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Mayor Appoints Livable Streets Proponent Julie Christensen as D3 Supe

Julie Christensen, a leading North Beach advocate for wider sidewalks and a Central Subway extension, has been appointed as the new District 3 Supervisor by Mayor Ed Lee.

Christensen fills the seat left by David Chiu after his election to the State Assembly. She has shown promise as a neighborhood leader who stands behind changes that make room for livable streets improvements even when it means subtracting space for cars.

Christensen is a member of the SPUR Advisory Board and founded SF NexTstop to rally for an extension of the Central Subway to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. She has backed sidewalk extensions and bike lanes on Columbus Avenue, and championed the Mason Street plaza as part of the North Beach Library expansion, which opponents claimed would cripple the neighborhood when the block was closed to cars. (It didn’t.)

The appointment was announced on the library street plaza itself, where, in 2009, she remarked on the success of the trial plaza:

We were standing out there yesterday and the world was not coming to an end. North Beach was not hopelessly snarled in traffic. People have these Christmas faces on, like it’s Christmas day and this present has been dropped on them.

In a publicly-viewable Facebook post by North Beach News last April, she defended transit bulb-outs on Columbus at Washington Square Park that removed a handful of car parking spaces. She told NBN, ”Will it be better? We shall see. There will be more room for pedestrians and more room for transit riders. Nice if the park gets healed. We shall see.”

Commenting on the post, one woman complained, “This is not just widening sidewalks, it’s a loss of tons more parking and a bike lane that does not make a whole lot of since [sic].” In response, Christensen wrote:

“Tons” of parking = 3 spaces eliminated. (Yes, I know, still a loss). There will still be 2 traffic lanes. No bike lanes – yet. That will be discussed at further neighborhood meetings.

In a statement, Mayor Lee said he’s “very proud to appoint” Christensen. “As a longtime District Three resident and small business owner, Julie has worked tirelessly on important projects and neighborhood concerns including the North Beach Library, the Central Subway and numerous pedestrian safety projects.”

Chiu, the outgoing supervisor, was considered one of the city’s most bike-friendly politicos for a time. But when Polk Street merchants complained about the loss of parking spaces for protected bike lanes, Chiu caved and dropped his previous calls for SF to move quickly on implementing a robust bike network, which he once said was his top priority.

So, while Christensen’s record on transit and livable streets is promising, it remains to be seen how strongly she’ll stand up for safety improvements to her district’s streets when the parking-at-all-costs crowd gets loud.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has previously decried the “tortured path” of the North Beach Library expansion as a symbol of how “a highly popular, beautifully designed project” can be “stymied by a small group of opponents,” told the SF Examiner that Christensen is “one of the best neighborhood leaders in the city.”

“She has a proven track record of getting things done at a neighborhood level,” he said.

Read more coverage of Christensen’s appointment at the SF Chronicle and the SF Business Times.

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Who’s Not Against Cars-First Prop L? Supes Tang, Farrell, Yee, and Mayor Lee

Supervisors Tang, Farrell, Yee, and Mayor Lee have not opposed Prop L, a Republican-crafted measure to enshrine cars-first policies. Photos: Aaron Bialick

With only a few days left until the election, four elected officials have yet to take a stance on Proposition L, the Republican-crafted measure that misleadingly urges San Francisco to “restore transportation balance” by giving priority to private automobiles and free parking.

Supervisors Katy Tang, Mark Farrell, Norman Yee, and Mayor Ed Lee apparently see no need to come out against the measure, which has been renounced by the other eight supervisors and almost all of SF’s political establishment, including their own SF Democratic County Central Committee.

We reached out to each of their offices to explain their position three days ago, and not surprisingly heard no response from Farrell or Lee.

Supervisor Farrell launched a campaign against parking meters, which led to the supervisors voting to hamstring the SFMTA’s ability to expand them. Yet even his most vocal ally in that battle, Supervisor Malia Cohen, came out against Prop L after her district’s Potrero Hill Democratic Club became the first neighborhood group to do so.

As for Mayor Lee? Well, he’s done more than anyone at City Hall to keep driving cheap, even if that means streets are more dangerous and congested. Lee reversed Sunday parking meters, even though they reduced traffic, and dropped his support for putting a vehicle license fee increase on the ballot. Then, he vowed to punish the supervisor majority who put replaced it on the ballot with Prop B, Supervisor Scott Wiener’s alternative transit funding measure.

The only public statement Lee has given about Prop L was this cryptic dismissal, in an interview with the SF Chronicle editorial board: “I’m not worried about it.”

