Blog » community planning
- 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.
- March 11, 2013By Benjamin Grant, Public Realm and Urban Design Program Manager
How do we create the kinds of compact, walkable environments that can have a real impact on car use and carbon emissions? SPUR San Jose’s Urban Design Task Force is working to foster well-designed new development that will support the city’s 2040 General Plan goals of a more walkable, livable and transit-friendly built environment. To understand the current state of development practice, we spent a recent Saturday visiting projects up and down the peninsula, focusing on large, multi-building developments that aim to introduce a more urban land use pattern. Each project we saw has its strengths and weaknesses, and each holds lessons for San Jose — and all growing cities — about the challenges of retrofitting suburbia into more sustainable communities.
Stop 1: Mission Bay, San Francisco
Developer: Catellus, Alexandria
6,000 residential units, 1,800+ affordable
43-acre, 2.3 million sf UCSF campus
280,000 sf retail
4.4 million sf office/biotech
49 acres of public parks and open space
The use of redevelopment tools (which California eliminated last year) and the location of UCSF's biomedical research campus were key elements driving development at Mission Bay, a new San Francisco neighborhood on the former Southern Pacific railyards. The campus has successfully attracted a cluster of private biotech firms, a boon to the city’s economy and to the economics of Mission Bay land.
The development plan for the site stipulated not only uses and densities, but also the location, design, and phasing of public realm improvements like parks, plazas and promenades. These standards mean that developers’ obligations are clear to everyone and the design framework is non-negotiable. Parks and open space must be built out before private buildings, and parking must be placed away from street fronts. One of the great successes of Mission Bay is the integration of new construction with the public realm, which is not San Francisco's strong suit in general. The promenade along Mission Creek Channel is an under-appreciated gem, offering a model of truly integrated public space and private development.
Stop 2: Bay Meadows, San Mateo
Developer: Stockbridge Capital
87-acre former stable area and practice track
735 residential units
272,000 sf office and retail, including a Whole Foods Grocery
Kaiser Medical Center
Phase 2 (under construction)
Developer: Wilson Meany
1,250,000 sf office
1,250 residential units
150,000 sf retail
15 acres of public parks
Bay Meadows, the site of a former racetrack adjacent to the Hillsdale Caltrain station in San Mateo, has recently begun construction on the second phase of its conversion to a mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood. Our visit to the first phase, completed by Stockbridge in 2011, revealed some of the key ingredients of good urban design. Office, retail, health care and housing are in close proximity, organized around a clear framework of streets, pedestrian pathways, parks and plazas. This phase is some distance from Caltrain, making it more internally oriented than transit oriented, but it represents a significant improvement over typical suburban development projects.
At phase 2, Wilson Meany has recently initiated construction on two parcels of an ambitious and considerably more urban project, which clusters office space, housing, retail, and public parks around the Caltrain Station. Office uses are nearest the station, flanked by a retail street that connects to several types of housing, at densities that increase as they get closer the station. An independent school holds one major site and the developer has opted to pay for the largest park up front, rather than await the city process.
Although no redevelopment powers were used at Bay Meadows, the project benefited from the large single parcel of land and from a tightly worded specific plan and development agreement with the city of San Mateo, including schematic-level architectural designs. This creates an unusual degree of clarity and certainty, drawing recession-weary builders to participate. As the master developer, Wilson Meany is the steward of this more urban vision, and the firm is the first line of review for any changes.
Stop 3: Sunnyvale Town Center, Sunnyvale
In Downtown Sunnyvale, land around the Caltrain station is in the process of redevelopment from a midcentury auto-oriented retail center into a dense mix of office, housing, and urban retail. The Sunnyvale Town Center project has been stalled for about two years in litigation resulting from the bankruptcy of the original developers after the 2008 economic collapse. With elements of the project half built, it awaits resolution by the courts before a new developer can step in and complete it.
In spite of its challenges, the City of Sunnyvale has stuck to its vision and implemented those portions that could move forward. A public plaza with an underground garage connects Caltrain to office buildings that meet the street. Both Apple and Nokia have occupied buildings recently, proving that tech has a life beyond the sealed suburban campus. Significant multifamily housing projects are under construction. A Target store that predates the lawsuit sits above ground-floor parking that is lined with small retail bays, awaiting future tenants and suggesting a compelling approach to the challenges of urban big-box retail. And Murphy Avenue — a historic block of small-scale retail — thrives, hosting a farmer’s market among the half-built hulks of a future held hostage by legal wrangling.
Stop 4: Brocade /@First, San Jose
73,000 sf shopping center
880,000 sf tech office (Brocade HQ)
The @First project combines the headquarters of Brocade Networks with a hotel, Target store and additional retail. The 36-acre site lies on North First Street in a relatively suburban context. Market forces in North San Jose have picked up sufficiently to support high quality multistory commercial buildings, structured parking, and hotel towers, on the same site as significant retail – many of the ingredients of good urban places.
