San Francisco is an amazing city inside an amazing region. A continuing source of new ideas for the world, a beacon of tolerance, a leader in how to live sustainably on the planet—and yet, a place with deep problems.
Many of our problems are what other regions would see as solutions, namely the fact that Northern California is going to grow by 6 million people between now and 2035. This growth, which is enviable to almost every region in the United States, can either be a force for improving the region, or it can harm our environment and undermine our continued economic prosperity by deteriorating the quality of life in the Bay Area. How we grow determines how we live, and the stakes are so high that the mistakes and failures of the past must not be repeated, and the successes must be emulated. The major challenge facing our region for the next generation is the one we’ve had in the past one: how to grow in such a way such that growth is concentrated in transit-rich communities that are not entirely reliant on car travel.
SPUR believes that San Francisco has a special role to play in the region. We have the right bones: the best regional transit infrastructure west of the Mississippi, great examples of elegant density in our downtown, the Tenderloin, and some of our best loved residential neighborhoods, an economy rooted in innovation, a culture of tolerance for difference and experimentation. But what we do with these assets will mark whether we become the faded center of a region overwhelmed by sprawl, the attractive but irrelevant Venice of Northern California, or whether we provide the leadership to make San Francisco a leader in the region. The San Francisco we envision is a city that recognizes the importance of adding population and job growth and does so in a way that strengthens its neighborhoods rather than degrading them, a city that takes steps to combat climate change while planning for climate adaptation, a city that focuses becoming the nation's first disaster resilient metropolis, a city that nurtures economic innovation while ensuring that all San Franciscans share in its benefits.
Goal: Allow San Francisco to grow and change while remaining true to the qualities that make it a beautiful and livable city
The physical aspects of a city—buildings, public spaces and infrastructure—are the stuff of urban planning. But the physical city exists to support human aspects of a city—to enable people to live their lives as fully as possible, to form community, to pursue every kind of project that can be imagined.
The central premise of SPUR's community planning work is to embrace complexity. We cannot only look at one issue at a time. We must make the city affordable so that average people, not just the super wealthy, can live here. We must make it possible to walk, bike and take transit for most trips. We must foster an ecological balance with nature. We must support a dynamic, growing economy. We must create public spaces that people love to be in and buildings that people love to look at. All of our values must be integrated.
San Francisco is a living city. Every generation contributes to the fabric of a place. The city must change, because we have new problems and needs to respond to. But it must change in a way that remains true to our unique culture, time and place.
SPUR's community planning agenda
1. Conduct neighborhood planning within a regional context.
Land-use planning in California is done at the city level, rather than the regional or state level. In San Francisco, we almost never do citywide planning anymore, instead focusing almost exclusively on the neighborhood level. There are many benefits to this approach, including the opportunity for meaningful community involvement and the ability to do careful, in-depth planning that builds on existing neighborhood character. However, there is a real danger that an exclusive neighborhood focus fails to take into account the broader regional concerns city planning must address. Rather, we must work backward from a regional sustainability agenda—which accounts for inevitable population growth in the city and region—and allocate this growth to neighborhood plan areas. Through our involvement in neighborhood planning, be it the Eastern Neighborhoods, Northeast Embarcadero or Transbay Transit Center, SPUR focuses on the relationship between neighborhoods and the region. Neighborhood planning is a powerful tool, but only when we ask it to solve hard problems.
2. Preserve our most important historic resources while still allowing for growth and change.
San Francisco's rich architectural fabric includes our greatest historic buildings as well as historic urban forms, such as our rapidly disappearing network of alleyways and finger piers. Preservation is a core SPUR value. We think part of what makes the city so exciting is the mix of old and new that defines all of our neighborhoods. The Downtown Plan showed us that it is possible to have the best of both worlds: Major new development helps pay for the preservation of important architectural landmarks. We can apply this lesson to other parts of the city.
3. Create new buildings that exemplify the highest possible quality of contemporary architecture.
Preservation also teaches us a major lesson about what we build today: New buildings should be worth preserving by future generations. We should encourage new buildings to be innovative and contemporary, and to address context without mimicking it. When you ask people why they resist the idea of added height and density, they often point to badly designed buildings in the city. By nurturing a culture of good design, we can build a portfolio of "elegant density" that will change this public perception. SPUR's Project Review Committee seeks to do just that.
4. Make public spaces that people love to spend time in.
What makes a city truly great is the quality of its public realm, the "life between buildings" in sidewalks, parks and plazas, where people stroll, people-watch and hang out. San Francisco has a wonderful heritage to build on, but it also has a long way to go. Our parks need reinvestment. Our sidewalks need to be widened. We need benches for people to sit on. Across the world, a new movement is rethinking the purpose of streets as the most important network of public space within urban areas, drawing from European concepts of street design. Through the Great Streets Project, our partnership with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, SPUR seeks to return our city's streets to their rightful place as the center of civic life. Let's give ourselves this gift. Let's allow public life to flourish on our streets.
5. Save the waterfront.
The old industrial waterfront is long gone. San Francisco is in the middle of a 50-year project to try to convert our port to new uses that will bring people to the edge of the Bay and reclaim the historic pier sheds for new uses. The collection of piers and buildings along the port is probably the single biggest historical preservation opportunity we have in our city. But this opportunity will be extremely expensive. Shoring up the seawall, the underwater structures of the piers and the buildings themselves will require billions of dollars. It is a classic planning problem: Can we use new development to pay for public amenities that will improve the city?
