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- 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.
- July 9, 2012By Leah Toeniskoetter, SPUR San Jose Director
Word of a big win for Silicon Valley came July 2 from the U.S. Commerce Department. For the first time in its history, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will open four offices outside of Virginia, and the western region office will be located in Silicon Valley. California produces one quarter of the approximately 500,000 patents filed annually in the United States. The volume of filings has created a year-long backlog, which encouraged President Obama to direct that four new offices be opened by 2014. The selected locations were chosen from 600 applicants and were required to demonstrate the ability to conduct outreach to the patent applicant community, the ability to recruit top talent at the Patent and Trade Office, the ability to retain top talent, the potential economic impact of the office on the selected communities and geographic diversity of selected offices.
The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the City of San Jose and San Jose State University led a major effort to locate this office in Silicon Valley, and we applaud their success. Though early reports mentioned San Jose, as of this date a specific city in Silicon Valley has not been finalized. SPUR strongly supports downtown San Jose as the right location. The city’s access to intellectual capital and major universities with strong engineering programs, its multiple public transportation systems and its airport make San Jose a worthy selection. The three other U.S. cities that will receive patent offices are Detroit, Dallas and Denver.
We believe there could be some significant clustering benefits around this patent office, similar to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Mission Bay in San Francisco but on a much larger scale. We hope the commerce department will get the details right as this moves forward — in particular locating the patent office in downtown San Jose, where it could function as an anchor for legal and professional services in a central, transit-rich location.Tags: economic development
- July 9, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Update: On July 17, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the expansion proposal and new lease for the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market.
The San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, the city’s hub for fresh produce, is looking to modernize and expand. And, this month, the SF Board of Supervisors will be considering a proposal to allow it to do just that.
The market is a critical piece of the region’s food system infrastructure. Its loading docks, warehouses and offices allow more than 25 wholesalers and distributors to link farmers from the region — and from around the world — with grocery stores, restaurants and other food retailers. The market infrastructure, however, is getting old. Most of the warehouses were built in the early 1960s, and its earlier generation of technology and design are limiting the growth of many market tenants and making it more difficult to comply with evolving food safety regulations.
In response, the market is proposing a comprehensive upgrade and expansion of its facilities on city-owned land. The resolution before the Board of Supervisors would allow the market to construct a new building at 901 Rankin and either rebuild or remodel its existing buildings. Importantly, the legislation would also give the market long-term security with a 60-year ground lease. The modernization and the long-term lease are both crucial to the success of the market; without those changes, many of its tenant businesses have indicated that they will leave, taking more than 600 jobs and $720,000 of annual tax dollar revenue out of the city. With the expansion, however, the market projects that its tenants’ total employment will expand to 1,000 people and that the revenue to the city will increase by 44 percent, to at least $1.04 million annually.
The proposal presents San Francisco the chance to support the modernization of its wholesale food infrastructure at less cost than that of other major cities. State agencies in Pennsylvania provided millions in loans and more than $100 million in grants to build the new Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. New York City invested a total of $110 million for the redevelopment of its Fulton Fish Market and Hunts Point Produce Market. In contrast, the proposal before San Francisco's supervisors does not involve any capital funding from the city.
Cities around the country are working to develop “food hubs,” organizations that actively manage the distribution and marketing of local and regional food products. In San Francsico, we already have one. SPUR supports the market’s proposal to expand and modernize so that it can continue supporting the vibrant food industry for which the city and region are so well know.
- July 5, 2012By Benjamin Grant, Public Realm and Urban Design Program Manager
Some important improvements that SPUR recommended in the Ocean Beach Master Plan will happen right away, thanks to quick work by the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Recreation and Park Commission. This winter DPW will construct a planted median in the center of the Great Highway from Lincoln Way to Balboa Street as part of a previously scheduled project to repave the roadway. DPW acting director Mohammed Nuru, who sits on the Ocean Beach Master Plan Steering Committee, noticed that the long-range vision for Ocean Beach included street medians among its many suggested improvements. Rather than delay the repaving project while the long-term roadway proposals are analyzed, Nuru suggested that a median could be integrated into the current effort, provided it didn't change the configuration of the road, which would trigger a complex review process.
The project will install landscaped medians where today they exist only in paint. It will improve pedestrian safety and access to the beach by providing shorter crossings and pedestrian refuges, as well as clarifying rights of way on large swaths of currently unmarked pavement. It will also improve the aesthetics of the highway, as well as its environmental performance, by providing much-needed greenery and increasing permeable surfaces for stormwater infiltration in what is now a large, undifferentiated slab of asphalt. A selection of rugged native plants suitable for the beachfront’s challenging climate is under development.
