After the bubble

Eastern Neighborhoods Plan limps toward final approval as activists question its assumptions on housing and fear the mayor's veto pen
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amanda@sfbg.com

Speculators will be able to sit on tracts of San Francisco land until the market improves. Development impact fees will be set too low to cover the costs of neighborhood improvements like parks, streets, and transit. Affordable housing development is intimately tied to a busted market rate-housing boom.

This is the future of the eastern South of Market, Potrero Hill, Central Waterfront, and Mission District neighborhoods as laid out in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, a community rezoning effort that began in 2001 that now fills a binder thicker than a weightlifter's bicep.

After more than 30 public hearings, the plan is approaching final approval by the Board of Supervisors. While some are lauding all the heavy lifting that's been done to get it to this stage, there are still some noticeable shortcomings.

"The plan itself is despicably deficient in terms of affordable housing," housing activist Calvin Welch told the Guardian. That sentiment was echoed by spokespeople from the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and the South of Market Community Action Network, who may join together in a legal challenge of the plan's Environmental Impact Report for failing to properly consider socioeconomic impacts.

"There will be environmental impacts in terms of displacement, increased amounts of traffic and cars, increased levels of noise," said April Veneracion, SOMCAN's organization director. "The Board of Supervisors could have addressed these inadequacies in the EIR with amendments."

Some last minute amendments were added that would audit the financing of projects and reduce land speculation — but due to a tricky legislative maneuver, even these concessions could be axed by a veto from Mayor Gavin Newsom.

The bulk of the plan rezones vast tracts of industrial land on the eastern flank of the city for housing, mixed urban use (including retail and commercial sites), and a light industrial category called "production, distribution, and repair" (PDR) that protects many of the working-class jobs remaining in San Francisco.

Building height limits will increase in some areas and remain at 40 feet in others. Between 7,000 and 10,000 new units of housing are anticipated, with affordable housing rates between 15 to 25 percent, depending on the location and project.

However, the one method of financing affordable housing — known as inclusionary housing, which requires market-rate developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units — is entirely linked to a now-waning economic boom. "Events have rendered it meaningless," said Welch. "The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan is a plan predicated on a red-hot real estate market. Planning has no ability to shift with the market and the market, since mid-September, has changed radically."

The Controller's Office recently readjusted the city's revenue projections, suggesting a $90 to $125 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year, with 40 to 49 percent of that directly connected to flagging real estate transactions.

Yet housing in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan remains primarily composed of market-rate units, fetching upward of $700,000 apiece, with "middle-income" units discounted to half that, and below-market-rate apartments still costing over $200,000 each. Development impact fees are set for $10 per square foot of construction — not enough to cover the proposed improvements that would make these industrial areas pleasant and safe for everyday residential living and working.

"In order to support the population that's expected to move in, you need transit improvements, park improvements, street improvements," said Tony Kelly of the Potrero Boosters, a neighborhood group.