6. Create a new Downtown Plan.
San Francisco has one of the most successful downtowns in the United States. Our Downtown Plan promoted a transit-oriented growth pattern, coupled with pedestrian spaces and historic preservation that make downtown a wonderful place to be. And fully 55 percent of the people who work downtown get there without a car! But our current Downtown Plan essentially has been built out. San Francisco is now ready for a new plan that builds on our past successes by expanding our high-density office core to contiguous areas to the south and southwest. Building on the new Transbay Terminal and the Central Subway up Fourth Street, we have the opportunity to make a huge contribution to the region's economy and environment by directing job growth into a new transit-served downtown area that builds on the sustainable model of our core central business district.
7. Invest public money to enable responsible growth.
As San Francisco continues to grow, our infrastructure needs will increase. This includes transit, parks, sewers, roads, schools and everything else it takes to build complete communities. Our community planning work includes a broad reform agenda to align local, regional, state and federal resources to enable smart forms of growth. Communities that become more walkable and sustainable should be the places that receive the investment.
Community Planning milestones
In the last year, SPUR …
- Supported good planning policies in Treasure Island, Park Merced, Hunter's Point Shipyard, the Transbay Redevelopment Area, Mid-Market and the Northeastern Embarcadero
- Released a policy report and user's guide for San Francisco's Privately Owned Public Open Spaces (see spur.org/popos)
- Continued to review individual development projects of importance to San Francisco through SPUR's Project Review Committee
- Helped form the Great Streets Project, a short-term effort to catalyze the return of our city's streets to their rightful place as the center of civic life. Other partners in the effort are the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Livable Streets Initiative and Project for Public Space (see www.sfgreatstreets.org)
Goal: Make San Francisco truly resilient by taking steps now to help our city remain safe and usable after a major earthquake
What would happen if an earthquake as powerful as the one that hit San Francisco in 1906 were to happen again in the next five, 10 or 20 years? The answer depends on what we have done to prepare. We know our city and region are going to experience major earthquakes; we also know we are not ready. SPUR is working to define a proactive, practical policy agenda that will make San Francisco more resilient.
When disaster strikes, we must position ourselves to rebuild our city quickly, but not in a way that is haphazard and driven by mere expedience. This includes developing plans for how to access recovery funding and make the best possible use of it. The fact remains: We cannot control nature, but we have it within our power to prepare.
SPUR's disaster planning agenda
1. Establish performance standards for buildings and lifelines.
When we choose our engineering standards for buildings and lifelines, we are really choosing how many deaths, how many building demolitions, and how long a recovery time we have for various levels of earthquakes. San Francisco must adopt clear performance objectives for determining how both our present and future buildings should perform, with an eye toward facilitating a rapid and effective recovery after the earthquake. The common belief that buildings and infrastructure built to code are "earthquake-proof" is incorrect. Instead, many new facilities are designed today with the expectation that significant damage likely will occur in a major earthquake. Simple and direct descriptions of seismic performance measures should be added to the building standards and performance goals adopted—along with regulations to achieve them.
2. Improve the seismic performance of older buildings.
San Francisco's earthquake resilience is limited by its existing building stock. Certain buildings are particularly critical for resilience because of how they are used or because of their construction, or both. Especially vulnerable building types include:
- Soft-story wood frame: buildings characterized by an abundance of wall openings in the first story, typically for garage bays or storefront windows.
- Non-ductile concrete frame: concrete buildings that lack proper steel reinforcement bars, and therefore are unable to bend during an earthquake
- Unreinforced masonry: brick and mortar buildings
In addition, designated shelters and essential city facilities must be brought up to higher standards of safety than other buildings.
3. Retrofit gas lines and gas-fired equipment to contain post-disaster fires.
Fire can turn a manageable earthquake emergency into catastrophe. Since broken gas lines often are involved in earthquake-related fires, the best solution is to prevent ruptures by bracing equipment (such as water heaters) and using flexible lines and connections. If the structure itself is in danger of collapsing, or if the gas line passes through a building wall that is vulnerable to damage, then a different solution is needed. SPUR recommends developing a mandatory retrofit program to help reduce the risk of fire after a disaster.
4. Encourage better seismic performance for new buildings.
While older buildings are more likely to be damaged than new structures, the cost to retrofit older buildings is relatively high. In contrast, improving the seismic safety of new structures costs relatively little and thus has a relatively good benefit-cost ratio. Equally important, improving the safety of new structures helps arrest the growth of earthquake threats in San Francisco. We should design buildings to be reusable after major earthquakes and to avoid costly repairs or subsequent seismic improvements.
5. Ensure the success of the City's Lifelines Council.
In disaster planning, much attention is paid to the role of buildings. Less attention is paid to the role of the infrastructure systems that support urban life, which we call our "lifelines." As with buildings, lifelines are critical to our ability to recover from an earthquake. SPUR's recommendations to establish performance standards for each lifeline, and to coordinate planning across sectors, has led to the creation of the City's first Lifelines Council.
6. Build a culture of preparedness.
To be prepared for a disaster's immediate aftermath, San Franciscans must receive comprehensive education on the expected effects of a disaster, the conditions the buildings they depend on will be in and how best to respond. They should be trained and ready to care for their family members, assist their neighbors and work effectively in teams alongside first responders and other emergency workers. Comprehensive public disaster education and neighborhood-based training and resource coordination are necessary for engaging all residents of the city in an ongoing preparedness effort.
7. Develop a recovery plan to quickly and effectively access federal funding.
San Francisco needs a plan to access necessary funds to rebuild our city. What is the role of insurance? Who in city government will lead this effort? Who will determine what we need and how fast we need it? Who will help coordinate recovery efforts across our region and beyond? These tricky governance issues need to be studied carefully and answered now!
