UCSF Wants to Get Bigger

Community members want to know how much bigger and what that means for local housing and traffic congestion.

For most of the past 40 years, the University of California, San Francisco has focused its attention on its Mission Bay campus. The UC system poured billions of dollars into it, and the result is a state-of-the art medical and biotech focused campus that has attracted substantial outside investment.

Now, after decades of buildout, there’s little room for more expansion, and UCSF is turning its attention to its other campus, Parnassus Heights.

Located near the center of San Francisco, the original UCSF campus starts at the base of Mt. Sutro’s northern side, a less than 10 minute walk to Golden Gate Park. The amalgamation of buildings there have been built across the past century, and the university powers that be would like to dramatically update its original home.The UCSF Comprehensive Parnassus Plan, released on Oct. 7, represents the first steps toward a process expected to take decades to complete.

In broad strokes,  the plan is to make the campus more aesthetically appealing, update the research spaces to contemporary standards, and generally expand.

But what form that expansion could take is what is worrying some members of the community.

A big deal

UCSF is a huge part of the fabric of San Francisco. By the university’s own estimation, it employs over 24,000 people and has an economic impact of $8.9 billion in the Bay Area. The Parnassus campus consists of 71 buildings spread over 107 acres and plays host to an estimated 17,400 people each day in the form of students, staff, faculty, and patients.

UCSF believes most of Parnassus is in dire need of a refresh.

“The current physical state of the campus and limited infrastructure… are compromising the ability to recruit and retain faculty, clinicians, learners, and staff,” the report says.

The report lists a variety of other concerns. The age of the buildings means that some still need to have seismic retrofits and others need to be brought in line with existing fire codes. Both parking garages require seismic upgrades. An Education Space Working Group found that there aren’t enough classrooms and existing classrooms are too often used for non-class purposes.

Like the rest of the Bay Area, the campus needs more housing: The amount of student and faculty housing across all UCSF sites is 1,251 units (which includes 595 units added in 2019). By 2025, demand is expected to reach 2,030 units, according to the report.

To accommodate the aesthetic and functional upgrades laid out in the plan, UCSF feels it needs more space, but it is unclear if it is seeking to increase density or increase its total footprint. Unlike other UC campuses, UCSF has an agreement in place with the UC Regents limiting its Parnassus campus (Mission Bay is not included, nor is housing square footage) to a total of  3.55 million gross square feet. Known as the 1976 Regents’ Resolution, this agreement was a response to concern from neighboring communities about how far the campus would expand.

As the Parnassus Plan has advanced, it is expected that UCSF will ask the UC Regents to raise the space ceiling.  A June 2019 report from Parnassus Heights’ Community Working Group — comprised of university employees and community members from the surrounding neighborhoods — says that “although estimates are still being developed, The Comprehensive Parnassus Plan may contemplate exceeding the space ceiling by about 30 percent, or by approximately 1.15 million square feet.”

By the time the final, October report came out, the figure had risen. “In order to meet these critical space needs, UCSF proposes to modify the Regents’ Resolution to increase the space ceiling by 1.5 million gsf, from 3.55 million gsf to 5.05 million gsf.”

Adding another 1.5 million square feet of space to Parnassus is a lot. For context, Proposition M limits the amount of new office space added to San Francisco each year to 950,000 square feet. The Transamerica Pyramid is 500,000 square feet. UCSF wants permission from the UC Regents to add three Transamerica Pyramids worth of space to its campus.

But while UCSF has touted community involvement at every stage, advisory committee members say the space ceiling increase was presented to them fait accompli; they were asked for their feedback on the impact of raising the space ceiling, but the raise itself was not up for debate.

“We weren’t involved in [debating the space ceiling] because it was already decided before the advisory committee was created,” says Kelly Groth, an advisory committee member and co-president of the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee. “As far as the space ceiling, it does seem like the university’s saying ‘Here’s what this is and what’s happening, but we need your help implementing wayfinding and other concerns the community may have.’”

Other members of the advisory committee — which meets once a month and with UCSF staff and members of the public — agreed.

In addition to serving on the current advisory committee, Calvin Welch is currently a lecturer at the University of San Francisco and a longtime San Francisco political wonk who advised former mayor Willie Brown on UCSF’s Mission Bay foray in the 1990s.

“After the decision [to raise the space ceiling] was made, [UCSF] has formed an advisory committee to advise it on, it’s a little unclear to me what,” he says of the current group. “We’ve been presented with this long array of staff telling us the absolute necessity of this new space… there are several issues, not the least of which are the affordable housing and transit impacts.”

UCSF has solicited input both internally and externally in a variety of ways during the past few years, including creating several different working groups, surveying local residents, sending out mailers, and holding town hall and open house events. The university has been working since late 2018 with members of the surrounding neighborhoods to gather input about re-doing the campus. What’s unclear is precisely when the idea of asking the UC Regents to raise the space ceiling went from a possibility raised by the university’s expansion goals to a definite priority.

A member of the Community Working Group, which preceded the current advisory committee, says that the space ceiling was discussed during meetings, but the working group members were not explicitly asked whether they thought UCSF should look into raising the ceiling.

Put another way: It was not not brought up, but neither was it brought up directly by UCSF.

Dennis Antenore, currently serving on the advisory committee and a member of the Community Working Group, wrote an op-ed on 48hills.org, an independent news site, that claimed “the community has been left completely in the dark” with regard to the space ceiling.

A long way to go

Many important steps still have to happen before UCSF can make such drastic changes, however.

The next major step for UCSF is publishing a draft Environmental Impact Report in the spring of next year, according to a UCSF spokesperson. After getting more input from the public, the university plans to present the final EIR to the Regents in the second half of 2020.

Some of the current advisory committee members also want to move on from UCSF’s decision to ask the Regents to approve more building.

“The number one issue in the first two meetings [of the advisory committee] has been the space ceiling,” says Ben Jasik, a committee member who lives in a surrounding neighborhood. “One of the things we have to get through as a group, because it keeps coming up, is how do we move past it? How do we find a path forward?”

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