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Manifest Destiny 

The Fire Department finds the easiest way to park in SOMA -- a land grab

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
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When the San Francisco Fire Department moved its administrative headquarters to the South of Market neighborhood last year, the city's top fire officials ran straight into the same parking nightmare that faces everyone else living or working in rapidly growing SOMA. Construction projects and a Bay Bridge earthquake retrofit have wiped out thousands of parking spaces on streets that were overcrowded to begin with.

But the Fire Department has ways of solving its parking problems that are not available to the average driver.

After moving to Second and Townsend streets, the department simply took over a 500-foot stretch of curb in front of its new building to make space for the non-emergency vehicles officials use to run errands around town. With the blessing of city traffic planners, parking meters were ripped out and signs posted warning all those without special permits to stay away.

When it became clear that even those measures weren't enough to handle the department's parking needs, Fire Department employees took to parking their cars on a nearby sidewalk, and -- believe it or not -- in front of fire hydrants.

The parking grab has dismayed residents and nearby businesses, and apparently it's not over yet. Arguing that it needs even more parking, the department is now asking the city to let it annex another 100 feet of curb space around the corner on Stanford Street.

"I'm definitely not happy about that; we're going to lose what little parking we have left," says Glenn Mullen, manger of the West Marine boating store, which sits directly across the street from the Fire Department's block-long permit-only zone. "I hate to take offense against the Fire Department, but we really need our parking, too. Every other customer who comes in complains about it, and it creates a hostility."

Taking over the area's curbside parking may be inconvenient for neighbors, but a Fire Department spokesman claims there is no other option. "Everything is getting so developed around here, the fact is there really is no parking for anyone," Capt. Rodrigo Izquierdo says. "And because we are such a public necessity, we have to impose ourselves. Our main concern is protecting the public, and to do that, we need to bring people in here to conduct business."

Throughout the day, fire chiefs, inspectors, and other city officials travel to headquarters for such things as meetings on 911 duties or Y2K preparedness, Izquierdo says, and too much valuable time would be lost if they had to keep circling the building looking for an open parking spot.

Of course, the parking mess was predictable long before the department moved to its new headquarters. In fact, before it was even allowed to move, the department promised that it would not do exactly what it has done -- take over most of the available street parking within range.

When the department set out to build its new headquarters by converting an old pump station into a three-story administration building, the city's planning code required that the new offices have at least 41 off-street parking spaces (there were about that many at the department's previous headquarters on Golden Gate Avenue). The 41 spots would provide plenty of room for the department's non-emergency fleet of red Ford Tauruses and Plymouth Reliants without further congesting the neighborhood, planners agreed.

However, it turned out the old pump station had special architectural and historical value. The conversion to offices wouldn't adversely affect the original building's integrity, but providing 41 parking spaces would. So the city granted a planning code variance that eliminated the off-street parking requirement. There would be only 19 parking spaces at the new building.

In order to get permission to reduce the number of off-street slots, the department agreed that it would find someplace else for its people to park. It did.

The department told city planners it was buying land at Third Street and Evans Avenue, with 28,000 square feet of paved yard space, making room for 53 vehicles. "Approximately 5-10 minutes away, that facility has ample open, off-street space that can accommodate the extra parking needed for the new Headquarters" was the Fire Department's assurance in the 1993 variance decision. The department promised that it would use that lot, and that "a shuttle system will be provided to transport employees."

Sold on the shuttle idea, city planners approved the variance, noting in their decision that "the 53 parking spaces provided on an alternative site more than compensate for the 22 parking space deficiency ... [thus the department] will not overburden neighborhood parking."

But in the year since the department moved in, there has been no shuttle service. Instead, the department began its conquest of all nearby curbsides.

Izquierdo says he remembers the shuttle plan, and admits it was never implemented. "It was well-meaning and looked great on the drawing board, but wasn't practical. It didn't serve our needs," he says. "Everything is conducted here on the spur of the moment. A chief coming in for an emergency meeting can't be waiting around for a shuttle."

Izquierdo says the department really did intend to try the shuttle idea when it made the promise to city planners, but everything from budget concerns to agreeing on an adequate van and schedule killed the proposal. "A lot of factors came into play; it became complicated."

So the department asked for permit-only space on its surrounding streets -- and is now asking for more. That has retired firefighter Jim Corrigan crying foul. He questions just how "immediate" most of the visits to headquarters really are, and wonders why the majority of Fire Department employees can't take 10 minutes to ride a shuttle -- or pay for a meter out front that is available to all drivers. "They make it sound like every firefighter visiting headquarters is a chief on emergency business," Corrigan says. "Having been in the department 20 years, I know what goes on. A lot of those visits are for mundane reasons: guys going in to deal with their vacation, overtime, or health insurance."