8. Develop strategies to enable movement throughout the Bay Area while we repair major transportation links.
San Francisco is a city bounded on three sides by water. In the wake of a disaster, one of the greatest challenges we will face is how to get around if one of our major regional transportation links fails. Regional transportation providers should assess hazard risks within each transportation corridor and develop a menu of options for how to move goods and people around.
9. Shore up the city's affordable housing stock.
Following a disaster, San Francisco's affordable (subsidized) housing stock may not enable residents to remain in their homes, while much of the rent-controlled (unsubsidized) stock that now houses low-income people is located in liquifaction zones in the Tenderloin, South of Market, Chinatown and Mission neighborhoods. If this housing is destroyed by an earthquake, we will likely never get it back. San Francisco must develop a plan to ensure that our most vulnerable residents are taken care of.
Disaster Planning milestones
In the last year, SPUR …
- Released four major policy papers on disaster resilience, existing buildings, new buildings and lifelines (see spur.org/resilientcity)
- Called for the creation of a Lifelines Council representing San Francisco's energy, water, communication and transportation providers. As a result, the City convened its first ever Lifelines Council in 2009!
- Participated in the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety, which seeks to provide the Department of Building Inspection a plan of action to reduce earthquake risk (see www.sfcapss.org)
- Continued to make headway on disaster recovery policy, focused on how we should be engaged in long-term rebuilding
Goal: Build the foundations of a prosperous, equitable and growing job base
Although the Bay Area remains one of the most dynamic regional economies in the world, it faces a set of challenges similar to those confronting other U.S. metropolitan areas. First, competition for investment and job growth is increasing. Second, we are seeing a hollowing-out of the labor market, as job growth tends to occur at the high and low ends of the wage scale. Third, job growth continues to shift away from central cities to auto-dependent suburban office parks. Furthermore, older core cities like San Francisco have higher taxes than suburban areas, which puts pressure on private sector firms to locate their businesses elsewhere.
SPUR believes that economic growth is good for all San Franciscans and residents of our region. Without growth, the number of new opportunities decreases. To the extent that there are more jobs and investment, there is more local tax revenue and the benefits accrue broadly. By contrast, fewer jobs and investments creates a downward cycle that harms everyone.
SPUR's economic development agenda
1. Retain growing firms.
While the number of jobs in an economy is not the most important measure of success, it is still necessary to generate employment in a growing society. Our existing firms will always make up the largest part of our job growth. We must under-stand why firms have chosen to locate where they are and what will make them continue to stay as they expand.
2. Make sure that the high cost of locating in San Francisco is worth it.
San Francisco is an expensive place to do business. Rents, taxes and wages all cost more here than in other locations. While we should try to keep costs down, the reality is that we will never compete on price, so we need to have a major focus on making sure we are adding enough value to make it worth it for firms to be here. That means eliminating unnecessary costs, such as cumbersome approval and permitting processes, that benefit no one. And it means providing a predictable, well-managed, transparent public sector to support private investment.
3. Fund a public-private economic development organization to work on business attraction and retention.
In addition to the broader effort to make sure "the basics" of our city work well, we need an entity that works to attract and retain businesses, something nearly every other city has. This would involve expanding the current Center for Economic Development and incorporating some of the functions in the City's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. This organization needs to be apolitical and funded by a sustainable, recurring revenue stream, much like the Convention and Visitors Bureau. This organization would focus on emerging "clusters" of firms with high growth potential.
4. Coordinate the City's workforce development programs to mirror the goals of the City's economic development plan.
A comprehensive economic development effort includes both place-based strategies (which try to increase the prosperity of a region, city, or neighborhood), and people-based strategies (which try to build the skills and capacities of all people to participate successfully in the mainstream economy). Our overall goal is to make sure these two strategies are fully linked and working together. For San Francisco one of the big opportunities is to make sure that the huge amount of money we spend on workforce development be coordinated through the Workforce Investment Board and tied directly to the City's economic development plan. There has been progress in recent years toward consolidating workforce dollars and criteria under the Workforce Investment Board, but more can be done.
5. Reform tax policy to encourage more employment and economic growth.
San Francisco's business taxes are among the factors that contribute to San Francisco's slow economic growth as compared to the rest of the region. San Francisco's business taxes are the highest in the Bay Area. Average business taxes per year for a general office firm are $60,500 in San Francisco. For the other key Bay Area cities of San Jose and Oakland, the average business taxes paid by a general firm are $1,806 and $4,800, respectively. This gap increases with the size of the firm—a further disincentive for larger companies to situate their office in San Francisco or to remain in the city as they grow. The payroll tax is thought by many to be the worst job-killing tax because it provides a direct disincentive to hire. It is especially burdensome on businesses such as start-ups in the knowledge-based sector that are not yet making a profit. San Francisco is the only California city with a payroll tax. In general, SPUR believes that we should try to shift taxes away from things we want more of, like employment, and onto things we want less of, such as pollution and other forms of environmental damage.
6. Maintain San Francisco as a center for invention, experimentation and free thinking.
Part of the key to our economic success is the distinct cultural environment of San Francisco. Street fairs, music festivals, arts events, political theater and activism all fuel an environment of passionate support for the urban realm. This in turn makes San Francisco a unique and exciting place in which to live, invest and hire, yet some of these qualities are currently under assault. Street events routinely are being denied permits. Nightlife increasingly is perceived as being in conflict with residents nearby. We support a series of reforms that encourage a flourishing nightlife and street culture, keeping in mind that all of this is part of what makes city life different from suburban life.