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Developers Don’t Want to Pay for Caltrain/HSR Extension to Transbay Center

Developers who are building towers around the Transbay Transit Center in SoMa are fighting to reduce a special property tax that will be levied on developments in the area. The biggest loser could be the downtown rail extension to bring Caltrain and California high-speed rail into the terminal, as more of the funds for the regional rail hub and other long-term projects would have to come from taxpayers.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The group of developers is backed by former mayor Willie Brown, who registered as an official lobbyist to work for them in July (he also recently lobbied “pro bono” for AnsoldoBreda, the manufacturer of Muni’s current train fleet). Brown previously helped create the Transbay Joint Powers Authority to oversee the massive package of projects centered around what’s been called the “Grand Central of the West,” expected to open in 2017.

SF Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross reported in July:

Brown confirmed for us that he is representing Boston Properties — builder of the 61-story Salesforce Tower — and more than a half dozen other property owners.

In exchange for the city allowing them to increase the height and density of their projects, the property owners agreed two years ago to be assessed up to $400 million to help pay for a Transbay Transit Center rooftop park and other public improvements to the area.

Only now, thanks to skyrocketing property values and changes in the city’s methodology for calculating the assessments, the developers — paying into what’s known as a Mello-Roos special district — could face up to $1.4 billion in charges.

The Board of Supervisors was expected to approve the agreement creating the Mello-Roos district on Tuesday, but D6 Supervisor Jane Kim postponed the item one week. “We wanted additional time to be able to brief all of the offices on this issue, but also talk to the multiple parties involved,” Kim said at the meeting.

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Mayor Vows to Punish Supes Who Backed Wiener’s Transit Funding Measure

Mayor Ed Lee, who has cut into transportation funding by nixing Sunday parking meters and abandoning a proposed vehicle license fee increase, now says that he will punish the six supervisors who voted to approve a ballot measure to increase transportation’s share of the general fund. Supervisor Scott Wiener proposed the charter amendment as a stop-gap measure to fund the city’s transportation needs, while SF waits two years for the mayor to support a vehicle license fee measure.

Mayor Ed Lee with SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin yesterday, where he told reporters that he will “hold the supervisors accountable” for putting Scott Wiener’s transit funding measure on the ballot. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SF Chronicle reported on Sunday that ”the mayor’s office seems to be hinting that it will target programs important to the six supervisors who voted to place Wiener’s proposal on the ballot — Wiener, David Chiu, Jane Kim, London Breed, Malia Cohen and David Campos.”

Lee confirmed this report at a press conference yesterday, where he signed his touted $500 million transportation bond ballot measure. The mayor told reporters, ”I have to hold the supervisors that did this accountable,” and called Wiener’s measure ”disturbing,” adding that it “can be very damaging” to the city budget.

“Fiscally, it was not responsible to have done,” Lee said. “It disbalances the budget, and it was not what we had all collaboratively agreed to do.”

If passed, Wiener’s charter amendment would allocate an estimated $22 million to transportation in fiscal year 2015-2016, with 75 percent dedicated to Muni and the rest dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements. Subsequent increases, based on population growth, would follow each year. A provision in the measure allows the mayor to nix it, once voters approve the vehicle license fee — as expected in November 2016, if the mayor follows through on his pledged support.

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Supes Approve Wiener’s Population-Based Transit Funding Measure for Ballot

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The Board of Supervisors voted 6-4 today to put on November’s ballot a charter amendment that would increase the share of general funds devoted to transportation, based on population growth.

Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced the measure as a backup plan to generate transportation revenue — 75 percent of which would go to Muni, 25 percent to pedestrian and bike upgrades — after Mayor Ed Lee dropped his support for putting a vehicle license fee increase on the ballot this year. If passed by a majority of voters in November, Wiener’s charter amendment would provide a $23 million budget boost in the first year by retroactively accounting for the last ten years of population growth. Annual funding increases, commensurate with population growth, would follow.

“For too long, City Hall has been slow to prioritize transit funding,” Wiener said in a statement. “We are a growing city, and we need to take firm steps to ensure that our transportation system keeps up with that growth. Improving transit reliability and capacity, and making our streets safer, are key to that goal.”

The six supervisors who voted in support of the measure were David Chiu, London Breed, David Campos, Malia Cohen, and Jane Kim. The votes against came from Supervisors Katy Tang, Norman Yee, Mark Farrell, and Eric Mar. Supervisor John Avalos was absent.

