WARNING: APRIL FOOL!! Inspired by Parkmerced, San Francisco Unveils New Citywide Demolition Program--Berkeley to Follow Lead

By Reed M. Prack (BeyondChron)
Friday April 01, 2011 - 09:49:00 AM

At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd announced a new development strategy inspired by the proposed Parkmerced project. Under the new “Transit Oriented Demolition and Development” plan, the City will offer incentives to developers that agree to demolish existing low-density residential neighborhoods with older housing (“TODD zones”) and replace them with higher density, “transit oriented” development.

Berkeley officials who declined to be identified endorsed a similar proposal for the low-density area around the North Berkeley BART station, although they also declined to reveal the details of the plan. 

Against a backdrop showing a condominium high-rise skyline, Mayor Lee said of the plan: “We are so convinced of the benefits of the Parkmerced project that we are excited to bring these benefits of greater density, transit improvements and greenhouse gasses to the entire city.” 

Stellar Management and Fortress Investments, the Parkmerced developers, will reportedly seek approval to develop two other TODD zones in the city -- an 18 square block section of the Sunset District and a 23 block area of the Richmond district. Stellar spokesman P.J. Johnston would not confirm or deny the plan for the Sunset and Richmond districts, but did acknowledge that “these are certainly areas with low density, older housing and limited transit that would benefit from the type of smart growth we’re doing at Parkmerced.” 

Sup. Elsbernd will introduce legislation at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting to relieve developers of Planning Code limits where they propose to demolish units and promise to replace them. Under the plan, developers who promise to demolish more than 20 units will be granted density bonuses, waivers of height and setback restrictions, and freedom from conditional use hearings. There will be additional incentives for larger projects. A developer who agrees to demolish at least one hundred units will also qualify for special tax exemptions. 

According to Elsbernd, “We’re creating an incentive structure here. I know it’s counterintuitive, but the more units that are demolished, the more housing we will end up with. Only by demolishing units can we attract the funding necessary to rebuild higher density housing, which will have the net impact of increasing housing supply. The residents might not know it now, but this is for their own good.” 

Plan opponents begged to differ. “I think they’ve lost their collective minds,” commented Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants’ Union. “The property owners and tenants whose homes are demolished will be driven out of the city forever.” Several supervisors echoed the concern, issuing a joint statement condemning the proposal as the worst land use blunder in San Francisco since redevelopment of the Fillmore. 

Elsbernd responded that critics are missing the point. “Under the proposal, only older units could be demolished anyway, so residents of these outdated homes are being relieved of the challenges of living in aging housing stock. Now they won’t have to pay for repairs or endure drafty Victorian era windows or creaky floors.” Indeed, under the new legislation, only neighborhoods with housing built before the 1950’s will be targeted for demolition and development, comprising the vast majority of San Francisco neighborhoods. 

Michael Yarne of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development defended the proposal. “As we know from the Parkmerced project, the only way to increase density is to demolish existing low density housing. How else are we going to increase our tax base and fund transit? These new demolition and development zones will benefit the city, and the residents don’t need to worry because we are requiring the developers to promise that the residents will be able to move into the high rise condos when they are completed.” 

Under the proposal, the timeline for development in a TODD zone is unclear. According to one Planning Department representative who asked to remain anonymous, “These projects will be so large-scale that it would be unreasonable to hold developers to a specific timeline. So long as the project is completed in two or three decades, they will meet our new, streamlined requirements. Given the amount of money being put in, these projects are too big to fail, so we know they will get done eventually.” 

Building trades unions, including Local 104 (Sheetmetal workers), Local 22 (Carpenters) and Local 377 (Ironworkers) were present at the press conference and hailed the proposal as a positive step. Members turned out in force holding signs stating, “Demolishing and rebuilding San Francisco generates jobs.” 

One dissenting union member asked what would happen to workers who live in the new TODD zones: “Sure we might get jobs, but what good is that when we lose our homes?”