Neighborhood Opposition Prompts Recology to Downsize Development Proposal

in / by

Following a June community gathering to update neighbors, Recology submitted a project application to the San Francisco Planning Department to develop its 900 Seventh Street truckyard as a Special Use District (SUD) that’d mix commercial and industrial space with housing. Modified from a preliminary scheme the employee-owned waste management company submitted to the Planning Department last year, the current proposal – which Recology spokespersons emphasized is “in flux” – met with varied reactions from the roughly 60 individuals who attended the meeting, many of whom were from Potrero Hill.

Designs are still in the conceptual phase, but the proposed number of housing units has been reduced from an initial 1,048 to between 500 to 625 units.

“If you were in that meeting, you heard a lot about density,” said Eric Potashner, vice-president and senior director of strategic affairs for Recology. “The consequences that come with density in terms of traffic and parking are concerns of the neighbors,” with reactions “all across the board. Some folks are interested in more housing. Others just want offices and PDR.” 

Situated within the Showplace Square/Potrero Area Plan zoned for Production, Distribution and Repair (PDR) and office use, with 58-foot height limits, the property encompasses 6.25 acres that Recology wants to divide into five parcels, bounded by Seventh Street to the east, Berry Street to the north, Channel Street to the south, and an irregular juncture of Alameda, Carolina and De Haro streets to the west. 

“We can do a similar project, just for office and PDR use; the City wants to create more housing,” Potashner said. “We want to help. We feel we’re part of the City and want to be part of the solution.” 

Commercial and housing rents have grown much faster than inflation over the past decade, according to the Central SoMa Area Plan: Economic Impact Report published by the City Controller’s Office last summer.

Recology announced the venture last summer in advance of filing its preliminary plan.  In response, Hill residents gave John Rahaim, San Francisco Planning Department director, “a fair amount of feedback. He got back to Recology,” Potashner said. “We heard a lot of concerns about the height.” 

A 200-foot residential tower and 180-foot office tower are currently depicted as scaled down versions of the originally proposed two 240-foot towers. In addition, a 120-foot tower, and pair of 105-foot towers, would sit atop 65-foot podiums on the five parcels, and be designated for residential, PDR, and office, laboratory, or residential use. Total building square footage has been condensed, from 1.45 million square feet in the original plan to 1.25 million square feet, allowing more options for open space and pedestrian pathways. From 470,000 to 625,000 square feet is under consideration for office/lab/life science use; 37,700 square feet for open space.

Building heights, total square footage and uses, developed by lead architect Mark Schwettman of Skidmore, Owings & Merril LLP, the architectural firm Recology commissioned to design the project, will continue to be sculpted.

Wind and shadows cast by the towers, increased traffic, double-parked vehicles affecting safety on neighborhood streets and how the project fits into an area plan that encompasses a possible future relocation of Caltrain’s 19-acre railyard at Fourth and King are among neighbors’ concerns. 

The Planning Department’s October 31, 2018 assessment letter on the preliminary plan stated that the Department would comprehensively study the area around the railyard and associated planned investments, including Caltrain electrification, Downtown Rail Extension, and High Speed Rail, to “analyze the potential for additional housing and related considerations of urban form, circulation, open space, and other matters. Any potential re-zoning of the subject site must be coordinated with these efforts and considered only after a better understanding of PDR needs and the context of the neighborhood.”  That analysis is expected to begin this fall, Gina Simi, Planning Department communications manager, wrote in an email.

The assessment letter addressed rezoning PDR for residential use by stating that “the Department recognizes that evolutions in the regional economy and local land and infrastructure use conditions should be considered on an ongoing basis through comprehensive analysis of both specific neighborhoods and the City as a whole. Accordingly, before considering amendments in PDR districts, it is the Department’s adopted policy to first evaluate the City’s PDR needs as described in the Showplace Square/Potrero Area Plan.” This analysis is being conducted with the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development; the first study component is expected to be completed by October. 

Parcel A, where a 105-foot tower is proposed, would be designated for PDR, which allows for lower rents to be charged to tradespeople who can’t afford commercial or residential fees. Nearby business owners object to Recology’s proposal to increase the area zoned for mixed uses. 

“As the community of artisans – woodworkers, metal workers, leather workers, decorative glass fabricators, calligraphers, sign makers, stencilers, silkscreeners, upholsterers and many more – continues to be priced out of San Francisco, there is a huge need for affordable workshop space of the sort that one only finds in diminishing quantities on Wallace, Yosemite, Armstrong and Bancroft Streets in the Bayview,” said Susie Coliver, whose ARCH Supplies, at 10 Carolina Street, sells tools and materials to designers and artists. “The Recology site would seem to be a perfect place for such uses, particularly with its proximity to the architectural design community which hires craftspeople, as well as the California College of Arts, which trains people who go into these trades.” 

