Sustainable Redevelopment for San Francisco

Strategies for moving forward

Urbanist Article June 1, 2001


The Committee’s work has been divided between two scales at which the agency works: the site scale and the neighborhood scale.

The site scale emphasis has primarily involved advocating for the adoption of “green building” policies for redevelopment areas and other SFRA-owned properties. SPUR has been instrumental in providing relevant information to SFRA staff, including the existing (but rarely enforced) city-wide green building code and examples of forward-thinking codes from other cities, such as New York. These codes can be used as models to shape Development Disposition Agreements (DDAs), Owner Participation Agreements, and other contracts between SFRA and private parties to encourage or require energy efficient designs, recycled and nontoxic materials, reduction of construction waste, improved indoor air quality, and other important green building measures.

Establishing building standards is one of the most effective ways for SFRA to advance sustainability goals because the agency acts as a funder of development for many properties that are not even within redevelopment project areas. This is due in large part to the Citywide Tax Increment Housing Program, initiated in 1991, which allows SFRA to use a portion of the revenues from redevelopment projects for the construction of affordable housing anywhere in the city. Furthermore, within project areas— i.e., those areas in which Redevelopment Plans have already been written and approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors—the agency retains important latitude in determining building standards. (There are 12 project areas throughout the city, ranging in size from one building—the Federal Office Building at Seventh and Mission—to the 500- acre Hunters Point Shipyard. See the figure on page 19.) The agency also retains broad real estate acquisition powers in these areas, within the constraints of the approved Redevelopment Plan.


It is within the agency’s survey areas (Bayview-Hunters Point, Transbay, and Mid-Market) in which Redevelopment Plans have not yet been approved that the greatest opportunities for neighborhood- scale incorporation of sustainability criteria lie. If these areas are declared blighted under state-defined criteria regarding economic and physical conditions, the agency then undertakes a wide-ranging community participation process that results in a Concept Plan, which then directly informs the legally binding Redevelopment Plan and its five-year Implementation Plan. These plans can address everything from building standards to open space and street design to infrastructure improvements, all of which are of central importance to urban sustainability.

The ongoing process in Bayview-Hunters Point illustrates the potential for positive change. Undertaken at the request of the local community in 1995, the project recently finalized its Concept Plan for the neighborhood. Throughout the public participation process, community members expressed serious concerns about pollution emanating from both the Southeast Water Pollution Control Facility and the PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant. The community’s desire to reduce the loads carried by these plants (and thereby reduce the pollution) suggests that urban design within the Bayview-Hunters Point survey area and elsewhere should pay careful attention to electricity consumption and stormwater impacts of new development. Reducing the amount of impervious pavement and replacing it with vegetated areas, for example, would not only help more stormwater soak into the soil instead of being carried away to the treatment plant, but would also reduce the amount of extra heat re-radiated from the asphalt into the surrounding neighborhood, cutting back on the need for air conditioning. A program of street tree planting, also requested by the community, would increase shading on buildings and asphalt, also reducing the summertime heat peaks when electricity consumption is highest. A redevelopment planning process represents a rare opportunity to implement the simple, unobtrusive, yet important and attractive urban design changes that can accomplish these sustainability goals.

The agency also has the ability to make significant changes to neighborhood infrastructure in the course of a redevelopment planning process. This power is well within the agency’s mandate to provide a framework to stimulate private investment and improve the quality of life within project areas. SFRA has planned and funded the construction of new infrastructure in past projects, ranging from roads to pedestrian ways to water pipes. Though requiring a high degree of coordination with other city agencies, notably the Department of Public Works, the ability to shape infrastructure opens up a range of possibilities for advancing sustainability goals. The ability to encourage mass transit, biking, and walking through changes in road and rail infrastructure is perhaps the most obvious. But the opportunities also extend to things like the treatment and piping infrastructure needed to encourage the use of recycled water for landscape irrigation, or the construction of wetlands for the secondary treatment of wastewater and the creation of wildlife habitat.


We in San Francisco can benefit from looking at what has been done elsewhere. Two projects in the city of Kolding, Denmark, are perhaps the most far-reaching examples of the innovations in ecological urbanism that are possible when working at the larger-than-site scale. The first, known as the Fredensgade project, contains 143 housing units on one block of urban land. In the center of the block is a “bioworks” that uses biological processes to treat the wastewater from the housing units, establishing a natural food chain that runs from algae all the way up to freshwater mussels and fish. The treated water is then allowed to seep harmlessly back into the soil to nourish the plants and trees throughout the courtyard in the middle of the block. The project also contains waste recycling stations and all-season composters that have increased the amount of solid waste recycled within the block by seven-fold compared to the prerenovation conditions. Because the high Danish fees for the disposal of waste and wastewater were waived for this project (since it is not adding to the public waste stream), the residents are paying no extra net costs for these sustainable technologies.

A second project, known as the Solgarden block, took advantage of an existing building’s form and solar orientation to make it into a model of energy conscious urban redevelopment. The project contains 846 photovoltaic solar panels arrayed on the previously unused rooftop space of a five-story building containing 80 housing units. These panels produce about 60 percent of the building’s electricity. All of this electricity was previously produced by a coal-fired power plant, with all the attendant pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that that generation technology entails. Furthermore, once the initial capital investment is recovered, the only cost of this electricity to the residents of the building will be in the maintenance of the panels.


These projects therefore point up another key reason why Redevelopment represents such an important opportunity for implementing sustainability principles in San Francisco. The SFRA, along with other redevelopment agencies, has access to unique financing mechanisms that transform the economics of public investments such as the ones just described. Tax-increment financing, in particular, enables the agency to recapture some of the property value increase that results from their capital investments in a project area, closing a financial loop. Since many neighborhood features that would improve sustainability—such as street trees and vegetated open spaces, for example—create public amenities that are best reflected economically in the area’s property values, the taxincrement financing mechanism can make these a rational investment with direct payoffs, from the agency’s point of view. The same can be said for financing mechanisms like Mello-Roos bonds for infrastructure investments, which the agency also may utilize within project areas.

The Redevelopment Agency is therefore a key component of any effort to plan for a more sustainable San Francisco. With the completion of the second public workshop this summer, there will be ample opportunity to move forward with many of the principles of the Sustainability Plan, both within the three areas still formulating Redevelopment Plans, and throughout other parts of the city where the agency is active. These efforts may then provide an important roadmap for the future of sustainability planning, both in San Francisco and beyond.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

William Eisenstein is a doctoral student in environmental planning at UC-Berkeley and a member of SPUR’s Sustainable Development Committee.

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