Horizontal mixed-use projects (in which complementary land uses are placed in different buildings) like Brocade are a key opportunity to provide walkable amenities in less dense settings where vertical mixture (where uses are mixed within a single building) remains challenging. But doing so requires a strong site-planning framework that integrates the different elements into one cohesive and accessible place. At Brocade, the constraints of securing the deal’s components — the sight lines and surface parking required by retailers, the security needs of a tech headquarters — predominate. While pedestrian walkways exist, the site plan is organized around auto access. Buildings line the streets, but they open to an interior parking lot, not to the sidewalk. Having proven that North San Jose’s market can support the ingredients of good urban places, the next step is to ensure that strong site planning can organize them into walkable and transit-supportive environments.
Stop 5: Crescent Village, San Jose
1,750 rental apartments
10,000 sf retail
5-acre public park
Crescent Village is a multi-building rental project that will eventually include 1,750 units in wood buildings above parking podiums. Its developer, the Irvine Company, owns and manages it housing, which gives them a greater incentive to invest in placemaking and amenities. The buildings frame a five-acre park; concentrated around it are ground-floor retail and “placeholder” uses (like game rooms and a leasing office) that could eventually become leasable. Parking is in ground-level podiums, which are carefully placed to limit their impact.
The project’s architecture has the uniformity one might expect of this kind of instant neighborhood, but the construction quality is high and building details support the pedestrian experience. The biggest urban design challenge here is the inward orientation. Although the park is public, it feels like it belongs to the project, and the buildings connect more successfully to the village’s interior streets than to the surrounding streets of the neighborhood. In future projects, a portion of the open space fees might be well spent on better pedestrian connections to transit and other nearby amenities.
Stop 6: Cahill Park, San Jose
Developer: Avalon, Brooks St
Our final stop was Cahill Park, a residential neighborhood just behind San Jose’s Diridon Station combining streetfront retail, adaptive reuse of a former cannery, and housing of several types around a park that connects to the train station.
Of interest here is the way the development projects respond to the adjacent neighborhood while increasing overall densities. An excellent retail frontage meets the Alameda — a historic commercial street — separated by a narrow band of parking from four stories of housing above a parking podium. One edge of this project includes bungalows that back onto the podium, providing a familiar face to the neighborhood, while the other edge faces six stories of housing in a repurposed cannery. These buildings, plus two townhouse projects, are organized around a small park. Although the park is oddly shaped and a bit featureless, it is redeemed by being tightly enclosed by the surrounding buildings, creating an “urban room” that connects directly to the adjacent Caltrain station. One might wish for higher densities at this location (especially given that it will eventually be a high-speed rail stop), but overall, Cahill Park is a supremely livable setting with a lot to teach us.
Many thanks to our generous hosts:
Kelley Kahn, former project director, Office of Mayor Edwin Lee, City of San Francisco
Janice Thacher, partner, Wilson Meany
Hanson Hom, community development director, City of Sunnyvale
Joe Horwedel, director of Planning, Building,and Code Enforcement, City of San Jose
Kim Walesh, chief strategist, City of San Jose
- February 26, 2013By Tomiquia Moss, Community Planning Policy Director, and Sarah Karlinsky, Deputy Director
Could the Caltrain station and railyards at 4th and King streets be San Francisco’s next big planning opportunity? The current station is the node that links San Francisco to Silicon Valley and the peninsula. It’s also the hub of an extraordinary network of Muni rail lines: the N Judah, the T Third and soon the Central Subway, which will run down 4th Street before heading underground to Chinatown and North Beach. In addition, the area is served by numerous Muni bus lines. Very few places in the country enjoy this level of transit accessibility.
On the same site as the station are the Caltrain railyards: 19 acres stretching from 4th Street to 7th Street between King and Townsend. The railyards form an enormous barrier between Mission Bay and SoMA. Pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles can only cross the site at one intersection, and a tangle of 280 freeway ramps clutters the southwest edge of the site. Putting the right type of development here could knit together the surrounding neighborhoods, capitalize on the extensive transit access — and even help pay for important transportation projects.
A significant amount of regional transit planning is currently taking place in this area. Caltrain will be extended from 4th and King to San Francisco’s downtown, terminating at the new Transbay Transit Center. Caltrain itself is undergoing a transformation, replacing diesel cars with electric ones that will run more quickly and allow for faster turnarounds, thereby enhancing service. And high-speed rail will ultimately connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, with multiple trains per day stopping at 4th and King before heading to the Transbay Transit Center.
In our 2007 report A New Transit First Neighborhood, SPUR explored the opportunity to develop new buildings over the Caltrain station (using air rights, the rights to develop over a piece of land or infrastructure) as an opportunity to pay for expanding Caltrain and bringing high-speed rail into the Transbay Transit Center. Maximizing the transit oriented development opportunities at the 4th and King railyards could support one-time and on-going revenue for both transportation projects while also helping to better weave together Mission Bay, West SoMA and the Central Corridor.
Now the San Francisco Planning Department is considering ways to build on the railyards. The department recently released a report analyzing development opportunities for the site as a means to pay for transit improvements while knitting together the fabric of the adjacent neighborhoods at the same time.