The only concern that emerged about the project was ensuring that the Great Highway could continue to accommodate major events such as the Nike Marathon and Bay to Breakers races. A review of the proposal with Recreation and Parks Department event managers allayed those fears. The project went before the Recreation and Parks Commission Capital Committee in early June and the full Commission on June 21. Installation is set to begin as part of the larger repaving project this winter.
- June 26, 2012By Leah Toeniskoetter, SPUR San Jose Director
Many downtown areas have policies in place that restrict ground-floor storefronts for walk-in businesses such as retail, restaurants and entertainment. The idea is to encourage people to continue exploring (and hopefully shopping) on foot. But in an economic downturn, when retail stores may remain vacant for years, dark storefronts can create dead spaces of their own, further challenging the success of surviving retail tenants. With ground-floor retail vacancy rates hovering between 15 and 20 percent for several years in a row, San Jose has adopted a temporary policy change allowing non-retail uses such as banks and business support services to occupy certain ground floor spaces without a special use permit — an investment of time and money that the city says has deterred several companies from locating downtown. The city also argues that ground-floor space occupied during part of the day is better than ground-floor space vacant all day. In addition, co-working spaces like NextSpace, which are not considered retail uses but do generate a lot of foot traffic throughout the day, are showing us that new forms of business uses can activate the street and should be encouraged to locate where they can enhance the vibrancy of pedestrian areas.
The temporary policy change allows for the elimination of the special use permit requirement for businesses of less than 20,000 square feet on non-corner street frontages that have one of the following uses: business support, financial institutions, financial services, office, business and administrative, day care centers and radio and television studios.
The upside to this action is the opportunity to fill vacant storefronts in the short term. The potential downside is that, once the economy turns around, “non-active” business uses may remain in locations meant for retail. Additionally, there is the potential to drive up rental rates on the ground floor, as business users can currently pay higher rent than a local retailer. For these reasons, the city, together with the San Jose Downtown Association, will track both vacancy and rental rates going forward and review the impact of this change in two years.
Going for height in the rental market
While the city is still feeling the impact of the economic downturn on the commercial side, San Jose, like many cities around the bay, has seen its residential rental market take off. According to a recent Marcus & Millichap Research Services report, San Jose’s rental vacancy is expected to be the lowest of the three major bay cities at 2.7 percent by year’s end (compared to 3 percent in San Francisco and 3.2 percent in Oakland). That said, obtaining financing to build high-rise residential continues to be a challenge in San Jose, especially on the tail end of very slow sales in the newest residential towers downtown. In order to take advantage of this demand for rental units, and also encourage higher residential density in the downtown, the San Jose City Council recently passed a number of temporary incentives to encourage high-rise developments. The following incentives apply to the first 1,000 units of new residential high-rise development of 12 stories or higher that break ground in the Downtown Growth Area by the end of 2013:
1) An expedited, 120-day review process of entitlements for any proposed high-rise development (this applies to high-rise development anywhere in the city)
2) The elimination of a city requirement to install an expensive breathing air replenishment system in high-rise buildings
3) The continuation of a 50 percent reduction in park fees for high-rise residential constructed in the downtown
4) A 50 percent reduction in construction taxes (this is also applicable to any commercial building constructed in the downtown, regardless of height)
5) Deferral of fees owed until the Certificate of Occupancy is issued
6) Waiver of minimum parking requirements with a long-term commitment from the developer to offer free participation in the VTA’s EcoPass program, as well as car-sharing services and enhanced bike parking facilities
Taken together, these two recent actions demonstrate the city’s desire to chip away at a slow commercial market while taking advantage of a strong rental residential market in the downtown. While it is true that the fee reductions will impact the funding parks and transportation improvements, if there’s no development in the near term, these departments won’t receive any funds at all.Tags: economic development
- June 20, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Thirty miles east of San Francisco, four farm businesses are growing food for market amidst the hills of Sunol. Though the rows of tomatoes, strawberries, kale, and other crops are typical of the region the land use arrangement at the site, known as the Sunol AgPark, is anything but typical. That’s because the park is on public land owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) directly adjacent to the Sunol Water Temple. In 2006, the PUC began an innovative land stewardship partnership and lease with the non-profit organization Sustainable Agriculture and Education (SAGE), who, in turn, subleases the 18 acres to local farmers.