Economic development milestones
In the last year, SPUR …
- Released a policy report calling for sustainable planning to bring jobs back into San Francisco (see spur.org/futureofdowntown)
- Called for the establishment of a new public-private economic development entity with access to a dependable long-term funding source
- Joined the newly reconstituted San Francisco County Workforce Investment Board (WISF) (see owed.org/wisf-board.aspx)
- Provided leadership on tax policy changes to encourage job creation
Goal: Promote an effective, well-managed public sector and nurture a climate of civic engagement
SPUR believes in local government as a positive force for social change. We work to ensure that government has an array of policies and tools at hand to provide the highest quality of public services to San Francisco residents. From parks to public transit, street cleaning and public safety, there is simply no way for San Francisco to be an attractive place to live unless local government is well-funded and well-managed.
Two of SPUR's core priorities are civil service reform and leveraging non-governmental resources. Public service is a noble calling, and the vast majority of City employees serve with great pride, dedication and talent. But to ensure that San Franciscans continue to receive the most from their government, the City must continue to chip away at the most regressive aspects of our century-old civil service system—those that impede the effective delivery of public services, and fail to motivate and inspire excellent performance. Also, whether through principled contracting with the nonprofit and private sectors, or cultivating civic philanthropy and volunteerism, SPUR believes our local government must foster a robust network of relationships among many organizations and governments to generate innovative and creative responses to the complex problems of our day.
SPUR's good government agenda
1. Manage the City budget through expenditure controls.
Currently, City employees in every department spend months preparing detailed, line-item budgets that must be approved by department commissions, the Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisors. Once reviewed and approved, department budgets are included in the mayor's overall proposed budget, which is then submitted to the Board of Supervisors for further review and approval. This process allows little discretion for departments to flexibly manage their allocations, and no incentive for departments to save money.
An alternative budgeting system, often called an "expenditure control budget," has been adopted by many states and municipalities in the U.S. It allocates to each city department a fixed percentage of the overall city budget. This percentage would be the same each year, unless the Board of Supervisors votes to change the allocation formula—which makes it clear to everyone, in a way that it is not clear today, that any increase in one department's budget is offset by a decrease somewhere else.
2. Allow more flexible contracting authority for City departments.
With resources shrinking, San Franciscans must have an honest conversation about the core services our government should provide. We should take advantage of opportunities to form partnerships with non-governmental organizations to ensure that we are delivering the highest quality services in the most cost effective way possible.
City departments should be encouraged to assess what functions and services can be provided more effectively by nonprofit or private contractors. City departments should be given greater management flexibility and authority to make such decisions.
In 1976, voters passed Proposition J, which directs the City to contract out services whenever it could be demonstrated that this would save money. But Prop. J's potential to increase public value has been largely unfulfilled. Numerous recent efforts to partner with the for-profit and nonprofit sectors have been passionately opposed by labor unions and have been rejected by a majority of board members.
3. Reduce employee benefit costs.
While the City has taken some positive steps to control future retiree health care costs, its pension and health care expenses for existing employees are in excess of $500 million per year. It's time to revisit the long-term viability of sustaining the current level of pension guarantees for future employees and to consider increasing employee contributions to their own pensions. We also would like to see the City discontinue provisions that provide for automatic increases to health benefit contributions for active employees. By making health benefits fully negotiable, health care cost increases are more likely to be considered a "trade-off" at the negotiation table for other forms of compensation, such as wage and premium increases.
4. Link job promotions to training and performance.
Currently, past performance only plays a small role in promotion within civil service systems. The failure to consider performance in promotion has the perverse effect of rewarding good test-takers at the expense of those who have proven themselves highly capable and effective in an actual work setting. Using performance evaluations in promotion decisions poses certain legal and practical challenges, but it is absolutely essential for the efforts of the City's employees be recognized through merit-based raises.
5. Experiment with labor-management partnerships and demonstration projects.
Perhaps it's time for the City to give more thought to investing in a more modern and progressive model of labor relations, through the use of labor-management partnerships that bring together both parties to solve organizational problems. The partnership model requires a top-to-bottom commitment to innovation and collaboration from both labor and management. It also requires a considerable shift in the traditional power dynamic for both parties, who become partners and not adversaries. This kind of culture change is slow and requires strong champions and considerable investment. However, it also presents significant upsides. If implemented successfully, it has the potential to create a pathway to higher quality and more cost-effective public services through greater productivity, efficiency, innovation and morale.
6. Create a capital renewal fund to pay for infrastructure maintenance.
In spite of improvements to the capital planning process over the last decade, it remains relatively easy, particularly in bad budget cycles, for San Francisco to defer maintenance on streets, transit lines, sewers, parks and public buildings. While capital maintenance is not as glamorous as other policy issues, our neglect of the city's infrastructure has huge implications for government finances.
We propose that the City create a capital renewal fund. The City would set aside a certain percentage of the City budget for capital maintenance, and would require that "one-time" revenue sources (from the sale of surplus property, unexpected transfer tax revenues, or unanticipated one-time funding from state or federal sources) will be automatically diverted to this fund.
