Citizen planning

Western SoMa task force gathers community input as it seeks to become a grassroots success story

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan has become a high-stakes battleground involving anxious developers stalled by a temporary building moratorium, progressives who want more affordable housing, concerns about dwindling light-industrial spaces and an exodus of African American residents, environmental justice, and a list of other issues that are central to this sprawling section of the city.

But the folks in the neighborhood known as Western SoMa are just happy that they're no longer a part of that mess. Instead, they're excitedly experimenting with a new approach to planning using an innovative and largely untested grassroots model.

Five years ago, when the city Planning Department first announced its intention to rezone the Eastern Neighborhoods, a group of disenchanted SoMa residents decided that they wanted to secede from that process and develop an independent, more comprehensive, community-based plan.

"A lot of us were offended by the Planning Department's top-down, autocratic process," Jim Meko, who later became chair of the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force, told the Guardian. "It was a bad process for everybody, but it was particularly bad for SoMa because the neighborhood had already been rezoned in the 1990s."

Meko survived three major demographic shifts within three decades: the AIDS epidemic that decimated SoMa's gay community, the live-work loft zoning loopholes that gutted the artistic community, and the dot-com crash that displaced many techies. He feared that the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan would impose a "one-size-fits-all mode that treated all of SoMa like postindustrial wasteland."

So Meko set his sights on pressuring the Planning Commission to split his neighborhood from the rest of the Eastern Neighborhoods, which include the Mission District, Eastern SoMa, Showplace Square, Potrero Hill, and the Central Waterfront. Western SoMa is bordered by Mission and Bryant, 13th and Fourth streets, and Harrison and Townsend.

That dream became a reality in February 2004, and that November the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force formed, with a stated objective to "recommend zoning changes that will preserve the heart and soul of their neighborhood, while planning for the realities of 21st-century growth."

Since beginning its work in 2005, the 22-member task force has met as often as five times a month and has created a values statement; a set of planning principles; committees focusing on business and land use, transportation, and arts and entertainment; and a committee that integrates a variety of issues.

Its June 28 town hall meeting was the first time the task force threw the doors open to the community at large, although the occasion happened to come on the heels of a high-profile budget battle between Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sup. Chris Daly, whose district includes SoMa and who helped set up the task force.

Within five minutes of Meko's kicking off the meeting, a small but vocal group of attendees began to heckle him midspeech. Perhaps they were there to confront Daly, who had been slated to attend but was out of town. Whatever the reason, while accusing Meko of "having an agenda" and "using the bully pulpit" to present his own views, this faction was anxious to know how many task force members are property owners and which particular group of them would be dealing with crime, the fight against which Newsom has made a top budget priority.

For one wobbly, tension-filled moment, it felt as if this first crack at a citizen planning forum might crumble. But then another participant saved the day by requesting a simple but basic meeting ground rule: no personal attacks.

From that moment, the mood in the room lightened.