By JIM MEKO
Last time we checked in on our buddies over at the Planning Department, they were putting the finishing touches on their “Central SoMa Plan,” an ambitious new area plan that would devastate our neighborhood’s service and light industrial base and blow the lid off job protections built into the recently adopted Western SoMa Community Plan. As Planning Director John Rahaim reportedly said, “this is really about expanding downtown.” (see “The attack on SoMa – a new downtown?”)
In light of the fact that their own calculations show that the Central SoMa scheme would destroy about 1,800 good working class jobs in order to build more high tech offices, they have proposed a nifty solution right around the corner in “the Eastern Neighborhoods” that would incentivize the construction of brand new production, distribution and repair (PDR) space (you’re not gonna believe this) by allowing even more high tech office space to be built on land that was set aside as a “haven for PDR businesses.” This new construction would provide 33% new PDR space at a cost of allowing in 66% more high tech office space.
Our Planning Department has always had a tendency to go overboard for the last best thing. At the moment it’s high tech office space. “A majority (60 percent) of San Francisco high-net-worth investors say the Bay Area is investing more into technology than the asset is worth,” according to a survey from Morgan Stanley. “Not that we’re necessarily talking bubble, although a significant minority, 43 percent, think the area is heading for a downturn,” the San Francisco Chronicle adds.
Every planning decision these days seems to be guided by the desire to attract and enhance the high tech boom.
Mom, Apple Pie, and PDR: As presented by Planning Department staff and the flacks over at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, who wouldn’t want to align themselves with the preservation of PDR? They make it sound so good. Well, wake up. This is really all about building more high tech office space. PDR space in the north Mission? Gone. PDR space in eastern SoMa? Gone. PDR space in the central corridor? Gone. PDR space around the rail yards in the Lower Potrero portion of the Eastern Neighborhoods plan area? Soon to be gone!
The Need? The Planners almost sound like PDR boosters. “The need for this legislation is based on the strong growth witnessed in the PDR sector over the last few years, and the desire to see this sector continue to expand and thrive,” they wrote in a report to the Planning Commission. And then they add, rather disingenuously, “These [PDR-only] Districts have served just as they were intended, to provide a haven for PDR businesses by eliminating competition for land and space from housing, office, large institutions, and retail.” Until now.
Speculation: The feeding frenzy for a higher use was set off by the Eastern Neighborhoods planning process. Despite the pious preachings of staff, the end result of the Eastern Neighborhoods process was that the vast majority of land was up-zoned to housing and office use. In the case of Eastern SoMa, which had been designated Urban Mixed-Use zoning (UMU), pressure from the Mayor and OEWD was so great that the entire area was removed from the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan “until such time as we can examine these issues in more depth.” Thus was born “The Central SoMa Plan.” Speculation in Western SoMa was non-existent until the Planning Department began to promote a significant up-zoning.
Affordability: Commercial rent control is illegal. There is little the city can do to make these spaces affordable to small businesses. The “new” PDR space in the Eastern Neighborhoods would sit adjacent to high tech office space. The SF Council of Community Housing Organizations argues that these small spaces demand a far higher rate per square foot (above $3.50/s.f.) than typical PDR spaces (closer to $1.25 to 1.50/s.f.). This legislation does not in any way guarantee that the PDR spaces will be rented out at prices that PDR businesses can afford.
Enforcement: Planning Department staff acknowledges that there is little they can do to prevent developers from leaving their PDR space sitting vacant. Same thing happens all over SoMa right now. Mandated “ground floor retail space” can sit vacant for years. At the February 10 meeting of the Eastern Neighborhoods Citizens Advisory Committee (ENCAC), the question was raised about enforcement. Planning staff acknowledged that there is no credible ongoing enforcement at the Planning Department.
Up-zoning is a one-way street. As currently drafted, this bill would allow a total of 2 million square feet of tech uses in the PDR districts, 1.5 million alone on 7th Street. Once converted to office and/or residential use, it will never be returned to PDR use.
Viability of “New” PDR Space: The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan introduced two new ideas for the “protection” of PDR: I-PDR, a beefed up accessory use program with financial incentives to provide PDR space (an option that has never been used), and the Small Enterprise Workshops (“SEW”) program, which allows office uses in the PDR protection zones – they are simply restricted by size. The draft legislation eliminates hiring and training requirements in the original law and, given the huge demand for office space in the city — and specifically for start-up tech office space — there’s nothing to keep SEW projects from becoming 100% start-up tech office space. Requiring developers to provide 1/3 PDR space does not guarantee that any of it will ever be occupied by PDR.
Community Consultation: Several years ago, the original Eastern Neighborhoods planning process involved many community organizations that were committed to protecting and promoting PDR. None of them were consulted in the 18 months of planning for this proposed legislation.
This Legislation and the Central SoMa Plan: While everyone talks about the need to support PDR, other initiatives by the Planning Department, specifically the Central SoMa Plan, loosen protections for the city’s PDR by imposing an “anything goes” typology reminiscent of Houston. It could more accurately be described as survival of the fittest.
They’ve got to be embarrassed by the irony of all of this. The adoption of the Central SoMa Plan, which the Planning Department acknowledges would displace about 1,800 PDR jobs, is running concurrently with this legislation. Destroying PDR space and jobs at the same time substituting a sweeping and untested proposal to produce more such space, which is loaded with loopholes and giveaways for the high tech office sector, strains credulity.