In other words, for-profit farmers are cultivating publicly owned land managed by a nonprofit. It’s an arrangement that works for the PUC, SAGE and the farmers. From the PUC’s perspective, farming is compatible with this site, as it is with many others they own between San Francisco and Hetch Hetchy. By permitting agriculture next to the Water Temple, they reduce their maintenance costs and are able to provide a community benefit, not only to the farmers and their customers, but also to the thousands of visitors and schoolchildren that the PUC and SAGE bring to the site each year for educational tours. For the farmers, the AgPark provides protected land with existing agricultural infrastructure, proximity to urban markets and technical assistance — at rates comparable to farmland with similar amenities available on the private market. And for SAGE, the AgPark increases awareness of the value of local food systems and the importance of preserving agricultural land around cities while covering a portion of its own operating costs.
The AgPark began with a nine-year lease, and it is a model that, if successful, has the potential to be replicated throughout the Bay Area and beyond. The Public Utilities Commission alone owns 84,000 acres outside the city of San Francisco. Other water agencies, utilities and public land stewards in the Bay Area also control thousands of acres of land. Much of the PUC’s land is managed to preserve water quality or otherwise support the function of the water, sewer and power systems they operate. But, recognizing that much of the land could have a secondary use beyond its primary utility function, such as organic farms in a protected watershed area, the PUC adopted a new framework for considering secondary land uses in March.
The Sunol AgPark is a pilot project that, in addition to its educational mission, is helping explore the viability of agriculture as a secondary use on publicly-= owned land. The potential for expanding the model is tantalizing. Time will tell whether it continues to work for the public utilities, nonprofit land managers and the farmers.
- June 19, 2012By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
The shortest primary ballot in 16 years and the lowest turnout ever (30.83 percent) for a presidential primary. San Francisco’s ballot is experiencing a lot of interesting firsts in recent elections, but while the number of measures appears to be dwindling, their content is consistent: expensive implications.
This election, San Franciscans considered two proposals to change city services. Proposition A, a proposal to require the city to use competitive bidding in the award of contracts for waste collection, was defeated by 76.6 percent of the vote. Proposition B, a nonbinding policy statement to restrict commercial activity in Coit Tower, a popular tourist destination that has degraded with time, passed with 53.5 percent of the vote. SPUR opposed both propositions.
The results of Prop. A were very similar to previous attempts to change how waste is collected in the city. Efforts in 1993 and 1994 both went down to similar margins of defeat. But while some may read this as a vote against competitive bidding, it might be more about the city’s partnership with Recology — a regulated monopoly that has helped the city achieve record levels of waste diversion — and the associated costs of the measure. Prop. A would have required the city to own all supporting infrastructure for the waste stream (all currently owned by Recology) by 2018. That means the city would have been required to acquire significant real estate in a quickly recovering market and build sorting and transfer facilities, parking lots and other supporting infrastructure in just six years. In San Francisco. With no funding source. Voters may value the effectiveness of the city’s partnership, but they clearly balked at requiring the city to make significant financial investments in infrastructure that is already ably serving the city.
The success of Prop. B is the result of several different factors. Built in 1933, Coit Tower contains a series of murals that were completed as part of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project and have fallen into substantial disrepair in recent years. There have been disagreements over jurisdiction — the tower is managed by the Recreation and Parks Department and the murals by the city’s Arts Commission — which have led to inconsistent funding for curation and preservation of the building and the murals. But the outcome may have hinged on a more recent discovery: A conservator’s report revealed significant disrepair at the site just one week before the election, followed by an emergency infusion from the city of $1.7 million to fund repairs to the tower and murals. Clearly there is a problem here; Prop. B certainly drew attention to the condition of things at the tower, but this nonbinding resolution may have come disguised as a solution. It won't restrict potentially damaging activities at the tower unless the Board of Supervisors enacts legislation consistent with this policy declaration.
The interesting lessons of this election have less to do with the measures than with how voters make decisions. When proposals tap into a genuine frustration with existing services, voters will support even nonbinding policy statements in hopes that they might send a message to city officials — regardless of the measure’s potential impacts. Prop. B elevated an issue and thereby helped to secure additional public funding for a historic resource. However, the measure’s suggested restrictions on facility operations — and the resulting revenues — may have been lost amidst concern over the murals. But when proposals carry significant unknown costs and threaten to disrupt functional service relationships — as with Prop. A — voters are apparently not shy about rejecting them resoundingly. Prop. A clearly did not pass muster.
