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- June 18, 2013By Egon Terplan and Tony Vi
In the past few years, there has been a lot of attention on income inequality and the shrinking middle class, particularly as job growth nationally has remained sluggish. Meanwhile, many companies are struggling with the skills gap, when hiring workers with the right training proves very difficult. Some claim there are millions of unfilled positions nationally — although the New York Times has editorialized that companies who claim to have a hard time finding qualified workers should try offering more pay.
Whether or not the skills gap is inflated, we know that many individual workers do not have the right skills for opportunities that exist in our economy. We also know that the opportunities for people to move up into higher paying jobs are diminishing as the share of middle-income jobs declines.
In the Bay Area, despite an economic boom and declining unemployment rates, many workers are still struggling. Those returning to the workforce are often in jobs that pay less than what they earned before the recession.
How can we connect low- and moderate-income workers to existing quality jobs and expand the number of middle-income and middle-skill jobs? SPUR is part of a new initiative to identify ways we can increase economic opportunity in the Bay Area. Some of the questions we seek to answer include:
- Do we still have an economy with mobility? That is, can people still start at minimum wage and move up to jobs with middle income wages or higher? If so, how do people move up?
- What is not working in the current systems of workforce development and training? What hinders workers from getting into jobs of opportunity?
- What are the occupations with opportunity? Which industries are they in?
- And most importantly, what can we do at the local and regional level to increase opportunities?
The Bay Area’s Regional Prosperity Plan
The project begins with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Sustainable Communities and Housing, which has recently funded regional planning initiatives in dozens of metropolitan areas throughout the country. The goal is to create stronger, more sustainable communities by integrating housing and jobs planning, fostering local innovation, and building a clean energy economy. The Bay Area’s regional planning agencies — the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) — were awarded one of these grants in late 2012. It will provide $5 million over three years for planning and implementation work.
Somewhat unique nationally, the Bay Area is devoting its entire grant — called the Regional Prosperity Plan — to strategies focused on equity, particularly improving housing and economic conditions for low- and moderate-income residents and workers. The plan has three main initiatives: the Housing the Workforce Initiative, the Economic Prosperity Strategy and the Equity Collaborative, intended to support equity goals in the overall project.
Over the next year, SPUR will lead the Economic Prosperity Strategy, which aims to rebuild an economy with opportunity. Our partners — in addition to sponsors MTC and ABAG — are the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, Working Partnerships USA, Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, Eisen|Letunic and the San Mateo Union Community Alliance. The initiative will focus on how to move low- and moderate-income workers in the Bay Area (the 35 percent of workers making less than $18 per hour) into more middle-income jobs (those paying $18 to $30 per hour). To implement the ideas in the Economic Prosperity Strategy, MTC will devote $1.1 million in funds from the overall HUD grant to support a series of pilot projects between 2014 and 2015.
Why Does the Bay Area Need This Plan?
Recent studies have shown that despite a growing economy and rising incomes, the Bay Area continues to provide fewer middle-skill and middle-wage job opportunities. Inequality has risen sharply in the last decade and is now greater in the Bay Area than in the United States or California. The chart below from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute’s recent economic assessment shows the dramatic rise over the past decade in the “Gini Coeffecient,” a measure of income inequality where 0 means everyone has the same income and 1 means that one person has all the income. This rise in inequality is largely due to the decline in middle-income jobs and the rapid increase in wealth from growing companies.
Wage and Salary Inequality, 1977-2011
Having an economy with mobility is good for everyone. When workers move from low-income to moderate-income jobs, not only are they increasing their household’s wealth, they are also creating a job opening for someone else coming into the labor market. If the upward mobility is a reflection of increased skills, the overall economy benefits through rising productivity and increased competitiveness.
Which Workers Are the Focus of the Economic Prosperity Strategy?
There are 3.2 million total workers in the Bay Area out of a population of 7.2 million. More than one in three workers (1.2 million) make less than $18 per hour in wages. Workers in this wage range include retail sales people, childcare providers, teachers, janitors, security guards, nursing aides, waiters, receptionists, truck drivers, housekeepers and many others. While workers who earn less than $18 per hour tend to be a little younger than the average worker, many people remain at or near minimum wage for their entire working lives. (The minimum wage is currently $8 per hour in California, $10 in San Jose and $10.55 in San Francisco.)
Despite what some may assume, low- and moderate-income (LMI) workers are not concentrated in any particular part of the region or in specific neighborhoods. While people of color are overrepresented among the ranks of low- and moderate-income workers, one third of people earning these wages in the Bay Area are white. And although workers closest to minimum wage are more likely to take transit to work, the differences are slight: 12.3 percent of those who earn $11.25 and less take transit, compared with 10.2 percent of all workers. Once workers’ pay gets to $12 per hour or more, they are just as likely to drive as everyone else (i.e., about 79 percent will drive to work alone).
The map below shows where workers who earn less than $18 per hour live in the San Jose region. As is clear, they live everywhere — though with slightly greater concentration in east and south San Jose.
Low- to Moderate-Income (LMI) Residents in the South Bay
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The next map shows a similar story in San Francisco. (Keep in mind that the higher concentration of low- and moderate-income residents in the Tenderloin and Chinatown is partly a reflection of the higher density in those neighborhoods.)
Low- to Moderate-Income (LMI) Residents in San Francisco
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Between 2010 and 2020, there will be 309,490 job openings that pay between $18 and $30/hour, compared with more than half a million jobs that pay less than $18 and half a million that pay more than $30. Some of these openings come from new jobs, while nearly 6 in 10 come from replacement jobs due to retiring workers.
Bay Area Job Openings by Median Wage, 2010-2020
$30 or more
$18 to $30
Working with our partners, we recently launched the Economic Prosperity Strategy with a series of workshops and outreach meetings with community, labor, business and local government leaders to determine the barriers to achieving a more inclusive regional economy. In the following months, we will begin examining solutions and strategies to address these barriers.
So far, several themes have emerged with respect to barriers facing low- and moderate-income workers. One barrier to accessing better jobs is the lack of on-the-job training. Another is the transportation challenge of traveling between multiple job sites and school settings throughout the course of a day, given that many low and moderate income workers hold multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. The solution to the first challenge might be new partnerships with employers, while the latter might be helped by better coordinated transit systems or land use planning that results in more concentrated job centers (putting more opportunity in one place).
