February 2013

Few Public Services Planned For Population Drawn by Emerging Developments

Chris Roberts

Stuart Tett is delighted with Potrero Hill’s bay views, and the ability to walk from his home to The Good Life Grocery, Chez Papa, and other neighborhood businesses. Tett tries to use Muni and Caltrain to get to his job in Redwood City and to play in the Mission District. But it isn’t easy. "Muni service in Potrero Hill is far below adequate." he said, noting that many South Bay commuters rely on cars instead of Caltrains for convenience, and many more for necessity. 

There’s no direct Muni route from Tett’s home to the nearby Caltrain stations. And when he rides Muni to or from the Mission, the 22-Fillmore often ends at Potrero Avenue, with the driver announcing that the bus has made its last stop. As a result, a seemingly simple jaunt to the next neighborhood over can take 40 minutes, an encouragement to drive. “The terrain, the bad/slow public transit makes driving a necessity living in the area,” Tett said. 

And it’s only going to get worse.

The building boom in the area means that when the more than 2,500 units slated for construction or being built are filled, thousands more San Franciscans will squeeze onto the same buses and trains, and fight for scarce parking spaces. And thousands more will be added to the emerging transportation snarl as a result of soon-to-be located jobs in new commercial centers emerging at Pier 70, Mission Bay, and Showplace Square. 

Tett is one of the 22,000 a day riders on the 22-Fillmore, and the more than 30,000 daily riders using the T-Third. Demand for both of these transit lines will steadily climb; Muni has no plans for new transit lines to service Southside’s increasingly dense population, and has halted all work on transit corridors like 16th Street while a costly environmental review is completed. Meanwhile, City planners, in a year-old Eastern Neighborhoods traffic study, have declared the area’s roadways “at or near capacity” during rush hour periods.

Many residents believe that the Hill and Dogpatch already need more transit, open space, schools and other infrastructure for its current residents, and that injecting more people into an area already lacking in basic public services is madness. This future means "total gridlock," said Rodney Minott, who has lived in Potrero for several decades, and who is active with Save The Hill, opposing Kaiser’s 16th Street development. Mississippi Street is a "nightmare during the morning and evening rush hours” with commuters trying to get to or from Downtown, he said.

The story is similar for other amenities vital to a livable urban experience. Plans are in the works for new patches of open space in Dogpatch, Mission Bay, and Showplace Square, including as part of the Blue Greenway. But clashes over different uses — for dogs, people, or plants — are likely to increase as the area’s population outstrips growth in its green space. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has no plans for new schools in Dogpatch or Potrero Hill — even as more families with children move to the area — though one may ultimately be built in Mission Bay. 

“How about making sure the infrastructure is there?" asked Tony Kelly, Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association’s president and a former candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "We're not doing that. We're not building the schools, the streets, the transit, the sewers, and the water. And that's the time bomb."

Open Space Slow to Emerge

Potrero Hill’s residents can expect a brand-new park to open within the next few years. The only drawback is that it isn't in their neighborhood. The Recreation and Park Department's latest acquisition is slated to be at 17th and Folsom Streets, on a parking lot that tends to flood in heavy rains, like the ones seen late last year. 

Most of the public space projects planned for Potrero Hill are tied to new development. For example, roughly an acre of open space is included in the design for Daggett Place, near Showplace Square. 

The only notable new fully public green spaces in the area will be along the waterfront. A combination park/drainage area is being developed at 555 Illinois Street, on the site of the former BluePeter building. The historic cranes near Illinois Street will flank another new park expected to be completed by 2015. But those spaces could be in heavy demand by the residents of upwards of 1,000 new housing units proposed for adjacent Pier 70. Nothing on the scale of a Golden Gate, McLaren, or even Jackson Park is in the works for the Southside neighborhoods. 

No New Schools

Despite calls from Webster Elementary School parents to create a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Potrero Hill, no new schools are planned for the neighborhood. According to SFUSD, that’s because residents haven’t shown much interest in the existing schools. 

“There is plenty of capacity to accommodate Potrero Hill families who choose to go to school in the Potrero Hill neighborhood,” said SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe, who noted that citywide, fewer than 25 percent of families list a neighborhood school as their first choice for their child’s placement. 

