On Jan. 13, the Board of Supervisors spent two and a half hours discussing the sort of picayune land-use issue that for the past eight years has dominated debate at City Hall: whether a proposed apartment building at 299 Valencia should be allowed to have 25, instead of 18, parking spaces.
But at the dawn of Barack Obama's presidency, something greater was also at stake. San Francisco faces a life-or-death question: Are we willing to behave like a dynamic city and grow, or even flourish? Or will we burrow into our old, protectionist mindset, and find ourselves crushed by economic and social decay?
The debate over the Valencia Street project served as an indicator as to how the city might answer that question.
In the past, development battles in the city pitted developers against neighbors who wanted to stop construction, which they feared would bring more traffic and make it harder for everybody to park. All too often, NIMBYs derailed projects that could have brought tax revenue and jobs while helping the city address its housing crunch. For a decade, the San Francisco Planning Department worked on a plan to change the ground rules of these fights. Approved by the Board of Supervisors last spring, it's called the Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan. Its basic idea is that by constructing densely packed apartment buildings and storefronts near public transit lines, jobs and shopping become easier to access without cars. That way, the theory goes, neighborhood groups won't fight additional buildings.
In this spirit, city code drafted with the Market and Octavia Plan created an exemption from a rule that requires builders to create at least one parking space for each dwelling unit. Instead, this area allows for buildings with zero parking spaces. The plan puts an upper limit of one parking space for every two apartments — with the possibility of more spaces in special cases if a building meets design criteria favorable to walking and transit. For 299 Valencia, developer J.S. Sullivan put the parking garage underground, hid the driveway in an alley, wrapped the building in storefronts, and set aside two spaces for car sharing.
Fierce development battles have been waged in San Francisco over this type of development, with certain left "progressives" calling for a ban on all new condominiums. However, supervisors ended up voting last week to allow construction to proceed on this 36-unit apartment building, which is slated to be the beginning of a new, Berlin-style dense walkable neighborhood in the blocks surrounding the torn-down freeway overpass.
But it was the content of the discussion, rather than the hair-splitting outcome of that meeting, that gave me hope. I witnessed a previously unheard tone of debate, in which all parties said they were in favor of allowing the city to change. San Francisco, in other words, seemed be ready to join the Obama era.
With the swearing-in of Barack Obama this week, the country has a president who has resided in a dense, diverse city. And he's made a priority of helping all U.S. cities grow and thrive.
During his campaign, Obama proposed creating an Office of Urban Policy, expanding the Community Development Block Grant program, and establishing "promise neighborhoods" to uplift low-income parts of cities.
More importantly for cities, Obama plans to pour billions of dollars into infrastructure projects as part of his massive economic stimulus package. San Francisco's piece of the pie could depend on how open we are to increased urbanization, because transit projects don't work well unless development is planned around them.
Municipalities everywhere will turn to the upcoming federal stimulus package for salvation. But that money is likely to be divvied up on merit. And San Francisco has previously suffered from a no-growth attitude that's given us a reputation for wasting federal money on transit projects that end up with relatively few users. BART ridership has barely grown since the 1970s, thanks to opposition from local residents to proposals for dense apartment projects near stations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped obtain $1 billion to create the Third Street light rail project. Not long after it was completed, the Board of Supervisors passed the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which will inhibit dense development precisely in the old post-industrial neighborhoods where the T-Third line was projected to pick up passengers. The move rendered a reasonable transit investment a waste of money. "Nancy Pelosi works hard for us to get a billion-dollar light rail line, and we say, 'Preserve these abandoned buildings,'" said Phil Lesser, treasurer of Mission Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit builder. Earlier supervisors, Lesser added, believed "growth is bad."
At the Jan. 13 Board of Supervisors' meeting, however, nary a sentiment was expressed denying San Francisco's desperate need to grow during the debate over parking at 299 Valencia. Previously "progressive" supervisors have taken every opportunity to denounce "greedy" developers, while calling for preserving "neighborhood character." However, the lefty supervisors — Ross Mirkarimi, Chris Daly, and their four new like-minded colleagues — voiced support for the principle of building new apartments. The next day, Supervisor David Campos said during a public appearance at the office of a local pro-growth planning group: "I am not against development. I support development."
Even the local neighborhood group in the proposed development area was behaving out of character. Typically, neighborhood associations have packed land-use hearings to halt construction of apartment buildings and to demand more parking spaces in those that managed to slip through.
On Jan. 13, however, members of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association lined up to state their support for more densely packed apartments, and to oppose the developer's request for seven additional parking spaces.
But the building in the Market and Octavia Plan was allowed to go ahead as proposed. While the anti-parking people deserve credit for defending the principle of favoring public transit, the fact is that San Francisco ended up with a useful addition to what has long been a blighted end of Valencia Street.
I'd say that's a nice local start to an urban-friendly Obama era.