Good government milestones
In the last year, SPUR …
- Chaired a successful budget reform campaign ("Yes on A") in November 2009
- Reviewed 65 nominees and selected six winners for the 30th Annual MFAC Good Government Awards
- Joined the City's General Obligation Oversight Committee and Audit Review Board
- Analyzed ballot measures for elections in May and November 2009
- Continued to organize the MFAC Economic Outlook Briefing conference with the SF Controller's Office
Goal: Increase the supply of housing at all income levels, and use well-designed housing as a tool for strengthening neighborhoods
San Francisco's culture is directly threatened by the high cost of housing. Unless we do something, we will lose the city's artists, progressive politics, immigrants and young people. Even middle-class families will be forced to move elsewhere except for those lucky enough to already own their own home or have a rent-controlled apartment. We will become a city populated only by the very wealthy and by a relatively small number of low-income people who have been able to obtain a subsidized housing unit. For everyone else, the gates will be closed.
The problem's immediate cause is straightforward: We are not building enough housing for all the people who want to live here. And as we compete with each other for available housing, we drive prices—for both rentals and ownership—even higher. The underlying reasons are more complicated. They include an ineffective regulatory system, disproportionate political power held by people who oppose change, growing income disparities in the U.S. and the lack of sufficient resources to build affordable housing.
SPUR believes a healthy housing market provides plenty of options along the continuum: supportive housing for the homeless, permanently affordable low-income rental housing, housing for the middle-class, and more. We won't get there if we continue to think of our housing supply as a zero-sum game, in which one type of housing (e.g. low-income affordable housing) gets built only at the expense of another (market-rate housing). Rather we must work collaboratively to obtain the necessary financial resources and regulatory tools to build it all.
SPUR's housing agenda
1. Zone for more housing within walking distance of public transit.
The single most important step San Francisco can take to address the housing crisis is to zone for more housing located within walking distance of public transit, and to encourage neighboring jurisdictions with good transit service to do the same. If we get this right, we will see a significant increase in the supply of housing—while also making it convenient for residents to go on with their daily lives without a car.
2. Invest in permanently affordable housing.
The major constraint on affordable housing is the amount of funding available for it. Affordable housing developers need subsidies to purchase land, cover the capital costs of construction, and sometimes also pay for operating subsidies if the amount tenants are able to pay is well below the cost of paying off the mortgage on the property. Currently, neither California nor San Francisco has a long-term permanent source of affordable housing subsidy.
Even if we develop enough market-rate housing to drive down the cost of housing, we would still need public resources to develop more permanently affordable housing in San Francisco. There are two ways to pay for affordable housing: public funds, which typically support housing for very low-income households; and inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to build a certain number of below-market rate units (for moderate-income households) in market-rate projects. SPUR recommends we increase the supply of both.
3. Enable more housing to be "affordable by design."
Housing units that are "affordable by design" represent an underappreciated component of the city's housing market: These are units that cost less because they are small and efficiently designed, and in many cases do not come with a parking space. But current planning and building codes make this type of development extremely difficult. SPUR continues to advocate for key changes to codes to enable the construction of more "affordable by design" units to increase the city's housing stock.
4. Rethink parking requirements.
Parking spaces are expensive to build, especially where land values are high. Typically, a parking space adds at least $50,000 to the construction cost of each new housing unit in San Francisco. If we find a way to build less parking, we could see both reduced housing prices and a more efficient use of urban land.. SPUR recommends exchanging minimum for maximum parking space requirements. We also recommend decoupling the cost of a parking space from the cost of the housing unit to encourage car-sharing and the more efficient planning of spaces.
5. Support housing above retail.
We can create a more walkable, diverse and affordable city by building more well-designed mixed-use developments. But there are currently several barriers to doing this. The control of land and buildings often requires coordination among multiple retailers with existing leases. Some landowners simply may not be interested in the investment, and may be unwilling to sell the property to someone who is. In addition, some of the design features—large store sizes, good visibility, prominent signs and ample parking—that are important to retailers are different from what an urban designer might consider important.
SPUR suggests using height and bulk controls to shape buildings instead of restricting density, thereby allowing more flexibility for placing signage, and bypassing the need for Planning Commission approval.
6. Encourage secondary units.
A secondary (or "in-law") unit is an additional self-contained dwelling—usually offered by the property owner as a rental—on the same lot as an existing residential building. The advantages of secondary units are numerous. They distribute less-expensive housing across the city rather than concentrating new housing in specific neighborhoods. They have minimal impact on streets and neighborhoods. And they are true "life-cycle" housing, supporting flexibility and family stability over time.
7. Improve the permit-approval process.
Zoning should matter more in the development approval process. The time for extensive, detailed public process should be in the planning and zoning phases where we define the "rules" about what kind of development San Francisco wants to encourage. Then, when it comes to the approval phase, projects that conform to zoning should be quickly approved; while projects that do not conform should be similarly disapproved. There should be certainty for both neighbors and developers that zoning regulations will be upheld, rather than the uncertainty of site-by-site battles over every individual building. This will require reforms to both the environmental review and discretionary review process, and a set of other legislative changes.
8. Get housing fee levels right.
San Francisco levies many fees on new housing development in San Francisco. These fees support some wonderful things: new parks and infrastructure, community facilities and affordable housing. Yet the formula is tricky: If fees are too low, San Francisco loses out on public benefits it otherwise might have received. Too high, and housing becomes infeasible to build and projects do not move forward. This is not an ideological question, but simple math. Financial feasibility studies can determine how much the public sector can charge before a particular development becomes infeasible. Getting the fee levels right will ensure that we maximize the benefits of smart development.
