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article imageSmart Housing or is it high-rise development? San Franciscans ask Special

By Jonathan Farrell     May 8, 2011 in Lifestyle
Members of the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People, one of San Francisco's oldest neighborhood groups, got an earful of the virtues of "Smart Housing."
And, a host of other concepts neatly expressed with acronyms by guest speaker Tim Colen of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition on April 25.
About a dozen people showed up at the SHARP meeting house on 9th Ave that Monday evening to hear Colen speak. The members of SHARP are established long-time residents of the area. Many have lived in the Inner-Sunset District their entire lives.
The Sunset District, especially the Inner-Sunset not far from Golden Gate Park and where the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center is situated, is predominantly a middle class neighborhood. Yet over the past decade since the dot com boom the Inner-Sunset has become a distinctively upscale area with restaurants and specialty shops.
Regardless of the upscale elements now very visible in the neighborhood, especially along 9th Avenue near Irving Street, long-time residents like the members of SHARP tend to be conservative when it has to do with major or sweeping changes.
It seemed that Colen was presenting a very stream-lined point of view to a group that even though they are steadfast residents, many are in or now entering into the 'golden years' of retirement.
Colen is the executive director of SFHAC, a local organization that advocates for residential projects or policies that meet certain agreed-upon guidelines of good urban design and land use principles. Colen said that "smart housing" for San Francisco is a tall order."
The concept of "smart housing" in Colen's presentation was not completely clear. Most of Colen's presentation seemed about 'mystifying' the audience with the concept of "smart housing" mixing it in with other terms and phrases such as "peak oil", oil availability reaching its curve or peak, and "VMT" which means Vehicle Miles Traveled.
Spouting off more acronyms written on very small sheets of paper that were not too easy to see from a distance, Colen talked more about density housing. He mostly talked to promote Parkmerced, Treasure Island and other developments.
Other acronyms such as SJ-2 and LA-8 baffled those in attendance. "It's not about baseball," said Colen. These are terms city planners use, noted Colen. "California is going to have to accommodate growth the size of San Jose or Los Angeles," he said.
Talk about traffic "grid-lock" and cars, according to Colen; this is why people must embrace better and smarter alternatives for housing in the future. "We must think of the world for our children and our children's children," he said. "If we don't do something now, the world they will inherit from us will be very different, bleak," he said.
Colen said he believes very strongly in the problems of "global warming" and climate change due to our stewardship of the environment - rising water levels, etc. Cars must decrease; MUNI transit must increase. Yet Colen admitted he uses a car.
Parkmerced and Treasure Island – Colen espouses that projects like these are the wave of the future, examples of smart housing.
Parkmerced built in the 1940s is one of the City's prime examples of high density towers situated along townhouse style complexes that incorporate high-rise apartment living with affordable family units. Each of the garden townhouses are set amid open court yards, mini-sized parks and strips of green spaces. Parkmerced was once owned by real estate mogul Leona Helmsley.
Treasure Island is an artificial island between San Francisco and Oakland. It was built to present the 1939 World's Fair-Exposition and has been underutilized since it was decommission as a US Naval base in the 1990's. Since 2005 proposals by the Lennar Corporation to build a little city consisting of housing and shopping amenities on the island has been in negotiations.
Both these projects propose building high rises and would involve cooperation from many other local, state and Federal government entities such as in transportation, environmental impacts, etc. Colen's presentation seemed to down-play that part and kept reiterating the ideal.
He presented "high density housing" and "smart housing" as one in the same, or so it seemed.
Yet taking a closer look, Colen's spin was essentially an urban developer's point of view and not a housing advocate. Colen was basically promoting Parkmerced and other development projects like it to SHARP without really explaining the actual concept of smart housing in full detail.
Doing a web search, various housing groups describe the concept of "smart housing" with these elements: Affordability, Energy-efficiency Universal or people-friendly design, Safety & security.
This reporter talked to a few of the residents of Parkmerced after the SHARP meeting, making a visit to Parkmerced's garden townhouses. According to PJ Johnston, spokesman for Parkmerced the garden townhouses will be removed and replaced with high rises. Residents question the feasibility of this.
Property management and investment corporations like Stellar and Fortress have big plans for Parkmerced. The SF Board of Supervisors will vote upon plans on May 24.
Long-term Parkmerced residents like Michael Russom and Susan Suval both said that what is actually being planned is not "smart housing" but the demolition of an existing community.
Colen at the SHARP meeting on Monday April 25 said that the "towers there are fine but the garden town houses are poorly constructed having outlived their life-span," Ironically, most of the housing in the Sunset and rest of San Francisco is more than 70 years old.
"These units are three bedroom two bathrooms, and with all this greens-space, this is ideal for families," said Russom. He questions why the City would even consider such a plan.
Parkmerced provides affordable and spacious housing to families. The complex next to SF State University is home to more than 8,000 residents.
"Colen is really just a bullhorn, a lobbyist for the developers," said advocate and architectural analyst Aaron Goodman.
Like Russom, Suval & others he fears if developers get their way, all will become a big mess. Corporate giants like Stellar/Fortress who now own Parkmerced will gain profits but San Francisco residents will suffer empty promises.
The San Francisco Planning Commission has given its approval, even though there was some concerns expressed by at least two planning commissioners.
The decision to go forward with plans is ultimately up to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Speaking to this reporter by phone Supervisor Sean Elsbernd expressed his support of the proposed plans for Parkmerced. A native of San Francisco, Elsbernd has been serving the area known as "District 7" since 2004. District 7 includes Parkmerced among the constituents.
He views the plans as "win-win" for the City. Yet others like Goodman and the residents of Parkmerced question the complete feasibility of this development plan. "What if there is a breach of contract?" "How can any developer promise things like tenant relocation and continued rent control?"
Elsbernd and those who support the development proposal believe all will work out fine. And, that legal contract questions in the agreement with the developers is something to ask the City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
This reporter tried contacting Herrera's office but as of yet no answer to the possible legal issues that may arise. Residents like Suval think that they will given the track record of big corporate developers like Stellar/Fortress.
Will principles of "smart housing" be upheld if plans for Parkmerced go through? For now the future at this stage is set before the Board of Supervisors.
More about Smart Housing, Parkmerced, San Francisco, Sunset District, Rentcontrol
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