Moment of truth

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan could determine whether San Francisco retains its working-class residents
The Eastern Neighborhoods Community
Plan area includes many
working class neighborhoods

The controversial and long-awaited Eastern Neighborhoods Community Plan — which includes a thicket of thorny planning and financing issues that will largely determine San Francisco's socioeconomic future — has finally arrived before the Board of Supervisors.

Neither developers nor community activists are happy with the plan approved Aug. 7 by the Planning Commission, which sets zoning, policies, and funding levels for new development in the Mission District, eastern SoMa, Potrero Hill, and the Central Waterfront.

Developers objected to the fee levels and affordable-housing requirements, saying they would discourage growth, but the compromise plan of less than $16 per square foot in development fees (which vary widely, depending on many factors) and a maximum 20 percent affordable-housing requirement have left public needs severely underfunded. San Francisco Planning Department estimates indicate the fee structure will yield only about $150 million for the area's $400 million in infrastructure needs.

"The plan right now is not balanced in favor of diversity and real neighborhood needs," said Sup. Tom Ammiano, who plans to introduce a long list of amendments to the plan in conjunction with Sup. Sophie Maxwell and neighborhood groups that include the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, the South of Market Citizen Action Network (SOMCAN), and the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association.

On the other side of the equation, the Residential Builders Association and other developers say the city will end up with little development activity if they ask for too much, and they're threatening legal action if the city pushes too hard. "Our members certainly aren't happy, and the industry isn't happy," RBA president Sean Keighran told the Guardian, saying the plan allows for too little development. "Many of our members are meeting with attorneys and considering their options."

The Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee will begin working through the myriad conflicts Sept. 15 with a series of at least four hearings running through Sept. 23, when the plan could head for the full board. But given the complex political dynamics at play — and the fate of Proposition B, the affordable housing set-aside measure that could help narrow the funding shortfall — key parts of the plan could be delayed until at least January, when the new board is seated, making the stakes of this November's election even higher.

Political priorities will determine the plan's emphasis, and the balance of power on the board now seems to favor increasing the amount of affordable housing that will be required in the eastern neighborhoods, home to much of San Francisco's remaining working class. The supervisors also are leaning toward asking developers to pay more for parks and other infrastructure needs.

Planning Department staffer Steve Wertheim said the goal has been to "make the fees as feasible as possible" for developers and "to find a sweet spot" that will satisfy developers as well as community activists. While he said the commission "was as aggressive as possible with the tools we had available, we would have to subsidize every house if we want [more] affordable housing."

Planners say they are constrained by city studies indicating that developers won't build if required to offer more than 20 percent of their housing units below market rates. "As a resident of San Francisco, I would love to see housing cheaper. But we can't make affordable housing requirements so high that we end up getting no housing at all," Wertheim said. "We've done as much as we can, but the whole city has to commit."