Will SF Planning Commission Back Housing (Updated)?

by on April 26, 2018

The proposed Whole Foods---without housing

(Updated on April 27; new information at end of story)

Vote Today on Polk Street Whole Foods Will Send Message

The San Francisco Planning Commission will demonstrate today just how serious the city really is about building more housing. The Commission will decide whether to approve a new Whole Foods grocery at Polk and Jackson without accompanying housing on the site—or to require housing as a long list of neighborhood groups has urged.

It’s not a close question.

San Francisco is great at talking about the need for housing but far less effective at building it. The Planning Commission can show that the new pro-housing direction Mayor Lee set for the city is continuing in his absence.

Whole Foods and a Changing SF

When I previously wrote about this project,( “SF’s Choice: A Chain Store or Housing?,” October 31. 2017), I detailed the past efforts by the Brennan family to include housing on top of the Whole Foods they were building at at Haight and Stanyan. But showing how San Francisco got into its current housing mess, and  how Haight-Ashbury homeowners have been enriched by artificially restricting supply —- neighborhood opposition killed the Brennan’s housing plan.

Whole Foods has housing above at its Castro store and will also have housing at its exciting future location at 8th and Market, where it be on the corner of the new Trinity Plaza. So Whole Foods has no institutional problem with being accompanied by housing.

Where Whole Foods sometimes runs into problems is due to it being formula retail, a point I made in a June 7, 2016 story on the location now at issue: “Whole Foods is Wrong for Polk Street.” But opponents of the project are not objecting to Whole Foods. They just want housing to accompany it.

Chris Gembinski, Chair of the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association, makes the convincing point, “Each organization that is opposed to this project is united in saying that housing over retail is the best use for this site. The low hanging fruit, such as parking lots, have already been built upon. We have to start looking at underutilized commercial properties such as Lombardi’s Sports as opportunity sites for housing.

We are trying to set a different narrative in San Francisco that we all can work together to build housing for all, prevent displacement,  and enhance neighborhoods simultaneously. If we can’t building housing on sites like 1600 Jackson where no residents or businesses are displaced then we are going to have a difficult time fighting back against Sacramento playing a larger role in local land use decisions.”

This is a classic “man bites dog” story. Instead of neighborhood groups opposing housing in their backyard, the MPNA is leading the campaign to get housing built.

That’s a model for development the Planning Commission needs to build upon. It should also consider Gembinski’s last point, which alludes to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voting 8-3 to oppose Scott Wiener’s SB 827.

Opponents of the bill argued that San Francisco could better address its housing crisis on its own.  Well, here’s an early chance to show it.

My analysis of SB 827’s defeat argued that “SB 827’s demise increases pressure on cities to build all that affordable housing on transit corridors that they claimed they wanted to do but that the state bill would prevent.”

The Whole Foods Polk Street is on one of the city’s chief transit corridors.

Strong Opposition Coalition

An unusually broad and strong coalition has joined the MPNA in pushing for housing on the site. It includes the Polk District Merchants Association, Council of District Merchants, Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods, Van Ness Corridor Neighborhoods Council, the Cathedral Hill Neighborhood Association, Telegraph Hill Dwellers, SF Transit Riders, San Francisco Housing Action Coalition and SF YIMBY Action.

It even includes the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which has been a relentless opponent of new housing despite its national mandate to battle climate change. If even the Sierra Club is on board for housing, you know the project must have unusually broad appeal.

Nearby retail businesses including The Jug Shop, Le Beau Market, Cheese Plus and Real Foods Company are also calling for housing on the site. The Planning Commission should take such opposition from small businesses particularly seriously. Whole Foods’ arrival could certainly take business away from all of these establishments yet all they are asking of the Commission is to include housing that could potentially add to their customer base.

It’s now up to the Planning Commission, which votes today on whether to approve the Whole Foods without accompanying housing. Let’s hope the Commission rejects the project as now constituted and sends a powerful message that vacant sites on major transit corridors must include housing.

This story will be updated following Thursday’s Commission vote.

Update: The Commission voted to continue the item for 90 days in order to give the parties time to assess whether housing on the site pencils out. Chris Gembinski of the MPNA felt the Commission recognized “that this would be a huge ‘missed opportunity’ if housing did not go in.”

The Commission sent the message that housing advocates pushed and that the city deserved. If housing is not economically feasible on the Polk Street site, it will raise questions about the ability of most projects to “pencil out” given San Francisco’s unduly lengthy approval process and rising construction costs.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book on the national urban housing crisis, Generation Priced Out, will be out from UC Press in the fall. He describes the challenges of neighborhood retail in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco,


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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