The approach of the project will be to break down traditional silos and barriers between organizations and policy areas — such as workforce development and transportation planning — and to encourage better collaboration and coordination. We want to highlight existing local solutions and create new solutions that help move Bay Area workers into middle-income jobs.
As this work progresses, we will use the SPUR blog to report back on what we learn about the jobs and industries that provide opportunities for low and moderate-income workers to move up. To get involved in this important project, contact Egon Terplan firstname.lastname@example.org.
- June 17, 2013By Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director
Bus rapid transit (BRT) projects can be transformative, as we have learned from cities like Cleveland in the U.S. and global examples like Mexico City. But making space on streets for travel modes other than the car is a challenge for cities and transit operators around the world. The Bay Area has five BRT projects in development today, and each has met with difficulty and delays.
Last month one of these projects, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s Santa Clara/Alum Rock line, made the move from planning stages to design and construction. This 7.2-mile route through downtown San Jose will provide high-frequency bus service (every 10 minutes) and connect two major transit hubs — Diridon Station and Eastridge Mall. This line will converge with the Stevens Creek and El Camino BRT lines in Downtown San Jose. When these three BRT lines are combined with local service, an estimated 84,000 daily bus riders are expected to travel this corridor in 2030 (compared with 31,000 in 2008).
Planned Bus Rapid Transit Projects in the South Bay
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BRT expands a transit network in places where there’s a demand for fast and frequent transit service — but where rail might not be justified. It can represent a big enough infrastructure improvement to support new development and more livable communities. In Cleveland, development of the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT has led to $4.3 billion dollars in spin-off investments and more than 13.5 million square feet of new development.
What makes BRT tricky is in the details of integrating it on existing streets. Where will stations be located? How will giving a lane to BRT impact auto traffic and parking? How will changes to the streetscape affect local businesses? Particularly in commercial districts and downtowns, there can be many stakeholders — and many negotiations about how to allocate streets and sidewalks. For the Santa Clara/Alum Rock project, SPUR worked with all the parties involved to try to maintain BRT best practices while also mitigating community concerns. The issues we grappled with illustrate what makes BRT a challenge to implement:
1. WIN: There will be a BRT station in front of San Jose City Hall — not a block away. SPUR supported locating the City Hall BRT station directly in front of City Hall (between 5th and 6th streets), rather than one block east, as the city initially preferred due to security concerns. We argued that locating in front of City Hall would save a large amount of money (the original location would have required property acquisition costing hundreds of thousands of dollars), activate City Hall’s plaza and better serve major destinations – City Hall and San Jose State University. Additionally, the City Hall station represents an important opportunity for local government to lead by example and embrace BRT at its front door.
2. WIN: The downtown San Jose station has the right design for its location.Initially, the downtown station (on Santa Clara Street, between 1st and 2nd streets) borrowed its design from other BRT stations in suburban locations. A BRT stop on the median of a busy suburban boulevard needs heavy design elements to make patrons feel safe. But a downtown station needs the opposite — light elements that don’t clutter the sidewalk or block pedestrian access. Based on SPUR’s suggested refinements, city and VTA staff and their consultants made considerable modifications, creating a station we believe will integrate much better with the downtown streetscape. Changes such as the size and placement of awnings and benches go a long way toward improving aesthetics, pedestrian flow on the sidewalk and patron comfort while waiting for transit.
3. OUTCOME UNCLEAR: The current service design does not prevent BRT buses from getting delayed behind autos. Numerous changes in the design of the downtown BRT service have been considered over the past year. VTA’s original plan would have keep BRT buses in mixed-flow traffic lanes with other vehicles. This design provided sidewalk bulb outs for safe and efficient bus loading and avoided conflicts between autos turning right or left across bus traffic. But it also would have required cars to wait or move around loading buses, so City of San Jose staff and the San Jose Downtown Association asked VTA to modify the design. The revised design attempts to accommodate four lanes of autos and requires buses to move in and out of mixed-flow traffic to load and unload in the curbside lane.
Since this design would delay buses, potentially taking the “rapid” out of bus rapid transit, SPUR advocated for VTA to study dedicated bus-only lanes throughout the downtown. VTA found that dedicated lanes would significantly improve bus travel times, but the city — facing concerns from downtown business interests about slowing travel for cars — opposed the idea. When a coalition of organizations including SPUR, TransForm, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Greenbelt Alliance and Working Partnerships voiced concern, VTA developed “transition lanes,” which would put a dedicated space before and after each stop to help buses move in and out of mixed-flow traffic faster.
Downtown interests have now advocated against transition lanes in order to retain the 10 spaces of on-street parking that would be lost — a position SPUR firmly disagrees with. The current design does include transition lanes, but because they are simply painted on the ground, they have remained up for debate by the VTA’s board. The timing of transition lane implementation, along with whether to allow left or right turns across bus traffic, has now been left to a VTA advisory board. We have not yet solved the problem of car traffic delaying rapid buses in Downtown San Jose.
Santa Clara BRT Proposed Station Layout
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What Did We Learn?
VTA and the City of San Jose deserve much recognition for moving the Santa Clara/Alum RockBRT project forward, but their success came at a cost to the BRT service. Just 1.9 of the Santa Clara/Alum Rock project’s 7.2 miles will be separated from autos on dedicated lanes. According to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s BRT Scorecard, the Santa Clara/Alum Rockproject would be called “basic” BRT. As we move other Bay Area BRT projects forward, we can aspire to bronze, silver or gold rankings by including dedicated lanes and adding rider amenities rather than removing them.
BRT decisions will continue to be made across the region in the months ahead. VTA is now looking at seven possible alignments for the 17.3-mile El Camino BRT route, which will serve the cities of San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos and Palo Alto. The alignments being studied include a dedicated lane for BRT throughout, which VTA is studying despite opposition from leaders in many of those cities. In San Francisco, after many years of negotiations with stakeholders, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is seeking to certify an environmental impact report for BRT on Van Ness Boulevard in July. This project is being proposed as “fully featured BRT,” which includes dedicated lanes for BRT and pedestrian improvements along Van Ness. As they move ahead, these projects will need support from many sources to retain their defining features.
Thanks to special buses and branding, transit signal priority and rapid boarding, the Santa Clara/Alum Rockproject will likely provide many of the benefits of BRT. And there will be many opportunities to create higher standard BRT service by adding quality pedestrian and bike facilities, clear wayfinding, real-time travel information and supportive parking policies. But when we choose not to give BRT riders priority on the street, we set BRT up to fail in its potential as “rapid” transit.
