Last year, construction workers broke ground on a $316 million project to speed up the buses that run along Van Ness Avenue — the vital north-south corridor that serves the center of the city. Dedicated bus lanes, improved boarding stations, and new vehicles will make getting from Russian Hill to Civic Center smoother, faster, and safer, when the project is completed in 2019.
“This marks a significant step forward in making transit faster and more reliable on Van Ness Avenue,” said Mayor Ed Lee when the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project (BRT) launched. “We will be improving a crucial travel corridor in San Francisco. When this project is completed, everyone can enjoy a safer, better Van Ness Avenue.”
The project sounds great. But several residential developments coming to Van Ness Avenue and Market Street could derail the millions of dollars the city, state, and taxpayers have committed to speeding up this transit corridor, thanks to the impending arrival of hundreds of privately owned vehicles, which threaten to clog up this transit-rich artery. Or so claims Jason Henderson, who last month filed an appeal of the city’s decision to allow One Oak, a 304-unit luxury apartment building, to begin construction without a thorough review of the traffic impacts its 136 parking spots will have on the neighborhood.
One Oak’s 40 stories will rise from the soon-to-be demolished All Star Cafe on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Oak Street. Developed by Build, Inc., the project has been through the rigmarole of issues in its eight-year planning process. The developers fired one architect and hired another. Issues of wind mitigation forced a redesign of the entire tower. And just when the project was finalized and the plan hit the Planning Commission, nearby residents and neighborhood associations picked a fight with the city and developers over the proposed parking spots, claiming there was no need for so much personal vehicle parking in an area served by nine Muni lines. The Environmental Impact Report, people argued, was not thorough: It didn’t examine any ramifications the cars might have on nearby public transit or how the extra wind the building would funnel down Van Ness would affect the thousands of cyclists who commuted past the building each day.
But on June 15, the Planning Commission approved the plan as it was written, dealing a blow to transportation advocates. Now, Henderson, a Geography and Environment professor at San Francisco State University, has tossed his hat into the game and appealed that decision.
It’s not easy to file an appeal against the city. Appellants must have a track record of engagement with the project, with written letters and City Hall appearances proving their interest in the case. They also must have an active working knowledge of the Planning Department, to draft anything that has legs. Henderson has both — his red hair and beard are a familiar presence at Planning Commission meetings, and while this EIR decision was made, he was researching a paper on the politics of mobility in Copenhagen, from where he filed this appeal.
The One Oak EIR, he claims, “fails as an informational document.” In a two-page summary, he outlines the omission of valuable information on vehicular impact, effects of wind, loading zones for ride-hail vehicles, and the cumulative effect it and other nearby developments will have on the area. “It’s like we as a city have just decided not to know this,” Henderson says about the Planning Department’s lack of attention to such details.
Garage locations for both One Oak and the South Van Ness “Double Tower.”
People only have to look at a map of One Oak and the streets around it to see immediately where traffic issues would occur. All 136 parking spaces would be accessible via a garage door entrance on Oak Street, which is a one-way arterial heading westbound on that block. That means southbound drivers will have to make a huge loop down public transit-rich-streets in order to reach the highway — or return home from it.
Across Market Street, another residential development looms. Two towers slated to replace the Honda dealership would hold 985 units of housing, with 518 parking spaces underground, which would exit onto one-way southbound 12th Street. To get to the highway — or, pretty much anywhere — drivers would have to turn left onto Mission Street, running straight into a massive intersection with Gough Street, South Van Ness Avenue, and Otis Street.
“Imagine you’re standing on Broadway and Van Ness, five years from now, and you’ve been promised that these buses are going to be reliable and frequent,” Henderson says. “There’s three buses, and then none for 20 minutes. Why? Because you let all these high-rises have all that parking on Mission and South Van Ness. You’ve spent all that money on red transit lanes, you’ve riled up merchants on Mission Street, and then you throw your bus into a hornet’s nest of traffic. You’ve spent all this money on Haight Street, fixing the buses, making them reliable and useful, and then it’s bogged down on Market Street because nothing’s moving and it’s gridlocked.
“It’s one department saying, ‘F.U.’ to another,” he adds.
Henderson is clear that he’s not anti-housing, or even anti-One Oak. The point of this appeal, he says, is to improve the process. “I’m not interested in impeding, I’m interested in making it better, and I think we can,” he says.
But the impact of filing an EIR appeal can be huge, with construction delays on the horizon while the issue is heard by city government. In the best case scenario, “if the Planning Department wants to double down and put out some mitigations, this could take a couple months,” Henderson says. “They could make this a priority. I don’t see this as delaying the big picture. There’s an EIR for the Honda site. There’s an EIR for the Plumber’s Union site, for City College on Gough and Mission. All these could actually be better and faster. If they wanted, this could be a beautiful solution for the city.”
But for now, the appeal process is just getting started. Both the SFMTA and Sup. London Breed’s office failed to respond to our requests for comment. The appeal is scheduled to be heard in front of the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 5 — when they return from August recess. In the meantime, Henderson will fine-tune his argument, gearing up to take on the Planning Department, the developers, and City Hall.