30 June 2014

Say goodbye to Guerrero Street's Median Concrete

Back in 2005, the earth beneath Guerrero Street's narrow median saw the light of day - on a short stretch somewhere south of Cesar Chavez Street, close to where the street changes names to San Jose Avenue. Thanks to Greening Guerrero, Gillian Gillett and community donations landscaping marched north up until 20th Street, save the block between 22nd and 23rd streets. Guerrero Street's speed limit was also reduced from 35 to 25 miles per hour. San Jose Avenue also went a 6-lane speedway to a 4-lane street. Regarding the block not landscaped, the holdup was partially due to fact that property owners, not the city, had to agree to pay for the landscaping.

Image: SF Public Works
Well earlier this year, the block between 22nd and 23rd streets got landscaped through funding made in part by the developer of the former Palm Broker site.

Housing located where Palm Broker formerly sat. Image: Urban Life Signs
I had assumed that landscaping north of 20th Street was a lost cause because most of these buildings are rentals, and we all know that renters "don't care about the value and well being of their home or neighborhood like homeowners do."

New tree plantings and plants on Guerrero at 18th St, looking north. Image: Urban Life Signs

02 June 2014

No Sea of Parking on the Waterfront

Over the past several months there's been a lot of talk about San Francisco's waterfront - the waterfront along The Embarcadero from Fisherman's Wharf down to Mission Bay. Much of the talk has been about luxury housing, walls, arenas, protecting our city, and providing affordable housing. But what do we actually have? a wide boulevard with a series of piers on the bay side, and a mixture of short buildings and parking lots on the land side.? Is that what protecting the waterfront is about?

Parking lot across from Exploratorium. "Wall" of Embarcadero Center and Golden Gateway (back). Image: SF Planning Department
The June 2014 Proposition B (Prop B) calls for a citywide vote by the public if any development proposals on Port of San Francisco land should go over height limits zoned for this land. The height limits currently vary, but range from 40 feet (3-4 stories) north of Broadway, and up to 84 feet (6-8 stories) near the Ferry Building. Until now, the planning and approvals process for construction on the waterfront (and in most places) must go through a series of planning procedures, including public input, planning commission approval and sometimes board approval and eventually permitting.

Proponents of San Francisco Proposition B and the earlier Prop B that halted the 8 Washington St development, are saying we should protect the waterfront and stop a "wall on the waterfront". "Let the voters protect the waterfront", by letting them decide if a development would be allowed to go above current height limits. As quoted in their flyer (that I received in the mail):

"Prop B requires voter approval before building height limits can be raised on San Francisco's publicly-owned waterfront. It gives voters, not just developers, a voice on the waterfront that belongs to all of us." - Kate Lobby, Sierra Club

(Emphasis added)

Sounds compelling - who wants a wall on a lovely waterfront? Why would requiring a city-wide vote on height limits be a bad thing. However, thinking critcally and asking more questions I reflect? I didn't realize that the waterfront was governed by an oligarchy of developers? I thought, and know, that the waterfront land use and regulations are governed by the Port of San Francisco and by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 


Image: SF Planning Department
But let's step back and get away from the technical stuff. Let's get to the bread and butter and emotional stuff. Let's also get away from the name calling and do or die rhetoric. Let's ask two important questions:

1. What exactly is the "waterfront"? 
2. What's at the waterfront today?
3. What are we trying to protect?
4. What do we want our waterfront to look like?

Defining the Waterfront 

Answering this question is easy. Although the waterfront, and the area covered in Prop B covers the shoreline from Fisherman's Wharf down to Hunters Point, for the sake of argument here we'll consider the "waterfront" to follow Embarcadero (street) from King Street near AT&T Park in the south to Jefferson Street in Fisherman's Wharf in the north; the waterfront zone consists of all the water and land from the bayside edges of the piers to 1-2 blocks landward of the Embarcadero. Most of this land is owned and under the jurisdiction of the Port of San Francisco.

Today's Waterfront Development and Uses

Stepping for a moment into history, let's remember that the waterfront was a much less desired place to spend your time recreating prior to the 1990s, and especially prior to the 1960s. Reason being it was an active port with many warehouses, the Belt Line Railroad running through the middle of Embarcadero, and the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway looming overhead.
Image: San Francisco Public Libary

Image: San Francisco Public Libary
The water/bay side uses of the waterfront have changed dramatically in the 22 years since the Embarcadero Freeway was removed. The Ferry Building has blossomed, the Exploratorium just opened, and even the shopping pier, Pier 39, added vitality to the waterfront.

However, the land-side uses are virtually identical to what they were 30 years ago in the 1980s! So why no change? I honestly don't know why? One thought is that it's not worth buying or leasing a super expensive property that can only go up 3 stories and be built as a boring office building away from where most offices want to be.

Image: SF Planning Department