BRT has proven to be a test of our best policy intentions. The City of San Jose’s General Plan boldly defined a policy of reducing driving alone from 80 to 40 percent of all commutes by 2040. This is a worthy and ambitious goal, but to get there we must give BRT projects the support they need to succeed.
- May 24, 2013By Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director
Before we paved the streets of San Francisco, little creeks and wetlands were abundant. Today, as in most cities, these natural water features have been replaced by a sewer network that effectively throws away rainwater instead of finding ways to reuse it. But a new 20-year, $6 billion capital program could be the start of a new approach to stormwater management. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is launching this effort with a handful of small demonstration projects — and the agency wants input from residents in deciding where they should go and what they should look like.
Urban creeks and wetland systems have largely been destroyed in San Francisco, with just vestiges of the city’s eight watersheds visible or touchable anymore (and even then, a lot of sleuthing is involved to find them). But the seasonal rainwater and everyday groundwater they once conveyed to the sea hasn’t disappeared. The city’s native water now runs off streets, roofs and parking lots — or is pumped from underneath basements and streets — into the tunnels and pipes of our sewer system. From there, it’s conveyed to treatment plants, treated just like all the rest of our sewage, and ultimately discharged to the bay or ocean. San Francisco’s sewer system, like those of many older U.S. cities, is called a combined sewer system because it mixes every kind of “nuisance” water together and treats it the same way. This benefits us in some ways, because our system can contain a lot of stormwater runoff and clean it up before releasing it to the sensitive estuarine ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay or to the Pacific Ocean. But there are drawbacks: We are basically throwing away high-quality water instead of reusing it or recycling it. After contaminating this water by mixing it with sewage, we are then paying a lot to treat it back to its original condition. And, we’ve almost entirely lost the ecosystems and natural habitat our water resources once supported.
For many years, SPUR has advocated for remedying the damages of today’s wastewater system while recognizing the essential economic and public health services it performs. Without wastewater treatment, our city could not exist; if it were to fail for more than a few hours, life would be pretty dismal (and gross). Key retrofits and investments in the system over time have made it much more protective of the marine environment than it was when originally built 80 to 100 years ago. But we could get even more benefits by restoring certain natural functions of our watersheds, and by using nature-based solutions to control stormwater runoff. Referred to as “green infrastructure,” these fully engineered yet nature-based solutions can include bioretention planters, street trees, swales, green roofs, permeable pavement, daylighting creeks and more. Their benefits extend beyond the scope of stormwater treatment and include beautifying streets, creating habitat, sequestering carbon dioxide, improving pedestrian experiences and safety, and enhancing property values.
In our 2006 policy report Integrated Water Management, SPUR called on the city to shift its thinking about stormwater problems from remediation to prevention by slowing, percolating, retaining and treating water where it falls — before it enters the piped wastewater system. We recommended a four-part strategy: expanding the urban forest, adopting street and park designs to reduce stormwater runoff, using stormwater for productive uses and promoting green roofs. We also urged a shift in thinking about expenditures — from the up-front bottom line to the long-term return on investment — and recommended that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), which has purview over the city’s waters, adopt aseparate rate structure for stormwater to incentivize onsite treatment (a recommendation we advanced again in a recent paper). In 2008, as the SFPUC was on the brink of adopting a long-term sewer system master plan, we suggested that goals for this plan include a green infrastructure approach to managing stormwater and creating environmental benefits. In the last few years, other major U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Portland, have launched city-wide green infrastructure strategies, in many cases because it was shown to be the most cost-effective, economically beneficial alternative for meeting federal clean water requirements.
In the seven years since, we’ve continued to advocate for the “big idea” of a multi-billion dollar sewer system capital program, working with other SF groups such as SWAle and aided by great technical work from the SFPUC Urban Watersheds team. Now, the momentum is finally building in San Francisco. The city has adopted goals and is now pursuing the first phase of its sewer system upgrade —called the Sewer System Improvement Program or SSIP — a twenty year, $6 billion capital program to improve seismic reliability and sustainability of the system. A sizeable chunk of that investment, around $400 million, is currently planned for green infrastructure. In 2012, the SFPUC published an Urban Watershed Framework that described how it plans to evaluate and implement green infrastructure projects by watershed, and select alternatives according to a “triple bottom line” evaluation, which assesses a project on financial, social and environmental outcomes.
Urban Watershed Project “Triple Bottom Line” Evaluation Criteria
But even with this big financial commitment made and a project selection process identified, there is a lot of work ahead before we can make the big transformative moves. Currently, the SFPUC is undertaking a broad and deep watershed characterization and assessment processfor each of the city’s eight watersheds. This will reveal sewer system weaknesses, flooding or groundwater problems, soil types and more. At the same time, the agency is leading an effort to quickly site, design and install eight green infrastructure early implementation projects (EIPs) scattered around San Francisco. These small pilot projects will serve three really important functions. First, they will show people what’s possible with respect to transforming the streetscape — and hopefully convince ratepayers that these retrofits are worth paying for. Second, they will give us some experience with project performance. We don’t really know, other than through computer modeling, how successful the wide variety of green infrastructure types may be in San Francisco’s unique climate and urban environment. Some types of projects may perform better than others, and on-the-ground experience is the best way to get a sense of which types of projects we’d like to deploy more widely, and where. (We don’t have a lot of green infrastructure in the ground to date, so a smattering of diverse pilot projects is a reasonable place to begin.) Finally, the EIPs will teach us best practices in stakeholder engagement, design and maintenance for the various types of green infrastructure we might want to roll out more widely over the next 20 years. They’ll help us learn, so by the time we’re able to make the $400 million commitment through the SSIP, we’ll get the best bang for the buck (considering the triple bottom line, of course).
The SFPUC aims to build all the EIPs in the next three to five years, and here’s where you come in. Right now you can provide input on the first EIP underway, the Mission & Valencia Green Gateway. This project, on Valencia Street between Mission and Cesar Chavez, will build on previous planning efforts by the SF Municipal Transportation Agency and SF Planning Department to improve community spaces and pedestrian safety through traffic calming. Next, you can join a planning charrette on Saturday, June 1, here at SPUR, to identify opportunity sites in the Channel and North Shore Basin watersheds, and help the SFPUC plan stormwater solutions in the most densely urbanized part of our city (RSVP required).
SPUR will be closely tracking the SSIP, as we have for years, to ensure the SFPUC stays committed to green infrastructure, and to the social and environmental outcomes we believe the city can have with a 21st-century-ready wastewater system. We may have once buried the creeks of San Francisco to accommodate the city’s growth, but we now know that a livable city can sustain and benefit from both.
