The Priesthood

SOMA dies

Photo by Allan Berube, from the collection of Gayle Rubin

by JIM MEKO

In his role as chair of Budget and Finance, former Supervisor Chris Daly was rather blunt when the Planning Department came before his committee looking for money: you’re not gonna see one dime of this funding until you listen to the community and start cooperating with them.

Harsh? They deserved it. 

Everybody was so mad at the Planning Department in the early 2000s. They were approving live/work lofts at an alarming rate and not providing any mitigations to help the neighborhoods. They were allowing housing to be built in all the wrong places, next door to nightclubs and alongside businesses that depend on deliveries at 4:00, and they were ruining our alleys.

Their most recent outrage involves lack of respect for the residential enclave districts (REDs) in Western SoMa. It doesn’t matter that the Board of Supervisors told them “to provide a buffer between Residential Enclave Districts and areas where more intense development might be allowed” or that the Western SoMa Community Plan says “Proposed new land use development shall primarily serve the needs of existing residents and businesses. Citywide and regional needs are subordinate to existing local needs.”

In defiance of the Western SoMa design guidelines, planning staff has declared that the garage for 1140 Folsom Street must be located mid-block on the alley. It will dump 84 additional cars into the Residential Enclave District. One of the residents of Rausch Street pleaded with Rich Sucre, the planner for the project:

“I’m not sure if you have visited Rausch Street in person yet; if not I would urge you to do so. Our street is not the service corridor full of dumpsters that you may be imagining. To those of us who ‘live, work and play’ here it is not ancillary but primary. It is a pleasant, well-kept leafy street — a relative oasis in the center city — that exemplifies the reasons why Western South of Market neighbors want to preserve our Residential Enclaves.”

The Western SoMa planning process placed great emphasis on life in the alleys. That’s where our people live. In the past, the alleys were treated as a dumping ground for anything that planners didn’t want to see. Blank graffiti-stained walls and garage doors, recycling bins and trash receptacles … and the homeless. Cars race through these narrow streets, using them as shortcuts to the freeways, damaging parked cars along the way. More automobile traffic would endanger pedestrians, children and bicyclists. Neighbors are furious that these recommendations will further compromise their safety and quality of life.

So when the neighbors, who spent eight years helping to write the Western SoMa Community Plan, demanded some say in the matter, the planners told them that they would have three minutes for public comment. Senior Planner Paul Lord used to refer to this arrogance as “the Priesthood of the Planners.” Priesthood denotes elements of both power and authority. They say “we” a lot and they’ve come to behave as if they’re infallible.

The same situation involving large developments will affect 1178 Folsom Street, which would dump its cars into little Sumner Alley, another project alongside 9th and Natoma Streets and many more to come. Current Supervisor Jane Kim sits on the Land Use Committee of the Board of Supervisors. Will she stand up for the neighborhoods as Chris Daly did?

Voters streamed to the polls twice recently to deliver them a message. They overturned an exemption from the city’s existing height limit for a high end luxury condo complex at 8 Washington Street and approved Prop B, a ballot measure to give the people more of a say in development along San Francisco’s waterfront. The threat that high tech offices pose to blue collar jobs has led to an upcoming initiative that would rein in the Planning Department’s control over the zoning around the Flower Mart.

More than 60% of the voting public have rebuked the Planning Department twice. When will they ever learn?

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

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