The long stretch of permit-only street parking in front of the headquarters is not always filled with the ubiquitous red cars that belong to the Fire Department. Civilian vehicles with "Official Business" signs in the window often take up spaces -- a BMW, a Ford Bronco, and a Lexus all lined in a row one recent day -- which Izquierdo says are private cars belonging to other city officials who have pertinent business with the Fire Department.

For the past year, Corrigan has been complaining about the wayward parking practices of department employees to the city's Fire Commission, Board of Supervisors, and even the Mayor's Office on Disability (some cars have blocked handicap sidewalk ramps). Corrigan has received letters promising resolution, but he continues to wit- ness the problem. While Corrigan says it is unfair that the department has taken over metered spots for itself, he also points out that when those spaces are full, firefighters put their cars in dangerous places -- namely blocking fire hydrants and parking on sidewalks.

Indeed, at 11 a.m. Dec. 1, all five fire hydrants that serve the neighborhood around King, Townsend, and Second streets were blocked by non-emergency Fire Department vehicles. Izquierdo points out that the law allows the Fire Department to block hydrants, and surmises that the red cars with "Division of Training" and "Fire Prevention" crests parked in front of the hydrants Dec. 1 were there because no other parking was available.

Most visits to headquarters are short and the cars clear out quickly, Izquierdo maintains. The blocked hydrants aren't a safety issue, he says, since the drivers of the cars can be found right inside headquarters if the cars need to be moved. "The difference between a private car blocking a fire hydrant and one of ours is that we know where the owner is and can get ahold of the keys," he says.

With two large construction sites -- a high-rise condominium and the Pac Bell ballpark -- the popular MoMo's restaurant, and a number of other businesses all within a few blocks of those five hydrants, Corrigan says it is unconscionable that firefighters park in front of them as a matter of convenience. "Other than children playing with matches, what's the most fundamental fire law? Don't block fire hydrants," he says.

Disputing Izquierdo's claim that the hydrants are not blocked by cars for great lengths of time, Corrigan has documented and photographed Fire Department vehicles sitting in front of hydrants for entire weekends. "Look, this one has Chinese menus all over the windshield," he says, showing a picture of a red Plymouth Reliant, used by inspectors as a fire prevention vehicle. "It sat there blocking a high-pressure hydrant from Friday night to Monday morning."

While blocking fire hydrants may not be illegal for the Fire Department, parking on sidewalks and blocking handicap sidewalk ramps is. And Corrigan has caught the department doing that, too, on Stanford Street. The narrow, one-way alley adjacent to the headquarters only has room for parking on the east side of the street. But Fire Department vehicles often straddle the curb on the west side and park on the sidewalk. The Mayor's Office on Disability has even written to the Fire Department, complaining that the parking violates the Americans with Disability Act.

Izquierdo responded in an Oct. 21 letter, saying the sidewalk in question has so many cracks and potholes that it is "a very poor choice for the handicapped to use." Nevertheless, Izquierdo said, the department has implemented a parking policy forbidding any sidewalk use. Violators documented by Corrigan's pictures, Izquierdo said in his letter, "were parked there before our final parking polices were completely distributed. As it is now, there is only an occasional straggler who did not get the news."

But on Dec. 1, more than one month after Izquierdo wrote his letter, three non-emergency Fire Department vehicles were parked on the sidewalk on the west side of Stanford Street at 11 a.m., next to signs that read: "No Parking Anytime, Tow Away."

Corrigan concedes the parking congestion at Second and Townsend streets is a small part of a SOMA-wide problem, but says there is no reason for the San Francisco Fire Department to exacerbate it. He would just like to see the department set up a shuttle service and use the remote parking lot, like initially promised. "It's not like I'm trying to sell them on a shuttle idea," Corrigan says. "They already agreed to it. They said this is how it would be, and I want them to be good to their word."

Izquierdo says the shuttle is not possible now, but perhaps later, once the Third Street bridge is reopened and a new fire station in Mission Bay is built. Until then, he says he hopes people will understand that the Fire Department must park on nearby streets for good reason. "Our parking is not self-serving. We are acting on behalf of the public," Izquierdo says. "We conduct a lot of business here and we are constantly moving around; we're not just coming into the office to roost."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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