The price of growth

Development is booming in the eastern neighborhoods, but the money isn't there to cover the infrastructure needed to serve it

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joe@sfbg.com

San Francisco is booming, but will its infrastructure be able to keep up with its population growth?

The problem is acutely illustrated in the southeast part of San Francisco, where long-stalled development plans were finally greenlit by the adoption of the Eastern Neighborhoods Community Plan a few years ago.

The Mission, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Mission Bay districts have attracted more attention from developers than any other sector of San Francisco, according to the Planning Department. Bayview and Hunters Point are also now attracting lots of investment and building by developers.

But when development projects don't pay the full cost of the infrastructure needed to serve those new residents — which is often the case in San Francisco and throughout California, with its Prop. 13 cap on property tax increases — then that burden gets passed on the rest of us.

Mayor Ed Lee's recent call to build 30,000 new housing units by 2020 and the dollar sign lures of waterfront development have pressed the gas pedal on construction, while giving short shrift to corresponding questions about how the serve that growth.

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Infrastructure needs — such as roads, public transit, parks, and the water and sewer systems — aren't as sexy as other issues. But infrastructure is vital to creating a functional city.

That kind of planning (or lack thereof) impacts traffic congestion, public safety, and the overall livability of the city. And right now, the eastern neighborhoods alone face a funding gap as high as $274 million, according to city estimates highlighted by area Sup. Malia Cohen.

That's why Cohen went looking for help, though that's not exactly what she found.

 

MEETING DEMAND

Cohen has asked Mayor Lee about the lack of adequate investment in critical infrastructure again and again. She asked his staffers, she asked his aides. At the Feb. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting, during the mayor's question time, she was determined to ask one more time.

Cohen asked the mayor about how to fund infrastructure needs in the eastern neighborhoods and whether the city should use a new, rarely used fundraising option called an Infrastructure Financing District, or IFD.

"When the city adopted the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, we were aware of a significant funding gap that existed for infrastructure improvement," she said to the mayor. She asked if he would slow down development while the city caught up with infrastructure improvements, or commit more funding.

Cohen asked pointedly, "Would you support an IFD for the eastern neighborhoods?"

The mayor's answer was in the foreign language known as bureaucratese, offering a firm "only if we have to."

"Strategically planning for growth means making long-term investments in infrastructure," he said. "And the most important thing that we can do right now is to work together to place and pass two new revenue generating bonds measures on the November 2014 ballot."

But his proposed $500 million general obligation bond and $1 billion local vehicle license fee increase would just go to citywide transportation projects, where the city faces $6 billion in capital needs over the next 15 years, according to a task force formed by the mayor.

That's small comfort for the people of the eastern neighborhoods, who are already ill-served by Muni and will have other needs as well. It's a situation likely to get worse as the population there increases, unless the city finds a way to make serious new investments.