Developing the Railyards: Three Options
The study outlines two development scenarios for the site: one where the air rights above the railyards are developed while the railyards remain in use (which would require decking over the railyards), and another where the railyards are moved to a new location allowing the entire site to be developed as a blank slate. The second scenario has two variations.
Here’s a summary of the three options:
Scenario 1: Decking Over the Railyards
The air rights scenario is consistent with existing high-speed rail and Caltrain plans, which presume that the railyards will remain in their current location. However, the need to deck over the railyards presents significant design and construction challenges, curtailing the ability to do good urban design along the edges of the site and limiting the amount of money the city could recapture for transit and other public infrastructure improvements.
Scenario 2.1: Moving the Railyards, Keeping the Freeway
The two “no railyards” scenarios present much better options to develop the site. The first of these assumes that the freeway ramps will remain as they are. This option allows for a better mix of uses and a better pedestrian experience than Scenario 1. It also allows for much more development capacity. However the value of the land is hampered by its proximity to Highway 280.
Scenario 2.2: Moving the Railyards, Removing the Freeway to 16th Street
This scenario is similar to the one above, except that the urban design and pedestrian experience would be even better due to the removal of the freeway ramps. Development becomes even more valuable when Highway 280 is replaced with a surface boulevard, allowing for greater value recapture.
In Scenarios 2.1 and 2.2 the potential value that could be created for the public sector ranges from $148 million to $228 million, presenting a substantial opportunity to fund transportation improvements in the area.
SPUR is excited about these proposals, particularly the ones outlined in Scenario 2. We hope that that San Francisco will begin to take the steps needed to bring them to reality.
Read the 4th and King Railyards Study >>
- November 16, 2012By Tomiquia Moss, Community Planning Policy Director
Last month, SPUR organized a two-day study trip to Oakland for our board and staff members to get a glimpse of what is happening in this great city. While recent media reports have focused on corporate protests and vandalism, Mayor Jean Quan describes Oakland as a “city on the rise” — and from what we saw, we strongly agree. We met with city and community leaders to better understand Oakland’s opportunities and challenges and how SPUR might get involved in the Bay Area’s third-largest city.
Why Study Oakland?
With 56 square miles and a population of 400,000, Oakland has far fewer people per square mile than San Francisco, with 47 square miles and a population of roughly 800,000. It’s slightly denser than San Jose, which has 177 square miles and 950,000 people. These three central cities of the Bay Area are projected to absorb more than a third of the population growth expected for the region over the next 30 years. As SPUR works to direct this growth to existing urban areas, we know that San Francisco cannot absorb it all, and we see a real opportunity in other major cities that have good transit and the room to house more people and jobs. As part of our central-city strategy, we opened an office in San Jose last year, and we are now exploring how we might help to support existing efforts in Oakland.
What We Learned
The New York Timesnamed Oakland the No. 5 place to visit on its list of “45 Places to Go in 2012.” Walkscore has touted it as the 10th most walkable city in the nation. Its transit infrastructure and cultural and ethnic diversity are the envy of many American cities. But Oakland still grapples with the kinds of major challenges that face many cities today, namely public safety and budgetary constraints. In 2011, Mayor Quan brought on City Administrator Deanna Santana, former deputy city manager of San Jose,to tackle Oakland’s budgetary issues. After the dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies, Oakland had to restrict all spending to an operating budget of $1.2 billion, which includes operating the Port of Oakland. Under Santana’s leadership, the City Administrator’s Office has worked hard to address Oakland’s budget challenges and to improve internal operations. Oakland has now balanced its budget and begun a program to maintain healthy reserves for the future. Throughout this process, the city has maintained a strong credit rating. Housing, jobs and public safety are the primary focus for Oakland’s leaders, and they explain that everyone has a role to play in addressing these persistent issues. City leaders, community advocates, faith-based leaders and residents alike have to work together to meet the city’s goals.
To learn about the affordable housing picture in Oakland, we visited with the Oakland Housing Authority, the largest landlord in the city. Between its Section 8 program and public housing units, the authority accounts for more than 15,000 households, representing approximately 10 percent of Oakland’s low-income families. The organization is currently working to understand some interesting trends in the Oakland housing market For example, the need for larger units is dropping, while 1- and 2-bedroom units are on the rise. They will be evaluating this new data to better understand the needs for low-income residents in Oakland and how the Housing Authority can be most responsive.
The Housing Authority has worked hard on how to make a quality product for low-income families. We saw a great example of this when we visited architect David Baker’s project Tassafaronga Village. Completed in 2010, the East Oakland development features a range of beautiful homes surrounded by green pathways, pocket parks and open spaces — and it’s conveniently located to transit. The project replaced 87 deteriorated public housing units with 60 affordable apartments in a new, three-story building; added 77 more units in new two- and three-story townhouses; and put 20 more, along with a medical clinic, in an adapted building that formerly housed a pasta factory.
