Planning Asks Amazon to Repackage Development Proposal

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The San Francisco Planning Department issued a 55-page response in April that calls for changes to a proposal Amazon submitted to develop a last-mile parcel delivery facility in Showplace Square.

The planned 900 Seventh Street facility would be three stories and 650,000 square feet,  according to the Preliminary Project Application (PPA) that Amazon submitted in February.

“The letter we published is kind of a road map,” said Richard Sucre, Planning Department principal planner. “Our processes are layered and challenging for everyone.” 

MG2 Corporation, the Seattle-based architectural firm that submitted the PPA for Amazon, describes itself on its website as “expertly navigating jurisdictional complexities” for clients.

Amazon has 18 months to modify its application and satisfy California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements, including transportation, noise, and air quality studies.

“We won’t accept their application until they provide everything we’ve outlined. Until the environmental review is done, we won’t move forward with approval,” Sucre said. 

As part of Amazon’s vast logistics, packages are transported to delivery stations from fulfillment centers, sorted, and loaded into vehicles for delivery to customers. Amazon, a rapidly expanding international enterprise valued at more than $1 trillion, has in excess of 250 delivery stations nationwide. The anticipated operational scale at 900 Seventh Street immediately prompted neighborhood concerns about traffic, noise, and other impacts that could occur at any hour as interstate trucks arrive and depart, delivery vans are deployed, and shifts of onsite employees descend upon the facility.  

In March, the Mission Bay Citizens’ Advisory Committee (CAC) launched an informal subcommittee consisting of several members in collaboration with other Mission Bay, Showplace Square, and Potrero Hill stakeholders, including the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association. The group is preparing a cohesive response to the proposal as a means to minimize adverse impacts on surrounding neighborhoods and intersections, as well as secure community benefits from Amazon, such as improving open space. 

“It was a little bit of a surprise,” David Meckel, California College of the Arts (CCA) director of campus planning, said of last December’s announcement that Amazon had bought the Recology truckyard for $200 million. The waste management company had begun public engagement in 2019 to develop the 5.8-acre site for housing and office towers. The sale transpired against a backdrop of a federal investigation into City corruption involving Recology. 

CCA has several buildings that incorporate classrooms, workspaces and student housing in Showplace Square. The area is zoned for production, distribution and repair (PDR) under The Showplace Square/Potrero Hill Area Plan portion of The Eastern Neighborhoods Plans, adopted in 2009. Light industrial uses such as furniture makers, showrooms, re-upholstery shops, designers, contractors, retailers and other maker spaces coexist near newer office, residential and institutional uses. Two distinct street grids form an irregular lot at the project site’s western edge where there’s a brief passage along De Haro Street. 

“It’s a pretty constricted site,” Meckel said of Showplace Square’s tightly clustered blocks. “Even though it’s PDR zoning, it’s not dropping into a neighborhood with warehouses around it.” 

Immediate neighbors include the inhabitants of 224 predominantly below-market-rate condominiums at 888 Seventh Street, across Berry Street to the north, and One De Haro, a newly completed Class A office building. Volta occupies a one-story PDR structure with electric vehicle charging stations at 155 De Haro, a separate privately-owned property that cuts into the project site and includes a warehouse at 10 Carolina Street, occupied by ARCH Art Supplies, at the juncture of Carolina and Channel streets. 

Along Channel Street, to the south, garage entrances and loading docks provide access into the back of 100 Hooper Street, a mixed-use complex. Channel is the only one of the property’s fronting streets classified as industrial under the City’s Better Streets Plan.

Seventh Street is a Vision Zero high-injury corridor with bike lanes in both directions between Townsend and 16th Street. 

Amazon proposed that all long-haul traffic take Alameda Street to and from an unscreened truck court it’d build on the irregular lot fronting De Haro, across from where Alameda ends. Local delivery vans would enter on Channel, queue on level two, and descend for loading on level one. 

Planning panned the open truck court as “not supported in an urban setting” and recommends Carolina Street for routing interstate trucks into the facility at Carolina and Channel. Big rigs would exit Interstate 80 at Harrison, take 10th Street, Potrero Avenue and 15th Street to Carolina Street. They’d depart using Ninth Street to reach the Bryant Street onramp. This route could be extended to 16th Street. Trucks coming or going south on Interstate 280 would use Mariposa, Owens, 16th, and Carolina streets. 