- May 20, 2013By Sarah Karlinsky, Deputy Director
Last month the San Francisco Planning Department released a draft of the Central Corridor Plan, the result of several years of planning efforts. The plan represents an enormous opportunity to build on the substantial transit investment in the area, including the $1.6 billion Central Subway project, as well as existing transit in the form of the 4th and Caltrain station and the N-Judah Muni line, as well as many frequent local buses. While the plan is a great step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough in concentrating housing and especially jobs in this transit-rich location — one of the key areas in San Francisco, and the region, where going big makes sense.
With stations for Caltrain, BART, Muni and the new Central Subway, the Central Corridor Plan area is extremely well served by transit.
What the Plan Gets Right
There’s much to like in the Central Corridor Plan, including greater flexibility in zoning, with an eye toward encouraging jobs. The plan proposes requiring commercial development on larger parcels, particularly since they can accommodate the bigger floor plates favored by tech companies seeking large, open work spaces. Given the presence of regional transit such as BART and Caltrain in the district, locating jobs here would make best use of the transit infrastructure and its ability to bring in a broad labor force from across the region. As the plan notes, people are more likely to take transit when it brings them very close to their jobs. In other words, to get people out of their cars, jobs need to be located on transit lines.
Walking and Biking
The plan proposes streetscape and circulation improvements that would make it easier to get around by foot and bicycle. Currently many streets in the area lack wide sidewalks and other amenities that encourage walking and help people feel safe crossing the street. While the area is flat and could be great for biking, the lack of bike lanes and the speed of traffic currently make cycling in the area very unpleasant. The plan proposes a series of improvements to address these challenges.
One of the improvements SPUR would be most excited to see is a new mid-block open space similar in size and location to nearby South Park. This park would be located on a site between Freelon and Welsh streets (currently controlled by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission) one block west of South Park. Such a space could be a great addition to the entire area and should be pursued further.
Additionally, the plan focuses on alleys as a form of open space and includes ways to improve the flexibility of these spaces and make them more usable for everyone.
A new park similar in scale to South Park would help to provide badly needed open space in the district.
The plan advocates for making the Central Corridor an eco-district— a sustainability plan that operates at the neighborhood level. Approaching green systems at this scale offers many opportunities to accelerate sustainability, which we discuss in a recent blog post on the city’s plans for a Central Corridor Eco-District.
What the Plan Could Do Better
While the plan does rightly allow for a greater variety of uses, it doesn’t go far enough in allowing for taller building heights in the area. There will be two alternatives studied in the plan’s environmental impact report: the Mid-Rise Alternative and the High Rise Alternative. The draft plan asserts that the area should be maintained as a predominantly mid-rise district for two main reasons: first, mid-rise development is preferable because it reinforces the existing urban form characterized by older commercial and industrial structures, and second, the companies that would be drawn to locate in this area prefer buildings with larger floor plates.
But these ideas should be challenged. Many successful urban areas, including San Francisco’s downtown, benefit from a high degree of height variation, including the location of high-rise buildings next to mid-rise and even low-rise historic structures. The variation in heights is in part what amplifies the relationship of old to new and makes urban areas exciting. Second, the companies that seek to locate in this area in the next five years will likely have very different needs than the companies that might seek to locate here in the next 10 to 20. For example, tech companies are now beginning to take space in the high-rise Financial District (albeit in mid-rise, large-floor-plate buildings), despite earlier projections that these kinds of companies would not locate there.
SPUR believes that the most critical consideration for this district is the integration of transportation and land-use. This must be balanced against what companies want in the short or even medium term. For this reason, we argue that, at minimum, the High Rise Alternative should be put forward as the preferred alternative. However, even the High Rise Alternative could be improved from a height perspective.
These renderings show what development is allowed in the Central Corridor under existing zoning (the orange forms in the top image) compared to what development would be allowable in the district under the Central Corridor Plan (orange forms in the lower image). The proposed height changes are modest and may not be tall enough given the extensive transit infrastructure in the area.
The draft plan will begin the environmental review process in the next few weeks. SPUR will continue to analyze the plan, supporting all of its great aspects while advocating for improvements.Tags: community planning
- May 16, 2013By Benjamin Grant, Public Realm and Urban Design Program Manager
Starting May 20, SPUR embarks on a week-long experiment in public placemaking in San Francisco. Working with the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District, we will close Annie Alley to car traffic in order to host a series of outdoor public events, including a picnic, a film screening, a concert and a discussion of the role Zuccotti Park played in Occupy Wall Street.
What is it about an alley that inspires urban invention? As we kick off our week of investigation, we pause to reflect on the humble alley and its role in the city.
The Backstory on Back Alleys
Most alleys had simple utilitarian origins as ways to access buildings with goods and vehicles — especially where a socially decorous street frontage was desired. Commercial blocks in older American cities are often bisected by alleys. In Los Angeles, many retail streets have alleys for service and parking immediately behind the stores, with larger residential blocks behind. Residential alleys serve townhouse districts in Boston’s Back Bay and much of Washington, D.C., (but not New York). In Venice Beach, alleys make canals and “walk-streets” possible.
Beijing’s hutong and Shanghai’s longtang alleys are the basis of the traditional residential fabric. These narrow lanes host a rich mixture of local functions, including access to the modular courtyard houses they serve. The explosive growth of Chinese cities has made these districts and their way of life something of an endangered species despite belated efforts at preservation.
What Alleys Offer
Alleys are the capillaries of the city’s circulation system — the smallest unit, where movement is the slowest and exchange the highest. Beyond the utility of loading, parking and rear access, alleys subdivide blocks into shorter segments, providing shortcuts and frequent route choices. In San Jose, the Paseo de San Antonio allows pedestrians to cut through blocks that would be 800 feet long, and in San Francisco, alleys allow pedestrians to navigate the outsized blocks South of Market. The finer grain of circulation provided by these small streets is one of the hallmarks of a walkable city.
Often as not, alleys have been associated with fear, criminal activity, speakeasies, forbidden pleasures and creeping dangers. Hidden from view, away from the city’s more presentable facades, alleys offered fertile terrain for underground culture, marginalized groups and unsanctioned behavior. In the 19th century, the alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown hosted bordellos, opium dens and gambling parlors, all luridly chronicled in the anglo press. A century later, San Francisco’s gay leather scene thrived in the alleys south of Market, as did punk and electronic dance music. The back alleys of the city offer openings into the back alleys of our culture, charged with both the allure and the dread we project on unknown urban quarters.
