When NPR’s comedy news quiz program Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me visited San Francisco in late July, host Peter Sagal joked, “We’re here in San Francisco, … and even though it’s only been a week, all of us at Wait Wait have changed. For one thing, we are now all millionaires. … Somebody came up, gave us $10 million each; we’re supposed to make an app or something. Whatever.”
A city such as Detroit can only dream about having a problem with too many young, high-income people moving in. But in San Francisco, the influx has created or exacerbated problems that have existed for years with too little new housing, a sclerotic development process, and a political system pitting a pro-development establishment against a large activist community that fears its concerns are being ignored. Even outside of that heated political confrontation, there is uncertainty among many who simply wonder how their city is changing and whether they will like what it is becoming.
“Cities, countries evolve and change, and I don’t think you should be afraid of that,” says District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell. “We need to embrace it. But pay close attention to how it’s changing such that the things that we value most about San Francisco do not change. As an example, I believe what makes our city more unique than any other aspect is our different neighborhoods, whether it be the Marina, the Castro, the Mission, West Portal, or Chinatown.” He says that the distinct neighborhoods not only make them good to live in but are a big part of the reason people visit the city. “We don’t want to be strip malls. We don’t want to be just high-rise apartment buildings. Does that mean neighborhoods have to look exactly as they do or did 30 years ago? No. It’s a balancing act, ultimately.
“But that’s the beauty of San Francisco,” Farrell says. “It’s not in packing a million-plus people inside San Francisco just because. That would do no good. It is a fine line between people being protectionist and people opening the flood gates.”
In 1827, Brazil’s leaders were presented with a plan to move its capital from Rio de Janeiro to a more central location. More than 130 years later, that plan was finally put into action with the construction of an entirely new city, Brasília, planned from the ground-up in futuristic mid-century style. Brasília now has the country’s fourth largest population and its highest per capita income.
One might love or hate Brasília’s architecture, but the city’s creation was a rare opportunity. Almost every other urban challenge has to be met within an existing, functioning urban environment of aggressive change-makers, NIMBYists, limited land, and many, many competing interests. Such is the case in San Francisco.
Though expensive and limited housing is at the root of many of the complaints about San Francisco’s current dilemma, Stephen Smith argued on Forbes.com that it’s not just housing that encourages gentrification. “The first 100-unit rental building with the neighborhood’s first high-quality grocery story is a huge boon, but the hundredth glass tower with the neighborhood’s fifth bank won’t even be noticed,” Smith argues. “It’s at this point that the price-lowering effect of dumping new units on the market will outweigh the price-raising effect of the new amenities – in other words, prices will start to fall. The problem with American urban development patterns is that once a neighborhood has its amenities, new development grinds to a halt. Wealthier new residents have more political savvy than the old ones, and they use this to impose a protective NIMBY shield around the neighborhood.”
Smith says that new development needs to occur across a city, in a variety of neighborhoods (with different socio-economic levels). However, “politicians prefer to channel growth towards poor neighborhoods rather than risk upsetting rich people’s views and property values.”
San Francisco’s system and political leaders “sometimes make it unnecessarily hard [to develop housing] by putting obstacles in place that don’t necessarily make it [better],” says District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.
“It’s a democratic process here in San Francisco, as with anywhere else,” says Farrell. “The reality is we have people who are very passionate about different parts of San Francisco. On the left, on the right, in the middle — the great part is that people are involved in our city. Overall, and generically, it definitely slows growth. In times like these, maybe a number of people view that as a good thing. A similar person could look at it and say, if we had done a better job previously, planning for where we are today, we wouldn’t have all these crises that we do.”
Along with housing, another crisis of a more-crowded city is transportation. Parking has become more expensive, bikes have become more prevalent, and Muni is groaning under the weight of increased ridership, high operation costs, and insufficient investment.
Farrell says Muni problems are nothing new. “Muni has always been an issue in San Francisco. Since fourth or fifth grade, I was riding Muni across the city by myself all the time and knew every route. But certainly as we increase population, and increase the combination of Muni riders and more bicyclists and drivers, every issue becomes more exacerbated. I think that the fault lies across the board. People drive recklessly, people ride their bikes recklessly, and people walk recklessly across the street. Everyone needs to do a better job and realize that we are living in a more congested city than before and need to take a deep breath. In terms of spending — no, we are not spending enough on infrastructure at all. The reality is, and I tell you this as chair of our Budget and Finance Committee, every year there is a finite amount of money you can spend and you have to delineate priorities.”
“When we’re trying to run a city, you have to deal with the big mega-issues, as well as the small issues in between,” says Wiener, who also sits on the budget committee. “For example, I’ve been very focused recently on double parking, which seems like this petty thing, but especially in a growing city it has huge impacts in terms of traffic and public transportation and bike safety. But it’s one of those things that gets overlooked. I’m also focused on having better nighttime transportation. We’ve got very inadequate night-time transportation. But particularly as we grow, we know our night-time economy is very large, we’re very interconnected with Oakland; we have to stop pretending everything shuts down after rush hour. Issues like that are really solvable issues, and it’s important to focus on them.”
The debates that either hone public policy or — depending on your view — prevent anything from getting done are a factor of life, especially in outspoken San Francisco. “It’s part of the process I saw coming into city government,” says Farrell. “Elected officials — I’m not blaming anyone or any group in particular, but if it’s an issue that’s going to face the government 10, 20 years down the line, they’re going to be out of office at that time. Why would they spend the time to fix an issue and take some lumps?”
Efforts to deal with longer-term issues of importance to cities are therefore often taken on by regional associations of governments and planning departments. This allows them to address issues in-depth and, they hope, be removed a bit from the day-to-day political resistance to change and to sacrifices needed for long-term planning. For example, OneBayArea is a collaboration between four government agencies and associations, including the Association of Bay Area Governments; it focuses on collaborative planning for the region’s communities. But results are mixed, and taking the planners out of the bruising local political hubbub leaves them open to charges of being unresponsive or uncommunicative concerning people’s needs.
“My personal wish is that the people in charge of these planning organizations would do a good job of communicating and involving the community,” said Andre Shashaty, president of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. “Some of the California regional planning agencies have done a reasonably good job. The Southern California Association of Governments did a pretty good job with their sustainability strategy. I would give the Association of Bay Area Governments bad marks, because I don’t think they did a good job of messaging and I don’t think they did a good job of soliciting public input. The result is that they created a backlash against transit-oriented zoning and land-use planning. [People are] sensitive about being told what to do by a regional organization.”
So within the confines of the borders around San Francisco’s 46.9 square miles, the problems and opportunities presented by surging population and expenses are being met not by building an entirely new city on virgin land, nor by rejecting all change to keep the neighborhoods unchanged, nor by giving way to rampant development in every corner of town.
The needs instead are being met by a series of initiatives, including increasing investment for Muni (see page 7); fulfilling Mayor Ed Lee’s plans to boost housing by 30,000 units, with large portions dedicated to low- and middle-income residents; implementing Weiner’s initiative to expand in-law housing; increase police protection; and other similar step-by-step efforts. Like every cobbled-together approach to solving complex and dynamic problems, the results are certain to continue to be controversial and certain to need updating as they are unveiled and implemented.
No ‘hood stays the same forever.