In spite of the lean primary ballot, it appears that we may return to a more typical laundry list of measures in November, with business tax reform, bonds and more coming to the voters for their stamp of approval. Even before the polling places closed for the June election, there were more than 10 initiatives either proposed or on the way to the November ballot. But with recent ballot reforms (pushed by SPUR in 2007), perhaps only half of those will ultimately make it to the ballot.
For those of us who remember the “good old days,” with upwards of a dozen measures just in San Francisco, that sounds like a half-day at the office.Tags: good government
- June 14, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
San Francisco may soon have a new urban agriculture program. On June 11, the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation introduced earlier by Supervisor David Chiu that seeks to increase the coordination, efficacy and breadth of city support for urban agriculture. Based on recommendations from SPUR's report Public Harvest as well as calls for change from community organizations including the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, the ordinance now moves to the full board for two consecutive votes, with the first vote likely on June 19.
The version of the legislation that passed the committee included a number of amendments to the original version. Some of the notable changes include:
- Strategic plan: The strategic plan for implementation of the legislation must be presented to the board for approval
- Funding: For the coming fiscal year, the urban agriculture program should have funding sufficient for at least one full-time staff person
- Timelines: The strategic plan may set new target dates for the goals listed in the legislation
- Job training: The program needs to find ways to link urban agriculture with job training and employment opportunities, especially in the private sector
- Land Use: The program must ensure that existing urban agriculture spaces are fully utilized
Though the board agreed to numerous changes, they retained the core components of the legislation. Given the support demonstrated at the hearing by both the supervisors and community advocates, including SPUR, the ordinance appears headed toward passage.
Assuming the legislation becomes law, the most pressing issue becomes how to translate the text of the ordinance into meaningful change. Prime among the questions of the law’s implementation is how the urban agriculture program will be funded. The mayor and Board of Supervisors are in the process of negotiating the city budget, and it is not yet clear what funding, if any, will be included to support the new program and ensure that the ordinance’s call for at least one full-time coordinator is reinforced with budget dollars. The city administrator and mayor will face another large question: Which city agency or nonprofit should manage the program and ensure that the goals of the legislation are met? They have until December to evaluate the various options and submit an answer to the board and public.
The Land Use Committee’s approval of the ordinance has moved the legislation very close to becoming law. And it has moved city agencies, nonprofits and community advocates into the more difficult conversation about how, exactly, the city will create a program that better serves San Francisco’s many gardeners and farmers.
- June 5, 2012By Tomiquia Moss, Community Planning Policy Director
Update: Mayor Ed Lee signed the Transit Center District Plan into passage on August 8, after unanimous approval by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Things are heating up again for San Francisco's Transit Center District Plan. On May 24, the SF Planning Commission voted 5-1 to certify the final draft of the environment impact report that will move the plan forward to the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee. In addition, the commission voted to approve amendments to the general plan, planning code and zoning code that will be necessary to implement the plan. It will go before the Board of Supervisors for adoption sometime in July. SPUR has long supported this plan, recognizing its potential to transform San Francisco and the region.
What Is the Transit Center District Plan?
The Transit Center District consists of approximately 145 acres surrounding the new Transbay Transit Center, currently under construction on Mission Street between First and Fremont.
The plan aims to create a new downtown neighborhood made up primarily of office and retail space, with a notable amount of residential space as well. The plan will enhance the area’s established patterns of land use, urban form and public space, creating a vibrant new neighborhood.The Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) selected Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and developer Hines to design and build a high-rise tower next to the new terminal. The team has proposed a 1,070-foot tower, the tallest in the city. There are several shorter towers proposed for the district, ranging in height from 150 to 850 feet. These towers will provide major sources of new job space and housing over the coming decades.The Transbay Transit Center, the centerpiece of the plan, will not only provideexpanded bus facilities, itwill also include an underground rail station to serve as the San Francisco terminus for Caltrain and California high-speed rail. Because the project is not fully funded, the TJPA has divided its construction into two phases: the above ground terminal and the undergroundextension of Caltrainfrom its current station at 4th and King streets. (Note: Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR’s executive director, is a member of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the governing body for the transit station construction project.)
