Dense in the west

Parkmerced redesign wins narrow Planning Commission approval

Aaron Goodman, a former resident of Parkmerced, has been vocal in his opposition to the scope and scale of the project

A marathon special meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission on Feb. 10 demonstrated a clear split over Parkmerced, a $1.2 billion private development project that will rebuild an entire existing neighborhood on the west side of San Francisco.

While some expressed strong enthusiasm for moving forward with the ambitious plan, many residents turned out to voice vehement opposition, citing concerns about traffic congestion, noise, dust, and the demolition of affordable apartments that some Parkmerced tenants have occupied for decades.

The votes to certify the project's environmental analysis and send the plan onto the Board of Supervisors with a commission endorsement were split 4-3, with Commissioners Christina Olague, Hisashi Sugaya, and Kathrin Moore dissenting.

Those who voted no were appointees of the Board of Supervisors, while the four commissioners who voted in favor were appointees of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, suggesting a break along clear political lines. State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano also submitted a letter urging commissioners not to approve the project.

While Parkmerced Investors LLC, the project sponsor, eagerly awaits groundbreaking, spokesperson P.J. Johnston noted that they weren't there yet. "First," he said, "we have to break ground at the Board of Supervisors."



The Parkmerced redesign has been touted as an ecological and sustainable beacon for urban development and, indeed, some features of the grand plan read as if they were plucked from a checklist from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-neighborhood standards.

Walkable, bikeable streets with proximity to transit? Check. Water-efficient landscaping? Check. Energy-efficient dwellings? Check. Project sponsors claim that through dramatic reductions in per capita resource consumption, three times as many residents would consume the same amount of water and electricity as Parkmerced's current population does today.

Johnston emphasized how adding new units to the west side of the city also helped contribute to "density equality," since most new projects tend to be concentrated in the eastern neighborhoods.

Johnston was particularly jazzed about an innovative storm-water discharge system envisioned for the plan, which he described as a design that could "regenerate and repair the environment." It would recirculate rainwater through a naturally filtrating system of ponds and bioswales to recharge Lake Merced, a water body that has been slowly shrinking due to being choked off from its natural watershed by a concrete urban barrier.

Green points might be awarded for plans for an on-site organic garden, but Commissioner Michael Antonini, who said he lives less than a mile from Parkmerced, cautioned that developers shouldn't get too attached to that idea. After all, he said, many kinds of vegetables won't thrive in that part of the city.

Meanwhile, the wholesale destruction of existing units is decidedly not eco-chic. The Green Building Council's LEED neighborhood standards insist that "historic resource preservation and adaptive reuse" is always preferable in a green development — and that's the point that Aaron Goodman, an architect who previously lived at Parkmerced, has been driving at for more than a year. Proponents maintain that Parkmerced's wartime construction meant it was built with inferior materials, and that property owners have battled dry rot and other infrastructure problems.

Another not-so-green Parkmerced project feature has also raised eyebrows: parking. While proponents portray the redesign as a switch from a suburban, love-affair-with-the-automobile style to an enlightened departure from car-centrism, plans nonetheless include a parking space for every single unit.