The Future of Visitacion Valley

Advocating for transit-oriented development
Article
May 17, 2000

Problem Analysis

The Visitacion Valley Planning Alliance (VVPA) is a diverse group of neighbors interested in improving the quality of life in the Valley. They originally came to SPUR with a very exciting proposal. They wanted to develop a long-range land use plan for improving the entire Valley that would involve all three cities with jurisdiction: San Francisco, Daly City and Brisbane. Last year, SPUR met with VVPA members to discuss a regional plan for the Valley. Our conclusion was that a cross-jurisdictional plan was possible, and that there were precedents in California. We also suggested that in the short run, the community focus on how to make the Schlage Lock site work with a Home Depot, but with a better design.

The Schlage Lock Company site was originally zoned industrial in the 1920s, but over the years the surrounding area has become predominantly residential. Today the site creates a wedge that divides Visitacion Valley from the Little Hollywood neighborhood to the east. The Home Depot proposal would make that separation more permanent and the large, single-use nature of the proposal would create major regional traffic problems with no real benefits to the surrounding community. Today, almost everyone in the Valley must travel great distances by auto or public transit to shop. The area has no coffee shops, bookstores, small retail shops or large grocery store. Given its proximity to Leland Avenue, the Schlage site is the perfect location to incorporate some of these uses. The Urban Ecology plan demonstrates that quite clearly.

A site visit to Visitacion Valley reveals a diverse, vibrant community that has the potential to be one of the city's most livable and affordable neighborhoods. Recently, the nearby Geneva Towers were torn down to make way for townhouse-style affordable housing. The area has a number of important community centers, including a Beacon School. The city, in partnership with the community, recently secured over $1,000,000 in state, city and private funding to create a six-block "greenway" that runs through the neighborhood.

Community leaders were quite discouraged by the Home Depot proposal. They saw the site as one of the most important infill housing areas in their neighborhood. In addition, the site is located directly opposite the community's main commercial street, Leland Avenue.

Leland Avenue has a number of struggling small businesses and a few vacant storefronts. The critical mass created by several hundred units of new housing on the Schlage site could tip the balance in terms of attracting the kinds of businesses neighborhood residents seek. In the current Home Depot plan, however, Leland Avenue would dead end at Bayshore facing a 30-foot high blank wall with a large, 18' chain link fence in front of it.

In the community's Town Center alternative, Leland Avenue would face a renovated building across Bayshore with lively ground floor neighborhood commercial spaces and a small, outdoor farmers market. It not only fulfills the needs of the immediate neighborhood, it also addresses issues of concern to the entire city, such as jobs, affordable housing, job training, day care, education, economic development and wise transit use. The alternative is smart, practical, and generates more jobs and tax revenue to the city than the proposed stand-alone Home Depot. Where the Home Depot store would employ 200 to 225 people, adding the other uses results in employment of 800 to 900 people.

Last year, community members met with representatives of Home Depot to discuss the alternative plan. Home Depot's response was that it is not in the business of developing housing or community facilities. The residents pointed out that by freeing up two-thirds of the site for uses other than a Home Depot, the property would actually be worth more. Home Depot could either sell or lease the freed up land to developers who would build out those other aspects of the project. Several potential developers have already expressed strong interest in developing the housing and commercial components of the plan.

Last December, the Planning Alliance sponsored a neighborhood meeting at the local community center. Even though the meeting was held at 10 AM on a Saturday, 130 neighborhood residents attended. The meeting itself was conducted in English and Chinese. After the Urban Ecology presentation, a straw vote was taken. The results: Alternative Plan-130 votes; Home Depot Plan-0 votes.

Alternative Solutions

Urban Ecology developed two sets of alternative plans for the Schlage Lock site. One involved all new construction while the other kept all the existing buildings on the north half of the site and built new housing over a podium on the south half. The first floor podium level contained a major grocery store and related parking in front and parking for the housing units in the rear.

The alternative plan that includes a Home Depot shows it in an existing building that currently parks about 250 cars on its roof. It is also possible to mix and match portions of both alternative plans. For instance, Home Depot could tear down the building that is assigned to it and replace it with a new building with parking on the roof.

Both alternatives do a good job of re-knitting the fabric of Visitacion Valley and Little Hollywood back together again through a series of roads, pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths that traverse the site. A single bridge over the Caltrain tracks would complete the connection.

Recommendation

SPUR supports the Visitation Valley neighborhood in their efforts to replace the proposed, big box Home Depot/parking lot with a transit-oriented mixed-use development that can serve as a model of the transit village concept in San Francisco.

Specifically, the SPUR urges the Planning Department's Office of Environmental Review to include the Town Center/Transit Village alternative in the EIR now being prepared. While an alternative that proposes a greater intensity of development is generally not allowed as an alternative in an EIR, SPUR believes that providing facilities to be used by the neighborhood would reduce traffic and therefore result in a decreased impact on the neighborhood. Currently, neighbors must use their cars to go to grocery stores, etc. SPUR requests that the EIR further analyze neighborhood-generated auto trips and how they might be measurably reduced as a result of the new, neighborhood-serving businesses (and major grocery store) contained within the alternative plan.

Secondly, the Planning Department should require a high-intensity use of the site. This is a classic opportunity for transit-oriented development. The proposed Home Depot is dramatically deficient in this area and would forever remove one of the city's best remaining infill housing sites along the 3rd Street corridor.

Third, the city should develop long-term Industrial Protection Zone controls for this site that will allow the mixed use, transit village concept to be implemented. Finally, Visitacion Valley needs a comprehensive plan. The Planning Department is currently creating transit-oriented community plans in three neighborhoods-Hayes Valley, Balboa Park, and the Central Waterfront. Visitacion Valley should be similarly planned. The twist in the case of Viz Valley is that the area actually covers three cities, San Francisco, Daly City, and Brisbane. We need to develop a cross-jurisdictional land use and transportation plan for the entire Visitacion Valley watershed.

The mechanism for this kind of cross-city planning is the state's Joint Exercise of Powers Act. It allows multiple governmental jurisdictions, for any power that is common to all the participants, to create a new entity to exercise those powers. In this case, San Francisco, Daly City, and Brisbane would establish a "Visitacion Valley Area Planning Authority"-named whatever the cities like-for the purpose of creating an area plan.

People's relationships, whether they be of friendship or employment, do not stop at the city borders. Our land use planning cannot act as if the world ends at the edge of our political boundary.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

SPUR Housing and Transportation Committees