While the city is seeing innovation in new low-income housing, mixed-income housing is more challenging to develop in Oakland, due to the city's lower home prices (which have the benefit of giving residents more housing options). Oakland does not have an inclusionary requirement like the one in San Francisco, which requires developers to build a percentage of their units as below-market-rate housing.
City leaders are working to create a diversified economic development strategy that maximizes Oakland’s assets and makes the city more attractive for potential employers. They have started by creating a workforce and economic development program within the City Administrator’s Office. Assistant City Administrator Fred Blackwell, a long-time Oakland resident and former SPUR board member, told us he hopes that this change will help improve the skills of the workforce so that matching employees with potential businesses is more seamless. Attracting and retaining business investment in Oakland continues to be a struggle, and one that will require a multi-pronged approach.
One of Oakland’s economic strengths right now is a strong micro-entrepreneurial sector and a growing creative class of workers willing to invest in the city. Leaders described Oakland as a city of many neighborhoods, suggesting the need for an economic development strategy that diversifies and broadens the city’s economic base. Manufacturing and the Port of Oakland are still strong economic assets for Oakland. As the fifth-largest port in the nation, and with ongoing investments like renovation of the Oakland Army Base currently underway, the port will continue to provide jobs for Oakland residents.
Fred Blackwell described Oakland as “a tale of two cities.” There is a visible demarcation in geography between the Oakland Hills and the flatlands, and residents in the two areas can have a very different experience living in the city. The Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, Dr. Tony Smith, illustrated this point when he described the biggest challenge facing the district as safety. Some communities are suffering loss of life and the on-going threat of violence, and educational goals cannot move forward as long as this remains true. Many children and families don’t have adequate resources, he explained, sharing the example of an African-American child born in West Oakland compared to a white child born in the Oakland Hills. The black child is 1.5 times more likely to be born premature; 7 times more likely to be born into poverty; 2.5 times more likely to be behind in vaccinations; 4 times less likely to read at grade level by 4th grade and more than 5.5 times more likely to drop out or be pushed out of school. As an adult, he is 5 times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes; 2 times as likely to die of heart disease and 3 times more likely to die of cancer. In short, an African American child in Oakland can expect to die 15 years earlier than a white child born a few miles away.
Smith matches this stark reality with great optimism and a plan to address Oakland’s challenges head on. He is approaching the challenges with a collaborative spirit, including parents and other community leaders who are working to reverse these trends. Under his leadership, there has been visible improvement in test scores in the district. Smith has also reduced the district’s structural deficit from $40 million in 2009 to $1.1 million in 2012.
The Oakland study trip was SPUR’s first step to better understand what is happening in the city and how SPUR’s resources might be useful to support existing efforts. We have been meeting with city and community leaders over the last several months, and we will continue this work to ensure that we are well versed in the opportunities and challenges that exist in Oakland. SPUR believes that developing a strong urban agenda for the three central cities — San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland — will be an effective strategy to benefit the entire Bay Area region.
- October 10, 2012By Jennifer Warburg
On September 21 SPUR celebrated PARK(ing) Day with an original form of alchemy: transforming asphalt into mini-golf and pizza.
The annual event, celebrated in more than 160 cities, invites the public to reimagine metered parking spots as new types of urban space. The 2012 celebration saw artists, designers and business owners around the world taking to the streets to create everything from temporary hair salons to bicycle repair shops to green space.
This year SPUR’s PARK(ing) Day creations included a parklet featuring lounge chairs and live music — built in partnership with Transform — outside our San Jose office and, in San Francisco, a miniature golf version of Golden Gate Park, complete with Stow Lake, the bison paddock and Ocean Beach. The mini-golf parklet, built over a five-week period by SPUR members Steve Fox and Leslie Crawford, was recognized on sites from Architizer to The Washington Post as a favorite contribution.
PARK(ing) Day happens just once a year, but its effects have been significantly more lasting. In the seven years since the concept first debuted, PARK(ing) Day has become the progenitor of a distinctly San Francisco model of iterative placemaking, using temporary interventions to build momentum for permanent improvements to the public realm. It began in 2005 when the San Francisco-based design studio ReBar reconceived a parking meter as a short-term lease to experiment with public urban space, then invited others to follow suit. The next year there were 47 PARK(ing) Day creations in thirteen cities. And the year after that, hundreds.
As PARK(ing) Day caught on around the world, a bell went off for San Francisco officials and activists accustomed to being constrained by limited resources, a change-resistant public culture and a regulatory review process so punitive that, on small projects, clearance could cost more than construction. Temporary, reversible projects, on the other hand, could be fast-tracked, and impacts studied in situ, all while changing both the fabric of the city and the discourse around it. Parklets in parking spots, plazas in alleys, Sunday street closures, separated bike lanes, retail hubs on vacant lots and urban farms — all have been the fruit of this like-mindedness between artists and policymakers around the benefits of travelling the temporary to permanent continuum.
The impact of this San Francisco model is powerfully on display at the 2012 Venice Architectural Biennale, where the United States pavilion won an honorable mention for its arsenal of DIY, mirco-urbanism projects — models of iterative placemaking that are heir to PARK(ing) Day’s provocative intervention. Not surprising, a significant number of the firms representing the U.S. are from San Francisco.
