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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

But, in order to grow into a more vibrant -- and pleasant -- city, San Francisco must break the link between increased housing and increased parking. In a denser city, things are easier to walk to, to bike to, or to ride the bus to, because businesses, homes, cultural attractions, and other amenities are closer together. A lack of parking, and the resultant lack of cars, creates a critical mass of political demand for efficient transit -- a process under way right now in San Francisco, as bicycle commuters take to the streets to demand rights of way, and Muni riders seize their place among San Francisco power brokers. Just as increased parking creates a vicious cycle where citizens clamor for increased road space and reduced density, eliminating parking creates a virtuous cycle, in which citizens force improvements in auto-free transit options.

When it comes to housing, these two opposing scenarios are crucial, because every single parking space added to a housing development, shopping center, street, or elsewhere reduces the city's ability to house its people. Every urban parking space housing developers build adds another car to the city. These car owners demand more parking spaces at stores, government buildings, and wherever else they drive.

At rest, a car needs three parking spaces on its daily rounds: one at home, one at work, and one in a shopping center. The cost associated with having to eliminate housing units to allow for more parking undermines a developer's economies of scale, and further adds to the cost of each apartment. In smaller buildings the effect can be striking -- adding more parking spaces in areas zoned for three-story buildings or lower can eliminate an entire story of housing.

And the drivers of all those cars want wider city streets and more freeways, often at the expense of even more housing. These demands compete with public transit, the widespread use of which would make it easier for developers to build buildings without parking.

Every time parking wins, housing loses, just as it did in the neighborhood battle over the develop-ment at Fulton and Masonic. Such outcomes are part and parcel of the way San Francisco now makes its planning decisions. Small interests are served, small groups placated, and the city grows in tiny fits and starts that add up to no rational whole.

During 1998, the year much of the wrangling over density at Fulton and Masonic took place, a total of 874 units of housing were added in San Francisco. That year, jobs grew by about 10,000.

That makes no sense.
"The real problem with building housing in San Francisco is that the stakeholders who would want housing to be developed are not particularly active," says Erickson. "The major beneficiaries of additional housing are renters and potential buyers. Potential buyers don't get active and potential renters don't get active. Homeowners have a huge stake ... they tend, as a group, to oppose more housing. They are very organized and very powerful."

San Francisco's status as a largely suburban city -- and the tightly woven patchwork of neighborhood associations that fight to keep it so -- has evolved steadily over the last half-century, as NIMBY associations were forged block by block in the heat of individual housing battles. Typically, a group of neighbors would band together to defeat a project, and win. Thus emboldened, such groups often remained as neighborhood associations, involving themselves in the planning of any future neighborhood development.

"We have what are called 'professional citizens.' You see the same faces at every planning meeting," says John Hirten, who recently stepped down from heading the mayor's Muni task force.

Some of these groups are decades old, dating back to the 1930s. Others were formed just months ago: The Outer Mission Residents Association, in the Crocker Amazon neighborhood, for example, formed last year to oppose a nonprofit apartment building that would have housed 48 old folks.

These associations emerged with San Francisco's various citywide development battles: the 1960s battle against freeways, the backlash against the 1970s redevelopment of the Western Addition, the construction of the Fontana Towers near Fisherman's Wharf, and the development of garish condominium buildings toward the top of Twin Peaks.

"Historically, too often in the past, the city did not do its job in developing housing that was sensitive and fitting with the neighborhoods in which they were built," says Gabriel Metcalf, program director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a nonprofit think tank. "You had bad projects, projects that were out of scale, projects that were ugly. They gave housing a bad name."

With the battles came citywide downzonings, banning whichever type of housing development was thought offensive at the time. The cumulative effect was to severely limit housing of all types.

In 1960, a new general plan was drafted amending the old, 1920s plan, which had set only a few density limits, in the Sea Cliff area, the Sunset, and some of the city's southernmost neighborhoods. The new general plan was still friendly to the idea of citified living, though.

"All of Ocean Beach was zoned for high density and no height limit," says Bob Passmore, who last year retired as the city's zoning administrator after 20 years with the Planning Department. "Potrero Hill was zoned for high densities. Along the Panhandle, Golden Gate Park, all those areas were zoned for high densities."

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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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