Alleys have also provided a ready canvas for street art, from Chicano muralismo andhip-hop bombing to wheatpasting and stenciling. Assertions of identity and resistance mix with personal visions, wit, and out-and-out vandalism, each defined in the eye of the beholder. Spots like Balmy and Clarion alleys, which started as handy surfaces away from prying eyes, have become urban galleries, first tolerated and then cherished as each layer of expression has drawn more in turn.
Urban designers are preoccupied with “spatial enclosure” — the way spaces are given three-dimensional shape by the surrounding buildings, creating urban “rooms.” Suburbs have almost no enclosure, while the gothic quarter of Barcelona is its apotheosis. Alleys are one of the few reliable sources of enclosure in American cities. Where wide thoroughfares are the norm, these kinds of spaces provide the exception, a source of relief from the prevailing pattern, another stratum to explore. Some of the city’s keenest pleasures are offered by the transitions in scale — from the thrum of the grand boulevard to the quiet of the back streets. Nowhere is this more true than South of Market, where Jasper O’Farrell, the city’s first surveyor, laid out a tract of 100-vara lots — twice the size of the lots north of Market. Today these blocks sit among streets dominated by auto traffic. Here, alleys provide the saving grace, a human-scale refuge and an alternative network for the savvy pedestrian. Some have been choked off and built over, others artfully revitalized. But most remain just as they were: narrow, forgotten spaces, inviting exploration and reimagination.
The enclosure and intimate scale of alleys shines when they are repurposed as gathering spaces, creating urban rooms that spring to life when filled with diners and revelers. Claude and Belden lanes, packed wall-to-wall with restaurant seating under festive lights, are the most celebrated San Francisco examples. Mint Plaza takes the idea far enough that it’s easy to forget the seedy alley it supplanted. Berkeley’s Trumpetvine Court and Stone Street in lower Manhattan are two more, but nearly every good city has a handful.
At their best, alleys can combine nearly all of these functions, becoming containers for the particular magic of city life: discovery, creative expression, memorable spaces and life lived and celebrated out and about, in one another’s company.
Attend our Annie Alley events:
- May 7, 2013By Lenka Belkova and Ratna Amin
How would you improve the transit system for neighborhoods in the northeast part of San Francisco? This was the key question SPUR asked at a transit planning workshop for the city’s northeast neighborhoods last month. The workshop brought together representatives from key public agencies, North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf businesses, the tourism industry and neighborhood advocacy groups, as well as transportation professionals.
Neighborhoods in Chinatown, North Beach and other northeast environs are some of the densest in the city — similar in population density to the Upper West and Upper East sides of Manhattan. Sixty-eight percent of residents in the corridor from Chinatown to the waterfront do not own a vehicle. And Fisherman’s Wharf enjoys 9 to 12 million visitors per year, meanwhile acting as a job center for thousands of workers. These levels of demand in a city are generally enough to warrant very high-capacity and high-frequency public transit. But public transit in this part of San Francisco is congested, unreliable and overcrowded. Existing routes also do not provide needed connectivity to growing job and activity centers to the west and to the south, such as SOMA.
Travel Times to Northeast Neighborhoods
The workshop allowed stakeholders to analyze their existing transit needs and imagine improvements. Participants raised many concerns with existing mobility and offered both short- and long-term actions that would improve the use of travel modes other than the car to get to or from northeast neighborhoods.
- Creating transit “hubs” that would provide connectivity between modes and routes — for example, better connecting bus lines, streetcars and cable cars.
- Better signage for transportation wayfinding, fare payment and station navigation, for both residents and visitors.
- Improving transit service between Fisherman’s Wharf and western neighborhoods such as the Marina, Cow Hollow and the Presidio.
- Putting transit lines underground in order to better use narrow streets and sidewalks for other activities and amenities.
- Advancing the E-Embarcadero project, which would extend streetcars from Fisherman’s wharf to Fort Mason, a service that will be piloted during the America’s Cup events.
- Adding a North Beach station to the T-Third subway light rail line, which is currently planned to end in Chinatown.
- Extending the T-Third light rail line to stations at Fisherman’s Wharf and possibly to the west or down the Embarcadero.
Community and business representatives at the workshop generally agreed that the densely populated North Beach, Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill neighborhoods, as well as Fisherman’s Wharf, would benefit from continuing the T-Third light rail line to provide a faster transportation choice for residents and tourists alike. Concerns with an above-ground extension were: making sure train length could be accommodated within the neighborhood block sizes, the need for a tunnel portal where the subway surfaces from underground, and visual or noise impacts. Challenges with continuing the underground subway included expense and the time required to fund and complete a project of this size.
The idea of a North Beach station was also discussed in some detail at the workshop. This concept drew attention after a recent controversy over the site for excavating the tunnel boring machines from the ground, originally planned for Washington Square. After local businesses disapproved of the long-term traffic disruption without any further benefit to the area, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency agreed to revisit its plan and pursue a more suitable excavation site at the former Pagoda Theater. Now locals have suggested that the theater, closed since 1994, could make a good site for a North Beach station. The change in the excavation site has added $9.15 million to the Central Subway budget, which — at $1.6 billion — is already viewed as problematic by some.
SPUR has previously supported analyzing an extension of the Central Subway into North Beach and beyond in order to maximize operational efficiency of the T-Third line and provide much needed high-capacity transit service to those neighborhoods.
- May 6, 2013By Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director
Over the last year, there’s been palpable buzz in San Francisco around eco-districts — essentially, sustainability plans that operate at the neighborhood scale. We’ve learned about different eco-district models and how eco-districts are working in Portland, Seattle, Brooklyn and Denver. The San Francisco Planning Department has been especially proactive in this learning process, putting together numerous presentations on district-scale infrastructure and sustainability throughout 2012. The largest of these meetings, held last August at SPUR, kicked off a planning process for an eco-district in the Central Corridor of San Francisco. This 24-square-block area south of Market Street, centered around 4th Street, is currently undergoing a neighborhood planning and rezoning process to better manage and support growth around the new Central Subway.
