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Monday, February 25, 2002

Charlatan Charrette

A Dead-End for SOMA Planning

By Marc Salomon

There is a broad consensus developing among a diverse cross-section of opinion that there is a stink emanating from South of Market, overpowering that of urine-soaked 6th Street, the dot.com rot of empty business services spaces, and the covering for police murder at 850 Bryant. It comes from the direction of the Planning Department on Mission Street, wafting eastward under the guise of a community-based planning process so woefully underfunded and time-compressed as to be a mockery of what is possible with so many talented stakeholders ready and willing to do real work.

Some of you might recall the supervisorial elections of 2000, where San Franciscans from east to west, north to south, rose up to protest the abusive disrespect shown our communities by the Planning Commission and the department under the direction of the mayor. One of the gains made by this new wave was securing funding for community-based planning in the current budget.

It was acknowledged at the outset that these east-side planning exercises would be less ambitious in scope than the Better Neighborhoods 2002 program, which are 18-24 month processes involving outside consultants delivering a master plan for a single EIR guiding future development around the Balboa Park Station, Central Waterfront ,and Octavia Boulevard freeway parcels, the last of which I've been attending.

Better Neighborhoods 2002 has been a consultant-led planning process that has presented the results of negotiations between neighborhood organization leaders, the department, and consultants to mass neighborhood meetings for rubber-stamp approval. Very little feedback from those meetings ever seems to survive to the next meeting. They have, however, managed to expand their scope up Van Ness to Lombard in pushing transit improvements that are laudable, yet did not originate from the community.

Good output, poor process.

Where we had East German planning in the past, where buildings sprang up by surprise in our neighborhoods without consultation, processes like Better Neighborhoods in Hayes Valley gave folks a heads-up on what buildings have been chosen to spring up for us. The dispensation of the first four northernmost CalTrans parcels are essentially a round robin (not Leavitt) scheme to placate Brown's housing constituencies as a top-down, not bottom-up deal.

In addition to the Better Neighborhoods 2002 program, the other model for planning has taken place under the auspices of the Redevelopment Agency. This model, implemented by the agency largely under ex-director Jim Morales's tenure, had a Project Area Committee, consisting of geographically interested stakeholders, elected at the outset. This one-wo/man, one-vote, one-time scheme at least consulted the community, but there was no way over the nearly decade-long lifespan of these committees to reconfirm and renew, to ensure that the changing composition and will of the community was reflected in the committee. In the event of a vacancy, the committee self-perpetuates by appointing its replacement member.

So the planning gains from the 2000 elections translate into a few new planner positions that will focus on forcing Planning's desires for SOMA and other eastern neighborhoods down our throats in the absurdly short time frame of 6 months.

But it need not be this way. Under the leadership of Jim Meko and Quintin Mecke, a broad cross-section of SOMA stakeholders met throughout the summer of 2001 to discuss how to move forward in a community-based planning process. Representatives from Planning initially attended, yet when we declined to do as the Mission had done and call for interim controls, they dropped us like a hot potato. This was in late summer 2001, and here we are 6 months later with Planning demanding that we follow its lead in a truncated, accelerated process.

South of Market deserves a turn of respect from Planning and this can only be accomplished by allowing nongovernmental stakeholders – the residents – to take the driver’s seat for this process. The first show of respect would be for Planning to acknowledge up front that this is but the first step in an ongoing process that will provide SOMA stakeholders with a toolkit for us to do justice to in planning for future land use, production of housing for all of the underserved, street livability, and economic development in SOMA.

There is a process that the Seattle, Washington, Department of Neighborhoods has used for community-based planning, which runs through three phases. Phase I includes thorough outreach by an Organizing Committee with the goal of bringing all voices to the table. When the Organizing Committee concludes that it has a representative sample of stakeholders, Phase I is concluded and Phase II begins, as it votes to appoint a Planning Committee which is responsible for crafting a plan, assisted by consultants funded by the city. Once the plan has been completed, legitimated through thorough public comment, reviewed, and passed into law, the Planning Committee remains operative in Phase III to oversee the implementation of the plan. This last phase is critical in San Francisco for SOMA.

The Mission process has already been effectively and antidemocratically hijacked, and in SOMA we need to ensure that the residents rather than social services agencies hold the balance of decision-making power. If we must seek outside resources – grant funding – to pay for consultants, then the process must be open, transparent, and, most important, ongoing. SOMA drafted its own plan in 1990, and scant five years later Planning shredded the results of those efforts in a fusillade of live/work lofts and business services. This cannot be permitted to transpire for future planning efforts if we expect folks to take time to participate.

The free Tu Lan food at last week's planning confab at the SOMA Recreation Center was tasty and the Pilipino Chorus was quite entertaining before I was called off to a prior commitment with the Bicycle Advisory Committee at City Hall, but we've got to nip this charade of a charrette in the bud before the planning needs of SOMA are subsumed within this political, partial process. We can use the next six months to scope out the work we need to do, but there is no way that this partial process can produce anything other than a partial product. And Planning must be up front and acknowledge this fact.

If we accept what Planning offers as a process that will produce legitimate planning for SOMA's future evolution, then we might as well hide Gerald Green's naked desire to subvert the will of the community with a fig leaf of our own.