In the last year, SPUR …
- Developed policy solutions to help stimulate in-fill housing development and create affordable housing revenue in a recession, informing the mayor's decision to amend the City's inclusionary housing requirement in exchange for a permanent subsidy for affordable housing
- Provided analysis and commentary on the effects of the recession on San Francisco and the Bay Area's housing markets
- Participated in the Citizen's Advisory Committee for the Housing Element, the section of San Francisco's General Plan that sets the framework for the City's housing strategy (see housingelement2009.sfplanning.org)
Goal: Focus regional growth into compact land-use patterns linked by excellent public transit
The great regional planning challenge of the next few decades is to shift where people work and live, in order to respond to three realities: climate change, global competitiveness and public sector fiscal limits. SPUR believes there is great opportunity to shape future land-use patterns to both retrofit our existing built form and make our region economically prepared for the challenges of a carbon-constrained world.
Changing the Bay Area's decentralized urban development patterns will require more effective regional planning and cooperation, as well as targeted infrastructure investment, economic incentives and regulation. Fortunately, California has taken a recent step forward by passing climate change laws that mandate reductions in greenhouse gases produced by driving and other sources of emissions. This has created a great opportunity to shift to a less auto-centric—and more sustainable —form of development.
SPUR's regional planning agenda
1. Shift more jobs to transit-accessible employment centers.
Commute patterns play a significant role in shaping the region's growth. Most job centers in the Bay Area rely almost exclusively on car travel to and from work. We must locate more jobs immediately adjacent to regionally accessible transit stations, and reduce the amount of free roads and parking available to employees. Studies show that the decision about whether or not a worker takes transit to a job mostly depends on where one works—not lives—relative to a transit station.
2. Focus housing growth in existing communities.
There will always be a temptation to meet housing needs by shifting growth to less populated areas, such as suburban greenfields and urban industrial lands. While there are certainly underused sites throughout the region—some of which seem very appropriate for housing growth (older shopping centers and unneeded parking lots, for instance)—we must nonetheless support development in existing communities, especially those with local and regional transit connections. Urban and suburban infill is more politically challenging, but has the greatest environmental payoffs.
3. Maintain enough industrial land.
The promise of future economic competitiveness and diversity will require maintaining a supply of industrial land for uses such as warehousing, production, distribution, maintenance and trucking. This is particularly important as the region shifts to a green economy with a greater emphasis on repair, recycling and new forms of manufacturing. Current local rezoning battles make it impossible to fully quantify the appropriate amount of industrial land to maintain—and it ignores the importance of contiguous industrial land uses, particularly in parts of the East Bay. SPUR advocates for creating a regional industrial-land bank, and identifying areas most in need of this type of "preservation."
4. Use recent climate change legislation to improve regional land-use planning.
California is currently implementing two new climate change laws: AB 32, and its land-use corollary, SB 375. Together, these laws provide an opportunity to change land-use patterns as part of a larger effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
SPUR supports an approach that treats the required "Sustainable Communities Strategy" within SB 375 as the foundation of a true regional plan that identifies locations for employment and housing, and which measures the outcomes of various land-use scenarios. We also support efforts to better coordinate the activities of the regional agencies overseeing air quality: the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Association of Bay Area Governments, and Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
5. Consider regional tax sharing.
SPUR supports tax sharing as one way to reduce inequities in tax revenues—and the disjointed land-use decisions that follow—across the region. We need to reduce incentives for communities to add poorly planned land uses (such as regional shopping centers at city boundaries), and figure out how to share some local taxes across jurisdictions. One option might be to reduce local dependence on sales taxes by swapping the state for a share of its income tax revenues or enacting local and regional taxes and fees on gasoline and vehicle licenses. Local communities should be able to generate the revenue they need without creating land uses that harm regional planning objectives.
6. Reduce sprawl by acquiring open space.
The single greatest threat to open space in Northern California is unplanned growth in the Central Valley. With the majority of land in private ownership and with pro-growth local governments, thousands of acres of farmland and open space are being converted to new housing developments, shopping centers, distribution centers and office and industrial parks. SPUR supports efforts by the open space movement to take seriously the development threats to the Central Valley, and the importance of maintaining greenbelts and agricultural lands.
7. Build a coalition to collaborate on economic development.
SPUR supports efforts to better coordinate economic development at a regional scale. In particular, we would encourage economic development professionals in the public and private sectors to develop a code of ethics whereby they do not actively pursue existing firms within the boundaries of another community in the Bay Area. This "poaching" fails to recognize that the region competes globally as a single economic unit and will achieve economic growth based on a shared set of investments and assets. Developing a regional infrastructure to collaborate around business formation, retention and attraction is one way to help ensure a more competitive regional economy.
8. Continue thinking of planning and governance at the "megaregional" scale.
The boundaries of our region are not static; rather, they continue to sprawl beyond the traditional borders of the nine-county Bay Area. Northern California's metropolitan "regions" are now merged along existing highway corridors. It now makes sense to consider land use in San Francisco in relationship to those in Davis, Stockton, Salinas, Fresno, Sacramento and as far east as the Sierras—and vice versa. Of course, the practical challenges of managing growth at this "megaregional" scale are many, particularly around governance issues. Nonetheless, SPUR believes it is a useful framework for emphasizing the interconnectedness of land-use decisions across geographic and municipal boundaries.