These developments are very exciting. Temporary interventions invite the community to inhabit and test new spaces and programs and give shape to the permanent solution. But temporary cannot be a substitute for permanent. It cannot become the only option for creating and maintaining public space. The real legacy of the San Francisco model will lie in leveraging these temporary experiments into high-quality public spaces with an enduring civic presence.
- October 2, 2012By Benjamin Grant, Public Realm and Urban Design Program Manager
SPUR’s San Jose office is convening a task force of city officials and planning and development thought leaders to tackle a vexing question: How can the nation’s tenth largest city transform its historically suburban built environment into one that supports an active street life, greater use of transit and a stronger urban fabric? San Jose has charted an ambitious course through its new 2040 General Plan; one of the major goals is to concentrate development in key areas called urban villages. These villages, mostly located along major transit lines, aim to support reductions in solo driving and associated carbon emissions while creating a more engaging, livable city that can compete for the creative workforce that is driving today’s tech economy.
As the city initiates a local planning process for these areas, a critical opportunity emerges to get the placemaking details right. SPUR’s initiative will focus on physical planning and urban design. We will address site planning; building placement, orientation and access; the design of streets and blocks; the design and use of open space; and the organization of land uses. In short, we will look at all the ways a land use program is translated into a place that either does or does not support walking, cycling and transit.
Efforts to achieve better urban design outcomes are nothing new in San Jose. In fact, sound urban design principles have been articulated repeatedly in city guidelines since the 1980s. But despite great strides in the downtown and some gradual improvement elsewhere, development in San Jose is still overwhelmingly auto-dependent and has not produced the kinds of pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhoods that can truly support a shift away from the private car. Financial pressures and fierce competition for employment uses have hampered the city’s ability to uphold the principles espoused in its plans.
SPUR’s task force will reach well beyond planning and urban design, drawing from all the disciplines that shape the built environment, from development and traffic planning to lending and marketing. We will drill into the policies, processes, decisions and compromises that shape real-world projects and identify impediments to urban design excellence. We will also develop a collection of precedent projects from places similar to San Jose to show what success can look like — and how it can happen under complex real-world constraints. Finally, the task force will produce a report recommending changes to the development process that can yield improvements on the ground. Once these recommendations are in place, SPUR will support their implementation through the urban village planning process and help city officials make this ambitious vision everything it can be.
Read the San Jose 2040 General Plan >>
Keep up with this project — join SPUR’s San Jose mailing list >>
- September 4, 2012
A cadre of 45 urbanists gathered downtown on a recent Sunday morning to join SPUR San Jose Director Leah Toeniskoetter for a bike tour. Beginning in the urban plaza fronting Philz Coffee, our mighty bike train easily navigated its way along the brand new buffered bike lanes of Third Street, en route to Japantown. A project of the City of San Jose, the extra-wide bike lanes are a product of recent “road diets” on certain streets, where three lanes of auto traffic were reduced to two in order to add the buffered bike lane.
The new lanes easily accommodated the group as it cruised past St. James Park and through the Historic Hensley District, known for having the highest concentration of Victorian homes in the city’s central core. San Jose Director of Transportation Hans Larsen noted that the district really came to life in 2005 when road diets were applied to the section of Third and Fourth streets in the Hensley District, calming the fast three-lane, one-way streets to a slower two-lane, two way street with bike lanes. The transition has prompted continued investment in the historical character of the neighborhood.
In no time at all, the two-wheelers turned onto Jackson Street, the main road through the Japantown neighborhood — one of only three historical Japantowns in the United States. The heart of this district was embodied by the tables full of people outside of Roy’s Station, a gas-station-turned-coffeehouse on the corner of Jackson and Fifth streets. After passing the Sunday farmers’ market at the site of the old City of San Jose Corporation Yard, the group continued into the heart of the Northside Neighborhood District’s Luna Park Business District surrounding Backesto Park. Winding its way back through the neighborhood’s charming homes to the newly installed Tenth Street buffered bike lanes, the group made a straight shot back to the center of downtown and onto the San Jose State University campus.
As the oldest public institution of higher education on the West Coast, the SJSU campus is full of serene quads with surprises such as the Black Power Statue, the historic and architecturally significant Tower Hall, built in 1910, and the first library (Dr. MLK, Jr. Library) in the nation to be jointly owned by a city and university.
After snaking through the campus the bicycle caravan entered the city’s first protected bike lane, which runs along Fourth Street on the campus’ western edge. The group then circled back to San Fernando Street, the main bike route between campus and historic Diridon Station, the second busiest train station in California.
The tour then led to the Alameda, built in 1799 as the connection between Mission Santa Clara and the Pueblo of San Jose. In 1868, the Alameda became the state’s first interurban horsecar line and, in 1888, it became California’s second electric trolley line, after San Diego. Previously State Route 82 but now under the purview of the City of San Jose, the Alameda is expected to undergo an extensive upgrade in the Fall of 2012.
