did want, and it was Michael Painter’s plan — a roadway that had no choice but to traverse a national park yet was appropriate to its setting. I drafted the recommendations, and San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors adopted them.
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), a small agency headed by José-Luis Moscovich, led the city’s interests. Moscovich had been involved with Caltrans’ plans from the beginning. One of his first tasks when he took the job was to go with SPUR to Caltrans’ offices in Oakland, where the state agency presented its 26 options. He left realizing that the multiple stakeholders would never be able to agree to any of them.
Caltrans, however, was not giving up. Its consultants, Parsons Brinkerhoff — a major international planning, engineering and program management firm — gradually narrowed the 26 designs to four. All had major problems meeting the conflicting demands of agencies, groups within agencies and stakeholders.
And the Painter plan? Caltrans and PB dismissed it as infeasible and too expensive.
I believe there was a subtext here. For infrastructure projects like roads, landscape architects are at the bottom of the professional pile. A common attitude is, We’ll build it, then give you a little money to pretty it up. The focus is on objects, while landscape architects focus on spaces. But it’s not as though Painter didn’t have street cred — literally. He was the designer of San Francisco’s Great Highway, with its protective planted dunes and flanking pedestrian and bicycle trails.
SPUR and Arup to the Rescue
SPUR disagreed with the experts’ conclusions, but the opinions of urbanists and planners on SPUR’s Presidio Task Force carried little weight with road builders and engineers. So we turned to one of our member firms, Arup. This firm of designers, planners and engineers is favored by many of the world’s leading architects and has worked on challenging road designs in sensitive areas across the globe. SPUR asked Arup to express its opinion of the feasibility and cost of Painter’s design.
Arup’s judgment: fewer impacts on the national park, better design and less costly.
This could not be ignored. Moscovich and the SFCTA insured that the Doyle Drive Draft Environmental Impact Statement would include the Painter plan along with the four PB alternatives and the required no-build alternative (which described what the next earthquake was likely to do to Doyle Drive, and to traffic throughout the Bay Area).
A major problem with rebuilding Doyle Drive was that traffic had to continue to flow. Close Doyle, and you might as well close the Golden Gate Bridge. The usual solution is to transfer traffic to a parallel temporary road, demolish the existing road, build the new one, transfer traffic to the new road, remove the temporary structure and restore the damaged surroundings.
At the Presidio, there often wasn’t enough width to allow this, although most of the plans called for it. Painter — whose style is to constantly, even obsessively, refine his designs — developed a novel alternative: build half the width of the new road, transfer traffic to it, then demolish the old road and build the other half of the new road in the footprint of the old. This would save hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work. It proved feasible for the narrowest, most critical parts of the project.
In the end, the Painter plan proved so superior that the four Caltrans/PB alternatives were dropped. Each would have cost about $3 billion. Today the new Presidio Parkway is on schedule and on budget at $1.1 billion.
Winners and Losers
I’d judge that SPUR got about 85 percent of what it wanted in, and out of, the project. We got the right design, and we got it into construction before an earthquake claimed the existing road. The national park will be quieter, more beautiful and much easier to get around. At six lanes, the overall road width will be 25 percent less wide than what traffic engineers originally demanded. We even got all but one lane in each direction narrowed to 11 feet. (The standard is 12 feet, which gives drivers more room to maneuver — and also encourages speeding.) Visitors, residents and Presidio workers will be able to enter the national park without driving through residential neighborhoods. The Painter concept saved taxpayers a couple of billion dollars.
At a few critical points, SPUR helped José-Luis Moscovich and his staff get millions in critical funding, but most credit for financing the project goes to the SFCTA’s effective work at all levels of government.
Lost in these plans, however, is the Palace of Fine Arts, at the Presidio Parkway’s eastern end. The great shed currently housing the Exploratorium will need a new tenant when the museum moves to its new home on the northern waterfront. But the city has ignored every opportunity to make the building attractive to others. The back of the building, facing the Presidio, features a seedy parking lot with one of the most spectacular views of the Golden Gate. For historic reasons, the lot is owned by the Presidio Trust, though managed by the city. Michael Painter produced numerous designs, and SPUR spent years trying to make this key site more attractive, but neither the city nor the federal agency could be bothered.
The biggest losers in this saga were some homeowners on Richardson Avenue and Lyon Street. SPUR offered them a design that would take Palace of Fine Arts traffic off of their street. Had they supported it, we might well have transformed the entire dowdy east entry to the Presidio, as well as the Palace grounds. But the homeowners were so focused on trying to shift Doyle Drive traffic from their street to Marina Boulevard (a fight they lost), that they passed on an opportunity that would have added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the value of their homes.
Question received wisdom. Traffic engineers shot down many of SPUR’s and Painter’s novel ideas as dangerous because they weren’t what drivers expected to experience. While it’s undeniable that drivers are creatures of habit, they can still adapt. Near the end of the negotiations, SPUR asked to see the literature on driver expectations. At a subsequent meeting, we asked again. A senior engineer quietly confessed, “There isn’t any.” So much for the scientific basis of policy.