However, Hill students who want to stay in the neighborhood after fifth grade have only one choice: International Studies Academy hosts sixth to twelfth graders on its campus, an age span that many Hill parents find unacceptable. “Kids naturally gravitate towards people that are older than them and want to model their behavior,” said Stacey Bartlett, a Webster parent and Potrero Kids at Daniel Webster preschool’s administrative director. “Why would you want to rush an 11 year-old to start acting like the high school girls or boys do? Can you imagine sending your 11 year-old daughter to school with 19 year-old boys?” 

The district is working with demographers to evaluate geographic shifts in San Francisco’s population, Blythe said, but any plans to construct new campuses are in the future. SFUSD has until 2027 to commit to building a new school in Mission Bay. As a result, most of the City’s schools, including the most sought after high schools, will remain on the West side.

Sewer System Set

The City is banking on less being more when it comes to the area’s sewage and water system. “While population is increasing, we are anticipating that our consumption won’t, thanks to our conservation efforts,” said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), who painted a rosy picture of the neighborhood’s ability to serve new residents’ water needs.

Water and sewer systems are built and replaced on a citywide, not neighborhood, basis. According to Jue, the addition of more residents — with accompanying toilets, showers, and sinks — is unlikely to tax the City’s water and sewer infrastructure. Bigger housing complexes sometimes require an individual water pressure booster or a larger line, and because of that, “there’s more water pressure in the system and it doesn’t affect other customers,” he said.

The City’s pipes and drains are built for a combination of stormwater and wastewater, meaning that the existing infrastructure can accommodate even large amounts of extra people easily, Jue said.

The water system’s age is an issue throughout the City. Some pipes are original terra cotta, dating back to post-1906 earthquake days. Others are newer, replaced in recent emergency repair work. “The age of the sewer and water infrastructure is a concern,” said Jue, but “the condition is not necessarily made worse because of a new connection from a property.”

There’s no evidence that thousands of new residents “will send manhole covers exploding” all over Third Street, said former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, who oversaw many of the zoning changes that are ushering increased density in the area while he was in office. “If there is [such a risk], [SPUC general manager] Harlan Kelly should declare a moratorium immediately,” he said. 

Parking Crunch Inevitable?

Despite the two freeways surrounding the Hill, the least-disputed infrastructure concern is transportation. Both Muni officials and residents agree that the roadways need work, with more cars traversing them than existing capacity. There are no immediate solutions to poor road conditions and traffic congestion, however. Without adequate alternatives, driving will remain an attractive option for Hill residents, particularly for those with children. Parking is going to get worseь unless large amounts of residents abandon their cars in favor of shared vehicles, a shift that may be thwarted both by personal preferences and by state efforts to regulate ride-share start-ups like SideCar and Lyft.

New cars and congestion will add to the area’s air pollution worries. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District already considers Dogpatch to have amongst the worst air quality in the region. While City regulations require new multi-unit buildings to have advanced ventilation systems, existing residences and individuals walking or biking within 500 feet of a four-lane highway — such as Interstate 280 or Highway 101 — get an elevated dose of particulate matter, which may contribute to the high rates of asthma and other breathing issues familiar to Southside residents. 

To encourage transit-taking, the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan changed parking rules from a minimum to a maximum requirement of 0.75 parking spaces per unit. But the Plan didn't make the Hill any flatter, or put commercial services — or Silicon Valley jobs — any closer. According to an analysis by the View, while San Francisco has roughly the same number of cars per person today as eight years ago, they’ve shifted Southside. Noe Valley’s and South-of-Market’s car populations have shrunk by between three and 14 percent, while Bayview’s, Mission’s, Potrero Hill’s, and Visitacion Valley’s have jumped, by between seven and 37 percent. Car concentration on the Hill has risen from 498 per 1,000 in 2002 to 631 per 1,000 in 2011, a trend that’s likely to continue.

 There's little money available to pay for an estimated $16 million in needed improvements on 16th Street, the major traffic corridor connecting the Hill to the Mission. “Zero new transit lines, how does that work?” Kelly asked. “It doesn’t. It’s like a bizarre medical experiment. I've seen NIMBYs created from scratch in the eastern neighborhoods because of this issue,” he said. “We’re already underserved right now.”

This is the second in a three-part series. Next up: how to pay for needed public services.

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