Coliver noted that on weekday afternoons and evenings “the streets in this area are impassable. It’s total gridlock. This intensity of development belongs along major transit corridors, not in this bottlenecked neighborhood strewn with freeway and bridge on- and off ramps.”

California College of the Arts (CCA) secured Planning Department approval to construct student housing at Cooper and Eighth streets as part of its Art and Design Educational SUD, which maintains the area’s 58-foot height limit. “The kind of density they’re talking about is significantly greater than what’s there now, the density and the height. I’ll be surprised if that’s what they wind up doing,” said David Meckel, CCA director of campus planning. “As with every development, we want what’s best for everybody. That would be socially responsible, well-designed, transit first, with open space; all the things that make positive contributions to the City.” 

Below-market-rate housing would comprise 25 percent of total residential units. In one possible scenario, Recology would donate Parcel C to the City in the form of a 100 percent affordable residential building and pay for its construction. The neighborhood already hosts a 170-unit below-market-rate building at 888 Seventh Street, open for occupancy since 2008. 

To obtain permission to build housing, Recology is assembling an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) that’ll include input from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and other departments. The EIR will evaluate transportation and streetscaping; impacts on surrounding streets during construction; air quality; greenhouse gases; and effects upon housing of noise from PDR businesses on or near the site. A consultant-prepared wind study and tunnel testing is required. The project is located in a liquefaction zone, subject to review by the Planning Department in collaboration with the Departments of Building Inspection, Public Works, and San Francisco Fire. The EIR is likely to take from 18 months to two years to complete. 

While the EIR is underway, Recology will be negotiating a development agreement along a similar timeline with the Mayor’s office that’ll require review by the Planning Commission and Department, and ultimately Board of Supervisors approval. 

Consolidating to increase efficiency and blending into a changing neighborhood that’s undergoing vast population and job growth are among the reasons Recology wants to develop the site. “We’ve been at this property since the early 1970s,” Potashner said, when the company purchased its facilities on Seventh Street and Tunnel Avenue. “We’re now surrounded by housing and offices. The neighborhood has moved on from being the most appropriate location for a truck parking yard.”

One-third of the City’s waste collection truck fleet operates as Recology Golden Gate out of the Seventh Street yard, responsible for curbside collection. Two-thirds of the trucks function under Recology Sunset Scavenger from 501 Tunnel Avenue, a transfer point for black and green bin materials, where refuse is aggregated onto larger long-haul vehicles that go to a compost facility outside Modesto or a landfill in Vacaville. Recology also leases Pier 96 from the Port of San Francisco as a sorting station. Currently, curbside collection trucks start from Seventh Street and return there after driving to Candlestick. Having all trucks operate from the same transfer point would reduce driving mileage. The Candlestick facility would require operational changes to accommodate the whole fleet. 

Funding the employee-owned company’s retirement plan is also a factor driving the development. Recology has more than 3,600 employees throughout California, Oregon and Washington; 1,117 in San Francisco. The workforce includes drivers, sorters, customer service representatives, truck mechanics, compost facility employees, and administrative support jobs. No single employee owns more than half of a percent of the company.  

“Developing this property is a way to help grow the retirement account. We’re looking forward to this being a way to fulfill our fiduciary responsibility to our employee-owners,” Potashner said.

It isn’t yet known whether Recology will sell the land to a developer. “It will either be sold or we can partner with someone who has experience doing this,” Potashner said. “We don’t have an exit strategy for now. We just know there’s greater value than how the property is being used, and a better fit for the neighborhood.”

Because building characteristics haven’t been finalized, neither has the number of parking spaces. The proposed land uses would permit off-street parking at 0.60 space per residential unit; one space per 1,500 square feet of non-residential floor area. A dedicated pickup and drop-off zone for taxis and Transportation Network Company vehicles is under consideration.

A bike network could connect Seventh with De Haro and Alameda along Berry streets; “Recology Lane” could serve as an east-west pedestrian path midway between Berry and Channel streets; sidewalks in the site plan would be widened to 15 feet to conform to the neighborhood’s existing street pattern. Open space might be created by cutting the northeast corner at Seventh and Berry streets, where a community facility would be built, and at Carolina and Channel streets on the southwest corner. 

The Planning Department will conduct public meetings on the project. “We are initiating outreach at neighborhood meetings beginning in August, including discussing the project scope at the Eastern Neighborhoods CAC meeting August 19th and the Potrero Boosters’ meeting September 24th,” Simi stated. “We anticipate a larger public meeting later in the fall.” 

Recology will also continue its community outreach. “Uses, height, bulk, transit; having that dialog with the community will help shape the project,” Potashner said. “I think what this process is going to be about is, we’re going to develop a project that will fit into the neighborhood, with an eye toward how the neighborhood is going to look in the next ten years. I hope we, as a company, have developed enough of the public’s trust for this project to have support.”