How Freeway Removal and Zero Parking Can Fend Off SF’s Triple Threat

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Upzoning in the eastern portion of the Market and Octavia Plan area without allowing any parking has great promise to bring more affordable housing to the center of San Francisco. Photo: Jason Henderson

There is an urgent triumvirate of crises looming over San Franciscans. With median rents now exceeding $4,200, hyper-gentrification is tearing lives apart. Except for those surviving on rent control, the city is no longer welcoming to teachers, artists, and the entire middle class. Things are looking difficult in the East Bay, as speculators and realtors spread their tentacles of greed around every BART station.

Meanwhile, on the city’s streets there’s an onslaught of untenable motor traffic, visionless drivers imposing violence and rage on the streets, Ubers blocking bike lanes, private buses grabbing Muni stops. It’s not just hard to get around. It’s deadly.

And in the back of every decent thinking person’s mind there’s the specter of climate change. What kind of Mad Max world comes with a 4° increase in global mean temperatures? How can we stabilize at 2°? Will the Bay Area be viable as Sierra snowpack dries up and the seas rise? What can we do here? Now?

Many people feel despondent at what is unfolding. In San Francisco, a proposed moratorium on new market rate development in the Mission has gained traction and will be vetted at the Board of Supervisors. In Oakland, a city hall meeting was bum rushed and shut down by activists.

Sustainable transportation activists push a Vision Zero agenda to tame traffic but the mayor defends parking over human lives. And affordability and the traffic mess are tangled up in a planning quagmire, with the impotent Plan Bay Area the only coherent climate strategy in town.

There’s a lot to grapple with here, and not much time to make a difference. But lately a few planning ideas — zero parking, freeway removal, and upzoning for affordability — have come to my mind as ways we can quickly, practically, and deliberately address this converging madness — right here, right now.

It all starts with a proposal made a few weeks ago by the city planning department to “upzone” parts of the city in order to engineer more affordable housing. Specifically, the planning department is eyeing a potential height and density increase in part of the Market and Octavia Plan area, located in the center of San Francisco, and specifically in the corridor from Market Street down South Van Ness and Mission/Otis Streets.

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The greater height and density allowed in the Market and Octavia Plan area would go well with tighter caps on parking. Map: SF Planning Department

The impetus for this rezoning proposal comes from last year’s Proposition K, approved by San Francisco voters with encouragement from the mayor and supervisors. Proposition K calls for 33 percent of housing to be reserved for subsidized rental units when parts of the city are “upzoned” for new infill housing and development. The idea is that in exchange for lucrative height and density increases, developers provide affordable housing on site.

The trick is to find viable areas to rezone, both physically and politically, and few opportunities exist. But the eastern half of the Market and Octavia Plan area might just work. It is a decidedly forlorn and unlivable part of the city with mostly low-rise automobile dealerships or light industrial land uses mixed with some residences here and there. There are large parcels that, if upzoned, have great promise to bring more affordable housing to the central part of the city.

But there’s a catch. Rezoning height and density requires a lengthy environmental study that can take up to two or three years to complete. In this affordability crisis, we don’t have time for that. Moreover, many of the parcels in this area, including at least 1,600 units proposed in five high-rise towers at Market and Van Ness, are already in play, with developers lining up and submitting applications to build.

There might be a way around part of the time barrier of CEQA. As Streetsblog readers may know, this part of the city was rezoned in 2009 with groundbreaking parking reform. The Market and Octavia Plan (and Eastern Neighborhoods just to the south) dispensed with conventional parking standards and eliminated parking minimums, while capping the ratio of parking spots to residences below 1-to-1.

And get this: All of this parking reform has already undergone extensive environmental review.

So the city might be able to immediately begin to rezone this area for zero parking. It may take some legal finessing and courage, but it is worth pursuing quickly. By banning parking, the attraction for luxury development is dampened, and the added cost parking brings to new condos is no longer part of the equation.

Zero parking might not create deep affordability, but it certainly will recalibrate the entire financial calculus of development, perhaps putting more new residences within reach for the middle class.

Zero parking will also be in line with the city’s Vision Zero goals. Consider that under the current, albeit reformed, parking ratios, upwards of 900 parking spaces might be built within one block of the intersection of Market and Van Ness. This is based on existing development proposals — none yet approved — and, sadly, we see that few of the large-scale developers are exercising the car-free option they are allowed under Market and Octavia.