Regional planning milestones
In the last year, SPUR …
- Released a paper on job sprawl, detailing strategies for slowing the decentralization of jobs in Northern California (see spur.org/jobsprawl)
- Analyzed long-term funding and governance options for the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC)
- Launched project to analyze land use near high-speed rail stations in California
- Advised the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) on SB 375, California's new growth management law
- Advocated for additional toll revenues on regional bridges to fund an analysis of long-term capacity constraints, particularly in the East Bay/SF corridor
Goal: Reduce the city's ecological footprint through conservation and efficient use of water, energy and materials
We live in an age of global warming, water scarcity and a growing fear of ecological collapse. Luckily, it is also an era of high-performance buildings, renewable energy and smart infrastructure. Today, we know more than ever about our sustainability problems—and their solutions. The challenge of sustainable development is overcoming the cost and policy barriers to make these solutions feasible.
San Francisco is already more sustainable than many places in our region because of our compact land use, transit options and green building codes. But we still have a long, long way to go. SPUR sees sustainability as an opportunity to improve our quality of life and economic well-being. The city we build today—buildings, roads, power plants, water systems and transit infrastructure—will shape the way we live for the next several decades. For this reason, it is important to view our infrastructure and other resources as sustainability opportunities, not traps. We must commit to reducing emissions sooner rather than later, as we only have the next few years to stabilize carbon levels in the atmosphere or else face irreparable consequences from climate change.
SPUR's sustainable development agenda
1. Reduce local and regional greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2004, San Francisco adopted a Climate Action Plan and committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2012. Over the next few years, we must swiftly and aggressively develop policies and programs to meet this target. SPUR has analyzed over 40 approaches to reducing greenhouse gases in San Francisco, estimating their potential annual carbon reduction and their cost per ton of carbon reduced. We found that some—most notably, improvements to land-use planning, pricing methods for parking and roads, waste diversion and retrofitting old buildings—have a superior combination of high effectiveness and low cost. SPUR continues to advocate for implementation of the most cost-effective local and regional measures to reduce global warming.
2. Plan for the inevitable reality of climate change.
Global warming is expected to cause sea levels to rise by more than a meter by the end of this century. This will particularly affect San Francisco's low-lying tidal areas. Weather patterns are expected to change, likely altering the availability of water from the Sierras and the amount of wastewater flowing through our existing system. Other public health, infrastructure and ecosystem impacts are expected to be far-reaching and permanent. SPUR is working on a plan to manage and protect vulnerable coastal resources, and to analyze other likely impacts on key infrastructure, stormwater management, vulnerable neighborhoods and public health. Our adaptation plan includes a variety of City agencies and considers a wide range of possibilities over long periods of time. Preparing and implementing adaptation strategies in advance will be much more cost effective than trying to solve problems when they occur.
3. Invest in our wastewater system.
Roads, sewers, pipelines and transmission lines are aging nationwide, and San Francisco's infrastructure is no exception. Infrastructure improvement is expensive, however, and maintenance programs have been chronically underfunded and politically unpopular. San Francisco has the opportunity to demonstrate sustainability leadership in the forthcoming Sewer System Improvement Program, a $4 billion investment to upgrade the city's sewer system. This plan will create systems to slow down, capture and use the water that runs into the streets during rainstorms. These methods present the most ecologically sound way to reduce the volume of water entering our combined sewer and stormwater system during storms, which in turn reduces costs and diminishes the possibility for the system to be overwhelmed and release polluted water. Low-impact development strategies include capturing, storing and slowly releasing rainwater to restored wetlands or swales—using it for irrigation and habitat, and allowing it to infiltrate the ground as much as possible.
4. Develop local water supplies to reduce pressure on the Tuolumne River.
SPUR supports San Francisco's $4 billion program to bolster the seismic and delivery reliability of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system, which serves more than 2.5 million people in the Bay Area. But we also need water we can rely on regardless of changes in the climate, and that we can tap locally for emergencies. As our region grows, we must conserve and be more efficient with our imported water, by recycling and reusing it before sending it to our wastewater treatment plants and ultimately out to sea. Taking less water out of the Tuolumne also will support the health and sustainability of the river itself, which is home to threatened salmon and steelhead trout. SPUR believes there is more we can do to conserve water and develop new local water supplies.
5. Green existing buildings through aggressive energy efficiency and water conservation measures.
San Francisco now has some of the greenest codes for new construction in the country —covering single-family homes, large commercial buildings, large-scale remodeling and more. However, because the building process is so resource-intensive, many times the greenest buildings we have are the ones already standing. To reduce our carbon footprint and meet goals for addressing climate change, we need to retrofit existing buildings to conserve resources. Because energy and water efficiency upgrades may have high up-front costs, SPUR supports a performance-based approach with realistic cost requirements. The City should also provide technical assistance and education programs to help people comply with retrofit requirements.
6. Support the development of renewable energy sources.
The bulk of our energy is derived from fossil fuels, which are becoming ever more expensive to produce and distribute. But the up-front cost to develop newer sustainable technologies also tends to be high. Public investment can help finance the transition to clean technologies such as solar or wind energy. While San Francisco cannot be expected to make investments to transition the entire economy, the City could provide low-cost loans and build demonstration projects to educate the public and encourage the distributed adoption of sustainable technologies. In addition, the City should work with PG&E to possibly implement a "smart grid," a more flexible electricity network that allows grid managers to shift power from where it is created to where it is needed. SPUR's analysis of local climate action measures found that implementing a smart grid could reduce energy demand by between 12 and 20 percent.
