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Quality of life issues: District Two Supervisor Mark Farrell on growing pains, parking plans, and the future of his native city

District Two Supervisor Mark Farrell settles in for his second term. ( photo: courtesy mark farrell)

On a sunny San Francisco morning, District Two Supervisor Mark Farrell sits in his City Hall office surrounded by San Francisco Giants memorabilia and framed America’s Cup posters leaning against bookshelves on the floor. “Our other office was cramped,” he says, “and my staff really wanted to move to a bigger office. We’re still not completely settled in.” Dressed in dark denim jeans and a baby blue checked shirt, Farrell rests his elbows on the big round wooden table, his hands wrapped around a hot cup of green tea. He admits that his first four years in office were a learning experience. “I came into politics as a native San Franciscan who loved this city and wanted to create positive change,” he says. “But politically speaking, I was a bit naïve.” That nonpolitician image along with sensible positions as a moderate voice on the Board of Supervisors helped Farrell easily win a second term.

While left-leaning lawmakers still dream of a past when they controlled the board, San Francisco is marching resolutely toward a more temperate future driven by legislators who are pro-business and welcome the robust economy. Though board leaders like Farrell have championed the city’s evolution, they’re also sensitive to the challenges it brings, from a lack of affordable housing to traffic gridlock to massive amounts of construction causing noise, parking woes, and congestion. “It boggles my mind when I take my kids to basketball on a Sunday and I’m still in a traffic jam,” Farrell says. “The last dot-com boom was in the Silicon Valley, and San Francisco was a bedroom community. This time, the jobs are here and we’re seeing an influx like we’ve never seen before, from 725,000 citizens to over 840,000 now. The city wasn’t prepared. There’s a supply and demand imbalance for housing, and planning for this was very poor.”

Nowhere is that lack of planning more apparent than in the city’s trendy Mission District, where affluent tech workers who like the neighborhood’s nightlife, vibrant restaurant scene, and commuter options are displacing long-term residents. Supervisor David Campos, who represents the area, is calling for a two-year moratorium on market-rate residential construction in the Mission, spurred in part by the battle over a 10-story, 330-unit project proposed for 16th and Mission streets that consists of mostly market-rate condos. Because of the uproar, the developers proposed doubling the number of below-market-rate units. “I don’t think the answer is to stop building housing,” says Farrell, who opposes the moratorium. “That’s how we got into this housing crisis in the first place.”

When asked what he sees for the city’s economy in the next 5 to 10 years, Farrell is realistic about inevitable boom-and-bust cycles. “In 2001, there were moving vans in every neighborhood. Will it happen again? Maybe. It all depends on the cause and the severity of the next downturn. If it’s not related to tech, our local economy won’t take as big a hit. It’s always been expensive to live here because it’s a beautiful city, but never before because we’ve become the hub of global tech growth. For every tech job, two others are created, and we have people like Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com, who combines business with philanthropy and is a model for how all CEOs should be. But even though we have more stability than we did in 2001, we’re still not immune.”

These days, San Francisco is known not only for its tech boom, but also for having a construction worker on every corner — and that has many citizens seething. “Right now we’re heading in a dangerous direction,” Farrell says. “It may be great for the economy and the construction sector, but City Hall always needs to be focused on quality of life for our residents. When you see a city block with 75 percent construction parking, something is wrong. Most frustrating is when the spaces sit empty for days at a time. I hear complaints about this from people constantly. I think our residents should have a reasonable expectation to find parking when they come home from work.”

On March 17, Farrell and Supervisor Malia Cohen (who represents Dogpatch and Potrero Hill) introduced one of the most sensible bills to come out of City Hall this year: Contractors who want more than one parking space for more than three months would be required to submit a construction parking plan as a condition for getting parking permits from the city. The plan would have to include the average number of employees anticipated at the work site daily, the project timeline, and an analysis of carpool or off-street parking options such as garages. “We would also require the spaces to be made available to the public after 4 p.m. if they haven’t been used or work is done for the day,” Farrell says. “I wanted to introduce this legislation not to discourage construction, but to make it more accountable and smarter.” Farrell says 24-hour construction zones, which necessitate input from DPW and MTA, will also be included in the final bill.

Even with tighter restrictions on contractors, parking in San Francisco will remain hellacious. One major concern is the number of new developments built with little or no off-street parking, like plans to demolish the iconic Lucky 13 bar at 2140 Market Street, along with its adjacent patio and parking lot. The contractor wants to put up a five-story mixed-use building featuring 1,200 square feet of ground floor commercial space, 31 condos — and zero parking. “More and more people I know are moving here without cars or jettisoning them all together. We can’t afford to have more one-person/one car trips. We just can’t,” Farrell says. “In transit-rich parts of San Francisco, it’s forward thinking to build without spaces for those who don’t need cars. I think it’s a huge mistake to do this in family-oriented neighborhoods with a lot of single-family homes, but for single folks in transit-rich areas, it’s smart. That’s not how I viewed things when I entered City Hall.”

One thing that won’t work is an all-or-nothing methodology, Farrell says. “When they presented the Polk Streetscape project, I saw diagrams that were totally car-free. I said, ‘Okay, then we need to build some parking garages.’ Getting around the city is more frustrating than ever in my lifetime, and everyone shares the blame — people bike, walk, and drive recklessly. There’s more density, more construction, an aging infrastructure, and a lack of planning foresight. In order to ensure quality of life for all of our residents, present and future, we have to take a reasonable, balanced approach.”

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