Big waterfront projects prompt study of new transportation ideas

Warriors President Rick Welts on improving access to the central waterfront: "We have to get that right."
Steven T. Jones

The massive development projects being proposed along San Francisco's central waterfront – from the proposed Warriors Arena at Pier 30 through the Giants' housing/retail project at Pier 48 down to Forest City's sprawling proposal around Pier 70 – will create huge challenges for the city's already overtaxed transportation system.

Nobody is more aware of that issue than Warriors President Rick Welts as he seeks approval to build a 17,500-seat arena with just a smattering of parking spaces. “We're investing a billion dollars in this property, and if people aren't comfortable getting to it and leaving it, we have a problem,” Welts told a gathering of the California Music and Culture Association on Tuesday night, responding to a local resident who raised the concern. “We have to get that right, it's at the top of our list.”

With Muni and BART already at capacity during peak hours, and thousands of new housing units being built in the coming years both along the waterfront and from nearby SoMa down through the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan area, city transportation planners are trying to get ahead of potential problems created by the development boom.

“We're now taking a step back and looking at the long-term needs from the Exploratorium down to Pier 70,” says San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency planner Peter Albert, who is leading a comprehensive waterfront transportation study that will inform the environmental studies done for each of these projects. “What we get is an environmental review that is much smarter because we have all this advanced planning....EIRs are important, but they aren't really planning.”

Albert is looking at everything from working with various transportation agencies to beef up bus, train, and ferry services to the area; using these projects to complete the ambitious but underfunded and long-stalled Blue-Greenway bicycle path along the waterfront; accelerating capital projects that are already in the SFMTA's queue; and exploring a dozen or so new ideas.

“What's also coming out of this are new ideas we're coming up with, things we weren't even thinking of that may make sense,” Albert told us, noting that he'll be doing his first presentation of some of these ideas to the SFMTA Board of Directors on March 5.

They include extending new streetcar service along the Embarcadero to the Caltrain station at 4th and King or possibly all the way out to the Anchor Steam Brewing-anchored project at Pier 48 (which would probably involve construction of new streetcar turn-arounds); better integrating the Central Subway project into Mission Bay and the Embarcadero with new bus and rail connections around 20th and 3rd streets; and expansion of the Embarcadero BART station to increase its peak capacity.

Welts said BART will be an important connector to the new Warriors Arena, noting that the walking distance from Pier 30 to the Embarcadero station is actually about the same distance as the Coliseum BART station is from the entrance to the Warriors' current arena. He said that he's excited about Albert's work and wants to cooperate with helping the city meet its transportation needs: “We have a lot of process to go through and we're embracing that process.”

Funding the needed improvements will be a challenge, particularly because new development projects generally don't pay for their full impacts to the transportation system, as SFMTA head Ed Reiskin and Sup. Scott Wiener have told the Guardian. On Monday, Wiener amended the Western SoMa Community Plan to increase how much developers would pay in transportation impact fees.

Albert said funding for the needed improvements to the area's transportation system would come from a combination of mitigation fees from the developers, reprioritizing the SFMTA's existing capital budget, and securing state and federal transportation grants by developing impactful projects that are shovel-ready, thanks to this advanced planning effort.

These three waterfront development projects alone could have huge impacts. The Warriors Arena would host more than 200 concerts and sporting events per year, drawing anywhere from a few thousand to more than 17,500 people. The Giants' Pier 48 proposal involves 27 acres of new development, including retail, office, Anchor Brewing, and about 1,500 homes. And Forest City's proposal for Pier 70 involves about 1,000 homes, 2.2 million square feet of office space, and 275,000 square feet of retail and light manufacturing.

Addressing the waterfront's transportation challenges, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu told the Guardian, “It is possibly the most difficult and important question surrounding the Warriors project, and I've encouraged all parties to make sure they get it right.”