Public Land for Housing: Balboa Reservoir?

meeting regarding the Balboa Reservoir
Photo by: Otto Pippenger

When Mayor Ed Lee surveyed San Francisco looking for unused land that could be repurposed, the site of the Balboa Reservoir on Ocean Avenue was one of the first to be considered.

The newly created Public Land for Housing commission held their first community meeting on the subject of this site on January 21st at Lick Wilmerding High School.

While low income housing is often subsidized by the government and market rate housing is subsidized by hearty paychecks (or trust funds), it is moderate income housing that takes a back seat. If the city carries on at this rate, it will quickly become a polarized environment: the ultra rich and the ultra poor. ”

The meeting and the impending development was advertised as the possibility of 6,000 new homes in San Francisco. While this might have held exciting promise in the Financial or SOMA districts of San Francisco, where many new residents work and play, the reaction was a resounding difference when the local community came out to speak their part at the meeting.

The discussion was an exercise in creating a town hall vibe in the big city. The attendees were mostly homeowners from the surrounding neighborhood, namely Ingleside, Sunnyside, Balboa Park and Crocker Amazon. Many came with their neighbors, some speaking for those who held less of a grasp on the English language.

Before the real hubbub began, project manager Jeremy Shaw politely outlined the plan - both for the meetings and the development. He stated the planned goals of addressing public needs that the commission feels could be solved through the development of this large patch of land that has often been deemed an eyesore. possible sites for increased housing in SF

Although the need for housing and public land is real, understanding the feelings of the nearby community is crucial to taking correct action with this plot of land now that it is in the city’s hands. The meeting was thus intended as a way for the community to understand the facts but also for concerned parties to help guide the process of development from the plethora of current options into an actual proposal and plan.

To outsiders, of either the city or neighborhood, the proposed goal of increased moderate income housing seems like a great idea for a city that seems to be bursting at the seams.

While low income housing is often subsidized by the government and market rate housing is subsidized by hearty paychecks (or trust funds), it is moderate income housing that takes a back seat. If the city carries on at this rate, it will quickly become a polarized environment: the ultra rich and the ultra poor.

Local residents were strongly wary of any sort of development that might impinge upon local character and, most of all, local traffic patterns. Whether those present at the meeting were suffering from a severe case of NIMBY (not in my backyard) or if their concerns were valid arguments amidst San Francisco’s rapidly changing urban landscape is up for debate.

Balboa Park Station Area Plan is part of a larger SF Planning project.

As participants broke off into smaller groups from the nearly 200 who attended, personal issues were discussed and priorities were ranked, allowing the maximum amount of voices to be heard by commission proctors.

Many in these smaller groups voiced concerns over the already intense parking situation in the neighborhood. The influx of cars daily for use of the City College campus as well as the new Ocean Avenue Whole Foods is already overburdening the neighborhood for parking. The belief was that a loss of this massive parking lot, eyesore or not, could only harm this problem.

Janet Lehr, a City College ceramics teacher and longtime neighborhood resident, had much to say on the subject of the college itself.

“We need to recognize the importance of City College to our community. [Roughly] 1/7 San Franciscans have taken classes at City College.” Lehr said. And, it is true, that many of these student commute by car.

Traffic problems may not seem a good enough reason to maintain a large parking lot, although it may provide an impetus for bookmarking some of the space for a multi-level parking lot. site of the Balboa Reservoir today

Many attendees argued that nothing could truly change unless the transit system was improved, allowing for less car traffic and a decreased need for housing in some of the hottest spots in the city, including this one.

What the traffic debate brings to light is the chicken-and-egg situation prevalent in such parking versus transit issues. The transit cannot grow without demand as students and other city residents continue to use their cars as they wait impatiently for busses that never arrive and trains that do not extend to their corners of even this small city.

To many, increasing public housing seems a band-aid on a citywide problem of poor transportation, causing congestion at certain hot spots. The meeting heard many a cry of “first the Mission, now here!” These BART-adjacent neighborhoods have gone from quiet residences and ethnic communities to areas highly sought after by a the new influx of local elite who would not fit into the description of moderate income.

Discussions of housing and parking made earlier ideals of creating an open space and public activity space seem like more of a utopia amidst more pressing city needs. Although arguments for a development that focused on sustainability, even going so far as to request an actual reservoir be created on the land for which it was originally intended, were hard to ignore.

Despite smiling in the face of criticism, the planning commision faced a variety of voices - many of them strong - in regards to what their priorities should be for the space.

suggestions from the public
Photo: Heidi Alletzhauser

Choosing between prioritizing local residents’ traffic and parking concerns, the need for City College expansion and maintenance, urban beautification, and the pressing need for more housing can’t possibly be an easy task for those in charge of the commission. Faced with the option of sectioning off the land into small parcels for each initiative or prioritizing some over others will be certain to anger members of the community.

It is these difficult decisions, however, that need to be made in order for progress to be made. Much ink has been spilled over those who want the city to remain the same amidst the sea of changes, but what is most important now is how the city will respond to new needs and create new solutions.

This meeting was the first of a series, with the next arriving in Spring 2015. As San Francisco takes it’s next steps, this is perfect opportunity to have your voice heard and shape the future of our city. It is these decisions that will affect the city for years to come.

Maya Lekach is a local journalist

February 2015