Balancing Growth and Livability as Neighborhoods Change

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An influx of new inhabitants is altering Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and surrounding neighborhoods’ character, particularly from the perspective of longtime residents. There’s concern about an imbalance between intensifying land uses without additional amenities, such as sidewalks, greenery, grocery stores, public spaces, and transit.  “People are sort of shell-shocked,” commented Katherine Doumani, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association member. “The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan specifically said that the critical elements of San Francisco complete neighborhoods include public amenities and that funding will be provided for this. None of that has been addressed.”

According to Matt Vander Silus, program director at Greenbelt Alliance, a bigger picture perspective is necessary to understand what “smart growth” means for communities. According to Silus, there’ll be two million more people living in the Bay Area over the next generation; 320,000 acres in the nine counties that touch the Bay could be developed. He believes increased density close to jobs and transit is essential for attacking housing affordability and protecting the environment, rather than paving over natural areas and agricultural lands to meet the demands of a growing population. “Development done right provides more homes for people across the income spectrum,” said Silus. “It includes quality design and incorporates environmental features and reflects input from the community to create something that’s good for our cities and good for the Bay Area.”

Based on land use data, Mc Allen, DNA board member, estimates that Dogpatch will double in population within the next five years, with coming housing complexes twice as dense as existing highest density developments.  “We need the City to recognize that there’s going to be twice as many people and they’re going to need to get around. The T is very slow and walking is sometimes faster. The nearest grocery store is Whole Foods, which is accessible by the 22. We tend to wait until the buses are totally packed full before increasing frequency. In terms of what we need, it’s predictable,” Allen said.

In 2008, the San Francisco Planning Commission adopted the Eastern Neighborhoods Community Planning Program, which outlined a strategy to transition industrial sections in the Mission, South of Market, Potrero Hill and other areas to mixed-used zones that accommodate housing. The plan describes elements for creating holistic communities, such as providing community facilities, open space, affordable housing, and building pedestrian, bicycle, and transit-oriented infrastructure.

“Anyone who bought a home after the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was issued is not being realistic in hoping that a nearby vacant lot is going to stay open,” said Sonja Trauss, founder of Bay Area Renter’s Federation. “The eastern neighborhoods were identified by the City as a place that’s underbuilt.”

Silus admitted that having neighborhood amenities materialize quickly enough to match the pace of development is a particularly thorny issue. He encouraged City planners to improve rules around growth to use land in smarter, more efficient ways, by looking at best practices in other communities. He cited Bay Meadows in San Mateo, a large mixed-used development that provided park space early on in the process of creating new homes, as an example of sustainable growth.

Data from Friends of the Urban Forest indicates that only 8.7 percent of Potrero Hill is covered with trees, as compared to 13.7 percent citywide. San Francisco ranks 17th among the 20 most populous American cities in terms of the amount of land covered by trees. This is partially due to the Peninsula having largely consisted of sand dunes when it was settled. Many trees in the City today are non-native; the original plantings were part of an intensive process to get trees to grow in sandy conditions. For the eastern neighborhoods the greening process has taken even longer, as residential development has come later than in other parts of San Francisco.

Despite the challenges, Ben Carlson, public relations staff with FUF, emphasized the importance greenery has on the quality of life for residents. “There have been studies done showing that the benefits of greenery extend to the psychological and help reduce stress. The view of trees can lower crime, calm traffic, cause people to drive more slowly, and encourage people to walk rather than drive, which in turn contributes to their health. Patients who see trees from their hospital rooms heal faster and students perform better,” Carlson said.

Carlson noted that sparse funding is a contributing factor to the lack of a robust forestry program in the City.

FUF and District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener crafted the San Francisco Urban Forest Plan, a measure that’ll be voted on by the Board of Supervisors in November. The plan calls for the City to take responsibility for all street trees and any damage done to sidewalks by them, at a cost of $19 million yearly.

On August 27, FUF will hold tree planting events in Potrero Hill and Dogpatch. Residents interested in installing a sapling adjacent to their properties have until July 20 to place orders. A minimum of 30 trees per neighborhood must be requested to hold a planting event. FUF encourages renters to speak with property owners about approving tree plantings.

Developers are required to incorporate green spaces in designs for new housing projects; they sometimes contact FUF staff for advice. This trend, alongside plans for a waterfront park at Pier 70 and a sandy public beach at Crane Cove Park, will increase the total amount of green space in the area.

The Green Benefits District (GBD), established in 2015, aims to expand open space, gardens, parks, and sidewalk greenery in public areas within Dogpatch and Northwest Potrero Hill. According to Phil Pierce, a GBD board member, the organization was created to address the lack of green space in the context of increased housing development. Most of GBD’s funding comes from property owners based on assessments on total building or lot square footage; some monies are derived from donations and grants.

“The area is changing a lot and the Dogpatch has never had ample green space,” Pierce said. “The GBD budget is going to grow over time as more housing units come online. The funding is all directed towards public realm improvements and green space.”

“We live in an amazing region,” Silus commented. “What other place in the country has the cultural richness and innovative, progressive policies with unprecedented natural beauty? We need to think about what’s best for all of us in the Bay Area. Growing smartly in our existing cities and towns is important to the quality of life in our neighborhood, by providing more opportunities for residents, providing more amenities and more housing for all.”

Silus is hopeful about the measures already taken by the City to make some neighborhoods more pedestrian and bike-friendly. For example, plastic bollards that separate bike lanes from cars on some sections of Market Street have been added to provide greater safety for cyclists.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology, based in Chicago, created an online database,,  of metrics of transit routes, frequency, and nearness to jobs for many of the nation’s populous regions. San Francisco ranks second for cities with the overall best transit performance, surpassed only by New York City by a small margin. Zip code 94107, encompassing much of Potrero Hill and Dogpatch, scored 9.5, just 0.09 points less than the citywide score. Within that zip code, 13.74 percent of commuters use transit, 10.86 percent bike, and 7.20 percent walk.

From Allen’s perspective, the housing developments in progress are long overdue; he’s excited about what’s ahead for the neighborhood. Allen is modestly satisfied with Dogpatch’s current amenities, including its green space, but added, “As a neighborhood we need another bus line and more frequency. We need a grocery store.”