Sustainable development milestones
In the last year, SPUR …
- Released a policy report with recom-mendations to reduce local and regional greenhouse gas emissions (see spur.org/criticalcooling)
- Launched a major climate adaptation initiative
- Released paper on sea level rise, describing different adaptation strategies
- Worked with Brightline Defense Project and other partners to close the Potrero Power Plant
- Formed a water policy board to evaluate issues facing the city and region
- Formed task force to determine how to retrofit multifamily rental housing to use energy and water resources more efficiently
Goal: Make it easier to move around the city and make it a joyful experience to be out on the streets spending time in public
Transportation is more than how people get around. The systems we use to transport ourselves and our goods influence the built character of the city, in addition to our economic well-being and physical and mental health. As a relatively compact city, San Francisco's transportation system is much more efficient than that of suburban areas. We have high rates of walking, bicycling and public transit, and shorter-than-average commutes to work.
Still, we face certain challenges to implementing a truly robust and reliable transportation network to support the movement of residents and workers into and out of the city. We contend vigorously over every square inch of space, including streets. Resources are constrained and the transit operators that serve San Francisco—especially Muni, but also BART, Caltrain and other regional services—are chronically short of the funding to provide the kind of service we need. Finally, because of San Francisco's position as a central city in the middle of a low-density region, many people who come here to work or shop have no choice but to drive. This is a problem we hope will be addressed through strategic investments in regional public-transit infrastructure.
SPUR's transportation agenda
1. Make San Francisco a pedestrian paradise.
Walking should be safe, comfortable and joyous. Sidewalks should be widened at every opportunity. More street trees and outdoor seating areas make a neighborhood more inviting. Promenades such as the Embarcadero attract visitors and residents alike for casual strolls. To the extent possible, neighborhood streets should be turned into "home zones," or traffic-calmed places where it's safe for children and families to enjoy the streets and sidewalks. Every time a neighborhood planning process occurs or a street repaving project is considered, San Francisco should be building great streets.
2. Build the bicycle network.
A complete bicycle network is safe and comfortable for any able-bodied person aged 8 to 80, and connects all major destinations and neighborhoods. San Francisco's current rate of bicycling—about 3 to 4 percent of all trips—could be about 10 percent of all trips if the network were complete. SPUR supports the development of a plan that provides a contiguous network of slow-speed streets, bicycle lanes and fully segregated bicycle paths.
3. Get Muni the money it needs.
Too many people have turned to cars because they just can't count on the bus coming when it's supposed to. The problem stems in part from years of costs rising faster than revenues, with budgets balanced not by cutting service but by cutting what were deemed nonessential personnel: schedulers, supervisors, mechanics and spare operators to cover for operators on vacation or on sick leave. Muni must be better funded to improve reliability. SPUR has comprehensively analyzed potential funding sources, and has released a series of options to get Muni the money it needs.
4. Fix the labor-management culture at Muni.
Muni operators have a very high absenteeism compared to similar agencies, and a very high rate of hours paid as bonuses on top of base wages. These factors affect Muni's overall budget and ability to hire more staff. Muni's labor contract effectively does not allow it to hire part time drivers, making it extremely inefficient to staff an operation with dramatically different peak and off-peak demands. The list of "work rule" problems is very long. Because driver salaries and benefits are set by a formula in the City Charter, Muni workers do not undertake collective bargaining for pay and benefits. This means that management has nothing to offer the drivers in exchange for work rule concessions. In the context of the contentious labor-management culture of Muni, this Charter provision is deadly. We need to bring drivers under the same collective bargaining system as the rest of City government—and then begin a long-term effort to rebuild a more positive working culture.
5. Increase capacity and speed on Muni's core routes.
Why does Muni operate routes with nearly empty buses when other routes are packed to the gills? The biggest efficiency gain for Muni will involve shifting resources to the most heavily used routes, and then investing to remove all sources of delay on them. That means things like bus-only lanes, proof-of-payment boarding, removing stop signs, optimizing bus stop spacing and installing traffic signal controls to speed up service for riders.
6. Expand BART capacity.
BART is approaching the upper limit of its downtown capacity. To remedy this situation, we need to expand station capacity at the Montgomery and Embarcadero stations and improve transbay express bus service to relieve some of the pressure on BART. Eventually, BART will need a second tube under the Bay as part of a major reinvestment in its system.
7. Extend Caltrain to downtown—as the prelude to high-speed rail.
Connecting the Peninsula rail lines to downtown San Francisco will attract tens of thousands of new passengers daily. The downtown terminal in the Transbay Transit Center will function as an intermodal hub connecting Caltrain with BART, Muni Metro lines, regional buses, and eventually high-speed rail. As part of this service upgrade, Caltrain should be electrified and expanded to four tracks, enabling a 30-minute travel time between San Francisco and San Jose.
8. Support car-sharing.
Making it easy for people who don't own a car to enjoy the use of one is key to reducing automobile traffic. Because the marginal cost of each individual car trip is so little compared to the "sunk cost" of car ownership, people who own cars use them even when other options are readily available and just as convenient. Car-sharing could allow many car owners to divest themselves of car ownership—saving them money, helping the local economy and reducing traffic on city streets.
9. Use pricing to manage congestion on bridges and highways.
The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate bridge are perfect places to charge higher rates during periods of peak demand, giving drivers an incentive to shift the time of their trip if possible and smoothing out some of the peaks and valleys of demand on the system. In fact, something similar probably should be done on U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate Highway 280 to the south.
In the last year, SPUR …
- Developed an alternative budget for the SFMTA that would avoid the most drastic cuts to Muni service in a generation
- Advocated for Bus Rapid Transit on the Van Ness and Geary corridors
- Supported traffic-calming trials along Market Street
- Supported Muni as it rolled out major service changed informed by the Transit Effectiveness Project
- Pushed for funding for the Transbay Terminal, the downtown extension of Caltrain and High-Speed Rail