With a turn into the Rose Garden neighborhood the caravan passed the Rosicrucian Park and Museum, home to the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts on display in Western North America, and wound its way around another beautiful neighborhood, with homes dating to the 1920s and 1930s. A tour of the Rose Garden neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without passing its namesake, the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, a 5.5 acre city park filled with more than 3,500 bushes and 250 varieties of roses cared for by local volunteers.
A quick venture into the Shasta-Hanchett neighborhood, lined with Craftsman houses built between 1900 and 1920, led the group back to the Alameda, through the Cahill Park neighborhood and then to Park Avenue, another bike route into the downtown. A turn onto the Guadalupe River Trail, a separated bike path that runs along the Guadalupe River Park, guided the caravan straight through the 32nd annual Italian Family Festa of San Jose. After riding past stands offering fresh cannoli and other treats, the group traveled just a few blocks further to finish the tour at the San Pedro Market, having experienced a new way to see at least a small portion of what San Jose’s biking landscape has to offer.
- July 26, 2012By Sarah Karlinsky, Deputy Director
After many months of work by SPUR and other housing advocates, the Housing Trust Fund, has made its way through San Francisco’s legislative process and been placed on the November ballot. We were very involved in crafting this measure, which would provide a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, encourage the creation of moderate-income housing and stimulate the production of market-rate housing.
This measure is a very big deal for San Francisco, especially now that the State of California has eliminated its redevelopment agencies. Roughly half of all redevelopment funds in San Francisco went to support affordable housing. Without redevelopment, San Francisco’s capacity to produce affordable housing is severely reduced.
The Housing Trust Fund is a general fund set-aside, meaning it would dedicate a portion of San Francisco’s discretionary budget to affordable housing uses. The 30-year fund would receive $20 million in its first year and increasing amounts thereafter, up to $50 million annually. After that, the yearly set-aside would be capped. Over 30 years, the Housing Trust Fund would generate more than $1.2 billion for affordable housing.
Unlike other set-asides, the Housing Trust Fund is largely funded by money that was previously devoted to affordable housing purposes before the state eliminated redevelopment. Under redevelopment, bonds for affordable housing were issued against future gains in property taxes that would result from redevelopment projects, a process known as tax increment financing. As that bond debt is retired, instead of going to a local redevelopment agency, tax increment monies will now flow into San Francisco’s general fund. The Housing Trust Fund recaptures that flow of tax increment that had historically gone to housing, plus roughly 25 percent of the portion that previously went to developing new infrastructure.
San Francisco is unique because it is both a city and a county. Because the tax increment funding not taken by the State of California now flows to the counties, most other cities will not be able to set aside their tax increment money the way San Francisco can.
What will the Housing Trust Fund be used for? The primary purpose of the fund will be to help build new affordable housing. The city typically funds permanently affordable housing for “very low income” and “extremely low income” households (50 percent and 30 percent of Area Median Income, i.e., $51,000 for a family of four and $31,000 for a family of four, respectively). Most of San Francisco’s affordable housing developments have been funded with city money, and the Housing Trust Fund will continue that tradition.
The Housing Trust Fund will also provide down-payment assistance to “moderate-income” families (i.e., a four-person household earning roughly $80,000 to $120,000 per year) and help them stay in their homes by providing foreclosure prevention assistance and funding for upgrades.
Finally, the Housing Trust Fund will help encourage the development of new moderate-income housing. Under San Francisco’s inclusionary housing ordinance, developers of new housing must build a certain percentage of their units as moderate-income housing. Those units can be built within the project itself (called “on-site” housing), or developers also have the option of building the units elsewhere or paying an in-lieu fee. The Housing Trust Fund reduces the on-site inclusionary requirement by 20 percent for most projects, thereby making it more attractive to developers to build the units on site. Additionally, the Housing Trust Fund caps existing affordable housing fees (except for areas benefiting from new upzonings, where new affordable housing fees could be added), making it easier for developers to plan around the existing fee structure.
Many of the groups that have worked on this measure are now turning their efforts toward the campaign to get it passed at the ballot in November. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact SPUR Community Planning Policy Director Tomiquia Moss at firstname.lastname@example.org or Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky at email@example.com
- July 25, 2012By Michael Alexander*
On the last weekend of April, as thousands watched, 40 giant pneumatic hammers pounded much of San Francisco’s Doyle Drive into recycled concrete and rebar. The following Monday morning, cars streamed across an elegant new viaduct over the Presidio’s Cavalry Valley and cruised through a new tunnel cut into the bluff between the San Francisco National Cemetery and the historic batteries that once guarded the Golden Gate from invasion.
After 22 years, a vision SPUR fought hard for was finally underway: the transformation of Doyle Drive from a clunky and dangerous artifact into a graceful entryway to the city. When the $1.1 billion project is completed in 2015, cars and traffic noise will no longer dominate many key landscapes of the Presidio national park.