What’s the buzz about? In areas of transition like the Central Corridor — once an industrial area and increasingly the home of the city’s high-tech sector — neighborhood rezoning creates many opportunities for new development. Some of this will be private development on sites within the corridor, and some will be public investment in transportation assets, water, wastewater, energy and neighborhood parks. The Central Corridor Eco-District was conceived to help the transitioning neighborhood perform well on the city’s environmental goals for greenhouse gas reductions, zero waste, water conservation and efficiency, stormwater management, renewable energy, transportation and more.
In a city where neighborhood edges are somewhat blurry, why focus on sustainability at this scale instead of an “all-of-the-above, everywhere” approach? After all, many of the city’s environmental goals make the most sense when implemented wherever possible and feasible. For example, SF has a rule requiring all residents to compost and recycle; as a result the city is well on its way toward achieving its zero waste goals. Properties in the Central Corridor surely will comply, and perhaps even innovate to exceed our current citywide waste diversion rate of 78 percent. But there is little magic to the boundary around the Central Corridor in accelerating our progress on this goal. Similarly, cooperation between properties is unlikely to boost energy efficiency upgrades, which are typically performed within the building envelope.
But at the neighborhood scale, some things stand out as real possibilities to accelerate sustainability. In these cases, proximity to a specific project or opportunity — and to property owners interested in making it happen — could make all the difference. A neighborhood-scale focus can bring two unique opportunities to the cause of sustainability:
1. Neighborhood-scale aggregation of resource demand, such as energy and water. An eco-district organization in the Central Corridor might be able to enroll numerous properties in a solar group purchase, which secures discounted pricing, or in community-shared solar, possibly using the buildings in the district. An eco-district could also set up an efficient district energy system, which produces steam, heated water and chilled water at a central plant and distributes the energy to multiple connected buildings, so they do not need to have their own boilers or chillers. An eco-district organization could facilitate water reuse between properties, too, such as harvesting rainwater from multiple properties to irrigate a neighborhood park or street landscaping. New buildings that incorporate onsite water treatment or that are plumbed for recycled water (already a requirement in the Central Corridor) might soon be allowed to supply or use another property’s captured and treated wastewater for non-potable uses. In general, community-scale systems can offer lower development costs, reduced capital and operating costs, and higher property values.
2. A coordinated approach to meeting environmental goals, especially where there is a mix of existing land uses and building projects being developed under different time frames. While not all renewable energy or water reuse opportunities require neighborhood-scale participation to succeed, an organization dedicated to furthering sustainability goals within a neighborhood — especially following rezoning — may be able to find opportunities to invest in more sustainable systems. The SF Planning Department is already working on an evaluation of the Central Corridor’s energy use today, and what it might look like with changes from future growth; it is also planning a district energy system in the Transbay Redevelopment Area, another mixed-use, high-density development area that could benefit from a shared, closed-loop system. Eco-district organizations can engage existing property owners to identify a hyperlocal sustainability vision and goals, assess needs and opportunities, and identify the right timing and funding sources to build out the new infrastructure. They can be very proactive about local public engagement and in educating new property owners and managers about sustainability activities the district may require or encourage.
Optimal Energy Use at Different Scales
In the Central Corridor, there are several studies already underway to assess the potential for such sustainable infrastructure as district energy, district water, greening and habitat connectivity, and waste management. Over the next few months at SPUR, Central Corridor stakeholders, including property owners and city agencies, are meeting to establish an ecological vision for the neighborhood, and to figure out how an eco-district organization should be run. There are several models for this, including business management associations, and special tax districts, like community benefits districts, that allow property owners to tax themselves while keeping control of how pooled funds are spent.
Through it all, we should not forget that downtown San Francisco is already the most sustainable job center in the region due to its walkable, compact nature and its rich transit infrastructure. Besides making the Central Corridor more sustainable, we should make sure that the larger neighborhood rezoning process provides enough housing and employment space to meet our future needs. At SPUR we will be following these parallel processes to ensure the best possible outcome for the Central Corridor, the city and indeed the whole region’s sustainability goals.
- April 29, 2013By Egon Terplan and Ethan Lavine
SPUR has written several times about the development of Plan Bay Area since the planning process was kicked off a few years ago. Last month, the draft of the plan was finally released. What are the highlights in this 158-page plan and the accompanying 1,300-page environmental impact report? This post provides a summary of the Plan Bay Area draft and some of its key points. Keep an eye on the news feed at spur.org in the coming weeks for our official comment letter on the plan and what we think could be done to make it even stronger.
Recap: What Is Plan Bay Area, and Why Is It Important?
Plan Bay Area is a regional statement and projection about what the Bay Area could look like in 2040. Over the next 30 years, the Bay Area is projected to add 2.148 million new residents and 1.12 million new jobs. The planning questions inherent in Plan Bay Area are: Where will these new residents live? Where will they work? How will they get around? What percentage will live in apartments? What percentage will work in dense transit-oriented job centers? Accommodating this growth in a more sustainable way is at the heart of Plan Bay Area.
The emphasis on sustainability is a requirement under Senate Bill 375, California’s 2008 Climate Protection Act, which required that regions in California produce a Sustainable Communities Strategy (ours is Plan Bay Area). These strategies are intended to do the following:
1. Identify where all of the region’s future population — at all income levels — will work and live over the next 25 years.
2. Set forth a forecasted development pattern, know as the “preferred scenario.”
3. Accommodate the future growth in a way that reduces per capita greenhouse gas emissions. The Bay Area is tasked with reducing per capita emissions by 7 percent in 2020 and 15 percent in 2035.
4. Describe a transportation investment strategy and transportation network that supports the regional land use pattern and reduces per capita greenhouse gas emissions.
Plan Bay Area formally combines two existing regional planning processes, the Regional Transportation Plan and the Regional Housing Needs Allocation. The goal is to better link regional transportation planning and funding with a projection for future land use. The Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) is a multi-decade statement of the region’s likely transportation spending projects and needs, produced every four years. This year’s RTP identifies $289 billion of likely funding over the life of the plan. The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) identifies the number of market rate and affordable housing units that each jurisdiction in the region is required to plan for over the upcoming seven years. The RHNA will be updated several times during the life of Plan Bay Area.
Plan Bay Area is the product of two regional agencies:
· The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional transportation funding agency for the Bay Area and the agency that historically produced the RTP.
· The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the council of governments responsible for growth projections and housing allocations and the agency responsible for RHNA.
Plan Bay Area is important because it seeks to describe a future Bay Area where the average person produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions from driving and where we plan for enough housing for the region’s expected growth. Importantly, it must accomplish those two goals in a way that reduces per capita emissions. Managing these important goals is intended to change the way existing regional agencies go about their planning work and lead to a more holistic approach to transportation planning. Once the plan is adopted, future housing and mixed-use projects that are consistent with the adopted plan will have a more streamlined approval process under the California Environmental Quality Act.
