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How shortsighted neighborhood activism fuels the city's housing crisis, and pushes the best of San Francisco deeper and deeper into the suburbs

It doesn't have to be this way, but San Francisco's political culture, and the culture of its surrounding communities, will make it so. And Brentwood commuters will be joined by hundreds of thousands of neighbors in San Joaquin County, San Benito County, and Yolo County. Billions of dollars of economic capacity will be wasted, families will be drained of life by their breadwinners' lengthening commutes. Thousands and thousands of cars driven by thousands and thousands of commuters will fill the highways and foul the air. Bay Area residents will become lonelier, poorer, and more tired -- all as a matter of collective, civic choice.

The northeast corner of Fulton and Masonic streets is now occupied by a half-block parking lot, a low-slung grocery store called Falletti's, and an occasional Goodwill tractor trailer, where a man accepts donated castoffs. The grocery store is the run-down, homey sort, and that's the way many neighbors say they like it.

Next year, however, a new project will be built on the corner, including a new grocery store, some small storefronts, and a 135-unit apartment complex. It is a modest plan, really. But for San Francisco, it is a minor miracle that the project is going forward, says developer Oz Erickson.

The painstaking diplomacy required to appease neighborhood groups and receive city approval for the project required more than a year, around 15 redrafted architectural plans, and the hiring and firing of at least two sets of architects, all at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Petitions were circulated, gentrification debated, alliances formed, countless meetings held, and a compromise finally hammered out.

The Fulton/Masonic battle began, as all such affairs do, when developers formally informed neighbors of the project, as city statute requires. Several neighborhood associations immediately jumped into the fray. The best organized, the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association, swiftly formed a special task force, called Future of the Plaza Coalition, with the aim of working full time to rein in the project. As such groups typically are, they were relentless.

"For a neighborhood group to deal with a project like this it's definitely a huge amount of work," says Michael Helquist, president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association. "The steering committee probably spent hundreds of hours dealing with the development. It takes really focused attention working with planning and finding out regulations, zoning codes, how similar projects have worked in the past."

Jim Cowan, chairman of the Future of the Plaza Coalition, recalls weeks and months of long, contentious meetings, fiery debates, and invigorating brainstorming sessions. One early community meeting drew 150 neighbors, he recalls. Many were spoiling for a fight.

"People were very edgy," Cowan recalls. "Volunteers formed a steering committee of 10 to 12 people, and they guided the work from then on. We were meeting once a week -- pretty frequently, and it was a very, very intense process. Some of the loudest people were at the big public meetings we had. They weren't committed to orderly procedures, necessarily, but they were committed."

Other groups, meanwhile, circulated petitions to halt the development outright. Several decided to form their own neighborhood associations. David Tornheim, who created one group called Central City Tenants, says his allies objected to the project because it brought in a chain grocery store -- Lucky's -- and contained too much housing. The units were likely to be destined for the rich. And the project didn't receive a thorough enough environmental review, he says. Central City Tenants circulated a petition condemning the development that garnered 1,000 signatures, Tornheim says.

In the end, Tornheim's complaints of gentrification were ignored -- it's hard to gentrify a neighborhood where people are already paying $1,500 per month for small one-bedroom apartments -- and a plan was forged. By San Francisco standards, the process was a success, and ground will be broken early next year.

The neighbors are, to a large extent, satisfied: They got the developer to provide more parking than originally planned, reduce the number of apartments, and change the design to one the neighbors liked better. The developer will get to build a fairly significant housing project in a city famous for its NIMBY giant killers. The city Planning Department will see much-needed housing built.

But just as it represents the best possible scenario, the Fulton/Masonic project also illustrates the worst effects of San Francisco's localized planning process. As a microsolution to neighborhood diplomacy, it feeds every macro problem the Bay Area has.

Like virtually all housing projects proposed in San Francisco, it will be built with significantly fewer units than was possible, in order to appease neighbors' complaints about "excessive density." So it will do little to help the San Francisco housing crunch. The units will still be expensive. In fact, the extra parking the neighbors demanded will add about $30,000 to the cost of each unit.

For the neighbors, this is a victory of sorts. They got their parking, after all. A large portion of San Francisco housing battles, in the end, come down to parking spaces -- characterized by euphemisms such as "density," "congestion," and "livability."

"Our first concern was that parking not impact the neighborhood. Our main interest was not to put more pressure on limited parking we have," says Cowan. "The question was, could we, in this issue, have an impact? This is really a citywide issue that should be taken up by San Francisco as a whole."

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Cynthia McGarvie
Cynthia McGarvie

I left SF in January of that year with a deeply heavy heart. I knew I would never be able to afford to live there for the rest of my life. If things stay the same, it's going to end up as a ghost town.

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