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Visions of the Pit: How an Empty Reservoir Unites a Community, Eventually 

Wednesday, Jan 28 2015

On a Wednesday night in January, in the cafeteria of a private high school just across Interstate 280 from the Balboa Park BART station, a group of 100 or so neighbors and activists gather to discuss the future of the neighborhood. Specifically, they come to deliver their opinions regarding what should be done with the Balboa Reservoir, a nearly 18-acre plot of city-owned land next to the City College of San Francisco.

The Balboa Reservoir is an odd space, not least because it doesn't look much like a reservoir at all. It's an open and flat parking lot (unusual for the area) smack in the middle of a neighborhood mostly populated by single-family homes. The reservoir sits, sunken a few feet below the surrounding area, between Mt. Davidson to the north, CCSF to the east, and a new low-rise condo building with a ground-floor Whole Foods to the south. New residents of the complex, which fronts Ocean Avenue, can look straight out their third-floor windows and enjoy a view of the three-story earthen dam that separates the reservoir from the quaint Westwood Park neighborhood to the west. On a recent Saturday, the parking lot that serves as the reservoir's asphalt bottom was empty save for a man on a recumbent tricycle pedaling laps around the perimeter while a woman waited for him in the passenger seat of a parked Prius.

Unfortunately for the current drought, the reservoir has never held water. It was built in the early 1930s as part of a Civil Works Administration project that also created the scenic Lake Merced Boulevard. In total, more than 6,000 workers collected paychecks from the CWA for their work. Today, the sunken pit only holds overflow parking for City College.

Back in the cafeteria of Lick-Wilmerding High School, the room is dimly lit, aside from the LCD monitors advertising the soup of the day and the bright white of a projector throwing up a PowerPoint presentation on a portable screen. Around the room, reps from the Planning Department have set up idea boards — maps of the site with transit stops, green spaces, and public resources illuminated. All of them are pinned with notes asking attendees to "WRITE ON ME!" By car, the pit is only accessible via one sloping road and a daisy chain of parking lots connecting it to Phelan Avenue, but the scribbles on the maps call for it to become anything from student farms to low-income housing to a performing arts center that was already approved twice by voters, but whose development has stalled again while CCSF's future is uncertain. One handwritten suggestion on the boards stubbornly calls for the plot to remain as parking. People standing around seem prepped for outrage.

Perhaps sensing the resistance in the room, Jeremy Shaw, an MIT-trained planner and urban designer with the San Francisco Planning Department, carefully introduces his short presentation with the caveat that there are no current designs and no renderings to present tonight. The purpose of this meeting, Shaw explains, is simply to engage the community and allow members to share their ideas on how the city can best use the space.

The problem with asking everyone for input, of course, is that everyone believes his or her plight is the worst.

The reservoir is one of four city-owned sites that Mayor Ed Lee has asked the Planning Department to look at as potential grounds for new low- and middle-income housing developments. The city would like to see anywhere from 500 to 800 units here — a big development in any neighborhood and a decent splash in the bucket of 30,000 units the mayor has made it his goal to build. One attendee stops the presentation right there: What if public opinion decrees that "we don't want it developed?"

One Balboa Park neighbor and activist, Aaron Goodman, seems to have come to the meeting with an ax to grind, because he launches into a speech about neighborhood congestion as soon as I can introduce myself as a reporter. He sees the hundreds of proposed new units as an overload of existing resources. He's riled that the Ingleside Library is brand new and already too small to accommodate demand, as is the nearby public pool. And, even with the loads of transit options in the neighborhood, he thinks the city's Transit Effectiveness Project is anything but effective when it comes to serving the neighborhood.

Another activist is Raldi, whose stick-on name tag says his real name is "Mike," but Raldi is what he goes by on Reddit, where his post imploring fellow readers of the r/sanfrancisco subreddit to attend the meeting garnered around 300 upvotes and 200 comments in the 48 hours leading up to the event. Most of the commentary there consisted of broad strokes calling out the shortsightedness of neighborhood groups and the ultraconservative attitude that bands neighbors together whenever changes are proposed. It didn't seem like any other redditor came to the meeting or brought the discussion offline, though.

Raldi shows me a flier that has been circulating throughout the meeting and on telephone poles downtown. The flier depicts a hypothetical future: a rendering of the reservoir with a staggering 6,030 total units spread across two dozen low- to high-rise towers in a development that wouldn't look out of place next to AT&T Park or Lake Michigan. The fliers are the product of San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, SFBARF, a new if absurdly named pro-development group that isn't necessarily proposing the massive development, only demonstrating that it's not impossible. The rendering is the work of Alfred Twu, an artist who is not associated with the federation but whose hypothetical renderings of tech company campuses with 100 percent on-site employee housing went viral last year. Despite Shaw's earlier caveat about there being no set plans for the site, the rendering has already set off a great deal of handwringing around the room.

The crowd at Lick-Wilmerding breaks into small groups hunkered around cafeteria tables, each with a moderator from the Planning Department to guide the discussion while another takes notes on a large paper drawing pad. Each table's discussion sounds like neighborhood group therapy. Everyone brings his or her singular, and often myopic, concerns to the table, and the Planning Department must corral all of those opinions and fears into useful feedback that will inform its own process moving forward. The department has to find some common ground where there is now only a pit and some pavement.

At one table, a woman rationalizes her fear of adding new units to the neighborhood by conjuring the specter of an opaque developer. "I don't want the development," she explains, "because I don't believe it will be transparent." The parking lot currently "overflows into the neighborhood every single day," she insists, punctuating the last three words for emphasis. If she were to agree to any development, she says, she would like to see more single-family homes. In other words: Fill the pit but don't add density.

Sonja Trauss, the self-appointed head of SFBARF, is visibly excited. She brought her own snacks (aranciata and pretzels) and is pointing to the hypothetical 6,000-unit development as the key to the neighborhood and the city getting everything they need out of the site. Even with just the lowest mid-rise buildings, she explains, the city could still fit in nearly 2,000 units. Others at her table are quick to jump down her throat, asking her where she came from (Trauss lives in West Oakland) and if she was even old enough to remember the first two times voters have shot down development at the site (she's 33 and moved to the Bay Area from Philadelphia three years ago). The table is getting contentious. The evening's agenda dictates that everyone must move on.

As discussion time wraps up, a spokesperson delivers each table's top priorities for amenities they'd like to see at the space. Despite the small-scale clashes from around the room, a few common threads emerge that people seem agreeable to. Some of the most staunchly antidevelopment folks eventually warm up to the idea of affordable housing, especially if it helps neighborhood workers or the CCSF faculty and student body. Walkability and improved transit are two major talking points that keep coming up, as is the desire to "do something beautiful" and "maintain the integrity of the neighborhood" — two suggestions lifted directly from the Planning Department's survey questions. Those goals may be vague, but they at least give the Planning Department a sense of what the neighbors will find acceptable in any future proposal.

Afterward, a few members of SFBARF gather at a nearby dive bar to decompress.

"We can rant about stuff like this at the bar any time," Trauss explains to a group of four, including myself, "but we should go and rant at meetings like this." She has a point: Hers is the exact same tactic the "aging hippie" contingent, as she and her fellow SFBARFers call them, have been using for years. If you show up and talk, your voice must be heard.

And it may have worked. Despite the fact that many people came to the meeting with lofty and possibly disingenuous goals about "neighborhood integrity," the dam they hoped would hold back change starts to crack under the weight of reality and the increasing pressure to build housing. When faced with 6,000 units towering 50 stories over their backyards, suddenly even 800 units seems quite reasonable. Just as long as there's plenty of parking.

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Andrew M. Dalton

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