That much parking will exacerbate the already saturated traffic conditions in the city center, which is burdened with congestion on Van Ness Avenue and on a handful of multilane arterials called “one-way couplets.” Developers are seeking maximum profit from luxury housing attached to luxury parking. This is a recipe for what planning scholar Peter Hall has called a “Great Planning Disaster!”

So as a first step toward rezoning for affordability, let’s rezone for zero parking and steer the current round of development toward our long-term sustainable transportation and climate change goals.

There’s another big idea that’s within reach. We need to take down the rest of the Central Freeway, which, like zero parking, has numerous benefits for addressing the triumvirate of crises. Removal of the freeway would free up many acres of land that can be dedicated to affordable housing, and adjacent surface parking lots could also be converted to housing.

From a traffic perspective, touching the freeway down at Bryant provides more opportunities to disperse traffic than channeling it on a clogged freeway and into Hayes Valley. There are also a plethora of obvious air quality, noise, and livability benefits.

Most significantly, this freeway WILL COME DOWN. The remaining segment of the freeway is 56 years old. It is a seismic albatross and to fix it will require closing it. Why not just tear it down and reboot? In 2004, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors came to this same conclusion with a resolution calling for studying removal. The Market and Octavia Plan also calls for this study. It’s time to get on with it, and fold it into the planning department’s idea to rezone for height and density in exchange for affordability.

There is an urgent triple-crises of affordability, traffic, and climate change leadership at hand. San Francisco can create a low carbon, car-free affordable housing model right here, right now. Let’s do it!

  • Ugh, when are you guys going to realize that geometry, simple arithmetic and basic economics don’t apply to cars?

  • p_chazz

    If you ever expect to be taken seriously, you really should avoid phrases such as “tentacles of greed”.

  • Jimbo

    This was one of the most poorly written, poorly reasoned and factually incorrect articles I’ve read in a long time

  • njudah

    This is a progressive editorial, not a news article and should be labeled as such.

  • jonobate

    This piece is a fairly transparent attempt to channel popular outrage over affordability and gentrification into an urbanist agenda. Unfortunately, it’s not going to work.

    The implicit assumption made in this piece is that people who are concerned about gentrification see adding market-rate housing as part of the solution. That’s often not the case. Many people who are concerned about gentrification are opposed to any housing construction that is not explicitly low income, and saying that building new housing without parking would be “perhaps putting more new residences within reach for the middle class” simply isn’t going to win any support.

    This is especially true as many people who oppose new construction do so in part because they believe it will make parking more difficult; a parking ban for new construction would have them up in arms. Likewise, many people who oppose new construction would see reducing road capacity by removing the Central Freeway as making the traffic problem worse, not better. People who can’t grasp the concept of supply and demand generally can’t grasp the concept of induced demand, either.

    The argument that needs to be made and won is that adding new housing at all income levels will reduce rents for everyone, or at least stem their rise. Until that happens, articles such as this one will fall on deaf ears, and urbanists and anti-gentrification activists will continue talking past each other.

  • Mike

    Kinda surprised to see this on Streetsblog. Though I agree with more than a few of your premises, you’re really trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents here – and harming the singleness of purpose which makes this an impactful blog. Though a holistic perspective on San Francisco’s issues is needed, this is probably not the place to try to pitch one. You risk alienating people who may agree with you on transportation justice but not on the rest.

  • mx

    I agree, but I’m not even convinced it’s a progressive editorial. The overall tone is “build more stuff right now without regard to the planning process or environmental review.” Somehow, 8 Washington excepted, this seems to have become the new progressive rallying cry nowadays. Despite the line about “tentacles of greed,” I had to Google to see whether the author happened to be a real estate developer instead of a professor given his desire to ignore any semblance of a planning process. Of course an actual real estate developer would realize that some owners of luxury condos might just want parking and that they can’t sell their buildings with zero spaces. The BMR units won’t exist without the market rate housing to pay for it, so there goes the whole plan.

    And even if you go the zero parking route and somehow ensure that everyone who lives in the area doesn’t own a car (I, for one, don’t own a car), people in SF luxury apartments will still want, in large quantities, deliveries, Uber and Lyft rides, places for their friends and family to park when they visit, etc… Since we’re talking about underground parking here, we’re not worried about the parking crater phenomenon where the neighborhood is eaten by parking lots, we’re concerned with congestion on the streets. A proposal to upzone the area with a zero parking mandate has to take these needs into account too.

