As cars filled the streets of San Francisco, newspaper pundits spoke of a downtown "parking shortage." The mayor and the Board of Supervisors (a previous version, not the current one) approved more and more parking garages, adding hundreds of spaces downtown, in South of Market, in North Beach, and beyond. San Francisco streets became increasingly clogged with cars, and our conversations clogged with talk of parking. Amidst all this, our citizenry seemed oblivious to the notion -- long ago accepted as fact in the academic planning world -- that parking spaces attract cars, which in turn push out other, perhaps more desirable, forms of urban life.
But something unusual began the Wednesday after Election Day. Then, an impromptu assembly of neighborhood groups, anti-poverty charities, business leaders, environmental organizations, local politicians, Planning Department representatives, church groups, transit activists, bicycle activists, student groups, and state planning activists gathered at an environmental hearing to oppose a parking garage. But it wasn't just any garage: This 885-space monster, slated for Golden Gate and Larkin streets, would create great streams of new traffic, members of these groups testified. The additional cars would result in ever more pedestrian deaths in the Tenderloin, activists said. Using scarce land for parking, rather than housing, would push more people onto the streets, they complained. The garage, they testified, would make the Tenderloin, home to the city's least fortunate citizens, an even lousier place to live.
"After that hearing, they ought to realize that if they go ahead, they're going to get into a humongous fight with every interest group in San Francisco," says Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit group.
In San Francisco's Tenderloin, in fact, the ideological parking gap -- the distance between ivory tower academics and Main Street -- may be closing. There, activists are taking up the anti-parking cause against, of all things, a university.
It's Thursday, and David Seward, chief financial officer of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, is ending his day on a sour note. His job isn't the sort that ordinarily entails speaking with reporters. He's spent this afternoon speaking to three, back to back. It's a task he clearly doesn't enjoy. "Every campus of the UC and CSU system has a parking operation," Seward says, unenthusiastically. "Parking is integral to higher education in California. It's a question of access."
Actually, the garage Hastings has planned for the southwest corner of Golden Gate and Larkin streets does not seem to have all that much to do with accessing law school. At least in part, the project appears to be a method of transferring millions in tax dollars from the state's General Services Agency to Hastings, so it can refurbish and earthquake retrofit a building at 100 McAllister St., turning it into 80 student apartments and activity rooms. Income from the nearby garage -- the state government has promised to pay rent on 300 of the spaces, and the structure would include commercial space on its bottom story -- would be enough to pay for bonds covering the cost of the garage and the dorm retrofit, according to Hastings documents. The garage itself would be managed by a private parking concern.
As with many a proposal of dubious merit, the Hastings project has an environmental impact report full of wild, illogical assertions. Among other howlers, the report says the 885-space garage will result in no increased traffic in the area. The report also supports the questionable notion that the construction of a gigantic parking garage on an empty lot in the Tenderloin would be consistent with the school's mission, with the odd contention that building housing there would somehow violate that educational mission.
Seward offers one justification for the project that, considering his vocation as a law school accountant, is delightfully fanciful. "In the long run, it's because you have greater flexibility," Seward says, presumably explaining why Hastings should be in the parking business. "Once you provide housing, it's dedicated to that use. With a garage, in 50 to 100 years, one can use that for something else. We might not even be driving cars then."
But right now, of the places in the Western Hemisphere where there should not be a parking garage, Golden Gate and Larkin streets may rank right up there with Grand Central Station in New York. The Tenderloin site of the proposed Hastings garage is served by more forms of mass transit than any spot in the western United States.
A BART station is two blocks away. Two Muni light-rail lines are within a five-minute walk. Dozens of bus lines pass within spitting distance. For that matter, the area's already glutted with parking; the municipal parking garage under the adjacent Civic Center and the nearby Performing Arts garage handily absorb the motor-borne hordes who show up for concerts at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. To remain financially viable, the proposed Hastings garage, which would be larger than the enormous municipal garage at Fifth and Mission streets, would have to suck drivers from the Civic Center garages, therefore forcing the city to lower prices to keep spaces full. If anything could be guaranteed to clog the midtown area with more traffic, it would be a parking-garage price war.
