Open Letter to the San Francisco Planning Commission

Written by Jim Meko. Posted in Politics

Published on October 11, 2009 with 3 Comments

Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force Chair, Jim Meko.

By Jim Meko

October 12, 2009

During the dot com boom, speculative land use development swept over the formerly industrial portions of San Francisco. Families and low income populations were displaced, service and light industrial jobs were lost and conflicts between competing uses were aggravated. No neighborhood suffered more disruption and displacement than South of Market.

The Planning Department was caught up in the pay-to-play politics of the Willie Brown administration. Brown’s hand-picked Planning Commission rubber-stamped projects that ignored Code, exploited loopholes and caused irreparable damage to the fabric of our neighborhoods. In 2002, the Progressive members of the Board of Supervisors pushed through a ballot initiative that wrested control of the Planning Commission from the Mayor’s prerogative.

The Board also created an experiment in community-based planning known as the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force. The Task Force was to serve as a model for more meaningful participation in planning the future of one’s own community. The Western SoMa Community Plan is now undergoing environmental review. During this time, as the Planning Department falls silent and the deliberations move behind closed doors, politics has reared its ugly head once again. Environmental review can be the place where good intentions go to die.

With the Western SoMa Task Force functioning as the de facto project sponsor, I’ve enjoyed some of the same access to the table that the land use oligarchs usually occupy. All the old power brokers from the Willie Brown days have re-emerged. Consider this a dress rehearsal for upcoming battles: CPMC, Japantown, Geary Boulevard, Van Ness Avenue and the Fourth Street corridor among others. I’ll try to share an insider’s view with you as this process unfolds.

Dear President Miguel and Commissioners,
It’s unfortunate that there has been so much sniping over the Western SoMa Community Plan of late. Terrible mischaracterizations, oversimplifications and outright lies are being spread and bits and pieces of this whispering campaign are beginning to filter into several Commissioners’ remarks. Somebody certainly has your number. Let me remind you, you have also heard many hours of public testimony presented before your Commission and the vast majority of it has been very positive in support of the Plan.
There was a time when nearly all important decisions were made by small groups of insiders and frankly they made a real mess of things. The voters got fed up with bad planning and responded by bringing back District Elections; they even changed the way you were appointed. In a throwback to the bad old days, HAC (the Housing Action Coalition) and SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research) have had the audacity to claim veto power over an open public process. They are the source of the whispering campaign.
South of Market is not a laboratory for SPUR’s half-baked theories; it’s not a blank slate. It is a living, breathing mixed-use community of people who have demonstrated a willingness to accept change but have demanded some control over the process. The Task Force has produced a moderate growth proposal that aims to preserve, rather than destroy, the existing neighborhood fabric.
* The Plan responds directly to the nine priorities set out in Board of Supervisors Resolution 731-04, which established the Task Force
* It was drafted with Market/Octavia, Eastern Neighborhoods and the surrounding communities as the controlling context
* To the greatest extent possible, existing zoning categories from surrounding Plan Areas were carried over into the Special Use District
* The plan produces a significant increase in housing
* The location of housing is focused to provide the critical mass necessary to establish a Folsom Street Neighborhood Commercial corridor
* The balance of jobs and housing in the Plan is in direct response to needs identified in the Eastern Neighborhoods EIR
* The Plan proposes the creation of two groundbreaking social heritage districts which honor the Filipino and LGBTQ communities
* The Task Force recommends moderate height increases in sensitive areas in order to discourage displacement
* Dense new neighborhoods would be created through medium and large development site controls
* Benefits generated through new development would blend existing and future housing into complete neighborhoods
* Nearly a quarter of the Plan is focused on transportation and transit improvements
* More professional analysis has gone into housing, preservation and neighborhood economics in Western SoMa than was ever considered in the Eastern Neighborhoods process
These goals were accomplished through an open and participatory process. The Task Force consisted of 26 members, representing constituencies ranging from SRO residents to market rate developers. For the last four years, I’ve sent you weekly reminders of current Task Force activities. I’m glad that some of you have taken the time to participate. Every meeting was open to the public. Every issue has been thoroughly debated. Everyone attending committee meetings was encouraged to participate and vote. The option of submitting minority reports was made available to every member of the Task Force but none chose to avail themselves. The Draft Plan was adopted unanimously by the full Task Force and acknowledged as the preferred alternative by the Planning Commission.
Can the same be said of any higher growth alternative? You’ll have to explain to me where these alternatives came from. How much outreach was undertaken? Where were the meetings held? Who generated these proposals? Were they studied by any independent consultants? Was there an open debate? Are there any meeting notes? Were votes taken? Show me the process.
The Western SoMa process has enjoyed the support of numerous agencies within the city family, involved the participation of more than a half dozen institutions of higher education, employed independent consultants whenever necessary, engaged the community in a level of participation never before seen in a planning process here in San Francisco and has benefitted from many thousands of hours of volunteer time to produce the Western SoMa Community Plan. It was not created in a vacuum.
The height increases proposed by HAC and SPUR produce only a minimal increase in housing, but they encourage speculation and displacement and conflict with citywide preservation goals. More, more, more. No allowance for the preservation of the existing neighborhood fabric. No consideration of the jobs and housing balance. No understanding of transit capacity. No concern for quality of life.
The Western SoMa Plan is based in the real world. It was developed in an open and participatory process that reflects the vision, values and principles of a broad range of the community. It responds to the needs identified by the existing community and breaks new ground through the creation of complete neighborhoods. The Board of Supervisors created this process because the existing Planning Department process was broken. It will not accept an outcome that attempts to reverse all of our gains.