    While we need more housing, we also have to think critically about what kind of neighborhoods we want and how new development impacts the community. That’s what the environmental review process is supposed to be about. The affordable housing crisis has increasingly become a rallying cry to hand developers a blank check to build whatever they want in exchange for a few more BMR units. Bypassing that process means that decisions are made solely on the basis of maximizing profit for developers, rather than what’s best for SF. This is a recipe to destroy our city in our efforts to save it.

  • Gezellig

    Though I agree with most of the policy recommendations here, this is an uncharacteristic and bizarre tone for a piece in Streetsblog.

    “Tentacles of greed?”

    No doubt there are greedy developers. But what about the past couple generations of provincial, selfish NIMBY greed in SF and throughout the Bay Area? That ongoing phenomenon alone has pervasively stymied progressive, regionally minded policies, consistently blocking sustainable and smart housing, job and transit growth in the region.

    The fact that in SF a small, selfish and vocal minority can torpedo a Complete Streets project (especially if you write glasses prescriptions for the mayor!) shows we have a lot more of a structural problem than just one kind of greedy, shortsighted (if you will), Zero Vision (if you will even more) stakeholder.

    Let’s remember it’s not developers that for decades have mandated absurdly overinflated parking minimums, vibrant-street-life-killing building setback requirements, car-centric LOS streets and so on. It’s also not developers who voted in Prop 13, forevermore freezing incumbent homeowners’ property taxes at the expense of city budgets and very much at the expense of newcomers to the game.

    It’s not developers who successfully opposed turning this:

    http://sf.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2015/03/14916352059_719a0a7454_b.jpg

    into this:

    http://www.connectingthecity.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/polk-rendering1-110114B1.jpg

    Lots of stakeholders have the potential to be greedy. This is where good city structure and policy affecting our public spaces should be recalibrated to stop enabling anti-democractic, selfish groups from killing off/watering down vital public projects.

  • mx

    I agree with everything you’re saying. But looking at those two pictures/renderings brings up an interesting point. Even if we got the Polk St. project we wanted, the businesses on that block would still continue to sell Coke products and receive FedEx deliveries. Where do those trucks stop?

  • gneiss

    In the parking spaces that are provided in the streets outside the protected bicycle lanes. The order of the street goes: building, sidewalk, bike lane, parking, travel lane. You don’t need to bring a truck to the sidewalk curb to make a delivery, just like you don’t need to park it on the sidewalk.

  • Gezellig

    The redesign includes the creation of new loading zones for commercial deliveries.

  • robo94117

    Eliminating parking will make units more affordable, and removing what’s left of the central freeway will allow traffic to disperse rather than funneling on to “traffic sewers” that divide residential neighborhoods. I think we have now learned that not all wealthy condo buyers own cars, or even want to, but they are more likely to if you give them parking,
    And city-owned land in the freeway right-of-way will be much easier to develop into below-market-rate housing than private lots. Really, it makes sense.

  • p_chazz

    Unless the subject is the actual triumvirates that ruled Rome in 60 BC and 43 BC.

  • SF Tour Driverguide

    Let’s see, by not providing parking, units will be less expensive allowing middle income folks access. This implies these people don’t drive. Middle income residents will surely include families with children. Most families need cars just to cover the basics of living in the city. Why don’t you just tell families they’re not welcome? Expecting a family with small children to survive using Muni is pie in the sky fantasy. Let’s try and be even slightly realistic here.

  • jonobate

    It does make sense, but it doesn’t make for a compelling anti-gentrification argument, which is what it is being presented as here.

  • hp2ena

    I am a native SFer raised in a family of four whose family got around just fine riding transit. We did get a car, but that ends up getting used, like, once every couple weeks and only for Costco/rare out of town runs (which could also be done with carshare). Totally doable raising a family riding transit.

  • Gezellig
  • Sprague

    The notion that a car is necessary for a family with small children in SF is an oft stated fallacy. This is especially true for those who live in the Market and Octavia Plan area.

  • That awkward moment when someone assures you a thing is impossible and can’t be done, but you do it every day.

  • murphstahoe

    Aside from the fact that car share exists, by the time most of these buildings actually exist, the self driving car will be in play. With what is effectively a taxi that costs 1/4 the current price, why would anyone own a car? That is what happens 10 years from now. 30 years from now, few if any in a city will own a car. But if we build parking into large buildings today, the lots will be white elephants instead of housing.

  • Ryan K

    Removing the central freeway would make things even more terrible than they have already been made with replacing the Fell Street offramp with the Octavia Traffic Jam, but it’s obvious you don’t care about the tens of thousands of people who use it.