The attack on SoMa – a new downtown?

Last week Zelda Bronstein published the first part of what promises to be an extensive analysis of the Planning Department’s ambitions for our neighborhood in an essay titled, “The attack on SoMa: city wants to create a new downtown, wiping out culture and thousands of blue-collar jobs.” The piece in its entirety can be found on Tim Redmond’s new blog, 48hills: the secrets of san francisco.

As a former Planning Commissioner (and two-term chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission), Bronstein’s acknowledged interests include land use, manufacturing, public finance, feminism, theater, film, and the political economy of Berkeley and the Bay Area but are perhaps best captured by a favorite quote from Jane Jacobs (“The Death and Life of Great American Cities”) who wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Bronstein writes:

While the displacement of residential tenants has become big news in this city, local blue-collar jobs and businesses are getting forced out of San Francisco, too – and if history is any precedent, the city is asking for a fight. 

Excerpts from “The attack on SoMa”

Thanks to extraordinary grass-roots resistance, South of Market avoided complete destruction and emerged with robust community-based institutions that have enhanced its livability and defended its tattered integrity for almost half a century.

Now, that livability and integrity are threatened. The Central SoMa Plan, now working its way through the planning system, is a sweeping proposal whose draft version resembles the old urban renewal, tricked out in the current fashion of professional planning, “smart growth.” Staked on SoMa’s red-hot real estate market and the district’s appeal to tech firms, the plan would remake the area stretching from Market to Townsend and Second to Sixth Streets into a full-fledged extension of downtown, replete with high-rise offices, hotels, and residences, all in the name of dense, “transit-oriented development” and “sustainability.”

With the draft published last April, the planning process is well underway. But the requisite Environmental Impact Report won’t be finished until early 2015, so there’s ample time to demand changes that direct market forces so as to strengthen, not destroy, the neighborhood’s unique character. In fact, a bold alternative that seeks to do just that has been put forward by the same community-based organization, Tenants and Owners Development Corporation (TODCO), that rose up out of the fight against urban renewal in the 1970s. But even TODCO’s Central SoMa Community Plan accepts as inevitable the removal of zoning protections for businesses like Interior Moves, known in local plannerese as PDR, or Production, Distribution and Repair. …

In many ways, the smart-growth program advanced by the Central SoMa Plan looks like the exact opposite [of 1960s suburbanization]. Today, the private automobile is not the enabler but the enemy, polluting the air, crowding the roads, fostering sprawl, and overheating the globe. Accordingly, the plan’s first goal is to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit. … To pencil out, mass transit needs mass ridership. According to smart-growth orthodoxy, the way to get such patronage without encouraging sprawl is to mix uses, build densely, and locate new construction in “transit-rich” areas.

And in keeping with smart growth’s promotion of alternatives to the private automobile, the plan seeks to make the district more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists as well as to transit. … So far, the Central SoMa Plan sounds like something that urban renewal’s preeminent critic, Jane Jacobs, would cheer. In fact, Jacobs’ masterwork, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” is often invoked by smart growthers. … but Jacobs also recognized that “a thriving neighborhood could be ruined by a real estate boom. So many people want to live in [a] locality,” she wrote, “that it becomes profitable to build, in excessive and devastating quantity, for those who can pay the most.”

The problem isn’t just the enormous volume of potential new construction. It’s also the kind of development that’s on the table … a “mix of uses” [including] “offices, housing, retail, hotels, industrial, and entertainment. This may sound like a strategy of inclusiveness; in fact it’s a recipe for displacement—most notably, the displacement of a significant percentage of Central SoMa’s industrial businesses.

Unfortunately, the city’s Production, Distribution and Repair businesses face tough challenges. At its peak, in 1980, PDR supported 165,000 jobs. According to the planning department, by 2012 the number had fallen to between 63,000 and 72,000. A major factor in that shrinkage is the dwindling supply of affordable PDR-appropriate space. Only 6.8% of the city’s land is zoned for industry, the lowest percentage of any major city in the U.S.

The dearth of industrial space reflects four hard facts:

• San Francisco is a built-out city that sits on only 47.5 square miles of land.

• High-end housing and offices have been allowed, if not encouraged, to spread into industrially zoned areas.

• The odors, late hours, truck and forklift traffic, and noise that often accompany PDR activity are incompatible with   that sort of housing and offices.

• Back Streets Businesses cannot afford office or housing rents.

Glancing at the space issue, the authors of the Central SoMa Plan report that San Francisco has commissioned “a PDR ‘intensification’ study” of “the conditions under which new PDR development is available.” Curiously, they don’t disclose that the study, completed four months before the publication of the draft plan, found that the scheme it was asked to research, using new office space to subsidize PDR on the ground floor, is (unsurprisingly) a financial non-starter.

That said, one passage in Appendix B makes the city’s position clear:

“Given the relatively small percentage of the City’s PDR jobs in [Central SoMa], the other efforts citywide to protect and encourage PDR, and the opportunity represented by the rezoning in this location, on balance this [the likely destruction of 1,800 jobs by an incursion of market-rate, transit-oriented development] is a reasonable trade-off.”

Despite its repeated homage to diversity, the draft Central SoMa Plan touts only one kind of job growth: employment in offices—above all, tech offices. In facilitating that growth by decimating SoMa’s Production, Distribution and Repair economy, the plan recapitulates the motives of the old urban renewal: expand downtown into San Francisco’s industrial districts, pushing out their businesses and workers.

The Central SoMa Plan has revived TODCO’s historic opposition to a southward-encroaching downtown. … Last May, the organization published a 95-page-and-counting (it’s a work in progress) rejoinder to the city’s draft. … The first page cites “the frank admission” made by an unnamed member of the city planning department (it was apparently Planning Director John Rahaim) during the 2011 launch of the “Central Corridor Study:” “Let’s face it, this is really about expanding downtown…”

When the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s bulldozers rolled into SoMa in the the 1960s and 1970s, they wiped out dwellings, businesses, and jobs. By contrast, no housing is jeopardized by the Central SoMa Plan. Rather, small businesses and the jobs they provide are at risk.

This essay in its entirety can be found at 48hills: the secrets of san francisco.


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