“That is not to say there isn’t real and positive potential to expand the City’s emerging technology economy substantially in the Central Corridor. But it is vital that you and the Department keep in mind the reason that the technology industry first located in SOMA during the 1990’s was because it was very different from Downtown. And still is today.”
(excerpt from John Elberling’s letter to Planning Director)
Director of Planning
San Francisco Planning Department
1660 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
December 9, 2011
RE: Central Corridor Project
11/29 Public Workshop Feedback
First I’d like to say there are a lot of promising concepts and tools in the
Study that was presented last week. So I don’t mean to prejudge the
upcoming draft Plan. We need to assess its many details’ potential practical
outcomes first to respond thoroughly, and that will take some time.
But that said, I was mortified by the conceptual “framing” of the Project
by yourself that evening, and to a much lesser extent by the staff
To summarize the overall civic goal for the Corridor, as you did in your
introduction, as “the expansion of Downtown” could not be more wrong in
truth nor more inflammatory in concept.
I understand that all of SOMA and much of northeast San Francisco –
from Mission Bay to Fishermen’s Wharf, Van Ness to the Embarcadero – is
technically part of the City’s “Central Business District.” But the term
“Downtown” has always been used to reference its high-density commercial
core, mostly the traditional C3 Districts addressed by the 1985 Downtown
Plan. And the expansion of that Downtown core into the various adjacent
districts and neighborhoods, certainly including SOMA, has lead to a series of
sometimes bitter civic confrontations over the decades, beginning with the
Yerba Buena Project in the 1960’s. I really had hoped we had all learned from
that unproductive and sometimes ugly past experience – last encountered in
the fierce Proposition K/L showdown of 2000 – and would leave it behind
from now on in the work of the Planning Department (and Redevelopment
Agency and, in recent years, MOEWD).
So as I said to you that evening, the real task before us is instead to
“build the SOMA of the future,” or the 21st Century, or the next generation, or
however you would like to rhetorically describe the challenge of realizing the
best possibilities for everyone from the ongoing shift in our City’s economy
and communities to a different future era – and for its spirit, not just for
private profit. But at least as a minimum, not to go backwards.
“Expanding Downtown” literally into the Central Corridor simply
because of a relatively modest new light rail transit route there would
certainly destroy everything else that is good and valuable about it today.
That would be a catastrophe, economically and socially, for San Francisco.
The Transbay Project Area is the right place for such traditional “Downtown
expansion” instead, stick to that.
That is not to say there isn’t real and positive potential to expand the
City’s emerging technology economy substantially in the Central Corridor.
But it is vital that you and the Department keep in mind the reason that
technology industry first located in SOMA during the 1990’s was because it
was very different from Downtown. And still is today. It was a real and
diverse neighborhood/community intermixed with a wide range of
commercial activity, and that is what made it so attractive to that industry to
incubate and prosper here. This remains true today, and always will unless
some really dumb capitulation to “market forces” by City official who should
know better drives it to extinction. Furthering both growth of the technology
industry and the continued evolution of all that is special about SOMA at the
same time is the trick. But fortunately it often boils down in large part to
getting the right thing in the right place, the essence of zoning.
So I’d just like to highlight at this initial point a few major concepts that
are missing from the draft Principles and Plan elements but should be
prominently featured there:
First, the Plan fails totally to acknowledge that Fourth Street is quickly
developing into a genuine and active neighborhood commercial street today,
from Townsend Street to Folsom Street. SOMA never had this before. That
was one of our prime “community building” goals going all the way back to
1980 and TODCO’s YBC Neighborhood Plan. It is very hard, if not impossible,
to “make happen” via mere plans and policies. It is finally being realized now
thanks to the thousands of new residents in Mission Bay North since 2003
who added the essential local trade area customer base to support it
economically. A new wave of small businesses have been able to
productively recycle the smallish old commercial buildings along Fourth
Street into new venues because their rents and tenant improvement costs are
modest. Only a total idiot would throw this organic and precious new
commercial energy away in any “plan.” But the problem is that office
buildings per se are not conducive to organic neighborhood anything. Even
when they include ground level retail space, the high pro forma rents and
high cost of tenant build-out they require practically exclude most small
business with any genuine personality or local trade base. This is true for new
condo projects as well (e.g., the Palms on Fourth Street). So instead the result
turns out just like King Street actually did – basically well capitalized chain
retail that can be found in any city anyplace (and feeds to a great extent from
the Giants Stadium non-neighborhood trade base).
Second the Plan fails to highlight the current barren urban condition of
Fifth Street south of the Freeway, and also Fifth Street’s potential as a lowtraffic
two way street linking Central Market and SOMA to become an
important new district amenity. It should be apparent this area is a prime
location for future office development with few negative impacts and
potential for major positive outcomes – including related new open space as
suggested in the Plan. It is within easy walking distance of Fourth Street
Third the Plan mentions but does not highlight the supreme importance
of the “SOMA Brand” for the City’s economy as a whole. That is not just a
topic for MOEWD, as suggested by staff during the presentation. This SOMA
“brand” is one of the top civic brands in the world, nearly as significant for
marketing San Francisco economically as “Silicon Valley” is to the Bay Area
as a whole. Only a total idiot would undermine that immensely valuable
brand. Identifying, protecting, and furthering the urban components of that
civic identity is essential for the Central Corridor Plan, and for the Planning
Department itself to know what the heck it is doing with our city’s economy.
I expect YOU to be able to explain why it has proved such a great success, so
that I can then believe that you know how to continue and foster that success
through the Department’s responsibilities.
Finally, the Plan includes a nod to “Complete Communities,” but its
community building agenda is alarmingly thin. The holistic approach of a
redevelopment project area is missing. Even the fine grained planning code
concepts of the West SOMA Plan are missing. The community-building
techniques of Community Benefit Districts and other such tools is missing.
The outline of a community benefits program is missing. Don’t tell us this is
somebody else’s responsibility. Don’t tell us it is not as important as height
limits, etc. This needs a lot of work, up front.
And I’d like to also provide one very specific heads-up to the
Department. TODCO’s position as an adjacent property owner, and our
Yerba Buena Consortium’s position as 30-year Yerba Buena Neighborhood
advocates, is that the Fourth/Folsom Central Subway Station site should be
developed with affordable or mixed income housing (and designed to respect
our adjacent senior housing and its open space). This is actually the only site
in public ownership that can be committed to affordable housing in the entire
Corridor, so it is a matter of living up to one of the Plan’s key stated goals.
Jamming a high rise office tower on this relatively small site is silly – it would
only be a drop in the total office space bucket at best, but a tragic waste of an
excellent community building opportunity. Does the Plan have ANY another
sites identified for affordable housing development in the Corridor? No.
Perhaps we can sit down with your team and follow up in January. As I
said at first, there is great potential in the details suggested by your staff, but
the presentation at the Workshop was necessarily so broad it was not possible
to gauge their likely outcomes.
Cc: Yerba Buen a Consortium
Supervisor Jane Kim