More important than the sheer nonnecessity of the new garage is the awful effect the traffic stimulated by the garage would have on the Tenderloin. Perhaps because it's long housed the city's politically impotent underclass, the once-elegant Tenderloin -- its blocks lined with multistory prewar apartment buildings with ancient storefronts at street level -- has been turned into a byway. Over the years, the neighborhood's sidewalks have been narrowed and its streets turned into traffic arteries -- even though it's one of the most pedestrian-dense areas of the city. For this reason, the Tenderloin is a high pedestrian-death area.
Like any revolution, the protest against the Hastings garage is not untainted by self-interest. Randy Shaw and his allied groups have played a central role in the protest, and they've steered the debate over the garage into one about subsidized housing. Subsidized housing that could become part of the nonprofit fiefdom that Shaw has long run in and around the Tenderloin. "Clearly there has to be -- in terms of the Housing Clinic -- there has to be 85 affordable units on site," Shaw says. "It could be an exciting project."
But even with ulterior motives fully considered, the main thrust of the Hastings parking revolt does seem to center on renewed appreciation for the city's often-ignored Transit First policy, which (given automobiles' tendency to impede buses) by definition means cars last. During the 1990s -- a period of decay for the city's mass transit operation -- the policy became the subject of ridicule; newspaper headlines would openly call it the city's "irritating Transit First policy."
But Transit First may be coming back into fashion. In an era when housing is financially out of reach for a great segment of the population, more citizens may be willing to accept the academic dictum that it's cheaper to build housing for people who don't have cars, and don't need parking spaces. Also, people don't, by habit, drive to places where they can't find parking, says Howard Strassner, transit chair of the San Francisco group of the Sierra Club. "In S.F., where we don't have an ample supply of parking, people use transit. Anywhere where people have cheap parking, they drive. Nothing can be walkable if you've got plenty of free parking," Strassner says. "You can't get people to believe that, because they're all concerned about their parking place. But it's true."
The current Board of Supervisors seems to understand the connection between parking and crowded, inhumane streets. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, for example, is working on legislation allowing homeowners to build in-law units -- as long as they don't add any cars to the neighborhood. Supervisor Chris Daly is trying to get city employees to pay market rate for their parking spots. Gavin Newsom is looking at making people pay more for multiple residential parking permits, in hopes of culling the 700 or so San Franciscans who reportedly use our streets to park more than four cars apiece.
"The bizarre dichotomy that exists for an elected official is, you know what the right answer is, but doing anything comes at great political cost," says Peskin. "The city's code and General Plan have nice words about Transit First. But when it comes down to raising hands and voting for controversial pro-transit policies, the previous board didn't do that. The current board, I think, we have voted to a T supporting Transit First."
As a part of the University of California system, Hastings has no legal obligation to obey the city of San Francisco's permitting procedures, so, technically speaking, the Board of Supervisors can't do anything to stop the planned Golden Gate and Larkin garage. As of last month, students say, the administration was telling them the garage was a done deal. But earlier this month, several of the garage's opponents met with state Sen. John Burton, a man who, as president pro tem of the Senate, has great influence over Hastings' purse strings. Recently, the school's attitude toward the garage project seems to have changed.
"We're analyzing a proposal -- a counterproposal was submitted -- to have a garage of 225 cars and 85 units of housing, in lieu of the 870 spaces we're proposing. We're assessing the economics of that, and whether the return can support the finances," says Seward (rounding 15 spaces off the number of parking slots described in official documents on the original garage plan). "It's my view that the provision of housing to non-students is outside the scope of the college's purpose, and if the economic returns would be sufficient means to support doing the seismic and safety work at 100 McAllister, maybe we'll build student housing. We're working up the numbers, we're analyzing the proposal, and we'll be laying that out for public scrutiny."
Developers and planners I've spoken with say the Hastings lot could support at least 200 units of housing -- many more if a significant portion were dorm-size. By making it easy for students and faculty to live on campus, Hastings could eliminate the 300 additional parking spaces it claims to need.
Seward's preference for building student housing will surely anger the Tenderloin activists. Political power in that neighborhood, after all, revolves around controlling money derived from various types of subsidies aimed at the poor.
But I think putting 300 more law students in the Tenderloin is a grand idea. In the smaller scheme of things, it will free up apartments all over the city for the rest of us to live in. In the larger scheme of things, I imagine a future in which generations of assistant attorneys general and corporate counsel recall their halcyon school days living in the Tenderloin. Their futures were wide open with possibilities then, and they didn't need to own cars.