| Mission merchants still wary of Eastern Neighborhoods Plan
By Jonathan Farrell Apr 16, 2009
Now that the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan has been adopted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, it was official as of January 2009, a Citizens Advisory Committee is being formed. This committee will provide a formal venue for the community to participate in the implementation process. The committee is to provide guidance on community benefits and to ensure that projects outlined in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan meet the stated needs of the community.
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Yet critics fear the committee will be bias in its decision making process. Because, eight of the 13 seats on the committee will be nominated by the Board of Supervisors and five seats will be appointed by Mayor Newsom.
Among those critics is Phil Lesser of Lesser Enterprises Inc. He talked with the Mission Dispatch at length about this new development in his long struggle with the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.
Lesser sees the plan as “flawed” and told the Mission Dispatch in previous interviews that the plan lacks realistic feasibility in a 21st Century world that is changing rapidly. Issues around what type of industry versus what has been (traditionally) the industry of the area for decades seems to clash.
The areas to be administered to by this plan are The Mission District, Dog Patch, Potrero Hill, East South of Market and the Central Waterfront. This roughly covers over 2000 acres of dense urban space.
Lesser and fellow Mission business owners like Fred Snyder fear what is missing in this ambitious plan is “a genuine dialog…between those promoting the plan and the community.”
Lesser views the nominations and the Mayor’s five appointees to the committee as indications of the potential bias being set up in advance in favor of the plan.
Lesser has been extremely vocal in his criticisms of the plan because if fully implemented as it is now, the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan will set the stage of development and growth of the area for the next 20 years.
One of Lesser’s key complaints about the plan is that Production Distribution and Repair type of business & industry is what initially shaped the area. “But that type of industry is gone, it is a thing of the past,” he said.
As the 21st Century advances more technologically driven businesses are the norm. As it stands now, such business encompasses a world economy complete with various types of procedures and operation – like outsourcing. Much of this is what would be considered as office work or white collar as opposed to blue collar or manufacturing jobs.
“Ten years ago, a video production facility was full of stages and screens and cameras. Now they all sit at computers,” said Ken Rich, ENP project manager at the San Francisco Planning Department. The Architects Newspaper reported in August of 2008 that Rich who has been leading a series of Friday-afternoon meetings (that typically drag into evenings), is trying to hash out ways to protect light manufacturing. “The only way to really define industrial is what it’s not: offices, residential units, stores, and institutions like schools, hospitals, etc,” said Rich.
Bio-tech and medical technology, including green technology seem to be the wave of the future. This is exactly what Lesser and others point out that is flawed about the plan. The plan does not really understand that direction on the horizon of future development.
The Mission is the only neighborhood in the entire city that has two BART stations. These are major thoroughfare transit lines that bring hundreds of commuters to the area daily. Lesser noted that it took more than a decade to get the BART completed as well as building height regulations.
Without the proper amending, the plan will only create chaos for the future The ideals set forth in the plan are ignoring facts or are naïve about proper city planning. Questions arise as to how will planning balance industrial use with residential?
“The plan as it is currently is hostile to any viable development,” said Lesser. The trepidation with the plan as critics see it is in zoning.
PDR consists of industrial zoning codes. Then there are areas that are mixed use and so on. This according to critics is what makes the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan a city planning nightmare for the future.
People are moving into the Mission and surrounding areas as all of the City’s real estate value has skyrocketed since the dot-com boom of the 1990’s.
SOMA and Mission were impacted tremendously by that flurry of change. As The Architects Newspaper cited, “after envisioning an idea to halt the floodtide of new development in the late 1990s, the planning department started outlining a formal plan in 2001, when the dot-com building boom began pricing many industrial facilities out of town.”
Lesser and others wonder how will the Planning Department manage all this change effectively. Affordable housing is an issue that must be addressed but where will the funding come from if investors via businesses and such are not permitted to expand?
One most recent example of the conflict between expansion and the community was featured in the March issue of the Castro Courier. The SF Planning Commission denied Walgreens Drug store its request for a conditional use permit this past February. A Laundromat next door to the retail chain at 4129 18th Street has been vacant. Walgreens wanted to use the space as a specialty for HIV/AIDS medication outreach. The reason for denial being that such an expansion would diminish the charm of the neighborhood. Since denying Walgreens application the Laundromat has remained vacant for over two years and reps for Walgreens were reported to say that there is no plan to appeal the decision.
Lesser can list several such incidents involving long-standing local businesses facing the same bureaucratic obstacles. Lesser questions the logic of the Planning Commission denying the application by retailer American Apparel to open a shop on Valencia.
Empty shops and vacant businesses are not good for any economy, especially now in a struggling one. He knows of several developers and contractors that have given up on San Francisco.
As The Architects Newspaper noted, Local nonprofit San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which has worked closely with the city on the project, feels that the plan is quite ambitious. “It’s extremely aggressive and pushes the boundaries of what some developers consider financially feasible,” said SPUR policy director Sarah Karlinsky, speaking to Architects Newspaper.
SPUR supports the middle-income option to help keep families and all classes in the city. As for one of the proposed alternatives to the plan—halting new development altogether in the areas to prevent gentrification—Karlinsky argues that it was likely to create a different set of problems: “You exacerbate gentrification because the competition over the limited units available just pushes the price through the roof,” she said to Architects Newspaper.
Lesser told the Mission Dispatch that this is another key problem to the overall logic of the plan. Affordable housing no matter who builds it needs to be funded. No contractor or developer will enter into a contract to simply take a loss.
There must be businesses and a working economy to support all the residents who seek to live in the Mission and surrounding areas. Which brings to mind another issue, what about parking? Parking spaces can add anywhere from $20,000 to $50.000 in cost per unit to housing. Cost saving measures included in the outline of the plan would no longer require parking spaces in some areas.
Blogs have posted people’s responses to the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. They question the logistics as working families raising children need housing with parking as well as other amenities like childcare, medical centers, etc.
John Petro, an urban policy analyst with the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy applauds the plan and told the SF Chronicle back in September that it “needs no revision.”
Yet even with incentives offered like “density bonuses” he admits that affordable housing units are affordable “because they sell or rent for less than the dollar amount required to cover costs,” said Petro.
According to Lesser and other critics of the plan here is where the developers and contractors throw up there hands and walk away to find another community willing to promote feasible as well as profitable development.
The Mission Dispatch contacted Rich and fellow SF urban planner Claudia Flores. Both did not respond to questions. Yet it is clear to this reporter and many others that they and the Planning Commission clearly have a tough job set before them.
Regardless of the good intentions of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan how will all this be effectively resolved? And, more importantly how will it impact the community in the best possible way?
There will be a meeting before the Planning Dept on April 10 at 3 p.m. in Room #431 at 1650 Mission Street. Phil Lesser and others hope that people concerned about the Mission and its future for the next 20 years will attend.
For more information about the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan visit:
http://www.sfgov.org/site/planning_index.asp?id=25288 or call 415 558-6378.
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