by JIM MEKO
Since we put the Western SoMa Community Plan to bed (it’s just about a year since it passed!), you may find yourself all alone with nothing to do at night. Awww … are you yearning for another community meeting? After the thousand-plus ones that we sat through for the neighborhood planning effort, finally, here’s an opportunity to attend more meetings! Pre-application meetings!
Pre-apps used to consist of dozing through a PowerPoint presentation and then arguing with a thin-skinned architect that his project was just too big and ugly. And it never mattered because the Planning Commission would approve it just as is.
The Western SoMa Community Plan changed all that. Neighbors attended so many Planning Commission and Task Force meetings that they can argue land use with the best of ‘em … and now developers actually act glad to see you early and often and are more inclined to play nice and maybe even incorporate some of your ideas into their project.
Amir Massih certainly takes the prize for most meetings attended. As vice president for development of the now defunct Archstone-Smith Trust, Amir endured overly-zealous brain-storming sessions with whiz-kid architectural grad students from Cal Poly, pretentious and domineering old community activists, neighbors with wacky ideas, scolding absolutists from the affordable housing cabal and more than a fair share of downright sincere and helpful aspiring neighborhood “Citizen Planners.”
And out of that we got a proposal for 400 units of rental housing in Western SoMa, with seven separate buildings that include townhouses on Ringold Alley, roll-up garage door studio space on Gordon Alley, a stand-alone commercial building opposite the Stud bar on Harrison Street (to buffer noise from the bar), a brand new alley that connects to the existing SoMa grid, a neighborhood cafe and … get this, a privately-financed, publicly-accessible park, that sailed through the Planning Commission with nary a hiccup. Amir survived the breakup of Archstone very well and returns as President of 4Terra Investments, a new development group committed to building the 4 acre project exactly as approved at that love-fest of a Planning Commission meeting. 4Terra also convinced the ENCAC to allow them to put nearly $2 million of their impact fees into an LGBTQ project on Ringold. They break ground on all of this within a month.
I attended another pre-app this past week for the neighbors of the site at 9th and Howard Streets (where the Burger King and car wash now sit) and architect Toby Levy found herself actually trying to pick a fight to stir up some controversy whereas, although the neighbors didn’t want to lose any sunlight (it was handled) they were otherwise pretty okay with the project.
Same goes for a large development at Folsom and Rausch. An empty electrical supply store currently sits there. These mid-SoMa neighbors are probably the most astute critics of land use policy in the entire special use district, having endured years of broken promises and lawsuits with recently bankrupted architect/developer George Hauser. Tough crowd. But the sophisticated renderings from BAR Architects and the blunt assurance from the development team that the below-market-rate housing will be onsite — they wouldn’t have it any other way — made the neighbors feel that they were dealing with grownups. And, the town house style housing on the east side of Rausch Street will have backyards! There are plenty of matters to be worked out but both sides seem to feel that this can be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
The Planning Department hasn’t been too much help, offering little input into rights and responsibilities for both sides, but some of that can be explained by area planner Corey Teague adjusting to his new role as Assistant Zoning Administrator. Whoever gets assigned to this project next, reach out, dammit, make yourselves useful.
But nowhere was it more apparent that it’s so easy to slip back into the bad old ways than with the developer vs. community dialog festering around the 1178 Folsom Street project.
When they established the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force, the Board of Supervisors included a mandate that said:
“The Task Force shall develop basic height, density and design guidelines in order to provide a buffer between REDs and areas where more intense development might be allowed [emphasis added].”
In other words, don’t screw up our neighborhoods just to build more of your damn market-rate housing.
REDs are Residential Enclave Districts. These are the alleys where most of our neighbors live. Sumner Street, behind the project, is one of the narrowest alleys in the entire South of Market and the neighbors have been communicating to developer Erik Liu for more than two years that they don’t want any more cars dumped into their street. It’s already too dangerous, they say.
“The Planning Department told me I had to,” responded architect David Baker. Who told you that? I asked. Corey Teague, he responded. To his credit, Corey denies saying any such thing. Baker held a pre-app meeting on site recently. Everybody there said they didn’t want the garage exiting onto their alley. Wonder if that’s gonna make it into their pre-app report to the Department?
The Western SoMa Design Standards are pretty blunt about this: parking access, when possible, shall be from the main streets in deference to pedestrian and bicycle use of the alleys. Folsom Street can endure a few curb-cuts. There’s one at this address already and Liu promised there will only be about seven or eight cars going in and out every day. The Planning Department has yet to take a public stand but Jeff Joslin, the Director of Current Planning, assured me that his team is respecting the Design Standards.
Michael Yarney’s three-building complex of micro-units across the street from the Eagle hasn’t had a pre-app meeting yet but they’ve already done a lot of walking around the neighborhood and gotten plenty of feedback. The units are awfully small, some contend, but overall they like the feel of the design. Very industrial, just like the neighborhood.
And that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Get the feedback early and often and respect the neighborhood. Terrance Alan said it exactly right early in the Task Force deliberations as we framed our vision for the neighborhood: take all the elements which make the area special, put them in a blender and pour it out onto the site.