San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency Fails to Keep its Promises at Islais Creek

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Dogpatch residents are wondering when the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) will follow through on promises it made when it developed its motor coach facility along Islais Creek, or whether the agency intends to comply at all.

When SFMTA obtained permits to build its facility plans called for an accessible second floor viewing area and public lobby with restrooms that could double as a meeting space. There was to be interior signage paying homage to the area’s waterfront labor history. SFMTA also promised to maintain Shoreline Park, a 40 by 800-foot parklet and promenade between the creek and the bus facility.

For the grand opening last June, the park was cleared of litter, with graffiti removed from an abstract sculpture that spans 340 feet along the promenade. The lobby was open; several placards honoring the area’s past had been placed on easels. Since then, however, trash and homeless tents have returned to the walkway, the building is no longer accessible, the easels gone.

“That public lobby downstairs is just a big empty room,” said Dennis Montalto, a longtime Dogpatch resident who used to regularly frequent the creek but has been put off by SFMTA’s lack of responsiveness.

A sign on the promenade states “Islais Creek Community Room,” with an arrow pointing to a locked door of the lobby. Security guards onsite relayed that it’s always inaccessible, adding, “This is private property.”

Security concerns have been an issue for SFMTA. In 2017, agency spokesperson Adrienne Heim told neighborhood representatives that, in addition to the lobby being accessible by appointment only, the meeting room couldn’t be reserved during off hours because the security budget wasn’t sufficient to have a guard present. SFMTA also needed to install a door to separate the upstairs viewing area from workers. Signs warning against loitering or trespassing speckle the complex.

That the park isn’t welcoming is an issue for Janet Carpinelli, a Dogpatch Neighborhood Association member. “The public does not use the park now,” she wrote in an email to SFMTA last fall. “There are no signs indicating there is a park nor under whose jurisdiction the park falls, and there is no public parking available.”

SFMTA said that its promises will be fulfilled by the first quarter of 2019. The agency reported that the Port requested that the California State Coastal Conservancy modify a grant to allow it to develop a visual interpretative program about the creek’s cultural history. This element has fallen to the Port because, in 2017, it was revealed that SFMTA had only set aside $10,000 for historical signage. The Port, meanwhile, was sitting on a $616,534 grant it received in 2013 to restore the five-story Copra Crane which once operated on the site. When crane restoration estimates came in at $1.4 million, the Port decided to transfer the funds to the interpretive program and toward efforts to remove derelict piles from the creek, 500 of which have been cleared. Meanwhile, the crane sits in limbo, disassembled in six parts, in a yard across the street from the bus facility.

Heim also gave early 2019 as a target for establishing an online signup reservation form for the meeting room. However, when the bus facility opened neighborhood groups were led to believe it was only going be a couple months before that was setup. And, in an October email, Heim wrote, “We plan to initiate a complete rehab of the park’s landscape area starting in the next two weeks and we expect the work to be completed in the first quarter, 2019.” According to Carpinelli there’s no evidence that landscaping work has begun.  In December, in response to a View inquiry, Heim again gave the two-week window.

Park greenery consists of mostly overgrown weeds. Carpinelli explained that Shoreline Park isn’t comparable to commons operated by the San Francisco Park and Recreation Department, some of which are left untended. “This is SFMTA’s own personal park that they have agreed to maintain,” she said.

That promise was made to secure a San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) permit granting permission to build near the creek. BCDC approval is required when work is proposed within 100 feet of a shoreline.

Carpinelli also complained that, in addition to not creating handicap spaces, SFMTA employees have “commandeered” all of the two-hour parking spots on Indiana Street, the only road access to the promenade. One day she watched employee cars, identified by SFMTA jackets on the dashboard, sit until a shift change, with the next group waiting for the spots.

“The public park is integral to BCDC’s permit,” agreed Robin Chiang, executive director of Friends of Islais Creek, which backed SFMTA when it sought the BCDC permit. In a recent email to the transit agency he explained, “It is SFMTA’s responsibility to provide convenient access for the public to Islais Creek per BCDC approval of the facility’s encroachment on land within its jurisdiction.” He noted that when it was considering granting the permit BCDC voiced concerns that SFMTA staff would monopolize street parking, but a plan to create six public parking spots was nixed after SFMTA expressed anxiety about busses being able to maneuver.

The week of the opening, SFMTA created an employee shuttle bus from the 24th Street Bay Area Rapid Transit station to several SFMTA sites, including Islais Creek, as part of its Transit First policy to reduce vehicular traffic by employees. According to the agency’s website, it only runs early mornings and late at night.

Montalto said he has issues with a walkway that runs from Cesar Chavez Street along Interstate-280. That west entrance to the park has been narrowed by the bus facility’s presence; anyone using it encounters homeless tents. “When the park was first originally put there by the Port, it was a nice park and didn’t have any problems. When the MTA got involved that’s when things kind of soured there,” he said. “It had a nice feeling. It was open. There is water there. There was always some element of trash but nothing like it is now. Now it’s closed off. It’s harder to get to.”

A walk through the promenade last month revealed that while much of the east side is appealing, there’s litter, some of it possibly blowing from trash dumped near the highway or due to an absence of garbage cans. Under a bridge toward the west side, garbage has accumulated from the creek itself, including a sneaker that was seen there when the opening was held six months ago. Near the highway the refuse was more pronounced, among it a shell of a large grill. The grill itself had been removed and was lit between two homeless tents that’d been erected.

It’s not easy to get a straight answer as to who is responsible for the area closer to I-280. SFMTA has stated that the parcel directly under the interstate is within the California Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction, while the Port is responsible for the promenade’s westernmost end. SFMTA’s yard runs partially under the highway.

In 2016, when groundwork was being laid for the Central Waterfront Homeless Navigation Center, Islais Creek was specifically mentioned as a target area for tent removal. A resolution between the Port and the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing stated, “Addressing encampments in the Dogpatch neighborhood and maintaining these areas once they are cleared will remain a priority.” Although the document mentions SFMTA as controlling land at Islais Creek, it states that the Port would be responsible for removing homeless encampments from the site. SFMTA, which began constructing the bus facility a year before the agreement, wasn’t a party to it. When the navigation center opened in May, 2017, existing camps at that time were removed.

Last month, Potrero Boosters president J.R. Eppler, who has attended community meetings with SFMTA, said neighbor concerns over unkept promises underscored the need in Dogpatch for more community spaces. “The City must provide Potrero Hill and Dogpatch with more resources if it expects us to accept the burden of growth and increasingly intense Muni maintenance facilities,” he stated.

Montalto isn’t optimistic. “I don’t see one positive thing the community has gotten out of this,” he said. “This is one of those spots that could have been a respite from the world around us. Instead, SFMTA seems to do whatever they want; there is no accountability. Here is this city agency with millions of dollars in budget and they can’t do right on this spot.”