Question traffic models. Computer modeling errs on the side of more, not less. Because the models encourage overbuilding, which attracts more traffic, they are often self-fulfilling. But because they carry the aura of certainty, you need professionals to challenge their results.
Public consultation easily goes off the rails. Fear of change can raise the most bizarre and unexpected concerns. The noisiest and most persistent community members often dominate the debates, escalating reasonable concerns into impossible-to-satisfy demands. Successfully taking a community’s real temperature is a skill, usually not taught, that planners must learn to master.
What’s in a name?
Doyle Drive has been jackhammered into history. Caltrans, sensing a minefield about naming rights, has provisionally called the new road the Presidio Parkway. Like the old road, it should be named for the man whose vision made it possible. I propose the Painter Presidio Parkway.
Watch a fly-over video of how the new parkway will transform the Presidio >>
* Michael Alexander is an urbanist and co-chair of SPUR’s Advisory Council. He was a SPUR Board Member for two decades. He now lives in Vancouver B.C., where he helps implement innovative ideas from San Francisco.Tags: community planning
- July 17, 2012By Stuart Cohen, Executive Director, TransForm
An epic battle over the California high-speed rail project ended with a nail-biter on July 6, when the state senate got exactly the 21 votes needed to move ahead with funding the first segment of the project. The California Assembly had already passed the bill authorizing $2.6 billion in state bonds for the first segment, and Governor Brown’s signature is assured. [Update: Governor Brown signed the bill on July 18.] “Californians have always embraced bold visions and delivered public projects that chart the way for the rest of the nation,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Today’s vote continues that tradition.”
Media reports have made out the construction of high-speed rail as either a panacea for all of our woes or the beginning of Armageddon. But the final outcome is still to be written — not just whether high-speed rail is fully built and achieves projected ridership but whether it fulfills its potential to shape future growth, transform transportation in California and rebuild cities as the centers of our economy.
This project has incredible potential, but many issues will shape its viability over the next two years.
After Years of Ups and Downs, Strengthened Project Gets on Track
The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) was created in 1996 but has been chronically understaffed and much maligned. Ballot initiatives for initial funding of the LA/Anaheim to San Francisco segment were taken off the ballot in 2004 and 2006.
Environmental advocates helped influence and improve the project design — adding everything from a commitment to pursue zero energy to strong land use guidelines and protection of sensitive land — and it received significant support from statewide groups when it finally appeared on the ballot in 2008. Voters approved Proposition 1A in November 2008, authorizing nearly $10 billion in state bond funds toward the project.
But as the project was further designed, costs spiraled to $98 billion — more than double what had been projected when Prop 1A passed. Its dedicated tracks also required excessive infrastructure through several downtowns, and community opposition grew.
Yet Governor Brown made the project one of his top priorities and appointed new leadership to buoy the struggling project. In April, Dan Richard, the CHSRA’s new chair, helped usher in a revised 2012 Business Plan. The new plan reduced community impacts by sharing tracks with existing rail services in the urban areas (known as the “blended approach”). Along with other changes, it brought the projected cost down to $68 billion.
Most importantly, the project is now designed to serve as the backbone of a statewide rail network rather than as an isolated system. It supports early upgrades to Caltrain and Metrolink, as well as lines now used by Amtrak and Altamont Commuter Express (ACE), allowing these systems to go faster and attract more riders. With an additional $2 billion of funding for these projects included in the bill that passed July 6, millions of Californians will benefit from these first investments by 2018. These upgrades will also serve to ready those corridors for high-speed rail.
TransForm’s June 2012 report Moving Ahead with High Speed Rail explains the revised business plan and why these changes allowed TransForm to come out in support of this project. (Read a four-page summary of the report.)
If all goes well, construction will begin in 2013. The bill’s $2.6 billion in state funds will match more than $3 billion in federal funds for the section of track from Madera to Bakersfield. The CHSRA plans for a unified Northern California service that will allow Amtrak, ACE and other operators to use the first segment before high-speed service begins.
Project's Real Challenges Will Come in the Next Two Years
The July 6 vote was monumental, but it will pale in comparison to the task of actually completing the system: Picture an inexperienced climber struggling to scale El Capitan, getting 300 feet up and then realizing there is 2,700 feet to go. That is almost exactly where we are in this process.
The most daunting challenge of all will be identifying the rest of the funding. At least $56 billion more is needed to complete the project over the next 20 years. But every journey starts with a first step. Right now this project needs to build this first segment on budget and on time (especially on time, to meet federal stimulus deadlines of Sept 30, 2017) and show that it is being well managed.
The CHSRA recently hired Jeff Morales, a former Caltrans director who most recently had been leading the planning for high-speed rail as a consultant. This was an excellent choice and restored the confidence of stakeholders and legislators, but he can’t do it alone. In fact the funding bill requires that he fill several top-level positions by October 2012 or risk further delays. The culture, competency and sensitivity of the CHSRA will be under intense scrutiny, especially as it begins construction that will impact cities and farms in the Central Valley.