Getting big infrastructure projects built is hard enough, let alone when the project and its setting are fundamentally incompatible. As former vice-chair of the Doyle Drive Task Force and chair of SPUR’s Doyle Drive Committee, I had an intimate view of the planning process, the lessons SPUR learned about the priorities and beliefs of different agencies and organizations, and the need for SPUR to stay committed for the long haul.
1989 was not San Francisco’s best year. The Loma Prieta earthquake not only closed the Embarcadero Freeway but compromised the structural integrity of Doyle Drive, the roadway through the Presidio connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to the city street grid. In addition, the Army had announced that it would be marching out of the Presidio, its post at the headlands of the Golden Gate, leaving 1,400 spectacular acres, hundreds of historic buildings and millions of dollars of deferred maintenance to the National Park Service.
While these disruptions created stunning opportunities, the political, economic, organizational and design challenges were daunting. Doyle Drive was especially complicated. Constructed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District in 1937, its design was compromised by Army demands that it not hinder military activities or provide public access to the post. From the bridge’s toll plaza it sprawled across the Golden Gate headlands, then narrowed to span the pretty Cavalry Valley and its beloved Pet Cemetery on a tall, bulky viaduct and noisily ran across a bluff a hundred feet from the front rank of headstones in the Presidio Cemetery. Its eastern portion was an ugly viaduct atop more than a hundred closely spaced piers, which allowed military trucks passing underneath to carry supplies between Crissy Field’s warehouses and the Presidio’s Main Post. Its six narrow lanes had no center barrier and no shoulders.
Overlapping jurisdictions complicated things further. Doyle Drive was owned by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District and operated and maintained by Caltrans — on a right-of-way through a park run by the National Park Service and later by the Presidio Trust. To top it off, the road landed in the city’s Marina District, on Richardson Avenue and Marina Boulevard — whose residents militantly wanted traffic near their homes shifted to other families’ street.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors was the first to step into this jurisdictional morass and political quagmire, creating the Doyle Drive Task Force in the early 1990s to provide recommendations. Task force representatives of agencies, neighborhoods and community organizations like SPUR and the Sierra Club spent fruitless months mostly protecting their turfs as Caltrans presented a list of 26 (!) conceptual designs that sang to nobody.
The fundamental problem for most was that all the offerings were variations on the straightforward freeway built to modern standards: eight lanes, each 12 feet wide, plus shoulders, center barrier and massive off ramps — all of which would double the width of the existing road. Considering that this 1.6-mile road would connect the Golden Gate Bridge’s six narrow lanes primarily to Lombard Street’s six narrow lanes and Marina Boulevard’s four lanes, a freeway through a national park struck most as excessive. It could have been 20 lanes wide, and traffic would still be constricted at the necks.
But the highway engineers insisted, seldom mentioning but always aware that any variation from the standard highway manual could expose Caltrans to legal damages from accident claims. To be fair, they were also trying to respond to often-conflicting environmental, historic preservation and not-in-front-of-my-house demands.
Then, at the end of another meeting of re-re-restated positions (I recall once, in frustration, undiplomatically banging my forehead on the table), a local landscape architect and SPUR member, Michael Painter, asked to speak. But first he unrolled and taped to the wall a colored plan, nearly 20 feet long, of a very different concept. Here was a road that, at two critical points in the park, simply disappeared.
Alongside the cemetery, the road ran in a cut-and-cover tunnel with a landscaped top, so that people could once again walk to the historic battery bluffs. Traffic noise would no longer intrude on those visiting the resting places of the fallen. In front of the Main Post’s bluff edge, the road ran at grade but was covered by a 1,000-foot-long landscaped cap that reconnected Crissy Field with the rest of the park, allowing people to walk or bike over the hidden highway. From there to the park’s eastern end, a low viaduct would allow for expanding Crissy Field’s tidal lagoon and joining it to Tennessee Hollow Creek. A new turnoff would provide direct public access to the park.
For more than a year, task force representatives had proclaimed what we didn’t want. After 20 minutes, we finally knew what we did want, and it was Michael Painter’s plan — a roadway that had no choice but to traverse a national park yet was appropriate to its setting. I drafted the recommendations, and San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors adopted them.
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), a small agency headed by José-Luis Moscovich, led the city’s interests. Moscovich had been involved with Caltrans’ plans from the beginning. One of his first tasks when he took the job was to go with SPUR to Caltrans’ offices in Oakland, where the state agency presented its 26 options. He left realizing that the multiple stakeholders would never be able to agree to any of them.
Caltrans, however, was not giving up. Its consultants, Parsons Brinkerhoff — a major international planning, engineering and program management firm — gradually narrowed the 26 designs to four. All had major problems meeting the conflicting demands of agencies, groups within agencies and stakeholders.
And the Painter plan? Caltrans and PB dismissed it as infeasible and too expensive.
I believe there was a subtext here. For infrastructure projects like roads, landscape architects are at the bottom of the professional pile. A common attitude is, We’ll build it, then give you a little money to pretty it up. The focus is on objects, while landscape architects focus on spaces. But it’s not as though Painter didn’t have street cred — literally. He was the designer of San Francisco’s Great Highway, with its protective planted dunes and flanking pedestrian and bicycle trails.
