By Anna Pulley
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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.
Excerpt from the July 13, 1993, Department of City Planning decision exempting the Fire Department from off-street parking requirements
MEMO to Bond M. Yee, Deputy Director, Traffic Engineering
Memorandum requesting additional permit parking spaces on Stanford Street
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."