2,600+ New Housing Units Proposed for Potrero Hill
By Christopher Roberts
After four years in the doldrums, California’s real estate market is back. And in a San Francisco that remained relatively buoyant even during the 2008 recession, a veritable boom in high-rise, high-density development is occurring, much of it in Potrero Hill and Dogpatch. The skyline emerging in Southside neighborhoods today could make the live-work heyday of the late-1990s dot-com boom look insignificant.
Upwards of 2,600 new housing units have either been constructed in the last year, or will be built in Potrero Hill, Dogpatch and Showplace Square in the next five years, if all of the plans on file at the San Francisco Planning Department are approved. In 2008, CityData.com estimated the area’s population at just over 10,000. The massive influx of new housing could increase the Hill’s population by more than 50 percent by 2020. Combined with the 1,400 to 1,700 units that could replace the decrepit Potrero Annex-Terrace public housing complex, upwards of 4,000 new housing units could be built in the area by 2025, adding as many as 10,000 people. And that doesn’t account for the large amounts of commercial space being developed in Pier 70 and elsewhere, which will substantially increase the neighborhoods’ population of daytime commuters.
Much of the development is taking place on vacant or underused blocks in Showplace Square, where roughly 1,300 units are planned for Daggett Place – now vacant, but formerly home to a paint factor – and at the Concourse Exhibition Center/1 Henry Adams Street site. But Dogpatch – long-praised as an “emerging neighborhood” by the New York Times and other media – could also see 1,000 new housing units.
The development boom is taking some residents by surprise. The lull in new construction while the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was crafted lasted more than six years, followed by the inability of developers to secure financing during the housing crisis, created almost a decade-long respite from significant land use changes. But building in Potrero Hill has always been part of the City’s master plan for new housing, and was subject to active discussion while the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was being created.
Part of the Plan
Potrero Hill has seen all this before, in a way. Following a neighborhood uprising over the live-work lofts built during the late-1990s under then-Mayor Willie Brown, development was curtailed while a plan could be hatched with community input. After countless meetings and workshops, marathon City Hall hearings and wrangling over zoning laws that stretched nearly seven years, the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan emerged.
The plan, pushed into law in 2010, just as the last of the Board of Supervisors’ “Class of 2000” – including District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell and the influential development-minded Board president Aaron Peskin – were termed out, allowed housing to be built in areas formerly zoned PDR, a light-industrial designation for “production, distribution, and repair.” Plots previously restricted to PDR are now zoned “urban mixed use,” which allows a mix of PDR, retail, and housing to be built, as well as just housing. The plan also relaxed height restrictions. Before it was adopted, for example, the six-story buildings proposed for 2121 Third Street wouldn’t have been allowed.
The development process during the period when the plan was being hashed-out slowed to the consistency of a bottle of blocked ketchup. Condominium and rental housing projects had to go through a “conditional use” authorization process, under which neighborhoods had to be canvassed to build support, without which even the most thoughtful proposals could be felled by vocal opposition from residents. Projects proposed or permitted before the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan process was completed were put into a “pipeline.” By late 2012, 143 construction projects of varying sizes were in the pipeline. Once the plan was in place those projects were allowed to proceed, contributing to the current “boom” of active building permits and new development projects.
The idea was always to allow Potrero Hill’s population to grow “over time,” according to Peskin, who noted that the very plan that allowed the developments to which some residents now object was created with their participation. “Potrero Hill was at the table,” the ex-supervisor said in a brief e-mail interview. But so were developers, who sometimes outnumbered residents at the many meetings held as part of the process. “And now [community members] see the development that’s going on because of the rezoning,” said Janet Carpinelli, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association president. “And they’re up in arms.”
Housing is the New Industry
The days when Potrero Hill was a shipbuilding and manufacturing mecca are gone forever. Pier 70’s cranes are silent. Memories of the neighborhood’s identity as blue-collar community are fading, barely visible in the barroom at Bloom’s Saloon or in the corrugated tin siding at the old Corovan site on 16th Street. That’s where Walden Development and Kaiser Permanente propose to build a medical office and outpatient center mixed with 189 housing units. Other working-class staples are also slated to become homes; 350 units of housing are proposed for the San Francisco Opera’s warehouse at 800 Indiana.
Potrero Hill remains a place where people work: the neighborhood supports 30,000 jobs, according to a 2008 City estimate. Many warehouses and other light-industrial buildings built last century are still operating as they were intended; delivery trucks ply the streets. Beer and wine are made in Dogpatch, Potrero Hill, and adjacent Bayview. But the next wave of land use – to high-density housing – may represent a more fundamental sea change than the shift from steel mills and paint factories to lighter industry that occurred almost a half-century ago, one that may surprise residents lulled to sleep by the construction pause.
“People are going to be beside themselves” when they see the new neighborhood, said architect Kepa Askenasy, who is active with Save The Hill, a neighborhood group opposed to the Kaiser/Walden medical building and apartment complex on 16th Street. “There are neighborhoods that are welcome to this kind of development. This is not one of them.”
Views like Askenasy’s are dismissed as NIMBYism by the development-minded, as reflected in a recent San Francisco Business Times editorial which excoriated opponents of the Kaiser development, and blamed them for blocking San Francisco General Hospital’s plans to build a helipad. But whether one is a skyscraper junkie or a back-to-the-land extremist for whom only a cabin will do, there’s no denying that population and density increases in Southside San Francisco will trigger demands for new infrastructure, including transportation services, sewer and water systems, schools and open spaces, in an area many claim is already deficit in all of these things.
This is the first in a three-part series on development.
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