At a recent committee hearing, Supervisors Tang and Yee voiced their “discomfort” with the measure, because it could siphon off general funds that could be used for other city services. Tang also said asking voters to pass the measure, in addition to the $500 general obligation bond for transportation, may be too much of a burden. According to reports from staff at City Hall, Mayor Lee also opposed it for those reasons.

When asked for comment on the supervisors’ approval of Wiener’s measure, mayoral spokesperson Francis Tsang only said, “Mayor Lee’s transportation priority for November is for approval of the City’s first ever $500 million general obligation bond for transportation.”

Wiener’s measure includes a provision that would allow the mayor to nix the charter amendment, if the vehicle license fee increase is passed in 2016.

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Supes Vote Next Week on Wiener’s Backup Transportation Funding Measure

Supervisors are expected to vote next week on Supervisor Scott Wiener’s backup plan for transportation funding — a charter amendment that, with voter approval, would increase the share of the city’s general fund that gets allocated to Muni, pedestrian safety, and bike infrastructure. That share would be tied to the city’s growing population.

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Wiener introduced the measure as a safeguard that would increase transportation funding even if Mayor Ed Lee dropped his plan to put a vehicle license fee increase on the ballot. Lee subsequently did drop his support in June, at least until the 2016 election, so Wiener proposed his stop-gap measure. The legislation includes a provision that would allow the mayor to remove the charter amendment if the vehicle license fee increase is passed in 2016, according to Wiener.

“We are a growing city. We’ve grown by 85,000 people since 2003… and we have not made the investments we need to make sure our transportation system, particularly Muni, keeps up,” Wiener said at a committee meeting last week. “This will help bridge the gap.”

The vehicle license fee increase would have generated about $33 million per year for the SFMTA. The agency’s two-year budget assumed its passage in 2014, along with a $500 million general obligation bond for transportation that supervisors unanimously approved for the ballot yesterday.

Currently, Muni gets about $232 million in general funds annually. If approved, Wiener’s charter amendment would provide a $23 million budget boost in the first year, retroactively accounting for the last ten years of population growth. Seventy-five percent of the new funds would go to Muni, and 25 percent to “street safety measures,” according to Wiener.

“Muni’s been severely underfunded for years,” said Ilyse Magy of the SF Transit Riders Union, which has applauded Wiener’s measure. “It’s essential that measures based on alternative funding strategies be put into place,” she said, noting that Mayor Lee also cut $11 million annually from Muni operations by repealing Sunday parking meters.

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Watch: D10 Supervisor Candidates Weigh in on Muni, Parking, and Bike Lanes

The candidates running for District 10 supervisor this November gave some telling responses to transportation questions last week. The first debate of the D10 race was held at the Potrero Hill Democratic Club and moderated by SF Chronicle reporter Marisa Lagos, who asked some pointed questions on issues around Muni, parking, and bike lanes in SF’s eastern and southeast neighborhoods.

District 10 encompasses neighborhoods like Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Bayview-Hunters Point, and Visitacion Valley. Image: SFGov

The five candidates, as seen seated from left to right in the video above, included Ed Donaldson, Marlene Tran, incumbent Malia Cohen, Tony Kelly (the close runner-up in the most recent election), and Shawn Richard. The video was provided by Kelly’s campaign.

Here’s a summary of highlights from the transportation section:

  • 38:00: Lagos tested candidates on some transit fundamentals by asking them each to write down all of the Muni lines that serve Potrero Hill, then show their answers to the crowd. The responses, which acted as a score card of sorts, weren’t exactly uniform.
  • 40:30: Lagos also drew some differing responses with her follow-up question: ”What would you do to improve Muni service to the hill?” Notably, Donaldson was the only one to mention bringing back Sunday parking metering for Muni funding, and was met with hisses from the audience.
  • 43:00: Lagos asked, “Should private buses be allowed to stop at public bus stops?” The consensus from candidates is a resounding “no.”
  • 44:35: Candidates were asked whether they “agree with the current ratio of residential units to parking spaces in new developments.” All candidates except Kelly said they felt current parking maximums were too low. (On parking, it’s worth noting that Kelly pushed the idea of allowing nearby residents to park at new meters for free.)

