Planning Surgery Required on Luxury Condo Cancer at Market/Octavia

by Marc Salomon on April 5, 2007

As San Francisco fights for its future against an onslaught of developers and their senior planner allies in the Eastern Neighborhoods who are enamored with million-dollar condos and luxury towers, another massive re-zoning comes quietly before the Planning Commission for final approval today—the “Better Neighborhoods” Market Octavia Plan. Commenced around 1999, this once innovative planning process was put into place to repair the urban fabric in Hayes Valley as the Central Freeway was torn down.

Senior planning staff, in the service of developers, have hijacked a once promising community-based planning process by giving one neighborhood most of what it wants — if that neighborhood agrees to offload undesirable development to adjacent communities that were not part of the planning process.

Since then, the largely consultant and staff-driven process has suffered carcinogenic mission creep, and meta-stasized into a quartet of high rise (400′) luxury condo towers and increased heights far afield from the new Octavia Boulevard. There is no constituency for these towers aside from the highest levels in the Planning Department and the ever voracious, avaricious developers who assure planning staff how important they are if they entitle lasting phallic symbols in glass and steel.

I had attended early sessions of this process, but dropped out in 2002 as it became apparent that Willie Brown and Gerald Green were orchestrating it all behind the scenes. After an early and informative discussion of the history of the urban fabric in the neighborhood, each meeting was like policy whiplash with ADD — moving in far-flung directions, having no connection to the previous meetings, not to mention to Hayes Valley or Octavia Boulevard. One meeting would discuss housing over Safeway, another Bus Rapid Transit on Van Ness, another a transit center on the first few blocks of South Van Ness, which would be closed to traffic. All very interesting, but little of it germane to the scope of work. It was as if the public process was designed to support propaganda that is used to legitimate the process at the Planning Commission today. We had so many hundreds of people at so many meetings over the past years that this is truly a community plan, and since so many have worked so hard on it, we must pass it now — quickly. Whenever I hear that argument — “pass it now because we’ve worked so hard” — it is all but a confession that our proposal is lacking and we can’t make better arguments in support of it.

The way that Planning Staff have angled this monster politically is to secure the buy-in from the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association. In exchange for further gentrifying their already boutique neighborhood — which has been successfully cleansed racially since the planning process commenced almost a decade ago — the deal was that Hayes Valley would support the more nefarious aspects of this plan. The sweetener was that for their full-throated support, Hayes Valley would receive a portion of development fees from these new high-rise condos to push the gentrification process even further.

Thus, wrapped in the mantle of a community based planning process, one neighborhood has created the cover for a massive re-zoning outside their sphere that conflicts with the priority policies of the San Francisco General Plan. Neighborhood character outside the Hayes Valley is not preserved — but dramatically altered. Affordable housing outside of Hayes Valley is not preserved — but displaced due to the proximity of high-rise luxury housing to the fine grained Residential Enclave Districts, especially Lafayette, Minna and Natoma, of the Western South of Market.

This coddling of Hayes Valley takes on some disturbing characteristics given the nature of the projects surrounding the Central Freeway touchdown and the Market Octavia Plan itself. Even though several districts touch on the planning area — Civic Center, South of Market, The Mission, Dolores, Duboce Triangle, Cathedral Hill — all amenities accrue exclusively to Hayes Valley and environs while all unpleasantness accrues to neighborhoods south and east of Hayes Valley.

Hayes Valley got a new park and boulevard, while the Mission got a new elevated freeway. Hayes Valley gets its neighborhood character preserved and enhanced, while Market and Van Ness get high rise luxury condos to finance Hayes Valley’s gentrification. The alleys north and west of the new freeway touchdown get enhancements, while the alleys in the North Mission adjacent to the freeway get nothing.

At some point, Hayes Valley is going to need to concern itself with the well-being of its neighbors, if it expects for its neighbors to return the favor and support Hayes Valley’s well-being and products of its planning process. That point is now. The demographics of Hayes Valley are whiter and wealthier than the areas to the south of Market in the North Mission which are browner and poorer. There are words for this mis-allocation of public resources based on race and economic status that exacerbates existing structural discrimination.

This is what we might call the Rincon model of planning, where high rise luxury development tosses enough larger crumbs to neighborhoods in the form of exactions to secure buy-in for condo projects the community neither wants nor needs. A similar form is being used for the Transbay Terminal, a worthy project for which there is not enough financing. In both cases, we are building luxury condos for non-San Franciscans to finance needed improvements while many San Franciscans live in unacceptable housing poverty if they are lucky enough to be houseful rather than homeless. This violates the Housing Element of the General Plan.

In 1999, the median price for a condo was $275,000. In 2007, the median price for a condo is $750,000. That is almost a tripling of the price of housing. Were the Market Octavia Plan a community based planning process, then the community would have made it known that it has no interest in building housing that none of them can afford. Indeed, the Planning Department should follow its own priority policies and put affordable housing front and center. But the plan remains silent on the matter of housing price inflation, ignoring the ethnic cleansing of Hayes Valley — as it only calls for boilerplate 15% inclusionary.

Even though Hayes Valley has selfishly not supported its neighbors in our efforts to plan our communities, many of us feel that we should respect Hayes Valley’s planning process as pertains to Hayes Valley nonetheless.

So the pre-metastasis plan, Hayes/Octavia, should be severed from the orgy of luxury up-zoning and high rise condo development called for along Market from Van Ness west to Church Street.

Hayes Valley has unfortunately made a strategic error in tying their wagon to the luxury high-rise train. The Environmental Impact Report for the grand plan has shown that parking impacts are not mitigatable. This is because the so-called “Transit Oriented Development” used to justify the heights is not transit oriented development, as the lower parking requirements are easily evaded by loopholes insisted upon by developers who know that out-of-towners who would purchase such investments would not do so without parking.

So Hayes Valley now has positioned itself against its neighbors and for intensive development. Sure, they have worked on this for almost a decade, but they appear to have relied on taking a train that should never leave the station for reasons far afield from Hayes Valley’s main area of concern. One of those areas of concern is the rapid re-zoning so that parcels vacated in Hayes Valley by the Central Freeway might be sold for rapidly for development, much of which is admirable and affordable.

But being the recipient of so much civic largess over the years, it is not too much to ask Hayes Valley to take responsibility for their poor political choices and to wait out an environmental review — a review that would probably result in a negative declaration — for the re-zoning to proceed. Hayes Valley should not expect adjacent neighborhoods to take a hit because of its unfortunate choices lay impediments in its path. The Planning Commission should send the plan back to the department to divide the question before the Commission to the two distinct areas of the plan, so that a community process which includes stakeholders from all adjacent neighborhoods can weigh in with a diversity of opinion to check senior Planning staff’s manipulative abuse of the community planning process.

The seminal question here is whether the senior department staff — staff who have been roundly repudiated by the Board of Supervisors and the communities for which they have attempted to plan — should be playing neighborhoods off each other in driving the process, or whether the civilian Planning Commission should be in the catbird seat to ensure that the full spectrum of San Franciscans are conducting holistic, cooperative community based planning by and for ourselves and all of our neighborhoods with the assistance of professional planning staff.

Marc Salomon is a resident of the North Mission district.

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