URBAN PLANNERS RE-ENVISION SAN FRANCISCO
Interviews by Jeremy Joven

A well-designed city creates a prosperous future for all its inhabitants. The way city streets intersect, allowing breathtaking views a mile long, doesn’t just happen on its own. Neighborhoods seamlessly blending, with no visible division, is a master plan carefully and often thoughtfully planned out decades ahead of time. For this, we have to thank our urban planners, many with visions of a world where you can travel with ease far and wide, whether on foot, by bike, or by car, with a focus on green spaces, community-driven commerce, and diversity at every corner. This notion did not exist just 50 years ago. The world of planning was focused on automobiles, highways, and, segregation. The switch happened because of visionaries who saw a more open, shared existence and in San Francisco, we keep re-imagining what it means to be a community.

With our emerging knowledge regarding what makes a successfully livable city, we sought out ideas from visionary planners, urban futurists, and of course the city’s planning commission. A surprising alignment occurred among our sources proving that we are heading in the right direction when it comes to planning San Francisco’s urban landscape. Still, we cannot help but try to conjure a bit of fantasy thinking to get a preview of what planners have in store for us 20 or 30 years from now.

James Castañeda, AICP, Planner, San Mateo County Castañeda’s vision of San Francisco involves hidden highways underground and endless walkable streets spanning districts, allowing diverse neighborhoods to be easily accessible from all parts of the city.

What is the key issue for you that needs improvement when it comes to SF’s urban landscape? Having lived in this city for five years now, one of the bigger issues for me has always been mobility. Most people in San Francisco have dealt with crappy transit because... well, what are your options if you don’t drive? It sucks because you have to buffer an hour and half just to go a mile and a half, maybe two across the city. So, for me, a big-ticket wish would be an awesome transit system. When you have better transit, it opens up opportunities for neighborhoods to connect to each other, smaller more friendly streets for all modes because you lessen your dependence on cars, and can be productive knowing you can depend on transit. One project I wished had came through during the 60s was a BART line along Geary Street to the Richmond. This could have opened so many opportunities to shrink the size of the street down, add additional housing and create a strong, mixed use area people are drawn to. At the moment, a Bus Rapid Transit system is being proposed for Geary Street, but the project is running into opposition from local businesses feeling that such a project will hurt their businesses. But I believe there’s definitely opportunity that will allow those business benefit by making a far more inviting and friendly corridor. Right now with six lanes of speeding traffic, there’s nothing inviting; there’s nothing that tells someone to stay awhile and walk around. All it says is those with a car can get in and out ASAP without caring about what else is here.

What is your “future SF” like? When I start thinking about the future of San Francisco, I’d start connecting a lot of these other great neighborhoods in San Francisco; Bernal, Excelsior, the Bayview… that are kind of cut off from one another by freeways. My “pie-in-the-sky idea” would be to either remove 280 or put it underground to get it out of the way, with the grand plan of reintroducing connectivity to these neighborhoods.

Tom Radulovich, Executive Director, LivableCity.Org President, BART Board of Directors Tom Radulovich is involved in many ways with the way we’ll be traveling and living in an urban utopia fit for the 22nd century through his involvement with Livable City and as president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors. His future SF expands on the idea of a connected, walkable city that welcomes all. Radulovich sees a grand plan where the entire Bay Area becomes a community, much like the San Francisco we are working toward—a region where you have a number of choices to live a prosperous, sustainable, culturally diverse life with unmatched transit possibilities.

Tell us what you think about our current housing market. The housing market is really intense. We need a housing strategy that works. Can we create more rental housing in San Francisco, not the luxury pied-à-terre downtown that’s been a lot of what we’ve been building, but housing for regular San Franciscans? Absolutely. It’s about getting those infill projects right—cutting new in-laws in existing houses, housing above shops in commercial corridors, the kinds of modern-scale apartments—and really finding a way to build those well, cheaply, quickly, and build them in a way that enhances the neighborhood that they are landing in, rather than make them feel kind of generic and cheap.

There are a lot of real-estate economists that are saying younger folks coming in … really want to live in walkable urban places. And we built too few places that are that way in the last 50 years; we tend to build drivable, denser places. A lot of places that are dense are still not walkable or interesting. So the other thing I think about is: Can we take the best of San Francisco in terms of what makes a walkable community here and build those all around the region? Can we build versions of great walkable cities in Silicon Valley or in the East Bay so there is just more? There’s so much pressure in San Francisco because it’s such an interesting place to live and there can be more places like San Francisco.

