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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

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
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Page 6 of 7

In San Ramon, some 900,000 square feet of office space has been built at the mammoth Bishop Ranch office park entirely on spec, in anticipation of new jobs coming to the area. Economic forecasters say the offices are sure to sell, and each office cubicle will be occupied by a new employee. And if the sprawl initiative passes, each new employee will have to find somewhere else to live.

"Most of these cities like San Francisco and Berkeley are proud of their diversity, but their solution to this issue is in not providing opportunities. If you want different people, you have to provide opportunities for people, including opportunities for places to live. San Francisco tries to do that, but there is a disconnect between what it says it wants and what it does," says Landis, the UC Berkeley professor. "A living city needs economic diversity in the long term. The people who move out of the cities for schools need to be replaced by other young people. You need a recharge of young people, and other ethnic groups. Without them, the city is the poorer for it."

John Hirten, John Jacobs, and Bob Passmore -- two old-time planning professionals and a just-retired zoning administrator, order fish plates at Sam's Grill & Seafood Restaurant, and talk about old times.

They've all lived and relived San Francisco's housing wars, and come out crusty yet congenial, fanciful yet practical, erudite raconteurs. Jacobs ran the redevelopment agency in Stockton during the 1960s, directed a San Francisco housing think tank during the 1970s, and was president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce until he retired in 1989. Hirten, a warm, gracious, insistent man, was U.S. deputy director of urban mass transit during the Nixon administration, was subsequently director of the American Planning Association, and director of transportation for the City and County of Honolulu. As the man long responsible for applying San Francisco's zoning laws, Passmore is the group's sagely Solomon.

The three talk of neighborhood housing battles past. They talk about how San Francisco, if it wanted to, just might be able to provide enough housing so that people who wanted to live here, could.

"Abolishing the Board of Permit Appeals, that would do it," Jacobs jests.
"The city does have a plan to build housing," Passmore protests.
"But we don't have politicians who would actually build it," Jacobs says. "You'd have to have a mayor who didn't want to get elected, and you'd have to have a Board of Supervisors that was complacent."

In order for San Francisco to solve its housing crisis, city leaders would have to decide that too many people were being hurt, that it had to be curbed, then take action.

"I think, first of all, from the top down, from the mayor, it has to be a policy determination that we need to create more housing. Secondly, we need as good an inventory as we can get, in terms of numbers and price range and character. Then we need a statement that says, 'Where are some good areas where we can do housing?'" says Hirten.

"The mayor wants to put up $100 million for the stadium shopping complex up there at Hunters Point. They ought to forget the ballpark -- let it go to San Mateo or whatever -- and develop that area as a really fine, middle-income housing area. Just as he's matching private funds for the stadium mall complex, do the same thing there for housing instead. Why not make a major commitment for good housing? If the demand is there for housing, why build a big ballpark, and commercial [property] that is going to compete with what is already in place? Can you imagine the traffic?

"That shopping mall, they talk about all the jobs it's creating. But jobs doesn't seem to be the problem. It's housing."

But to begin with, it wouldn't be necessary to kill sacred cows -- even wasteful, destructive ones like the new Candlestick Park project.

For starters, we could simply build within the city's current low-density zoning scheme. Vast swaths of the city aren't built to the limits prescribed under the current zoning code, says Allan Jacobs, the UC Berkeley professor who was once S.F. planning director.

"We have in San Francisco zoning that is either 40 feet high or less. Let's just stop there," says Jacobs. "You go over and see what's actually in that area. What you find is that most of the buildings are actually lower" than 40 feet, Jacobs says. "You say, 'Well, what if you build up to the 40 feet,' that would give you a certain amount of space. You can do that with all the different districts you have. That difference between what is there now and what they've determined what is OK to go to is a huge difference. You could supply a lot more in San Francisco under the existing laws."

That would house nearly a dozen Brentwoods.
To house a few more, the city could take other, piecemeal steps. It could rezone empty industrial and commercial land along the waterfront for high-density housing. It could increase heights and densities along transit routes and commercial corridors -- the Richmond and the Sunset come to mind as practical yet politically impossible venues for this. Quit requiring apartment buildings built on small, half-acre lots to meet density, rear yard, and parking requirements meant for individual houses. Nudge height limits up in residential areas, so that builders don't have to chop off entire floors in order to meet an 80-foot height limit. San Francisco could banish to history the one-unit, one-parking-space requirement for new development.

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Matt Smith

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