SPUR and Arup to the Rescue
SPUR disagreed with the experts’ conclusions, but the opinions of urbanists and planners on SPUR’s Presidio Task Force carried little weight with road builders and engineers. So we turned to one of our member firms, Arup. This firm of designers, planners and engineers is favored by many of the world’s leading architects and has worked on challenging road designs in sensitive areas across the globe. SPUR asked Arup to express its opinion of the feasibility and cost of Painter’s design.
Arup’s judgment: fewer impacts on the national park, better design and less costly.
This could not be ignored. Moscovich and the SFCTA insured that the Doyle Drive Draft Environmental Impact Statement would include the Painter plan along with the four PB alternatives and the required no-build alternative (which described what the next earthquake was likely to do to Doyle Drive, and to traffic throughout the Bay Area).
A major problem with rebuilding Doyle Drive was that traffic had to continue to flow. Close Doyle, and you might as well close the Golden Gate Bridge. The usual solution is to transfer traffic to a parallel temporary road, demolish the existing road, build the new one, transfer traffic to the new road, remove the temporary structure and restore the damaged surroundings.
At the Presidio, there often wasn’t enough width to allow this, although most of the plans called for it. Painter — whose style is to constantly, even obsessively, refine his designs — developed a novel alternative: build half the width of the new road, transfer traffic to it, then demolish the old road and build the other half of the new road in the footprint of the old. This would save hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work. It proved feasible for the narrowest, most critical parts of the project.
In the end, the Painter plan proved so superior that the four Caltrans/PB alternatives were dropped. Each would have cost about $3 billion. Today the new Presidio Parkway is on schedule and on budget at $1.1 billion.
Winners and Losers
I’d judge that SPUR got about 85 percent of what it wanted in, and out of, the project. We got the right design, and we got it into construction before an earthquake claimed the existing road. The national park will be quieter, more beautiful and much easier to get around. At six lanes, the overall road width will be 25 percent less wide than what traffic engineers originally demanded. We even got all but one lane in each direction narrowed to 11 feet. (The standard is 12 feet, which gives drivers more room to maneuver — and also encourages speeding.) Visitors, residents and Presidio workers will be able to enter the national park without driving through residential neighborhoods. The Painter concept saved taxpayers a couple of billion dollars.
At a few critical points, SPUR helped José-Luis Moscovich and his staff get millions in critical funding, but most credit for financing the project goes to the SFCTA’s effective work at all levels of government.
Lost in these plans, however, is the Palace of Fine Arts, at the Presidio Parkway’s eastern end. The great shed currently housing the Exploratorium will need a new tenant when the museum moves to its new home on the northern waterfront. But the city has ignored every opportunity to make the building attractive to others. The back of the building, facing the Presidio, features a seedy parking lot with one of the most spectacular views of the Golden Gate. For historic reasons, the lot is owned by the Presidio Trust, though managed by the city. Michael Painter produced numerous designs, and SPUR spent years trying to make this key site more attractive, but neither the city nor the federal agency could be bothered.
The biggest losers in this saga were some homeowners on Richardson Avenue and Lyon Street. SPUR offered them a design that would take Palace of Fine Arts traffic off of their street. Had they supported it, we might well have transformed the entire dowdy east entry to the Presidio, as well as the Palace grounds. But the homeowners were so focused on trying to shift Doyle Drive traffic from their street to Marina Boulevard (a fight they lost), that they passed on an opportunity that would have added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the value of their homes.
Question received wisdom. Traffic engineers shot down many of SPUR’s and Painter’s novel ideas as dangerous because they weren’t what drivers expected to experience. While it’s undeniable that drivers are creatures of habit, they can still adapt. Near the end of the negotiations, SPUR asked to see the literature on driver expectations. At a subsequent meeting, we asked again. A senior engineer quietly confessed, “There isn’t any.” So much for the scientific basis of policy.
Question traffic models. Computer modeling errs on the side of more, not less. Because the models encourage overbuilding, which attracts more traffic, they are often self-fulfilling. But because they carry the aura of certainty, you need professionals to challenge their results.
Public consultation easily goes off the rails. Fear of change can raise the most bizarre and unexpected concerns. The noisiest and most persistent community members often dominate the debates, escalating reasonable concerns into impossible-to-satisfy demands. Successfully taking a community’s real temperature is a skill, usually not taught, that planners must learn to master.
What’s in a name?
Doyle Drive has been jackhammered into history. Caltrans, sensing a minefield about naming rights, has provisionally called the new road the Presidio Parkway. Like the old road, it should be named for the man whose vision made it possible. I propose the Painter Presidio Parkway.
Watch a fly-over video of how the new parkway will transform the Presidio >>
* Michael Alexander is an urbanist and co-chair of SPUR’s Advisory Council. He was a SPUR Board Member for two decades. He now lives in Vancouver B.C., where he helps implement innovative ideas from San Francisco.
- 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.