Mid-Market High Rise Project Faces Financial Woes, Parking Battle

Originally published at www.thebaycitybeacon.com.

New apartments proposed at One Oak Street are emblematic of recent efforts to restore the Market/Van Ness Hub to its former walking-and-housing-friendly glory. The project’s challenges are rooted in its past, as well as practical limits of the current financial climate.

The corner of Market and Van Ness avenues has always been a central connection between the City’s diverse neighborhoods. From the 1880s through the 1950s it was called The Hub — a main connector for Muni, alive with thriving businesses and homes. At the same time, Van Ness became a backbone automotive connection to the greater Bay Area.

During the postwar suburban exodus, the corner acquired a windswept, pedestrian-averse vibe that still dominates today. One landmark is a large former car dealership owned byRoger Boas. A member of San Francisco’s political establishment, and booster of redevelopment policy, Boas had a rising political career of his own until it was brought down in a child prostitution scandal in the late 1980’s. That site is now due for redevelopment into high-density housing — one of a number of major developments for the area.

The current test case for the return of the Market/Van Ness Hub will be on another corner.One Oak Street will have over 300 units of market rate housing, a sustainable, wind-cheating design, a large public open space, and includes $29 million in fees paid to construct 94 units of permanently affordable housing. When it went before the Planning Commission on June 15, it passed with flying colors — even the density-averse Dennis Richards and Kathrin Moore voted in support. Nevertheless, there were opponents — not against the project itself, but its parking ratio of one space for every 0.45 units — by most recent planning standards, too many parking spaces.

Meanwhile, a more common objection to more housing, particularly in the neighborhoods,has been not enough parking. Such concerns have often figure in appeals under the California Environmental Quality Act used to block housing. That’s changed in recent years as San Francisco and other cities eliminated parking minimums.

Many of the activists pressing for less parking were veterans of the Central Freeway Wars of the late 1990s — years of dueling ballot measures over the whether to tear down the Central Freeway and densify development on Octavia Street. The multi-year battle would not only decide the fate of Market/Octavia and its environs. It also increased the political profile of Chinese-American and immigrant homeowners who supported keeping the freeway to maintain links between their homes in the western and southeast neighborhoods and Chinatown. A high-profile leader of that movement, realtor Julie Lee, also eventually met her downfall in scandal.

In the end, the Urbanists won: the freeway was torn down, Octavia Boulevard has evolved as a uniquely livable neighborhood, and the stage was set for the return of a densified Van Ness/Market Hub. But meanwhile, the aspirational goals of the City’s urbanists are colliding with the financial practicalities of development.

Katherine Roberts, an Urbanist who fought to tear down the Central Freeway, testified against the One Oak Street project’s parking ratio at the Planning Commission:

“ I told the Commission what my own experience is as a property-owner who owns a building with no parking… In a place like San Francisco where land is so scarce, building more infrastructure for cars is arguably the worst thing we can do. The Market-Octavia plan is the result of over eight years of tireless planning, outreach, and advocacy … all conducted with the sole purpose of making Hayes Valley and environs more livable than it was when the freeway cut through it. One of the main ways of doing that was reducing or eliminating parking.”

On the other side, Michael Yarne is project manager for One Oak Street:

“High-rise condo construction in San Francisco is expensive. A certain absorption rate is necessary to generate a sufficient return on investment to attract capital. The limited parking we are providing (0.45 spaces per unit) is the bare minimum (to meet that)… If we could reduce and still attract capital to build, we’d do it in a heartbeat. But at this point in San Francisco’s evolution, we can’t… The Commission clearly understood the difference between wishful thinking and financial realism. In 7–10 years, we might be able to finance a similar tower with less parking, but not yet.”

The One Oak Street project’s next hurdle is the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Committee, later this month.