How do we build a more connected Urban Utopia starting today? The idea of taking our existing surface transit, our buses and light-rail system and doing more to give them priority and dedicated lanes in more places. … Really thinking about boarding islands and making waiting for the bus more comfortable and more attractive. … So shelters, lighting, and real-time information at the stops—a system that is 100 percent accessible. We have big plans for low-floor transits, the trains that have the floor that is no more than a foot off of the ground. Low-floor buses, dedicated lanes, clean fuels, and electric buses … give them the amenities of rail. More light rail makes sense for us, especially for sections like Geary, with almost 60,000 riders a day.

I think getting from here to there, it’s not one giant project; there’s no silver bullet to make it work. It will take lots of different projects in our neighborhoods. … As neighbors, when these plans are proposed, like the dedicated transit lanes on Church, they come out in support of them. Of course there will be people that will come out and protest because of loss of parking, but if we as San Franciscans are ready to speak up for this kind of improvement, they are likelier to happen.

Of course Market Street is the city’s most important transit spine. … Can we make this a street where transit runs really effectively and also has a really great protective bike lane up and down it and is a great place to walk? I think that will be huge. So many of the lines in the city run on Market Street at some point that it would help translate across the city if we can get Market Street flowing as a transit street. As regular San Franciscans, let’s send the powers that be a message about the city we want to be in the 21st century.

John Rahaim, Director of Planning, SF Planning Department John Rahaim is the man who leads the city’s planners to a brighter tomorrow. His vision of San Francisco is well underway. Surrounded by talented futurists and people who learn from past mistakes in urban planning, he is armed with the knowledge to turn San Francisco into the envy of the world: a trash-free, completely sustainable, beautiful, and attainable place to live for generations to come while keeping the heart and soul of SF as we know it today alive.

What spurred rapid developments and growth around SF this decade? The regional growth numbers are pretty big. They are predicting 2 million people coming into the Bay Area by the middle of the century, and the city’s share of that is about 15 percent.

A lot of what you see being built right now was approved between five and 10 years ago. It is totally consistent with the plans that we’ve been doing in the city for many years, especially some of the more recent plans. A lot of the projects around Market Street and downtown are consistent with the plans in the ’80s in creating higher density around the transit system. West of Van Ness and in the Mission, developments were approved in 2008. Those plans kind of directed the growth near transit to some places and away from some places. We created new zoning to stir it away from industrial areas; there has been a lot of concern that some of the industrial jobs are being lost because of the way land values work: If the zoning allows for a lot of other uses like for housing or office, they always outbid industrial use. In San Francisco, you’ll hear the term PDR (production, distribution, and repair). The idea is to maintain a base of PDR uses and land in the city … not allow that land to be used for other purposes. Those are geared toward areas where that land could be redevelopment or closer to transit and other neighborhood services.

How can we improve the Richmond/Sunset areas? The real potential in the Richmond/Geary areas if it were to happen is along commercial streets like Clement, Geary, or Taraval. The zoning in those areas allow for five- or six-story buildings already, but there has been almost no interest in building anything like that. I think it’s just a question of time. I think those areas could accept more growth and see more developments in those commercial corridors, and I think it would actually improve those corridors, but there has been very little interest in doing it.

Part of the problem is there’s no great bus access, highways, or train systems in the area. Another thing we are doing with the mayor’s office is working on the Mayor Invest in Neighborhoods Strategy, where we are looking at investing in several of those corridors to see if we can improve conditions for small businesses and make street improvements along the way.

What urban development projects are you excited about? There are a whole lot of redevelopments going on along Market Street, from downtown to the Castro. We are in the process of redesigning Market Street itself: the Better Market Street Project. We are looking at the design of the street and any changes we should make—from zoning to what happens on the sidewalk, that kind of stuff—so Market Street can really reach its full potential. That’s a pretty exciting project.

The high-speed rail is a big deal, coming up from L.A. and how it connects into the city … and what kind of potential that creates in that area for development or open space or new transit access. All that is much longer-term, but we are already spending time on that.

It’s a fun time to be in San Francisco. There’s a lot of interesting change that is happening in a good way. The basic bones of the city aren’t changing, but there are a lot of exciting things going on, which is great.

SPECIAL THANKS TO THE PARTICIPANTS OF THIS INTERVIEW.

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This article was published in:
Idea Issue - Released March 2013
Issue 2 / Version 3 | Buy print copy here
Issue 12
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