SF’s Proposal to Reduce Blight Will Create a Tenuous Balance

201_Folsom.jpgArtist's rendering of 201 Folsom Street, a project advocates and community leaders oppose as a recipient of a Green Development Agreement. Image: Heller-Manus Architects.
Among several initiatives San Francisco has developed to put an aesthetically pleasing face on the economic downturn, such as Art in Storefronts, which brightens shuttered retail spaces with murals, a new effort to utilize empty lots for green space, called Green Development Agreements (Green DAs), would transform the way the city's development approval process works, a move some open-space advocates question.

As John King has reported in the Chronicle, the idea for Green DAs was developed by Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) in coordination with various developers, landscape architects and community groups and would open vacant lots where the credit crunch has stalled construction to the public for interim uses such as community gardens and tree nurseries. 

In exchange for interim green space and community use on the lots, a developer will enter into a development agreement with the city that makes it much easier for the project to retain existing financial backing and secure future money when the lending market improves. Development agreements are binding commitments that allow a project to move forward as approved by the Planning Commission no matter what new legislation might be passed between granting of development entitlements and the time needed to complete the project.

According to MOEWD's Michael Yarne, development agreements are a common tool outside of San Francisco and their value to a developer becomes particularly evident when proposals arise like Board of Supervisors President David Chiu's shadow legislation.

If Chiu had proceeded with his ballot initiative to limit shadows on public parks, said Yarne, much of the Transbay Transit Center site would have been impossible to build as approved because the towers are so tall. The Trinity Plaza Apartments project in the mid-Market Street area, on the other hand, would have been just fine because its developer worked with housing advocates and the city to craft a development agreement in exchange for increased affordable housing units.

"The development agreement as a legal tool is the equivalent to a binding contract," said Yarne. "If attitudes change or boards change, that project is guaranteed to go forward."

Yarne also noted that the Green DAs would preempt what he called the "People's Park problem," where the public occupation of a private lot in Berkeley gave rise to a treasured community icon and eventually became a public park. "If a temporary vacant lot becomes too nice, suddenly you have a constituency who wants to preserve the space," said Yarne. "If it's really successful and it becomes this treasured little green space, the developer has created a new problem."

Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City, a non-profit that promotes public space in San Francisco, was concerned that Green DAs would codify the hierarchy of private interest over public space.

"As a public space advocate, I am uncomfortable with the dynamic that civic spaces are tenuous, evanescent, and interstitial, while private development is dominant, permanent, and assertive," he said.

Radulovich was also concerned Green DA's could prolong projects that no longer reflect public priorities. He wondered if the legislation was no more than "the Mayor's office continuing to try to keep some of the unsustainable developments on life support through permit extensions and fee deferrals."

"We ought to ask the worst projects to comply with current codes when their permits expire, and only extend permits or defer fees for those projects that will help us meet our sustainability, transportation, and affordability goals," said Radulovich.

The MOEWD plans to introduce legislation in the next few weeks that would establish the process and conditions for Green DAs on projects already approved by the Planning Commission. Yarne said approval of Green DAs for those projects would also have to go before the Planning Commission, where the public would have a chance to weigh in again.

In addition to the general legislation, Yarne said his office will likely move legislation to authorize the first Green DA project at 399 Folsom Street in Rincon Hill, the future site of the 41-story Echelon luxury apartment building. Working with Rebar and Friends of the Urban Forest, Fifield Company, a developer based in Chicago, would turn the vacant lot into an temporary tree nursery and educational facility until Fifield secures financing to complete the building.

Rebar, whose interim transformations of public space include Park(ing) Day and the Showcase Triangle Pavement to Parks trial plaza, has been developing the list of criteria that would qualify a project for a Green DA. According to Rebar's Matthew Passmore, the criteria would include social, cultural, educational, and environmental components and would look at the life-cycle of the project, attempting to quantify its public benefits.

Anticipating criticism of Green DAs, Rebar's John Bela said they were involved in the process because they want to advance the "thread of niche spaces and loopholes" within the city. "We're not specifically endorsing the Green DA," said Bela, but he hoped they "might become a tool or mechanism for helping achieve cool space."

Bela said Rebar would prefer to see the city pass a law that requires interim use of space for community benefit, period. "Vacancy is a continuum across the city, why not fill those voids?"

Residents and neighbors in the Rincon Hill area are tempered in their support for the innovation. Jamie Whitaker, President of the Rincon Hill Neighborhood Association, said that he has been apprised of the proposal and that both Yarne and a representative of Fifield would speak about the matter at their March 2nd meeting.

"I applaud efforts to at least make the empty lots look more presentable," said Whitaker, "but I also think they have a responsibility to keep their lots from becoming a blight right now without any legislative incentive to do so."

UPDATED: March 9th, 2010