Changes to Environmental Review May Come Up Again
With the federal deadline to spend funds by September 2017, the Brown Administration floated the idea of three modifications to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to reduce delays to the project from litigation. The administration wanted these provisions tied to the funding bill, but with a strong reaction from the environmental community — including a letter from the Sierra Club categorically opposed to any CEQA changes — the concept was swept under the rug so that the funding could be debated on its own.
Many believe similar proposals will be back soon. TransForm, along with some of the largest environmental groups, has expressed openness to some very basic modifications, including allowing the CHSRA to make a change in one segment, such as along the Caltrain line, without having to redo the analysis for the entire project. This stance acknowledges that high-speed rail is an environmentally preferable alternative to increased highway and airport capacity, and that having to constantly reevaluate whether it is a superior alternative at the program scale just doesn’t make sense. It is, however, absolutely critical to require that impacts and mitigations are identified at the project (i.e., local) level. TransForm and other groups are united against the weakening of CEQA at the project level. (For more information see page 35 of Transform’s report.)
Additional Funding Sources Will Be Challenging
It won’t be long before the CHSRA is searching for the next source of funds. The second phase of the project is the segment from Bakersfield to the Los Angeles Basin, with a cost of $25 billion. The revised business plan anticipates $20 billion from federal sources, but none of that federal funding is likely to materialize unless the House of Representatives changes hands this fall and Democrats hold the White House and Senate.
If federal funds don’t materialize, the Brown Administration has proposed using revenues from the auction of permits in the Assembly Bill 32 greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program as a backstop. These revenues will be modest through 2015, but at that time transportation fuels will come under the cap, which means revenues could rise to $7 billion or more annually. There will be a host of legal and political hurdles to get any of these funds, let alone $20 billion. The most basic is to prove that the project would actually reduce greenhouse gasses cost effectively, a question that will be tackled by the CHSRA within a year. Many of these hurdles are explained in a report by the Legislative Analyst’s office.
Even if it is legally viable, funding for high-speed rail would compete with dozens of other proposed uses, including a widely circulated proposal from TransForm and Housing California to put at least 30 percent of the funding toward local transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, as well as affordable homes near transit.
SPUR has some additional recommendations for funding high-speed rail that include increasing the price of automobile travel.
We Need Smart Land Use to Support a Successful Project
Ultimately, high-speed rail can’t just be a transportation project. The development of a high-speed train linking California's major cities to each other must help retain existing downtowns as the primary economic centers of California. But unfortunately, good land use does not automatically follow new transit.
The CHSRA has already made what is arguably the most critical land use decision by focusing new stations primarily in downtowns at existing transit hubs. Although it can cost more to go through city centers in areas like the Central Valley, the CHSRA made a policy decision to avoid locating stations in greenfields.
But that is not enough. TransForm helped the CHSRA develop strong, smart land use guidelines in 2007, and the authority now has a funding program to support community-based planning near future stations. This will be especially critical in the Central Valley, and the timing is perfectly aligned with regional-scale planning for the state-mandated Sustainable Communities Strategies that are just getting underway there and will be adopted in December 2013.
The CHSRA must keep committing funds to station-area planning, but there must also be a concerted effort to coordinate other state grants to maximize potential benefits and avoid displacement of residents and businesses by high-speed trains. There are significant potential benefits if we get the land use right in the Central Valley; for a preview see page 25 of TransForm’s report.
Impacted and Disadvantaged Communities Must Be Engaged
The construction of high-speed rail will directly displace some residents and businesses. While the CHSRA is required to compensate landowners for the value of their property, that does not mean their lives will not be dramatically disrupted. The authority has identified a host of potential mitigation measures but, as pointed out by groups like California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., the most important ones are only “suggested or considered.”
Deep engagement of disadvantaged communities needs to start immediately, and the CHSRA should prioritize policies that go beyond compensation: for example, ensuring that low-income residents who are displaced by the construction of this project are financially able to remain in their community. TransForm has proposed that the CHSRA immediately establish an Environment and Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, whose chair would make direct reports to the full CHSRA board, to confront this and other key issues in a transparent, constructive process.
Even with Challenges, High-Speed Rail Is an Opportunity We Must Take On
With California projected to grow to 50 million people over the coming decades, we absolutely need new transportation capacity. The question is, What types of capacity will we invest in? Done right, building high-speed rail in California can reinforce cities as the hubs of our economies, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality, get commuters off congested roads and cost much less than highway and airport expansion. Yet the CHSRA must truly confront all of these issues — and excel at finding solutions — if this project is to ever get built.
High-speed rail is an incredible opportunity and challenge for California to take on, but an essential one. Over the coming months TransForm, along with SPUR and other allies, will be engaged in making sure that high-speed rail gets done — and done right.