“As an especially large city block fronting six city streets, the project site has the unique opportunity to improve the connections between neighborhoods,” Planning’s response letter states. “As currently designed, the Project would bring significantly more trucks, cars, bikes and pedestrians to the area without improving connections for them. The proposed design would foreclose opportunities for a walkable, urban frontage along 155 De Haro and fronting the project’s own site, should the use ever change from a last-mile facility.” 

The Street Design Advisory Team (SDAT), an interagency review body that provides street design guidance for projects subject to the streetscape and pedestrian improvement requirements established in the Better Streets Plan, doesn’t support the surface truck court or routing semis onto Alameda.

“We are particularly concerned about the project’s intention to use Alameda Street, today a calm, mixed-use side street, for large-truck access,” SDAT commented.

Planning advised Amazon to connect the broken street grids along the jagged western frontage by extending Alameda to meet Carolina Street; build sidewalks on Carolina and Channel streets and create a small triangular open space on public right-of-way adjacent to the project’s southwest corner next to the recommended truck access point; install a bike path on Berry linking De Haro to Seventh Street; create midblock bulb-outs, a raised crosswalk and widened sidewalks on Berry, and curb ramps for compliance with the American with Disabilities Act on opposite corners at Alameda, De Haro and Berry streets. The PPA proposed a 13,700-square-foot triangular open space at Seventh and Berry streets; Planning suggests Amazon activate ground floor use with a small retailer or cafe. 

Within the station, the PPA proposes 17,400 square feet of office space. Planning has requested more detail, specifically if offices would only be for onsite operation or other functions, such as customer package pickups.

The total estimated project cost, before modification and street improvements, is $125 million. 

Community working group members called the design “a big box.” 

“I was underwhelmed by their initial diagram so it can only get better,” Meckel said of Amazon’s preliminary plans. He’d like to see human scale street activation of the Seventh Street side that’s more engaging than industrial frontage, and lighted sidewalks to improve pedestrian experience.

The site currently has 311 surface level parking spaces. Amazon proposed increasing that to 395 spots in a 138,500-square-foot lot on an unroofed fourth level. Planning noted the project is visible from I-280 and uphill locations and strongly recommends screening the rooftop carpark. The Department also wants Amazon to reduce the number of parking spaces. Under Amazon’s proposal, there’d be seven car share spots, 56 bicycle spaces, and 157,200 square feet of parking capacity onsite.

“Everybody wants fewer cars parked there. There are lots of ways to get to that site. All of us figured out how to close that last mile from BART and Caltrain and other transit services,” Meckel said, referring to nearby University of California, San Francisco, the Chase Center, Adobe, and CCA.

Mission Bay Shuttle has a route serving CCA and the Adobe offices at 100 Hooper. Operated by Mission Bay Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit committed to maximizing access to, from, and within Mission Bay and reducing single-occupant vehicle trips, Mission Bay Shuttle provides free service between the Embarcadero, Civic Center and Powell BART stations and the Salesforce Transit Center.

“We would be open to offering service to Amazon,” said Wendy Silvani, who manages routes and schedules for the shuttle. “We contract with both CCA and Adobe, which are just outside the Mission Bay Redevelopment Area, to provide service.”

Silvani, a member of the CAC’s informal subcommittee, has questions about Amazon’s potential impact on shuttle service and traffic flow, including how many trucks would offload at any time, where any overflows will go and how long will they last. 

“It would be helpful to see this visually mapped,” she noted. “How long, on average, does it take to offload into the facility? What’s the hourly ‘turn’ rate? What are the peak hours for receiving merchandise? What’s the queuing plan for local delivery trucks to get back in the facility and how is this flow separated from larger vehicles delivering to the site?  We will want to understand the 24/7.” 

A condition for approval might be to provide transportation service for onsite employees. “If so, it might make sense for them to join with us, if their needs are compatible with our services,” Silvani said.  

“It’s still too early in the project to provide specific numbers but we expect to create hundreds of full time and part time jobs,” Xavier Van Chau, an Amazon communications leader wrote in an email. Sources who’ve spoken with Amazon reps told The View there’d likely be about 380 employees onsite at any given time.  

