Why does the Planning Department like to crap on our alleys so much?

by JIM MEKO

When planners set out their guiding principles for a community planning effort, their first thought is always GROWTH. When the neighbors get to participate in a real community planning process, their standard always tends to be something more nuanced, something like “to preserve and enhance.”

This dichotomy explains why we hate the Planning Department so much. 

I’ve seen four major South of Market projects move forward recently where developers have tried to exit their residents’ cars out to the main streets but were stopped in their tracks by planners quoting some orthodoxy that reads, “Cars must always get dumped into the alleys.”

Why? Alleys are narrow and parking in them is already awkward, dangerous and just damn rude. Mirrors get torn off, kids get hit. The new developments popping up all over SoMa are enough of a pain for the existing residents (for a myriad of reasons), it just seems like diverting more traffic into these “Residential Enclave Districts” (REDs) is like rubbing salt into their wounds. When former Supervisor Chris Daly and the Board of Supervisors created the Western SoMa Task Force, the needs of existing residents were put first. If the Planning Department was not going to mitigate the impacts of new developments, they heard loud and clear, neighbors were not interested in any more development. The Board passed a resolution instructing the Task Force to do the following:

“Map and evaluate land uses proximate to existing and proposed REDs and develop basic height, density and design guidelines in order to provide a buffer between REDs and areas where more intense development might be allowed.”

The Planning Department has been playing games with the final adoption of the Western SoMa Design Standards because they’d prefer to abolish all local design guidelines rather than accept any new ones (which should be news to many other neighborhoods that fought long and hard to get their own). But Jeff Joslin, the Director of Current Planning, has assured me that regardless of any official endorsement, he’s instructed all planners in the southeast quadrant to employ the standards as if they were official.

Our Design Standards state categorically, “Parking access, when possible, shall be from the main streets with preference to pedestrian and bicycle use of alleys.” This might slow down some of the traffic passing through the neighborhood of course, as the planners like to point out, but the Task Force anticipated this by designating streets in highly residential areas to be treated as “neighborhood-serving streets” and those capable of handling crosstown traffic designated “regional-serving streets.” City planners didn’t like the distinction, of course, but they didn’t write the plan. The community did. And the Planning Commission adopted that Plan by a vote of 7-0.

The Planning Department had better rethink this dictate that all the ugly, useless and dangerous stuff always belongs in the alleys. Planning Commissioners said such nice things about our Residential Enclave Districts when they voted to adopt the plan. I sure hope they meant it.

1 Comment

Filed under planning, politics, public safety, quality of life

One response to “Why does the Planning Department like to crap on our alleys so much?

  1. John Dunlap

    Thank you, Jim! I agree with you completely. Every developer wants to include parking in their design ideas, and if the development has frontages on two streets, they want to dump their traffic onto the alley. It’s so predictable. These alleys are very narrow and were often designed before the 1906 earthquake when most housing stock in the neighborhood did not include garages or parking, and the buildings were only two or three stories tall. Back then, people walked to their nearby jobs. Cars and trucks were a rarity. One hundred plus years later, things have changed.

    Today, the typical development approach in SoMa places a garage entrance on the residential alley frontage, thus significantly increasing traffic and producing “dead zones” of contiguous garage doors on these quiet streets. The result being that the alleyway frontage, that has the potential to be unique and bring the neighborhood together, remains void of activity and life. In effect, the alleyway becomes – literally – one long driveway for the new development. It completely ignores the context of the space and all the potential opportunities to make the neighborhood more cohesive.

    Sadly, developers/architects (and the Planning Department) seem oblivious to the idea that the alleyways deserve respect and that these new projects represent a great opportunity to reinvent the local public space. No doubt, it is difficult to strike the right balance, but let’s think outside the box and realize that these new developments are a rare opportunity to add housing stock in the neighborhood and to improve the quality of life for those who live nearby.

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