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Supes Reject Appeal for CEQA Review of Sunday Parking Meter Repeal

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 yesterday to reject an appeal, filed by sustainable transportation advocates, to require environmental review of the SFMTA’s repeal of Sunday parking meters. Although the vote was not on the merits of Sunday parking metering, but rather whether the SFMTA violated the California Environmental Quality Act in repealing it, the hearing shed some more light on the political stances of some supervisors.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

All supervisors, except John Avalos and Eric Mar, voted to reject the appeal. Supervisor Scott Wiener argued that, even if supervisors opposed removing Sunday meters and the SFMTA governance structure that allowed Mayor Ed Lee to push it through, CEQA must be applied consistently. “I have enormous respect for the appellants in this case,” he said. “I work with them regularly in our joint quest to adequately fund our public transportation system and have smart transportation policy in San Francisco… but this is about whether the SFMTA correctly applied a CEQA exemption.”

Wiener has been a proponent of reforming CEQA to curb frivolous appeals, which are often used by opponents to delay even environmentally beneficial projects, like bike lanes. Since the Sunday meter repeal was approved as part of the SFMTA’s budget as a whole, and budget adjustments have a statutory exemption from CEQA review, Wiener argued that upholding the appeal would mean it would have to apply to other changes, like the free Muni for low-income youth program.

“Rejecting a correctly applied statuary exemption because one might disagree with the underlying policy decision, and trying to force it into a higher level of CEQA review, has profound implications not just for this issue but for the many, many other situations that MTA and other agencies deal with — situations [like] fees, fines and fares,” Wiener said.

But the appellants, representing Livable City and the SF Transit Riders Union, disagreed. They argued that removing Sunday meters comes with a particular set of impacts, particularly increased traffic congestion, since the SFMTA’s own studies showed benefits such as cutting in half the time that drivers take to find a commercial parking spot.

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Sunday Meter Repeal Needs No CEQA Review, Say SFMTA and Planning Dept.

An appeal claiming that the repeal of Sunday parking meters is an action that requires environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act is baseless, according to responses issued by the SFMTA and Planning Department this week.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The appeal, filed by Livable City and the SF Transit Riders Union, is set for a hearing and vote at the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The board will not vote not on the merits of running parking meters on Sundays. Instead, the board will vote on whether CEQA would require an environmental impact report for the SFMTA’s new budget, which directs the agency to stop charging for meters on Sundays. The supervisors’ decision is expected to be largely informed by the recommendations of the SFMTA and the Planning Department.

The policy change is expected to remove $11 million per year in transit funding, as well as double the average time that drivers take to find commercial parking spaces on Sundays, according to an SFMTA study [PDF] of the benefits that Sunday meters garnered in their first year. The appellants argue that impacts like increased traffic congestion and pollution, reduced parking turnover for businesses, and lost transit funding warrant an EIR.

“Our appeal insists that CEQA doesn’t allow an exemption for lowering of parking fees, when such an action would clearly impact the environment,” said Mario Tanev of SFTRU.

But the SFMTA maintains that the act of removing fees (e.g., Sunday meter fees) fits within a CEQA exemption meant to allow for speedy municipal budget balancing. The agency argued in its memo [PDF] that the loss of $11 million is not of significant impact because Muni fares, parking ticket fines, and parking permit fees for construction contractors were increased to make up for it:

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Standing Up to the Naysayers: Tales of Livable Streets Leadership From NYC

Re-shaping city streets almost always runs up against some level of opposition — it’s part and parcel of physically changing what people often see as their territory. Whether residents get to have safer streets, however, often comes down to the elected leaders who stand up to the naysayers.

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

In San Francisco lately, we’ve seen a lot of smart transportation projects get watered down or stopped without a supervisor or mayor willing to take a stand. In the absence of political leadership, city officials and agencies too often cave to the loudest complainers, who fight tooth and nail to preserve every parking space and traffic lane, dismissing the empirical lessons from other redesigns that worked out fine when all was said and done.

It’s not unusual for elected officials to be risk averse, but mustering the political courage to support safe streets and effective transit can and does pay off. Just look to the political leadership in New York City, where Streetsblog has covered several major stories involving City Council members (the equivalent of SF’s supervisors) who faced down the fearmongering and shepherded plazas and protected bike lanes to fruition.

These leaders suffered no ill effects as a result of their boldness. They were “easily re-elected” last year, said Ben Fried, Streetsblog’s NYC-based editor-in-chief. If anything, Fried says these politicians gained more support — not less — “because they had won over this very engaged constituency of livable streets supporters.”

In the battle over NYC’s Prospect Park West redesign, a group of very well-connected neighbors filed a lawsuit against the city for converting a traffic lane on the street into a two-way protected bikeway. City Council Member Brad Lander defended the project, which is now held up as one of NYC’s flagship street transformations.

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