What Plan Bay Area Isn’t
An important caveat about the plan’s powers: Though it is regional in scope, Plan Bay Area does nothing to change local land use decisions or powers. ABAG and MTC have no direct power to decide where future development will actually occur or what natural lands will be preserved.
Plan Bay Area is perhaps misnamed since it is not a “plan” in the traditional sense of describing specific zoning changes at a neighborhood scale. Instead, the plan is more of a statement about growth that local governments can look to when making land use and development decisions. The plan has slightly more direct power to affect travel patterns because it prioritizes transportation investments such as transit projects and policy suggestions, including increased bridge tolls and a potential driving fee based on miles traveled.
What Are Highlights of the Draft Plan?
The Plan Bay Area draft includes performance targets, long-range demographic and economic forecasts, and investment strategies for everything from road maintenance to climate projection programs, such as a regional electric vehicle charger network.
What are the most significant elements of the plan? Let’s take a closer look at how the draft seeks to shape and reshape the region’s land use patterns and transportation network.
Land Use: Almost no greenfield development
A major highlight of the Plan Bay Area draft is that it accommodates virtually all new development within the existing urbanized footprint of the Bay Area. In other words, it projects a region that does not sprawl further. It assumes continued protection of agricultural lands and enforcement of existing urban growth boundaries.
Where will all of the new growth happen? The Plan Bay Area draft directs growth first and foremost to the jurisdictions that have expressed a willingness to accommodate new housing and employment centers. In recent years, some local governments have worked with MTC and ABAG to identify and establish priority development areas, or PDAs, in their jurisdictions that will accommodate infill housing development and employment centers. The plan projects that PDAs will accommodate 80 percent of housing growth and 66 percent of job growth.
The central cities also become a major recipient of growth under the plan. Nearly 40 percent of new jobs will be accommodated in San Francisco (190,740 new jobs), San Jose (146,680 new jobs) and Oakland (85,240 new jobs) between 2010 and 2040. Two-thirds of housing would locate in just 15 of the more than 100 cities in the region.
Transportation: Almost all funds for maintenance, not expansion
Plan Bay Area identifies $289 billion in available funds for transportation projects over the next three decades and prioritizes how they should be spent. More than half of the total funding (53 percent) comes from local sources, like sales taxes, that are often already dedicated to specific investments. An additional 32 percent come from state and federal sources. MTC directly controls the remaining 15 percent of the funding. However, the agency also has significant influence on how the federal and state funds are directed because it serves as a gatekeeper of sorts for directing funds to regional transportation projects.
How would the draft of Plan Bay Area spend this $289 billion? By adopting a “fix it first” policy, MTC is dedicating the vast majority of funding (86 percent) to the maintenance and improvement of the region’s existing transportation system. While the Bay Area already devotes more of its funding to maintenance than other regions in California, this is an increase from about 80 percent in prior plans.
Of the $289 billion in funding, $232 billion is already committed to existing projects. This leaves $57 billion in so-called discretionary funds that can go to one of many projects based on future policy decisions and criteria. For example, the draft plan also includes $14 billion in the new One Bay Area Grant program, which will provide flexible funding for transportation infrastructure largely to support growth in the PDAs. The grants are intended to assist jurisdictions to plan for new transit-oriented housing projects, and also to invest in improvements to infrastructure necessary to support infill development, such as new bicycle lanes and more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.
Overall, 62 percent of the plan’s funding is devoted to transit, with most of that going to maintenance and a small share for expansion. The plan identifies $114 billion for transit operations and argues that this level of investment will fully fund transit operating needs. It also identifies $30 billion for transit capital projects out of a total need of $47 billion (leaving a shortfall of $17 billion). And it includes a new $500 million “Transit Performance Initiative” whose goal is to support improvements on major transit corridors that will likely see future growth.
Some of the big transit projects in the plan include $8.3 billion for BART to San Jose, $4.2 billion for extending Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center and $1.6 billion for Muni’s Central Subway. The plan also includes nearly $6.7 billion for expanding MTC’s express lanes (i.e., freeway carpool lanes) in more parts of the region and $1.5 billion for Valley Transit Authority express lanes in Santa Clara County. Other road projects include nearly $2.3 billion in freeway performance funds (such as metering lights) and $2 billion for the Presidio Parkway.
Policy: The plan acknowledges that some policy changes will be necessary for it to suceed
Without changes to the region’s policy structure, the plan will not likely be achieved. For example, Plan Bay Area assumes a continuation of the same level of investment that took place under California’s redevelopment program. But with redevelopment agencies shuttered last year, there is no such funding mechanism in place today.
Plan Bay Area identifies some of the initial policy projections worth considering. Many of these are ideas SPUR has advocated:
- Reduce the fiscalization of land use (by exploring tools like tax-base sharing).
- Establish a replacement for redevelopment.
- Support lowering the threshold for local transportation sales tax measures from two-thirds to 55 percent.
- Implement some form of road pricing, both through charging for single occupant vehicles to drive in carpool lanes and establishing a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee, where drivers would pay an annual fee based on how many miles they drove that year.
What Are the Alternatives to the Plan, and How Do They Differ?
If you’ve been following Plan Bay Area, you may have heard about the alternatives to the plan — variations on the draft version that put forward policies designed to achieve somewhat different objectives and outcomes. As part of the environmental review process for Plan Bay Area, ABAG and MTC review the environmental impact of their draft against the three alternative plans as well as a business-as-usual approach.
The Plan Bay Area draft provides a summary of the differences between the alternative plans (pg. 114):
In addition to the “preferred scenario” described in the Plan Bay Area document and a control scenario of adopting no plan at all, there are three other scenarios tested:
- The Transit Priority Focus alternative, which focuses more growth in areas with higher densities and existing transit.
- The Enhanced Network of Communities alternative, which projects a more dispersed land use pattern and higher population, housing and employment totals.
- The Environment, Equity and Jobs alternative, which focuses more development and low-income housing growth in jobs-rich communities near transit that are often located farther away from the urban core.