The downtown core can, and should, absorb more jobs and housing. Since the California Legislature adopted Assembly Bill 32, which mandates statewide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and Senate Bill 375, which requires regions to adopt land use plans that will bring about these reductions, there has been increasing momentum to encourage transit-oriented development around the state. San Francisco had already designated a redevelopment area adjacent to the Transit Center that calls for 2,700 units of housing (with 35 percent of it affordable). The new Transit Center District Plan, which overlaps some with the redevelopment area, will add zoning for a total of about 9 million square feet of space, of which about 6 million is anticipated to be office space. That’s an increase of about 33 percent and enough to provide nearly 35,000 jobs. As highlighted in SPUR’s report The Future of Downtown San Francisco, downtown is the logical place for dense employment near transit. The Transit Center District Plan brings these principles to life.
Costs and Public Benefits
To achieve the plan’s objectives and create the district envisioned, a broad range of public improvements and related programs are needed. The budget for the entire Transit Center and district are projected at $4.2 billion.
Approval of the Transit Center District Plan will provide much needed funding for the extension of regional rail to downtown San Francisco and other public infrastructure improvements. The Transit Center District Plan will also provide $590 million through a new neighborhood that has been zoned to generate fees for the city. To achieve the plan’s vision, development projects must generate enough funding to pay for infrastructure and public improvements proposed in the plan. Two proposed funding mechanisms are intended to strike the balance to achieve these requisites. First the city assessed new impact fees to be paid by developers who build in the district. Second, the area will establish a Mello-Roos Community Facilities District for new development projects, which will levy additional property taxes to pay for neighborhood improvements. Of the revenues projected to be raised from building out the plan, up to $420 million would be available for the Transit Center and rail extension, and $170 million would go to street and open space improvements to support growth in the district. Currently, a 5.4-acre park is planned atop the Transbay Transit Center. Making this park publically accessible is a critical element of the plan’s objectives for increasing open space. The plan also calls for more pedestrian and bike improvements, as well as sidewalk and street improvements to further solidify this as a viable neighborhood and jobs center.
This plan area has long been one of SPUR’s top priorities. It will be a national model of transit-oriented development. For urban design reasons, environmental reasons and economic reasons, we think this is the right plan in the right location.Tags: community planning
- May 29, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Seven city agencies spent nearly a million dollars supporting urban agriculture projects in San Francisco in 2010-2011. Yet there is no single staff person responsible for coordinating that funding, nor any overarching goals for how the money is used. Urban agriculture legislation introduced on April 24 by Supervisor David Chiu, however, would change that.
The proposed ordinance, which implements a number of the recommendations in SPUR’s recent report Public Harvest, would:
- Set goals, with outcomes and timelines, such as: an audit of city-owned buildings to identify rooftops suitable for urban agriculture; five new resource centers for compost, mulch and tools; a streamlined application process; a reduction in community garden waiting lists to no more than one year wait time; 10 new urban agriculture projects on public land where residents show desire for the projects;
- Create an urban agriculture program that would coordinate the efforts of city agencies, engage with community groups to reach the goals of the legislation and generally support city gardening and farming; and
- Require the mayor and city administrator to publish an evaluation of existing efforts and a strategic plan for the new urban agriculture program by the end of 2012. Importantly, this evaluation and planning process explicitly calls for SPUR’s top recommendation, which was for the mayor and city administrator to decide whether a city agency or a nonprofit partially funded by the city will serve as the main institutional support for urban agriculture.
Those provisions combined aim to reduce the duplication of effort among agencies by creating a one-stop shop that would: provide a streamlined application process for starting projects on public land; serve as an information clearinghouse for the public and for agencies; and offer technical assistance to city gardens and farms. The legislation’s annual reporting requirement would also increase accountability by shining detailed attention on the city’s progress toward reaching the goals, as well as by providing an accounting of how agencies spent their funding. And, by requiring a strategic plan and having staff assigned to coordinate among agencies, the new urban agriculture program could ensure that existing funding is used more efficiently.
The legislation, however, wouldn’t be a cure-all. Even if the law is passed, successful implementation will require buy-in from the mayor’s office and individual agencies, which would ultimately decide how much priority and staff time they put toward improving existing programs. The legislation sets targets for new sites on public land, but the specific locations and the money to start the projects must still be found. And, for residents on community-garden waiting lists, the bill provides no immediate relief. Instead, the legislation builds the institutional capacity within the city to provide more land, resources and support in the coming years.
Though it won’t solve any challenges overnight, the legislation is a crucial step forward. SPUR supports the legislation and we will be tracking its progress through the Board of Supervisors.