The Amazon site is just one major development under consideration in the revitalizing area. Talks are underway to relocate the Flower Mart to the block between 16th, 17th, Missouri, and Mississippi streets. A major infrastructure renovation is on the horizon with the Downtown Extension of Caltrain which will disrupt traffic throughout South-of-Market during construction.

The Mission Bay School will be built on Owens Street just off the Mission Bay Drive traffic circle, within a half-mile of Amazon’s future delivery station. 

“The San Francisco Board of Education has not taken a position on the Amazon facility and the District doesn’t have a comment at this time,” Laura Dudnick, an SFUSD spokesperson wrote in an email.

“The station will provide local entrepreneurs the opportunity to build last-mile delivery businesses through our Delivery Service Partner program and these small businesses will create hundreds of drive jobs to deliver Amazon packages in their local communities,” Van Chau noted. “I can confirm that delivery service partners operate independent businesses. They own and operate their fleets and secure insurance.” 

Though not employed by Amazon, the company requires contracted delivery partners to run a smartphone app,  Mentor, that monitors driving behavior in Amazon-branded vehicles. According to Business Insider and other news outlets, Amazon’s drivers have reported urinating into bottles in their vans to meet the company’s high expectations for delivery quotas. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2019 that independent contractors aren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act that protects employees’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively with employers.  The independent business status presents a roadblock to potential organizing efforts by these workers. As contractors, they aren’t eligible for company benefits that payroll employees receive.

Van Chau added that facility jobs will offer medical, dental and 401(k) match as well as career growth options. The jobs “will pay competitive rates for San Francisco that will exceed Amazon’s nationwide starting wage of $15 per hour.”

San Francisco’s minimum wage is already more than $15 and will increase to $16.32 an hour on July 1.

Jim Araby, an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 5, headquartered in Hayward, noted that at 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, a minimum wage earner makes $33,945 annually. 

“They should be union jobs, not only when it’s built, but when it’s operated,” Araby said. 

In a highly publicized union representation election in April, workers in an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama rejected joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union by a wide margin. Union organizers objected to Amazon’s conduct in that election.

“The proposal is in the very beginning of the process with the project team’s recent application submittal to the Planning Department,” Juan Carlos Cancino, chief operating officer for the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) stated. “At this stage, we do not have any additional information to share.” 

OEWD’s new director is Kate Sofis, co-founder and former chief executive officer of the nonprofit SFMade that’s based in 100 Hooper. Sofis couldn’t be reached for comment.

The site falls within Supervisorial District 10, immediately adjacent to District 6. Natalie Gee, an aide to District 10 Supervisor and Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, told The View that she anticipates community members will appeal CEQA findings. “We’re telling Amazon to work with the community on this,” Gee said.

“We had an engaging initial conversation with them through David Noyola,” Meckel said prior to the release of Planning’s response. Noyola, a principal at Noyola Piccini Group, a San Francisco-based political strategy and advocacy firm specializing in complex regulatory approvals and procurements, was engaged by Amazon to conduct community outreach.

“There’s a way to do a facility there that would be good for the neighborhood,” Meckel said. “We’re in the business of education and creativity, so we’re here to help, and to make this project as good as it could be.” 

He’d like to see Amazon be a sustainability leader as claimed in its television advertising campaign. Instead of rooftop parking, he’d rather see solar panels on the top level. 

“Solar panels going to batteries charging an electrified fleet,” Meckel suggested. “It could be a real flagship facility if they’re willing to think a little bit outside the box, literally. They could have the support of the neighborhood.” 

Neighbors of a warehouse Amazon is leasing at 888 Tennessee Street caution that the retailer isn’t modeling good behavior. Katherine Doumani, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association president, noted that Dogpatch and Showplace Square are both districts with industrial use histories that are transforming into eclectic communities with increasing density from housing and offices. Garbage, notably packaging material, cigarette butts and food containers, and double or triple parking by drivers in their personal cars working delivery gigs through the Amazon Flex app, are among unresolved issues that have been discussed with company representatives. 888 Tennessee was slated to be developed into housing. 

“They’re now surrounded on three sides by residential and on the other side by Esprit Park,” Doumani said.