Some of the key policy variables tested in the different alternatives are:
- Instituting a development fee in areas with high VMT rates and using proceeds to invest in growth in lower VMT areas
- Establishing higher tolls for peak traffic times on the Bay Bridge
- Changing funding for transit
- Deciding whether or not to build new carpool lanes
- Increasing the projection for total housing production (which would result in higher overall job growth
On most measures examined in the EIR, the differences between the draft plan and the various alternatives are fairly slight. All four plans are projected to reduce per capita carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks, house the region’s projected population growth and increase the gross regional product. These often-minor differences in performance make sense, as all four plans overlap a great deal in their proposed policies for land use and transportation investments. The great challenge in weighing the merits of the draft plan against the alternatives comes in making sense of the impact of multiple, sometimes overlapping, policies aimed at achieving the same general goals.
What Happens Next?
Now that the draft is out, the public has an opportunity to provide comments in response to both the Plan Bay Area draft and the EIR. Public hearings on the draft plan are underway, with one scheduled in each of the Bay Area’s nine counties. Public comments can also be submitted by email. The comment period ends May 16, and final adoption of the plan is schedule for this summer.
SPUR will respond in detail to the Plan Bay Area draft in a comment letter to MTC and ABAG. Keep an eye on the newsfeed at spur.org for our full analysis.
- April 25, 2013By Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has selected SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf and Monique Zmuda of the SF Office of the Controller to co-chair his 2030 Transportation Task Force. While the mayor has made it clear that fixing Muni one of his top priorities, the group will look broadly at both local and regional transportation needs. Like other task forces the mayor has convened, this one will tackle a seemingly intractable problem: transportation funding.
The group’s goal is to “identify transportation capital priorities for the city and connect these plans and priorities to existing and new funding sources.” This will include evaluating existing capital plans, proposed capital plans and visioning for other potential plans. By the task force’s final meeting in October, the body is expected to present recommendations to the mayor. The group will meet eight times, not including scheduled site visits to bus and trolley facilities and a light rail site tour.
San Francisco’s local and regional transportation infrastructure is largely deteriorating. This includes streets, transit vehicles, rails and numerous other facilities, all of which have enormous funding needs just to maintain current conditions. And that doesn’t even address the capacity increases needed to accommodate the 2 million new people expected in the Bay Area by 2030.
While local funding sources can be cultivated to address some of these needs, it will be nearly impossible to fund them all. At the most recent task force meeting, city staff detailed a number of competing priorities:
- The Department of Public Works (DPW) explained what happens to streets if you don’t “fix it first.” A street block costs $240,600 over 75 years to maintain at excellent condition on average. However, allowing it to deteriorate until it reaches poor condition, then maintaining it at only fair condition on average, would cost $872,800 over 75 years. Street quality affects all travel modes: walking, cycling, transit, autos and trucks. DPW has more than $1 billion in deferred capital renewal needs, i.e. investments that preserve or extend the useful life of facilities or infrastructure.
- The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) explained that its network, fleets and facilities are in urgent need of upgrading in order to meet the city’s ambitious goals to increase transit ridership. SFMTA delivers $828 million in services annually but needs $50 million more per year just to deliver its current transit service plan — and it will need another $20 million to deliver other key services like “complete streets,” i.e. amenities that accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders. At the same time, SFMTA needs $510 million per year to maintain its assets in a “state of good repair” but is currently funded at $260 million per year. As with streets, delaying maintenance on assets like trolley buses, or waiting for them to fail before repairing them, results in far greater lifetime costs.
- SFMTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), if funded, would create 13 rapid and 10 frequent Muni bus routes. Meanwhile Muni provides services that may not be cost effective: 70 percent of Muni’s stops exceed the agency’s stop-spacing standards. (All of the rapid and frequent routes will meet those standards.)
- SFMTA showed that the city’s significant mode shift to bicycle use (a more than 71 percent increase in the number of people biking between 2006 and 2011) has come at a very low capital and operating cost. But a $170 million gap remains to fund the bicycle network scenario in the agency’s strategic plan. SFMTA also explained its process challenges: inter-agency coordination and capital project delivery continue to be slow, particularly for pedestrian projects. A task force member suggested that a pedestrian bulbout that costs the SFMTA $260,000 to construct costs half as much in New York City due to more efficient process.
The competing priorities are not limited to San Francisco: Future meetings will investigate how county capital needs are impacted by high-speed rail, the plan to modernize Caltrain and extend it to the new Transbay Transit Center, and other large transportation projects. We will report back on the recommendations that the task force develops.
- April 24, 2013By Sarah Karlinsky, Deputy Director
Last Thursday, on the 107th anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake, SF Mayor Ed Lee signed the mandatory soft-story retrofit program into law. SPUR has long advocated for this legislation, which will help make San Francisco more resilient in a major earthquake.
Soft-story buildings are those with large openings for storefront windows or garages, which cause the ground floor to be weak, leaving it vulnerable to damage or even collapse in an earthquake. The legislation focuses on wood-frame apartment buildings with three or more stories and five or more units that were built before modern code changes adopted in 1978. San Francisco’s Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS) estimates that at least 2,800 of these buildings have a soft-story condition. Combined they are home to roughly 58,000 people and 2,000 businesses.
Currently, these buildings pose a significant threat to San Francisco’s ability to recover from a disaster. The city estimates that between 43 and 85 percent of the 2,800 soft-story buildings would be tagged as “unsafe” after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on the San Andreas fault, and a quarter of those would be expected to collapse. If these buildings are retrofitted, however, the people living in them will be much less likely to risk being killed, injured or displaced by a disaster.
The new law requires that buildings with potential soft-story conditions be screened and evaluated. Those determined to have soft-story conditions will then need to complete upgrades over a period of several years.
SPUR has written several reports about the role that the existing housing stock can play in enhancing or undermining the city’s resilience. Resilience — the ability to respond to an earthquake emergency and to recover without lasting disruption — can be measured by the speed and completeness with which essential functions, and eventually routine operations, are restored. We identified a goal that 95 percent of San Francisco’s housing should be strong enough that people can stay in their homes after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake. One of our key recommendations to achieve this goal was the development of a mandatory soft-story retrofit program for wood-frame multifamily housing.
Estimates show that only 75 percent of the city’s current housing stock will provide adequate shelter for residents after a major earthquake. This means that San Francisco is at risk of losing its most important asset — its people. This new law helps to greatly increase the amount of housing that will be safe enough for people to inhabit after the next earthquake.
We thank the mayor and the SF Board of Supervisors, as well as the earthquake safety implementation team including Patrick Otellini, Laurence Kornfield and Micah Hilt, for their leadership on this important issue.