Jim Meko

Good Morning Soma Bio Jim Meko is a South of Market activist, currently serving as chair of both the SoMa Leadership Council and the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force and as a member of San Francisco's Entertainment Commission.

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Comments for Open Letter to the San Francisco Planning Commission are now closed.

  1. The people who work at the Planning Department as urban planners do very little urban planning, rather serve as facilitators for the agenda of the department senior staff who in turn serve the development at all costs agenda of the Mayor.

    The fatal flaw of the Western SOMA process was that it departed from the Seattle neighborhood planning process in that it relied on City planning staff both for professional and technical planning advice as well as for general staffing. That level of control over the process by individuals who are working for the Director, on his orders, is what short circuited the community planning process.

    The impulse to control the outcome of the community planning process was so intense that Planning senior staff could not tolerate the Task Force releasing a plan in the name of the community which clashed with departmental directives. So they took steps to control the community’s product.

    Nevermind that the plan was to be submitted to the Board of Supervisors, possibly amended and then sent on to the Planning Commission.

    Nevermind that the Planning Commission will have its say, possible amendment, and at that point, the Director will be on the dais with a microphone and as make take as much time as he may consume to comment on the community’s plan.

    Nevermind that the plan would then return to the Board of Supervisors for consideration and possible amendment.

    And nevermind that the plan would then land on the Mayor’s desk where he would have veto power over it and the Board could then override it.

    Unwilling to accept the community’s plan which were based on principles that took a year to develop and reflected the community’s values, the City family on the executive side is using its overwhelming power, a battalion of full time staffers, knowledge and control over the process, to slow walk an already watered down plan while they wait for Supervisor Daly’s term to end where they hope developers will find a warmer reception.

    After completing the Transportation element of the plan with Tom Radulovich and stellar transportation planning staff from the TA and Planning, now at the MTA, my work with the task force ended once the moves began to be made from SPUR, HAC, Planning and the Mayor’s Office to forcibly conform the plan to Eastern Neighborhoods, thwarting the community’s demand that development pay for itself.

    I don’t not get paid to give thousands of volunteer hours crafting a plan only to see it hijacked by powers with direct financial interests in the outcomes. Many community folks also fell by the wayside in the process for similar reasons, leaving the few remaining at the table mostly paid advocates or folks with direct skin in the game.

    Western SOMA was better than any planning process that I’ve seen in San Francisco. But the tremendous forces which see San Francisco as a gentrifiable playground for their development dreams are difficult to challenge. We need to fix Western SOMA before it is too late, and learn from the faults in this process to make things better for those who come after us.


  2. Jim Meko and the other members of the Western SoMa task force have their work cut out for them as the development community led primarily by SPUR attempts to hijack the Western SoMa. As I have stated in the past….(check the public records)… SPUR is a lobby group with a narrow single agenda when it comes to development. That development agenda is entirely focused in San Francisco on advancing Mission Bay into the SoMa… high density housing at any cost. (SPUR…developers,land use attorneys ,professional planners,Real-estate brokers,permit expediters and Architects). Sorry if I left anyone out…

    While I and others have worked tirelessly to preserve the fabric and character of the SoMa, SPUR was busy working behind closed doors to advance their member/donor/contributors ideology of high density housing at any cost…any cost to the the existing residents of the SoMa. When I asked Mr. Medcalf, Executive Director of SPUR, questions like… where are the Parks, the transportation, the needed street scape to turn SoMa into a livable, walkable neighborhood he shrugged his shoulders and said,” it will come…….later”. He then used junk science to advance his agenda and that of his contributors. “Global warming” is the new mantra to displace disadvantage, low income communities. Well later is not good enough…and 160 & 200 foot tall building do not belong in the SoMa. How about Geary street Mr. Metcalf?

    The Western SoMa planning process was thoughtful, open and public. Apparently that process was lost on those at SPUR and HAC. I hope it is not lost on the current planning commission.

    While we have finally put to rest the Eastern SoMa rezoning…well almost … it’s still not quite over and I have my doubts about promises made by the Mayors office of workforce and economic development for the undeveloped SLI/SLR parcels left out of the rezoning process. I know that SPUR has their man on the inside and I know that when and if money begins to flow again the pressure will begin on increasing heights along 4th street. Because as members of SPUR have alluded to….we are not going to spend a billion dollars on a mile and a half of track and not get something back.

    In the meantime Jim and his task force members have their work cut out for them. You can’t take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road for a moment.

  3. It’s good that Meko is standing up for the South of Market area, but the same political forces—including “progressives” who should know better—pushed through the Market and Octavia Plan and is allowing UC to hijack the old extension site for a massive housing development. The half-baked assumption is that SF is obligated to radically increase its population density to prevent suburban sprawl. But there are density limits for good reasons, including quality of life and stresses on our infrastructure, including Muni.