So the Association of Bay Area Governments, which plays an outsized role in local planning by making all sorts of projections, based on whatever economists and demographers use to make projections, that are supposed to guide how cities in the region make land-use decisions, says San Francisco should be prepared to see its population grow to 964,000 people by 2035. If you figure that's only an estimate, and probably off by at least five percent, we could be talking about a million people in this city just 20 years down the road.
Now: Some of those people will be coming here for jobs that are being created. Many will be coming here as immigrants from other countries. Many more will be coming because, well, California is growing, and, as the official motto of the old Redevelopment Agency put it, "Omnes Volunt Habitare in Urbe San Francisco." Everybody wants to live in the city of San Francisco.
ABAG says we're going to need to build homes and create jobs for all of those people, and the Chron talks about the new private-sector development that's going on, and the zoning plans the city has adopted to increase density, particularly on the Eastern and Southeastern side of town. (Yes, it's crazy, but John Rahaim, the planning director, freely admits that 80 percent of all new development is going into 20 percent of the city.)
Before we decide that this is our fate and our future, though, it's worth considering a few points.
1. San Francisco is already one of the densest urban areas in the US. Last time I check the data, this city was number three on the list, behind Manhattan and Union City, New Jersey. Clearly, urban areas are going to have to get more dense as population increases in this state; the only other option is suburban sprawl, which works for nobody. But I wonder: Should San Francisco take this much more density when Berkeley (for example) doesn’t want it and won’t take it? Should it all go on the East Side when the more suburban-style areas on the West Side don’t want it?
Is there a way to do density that looks more like North Beach -- one of the densest neighborhoods in town, and a really great place to live, work, and visit -- and less like the highrise forests of Soma, which are unappealing at ground level, discourage neighborhood interaction, and are lacking in human scale?
I don’t want to live in Manhattan. I don’t want Soma to turn into Manhattan. Downtown is bad enough.
2. Nowhere in the Chron article, or in the comments attributed to Rahaim, is there any mention of affordable housing. That’s crazy. The urban planning train wreck that we’re heading for is all about the balance between jobs and the cost of housing. The vast majority of the jobs in San Francisco today do not pay enough to cover the cost of renting or buying a market-rate home. That’s not going to change radically; tourism and government are, and will be, the city’s major industries, even as tech, which pays better, increases.
If the housing that gets built is not in synch with the needs of the workforce, then the workers will be forced to live futher and further away, which leads to exactly the kind of sprawl and transportation problems that this “infill” and increased density is supposed to prevent.In other words: Affordable housing for the workforce prevents sprawl. Market-rate housing for people who live here and commute to work on the Peninsula is not environmentally sound.
3. Density -- both in housing and in commercial development -- has huge impacts on existing populations, particularly low-income communities. That’s not part of the planning discussion at all, and it really ought to be the starting point.
I know my trolls -- I know you well -- and I know you’re all going to say that growth and change is inevitable. Sure. But I think of a city first and foremost as a community, as a place where a diverse group of people live. Protecting that is just as important as giving developers and businesses a chance to make money.
Oh, and Rahaim's comment -- "This (growth) is going to happen whether we plan for it or not" -- is wrong. If we don't build office space and room for new jobs, if we don't build housing, the growth isn't going to happen. San Francisco gets to decide what happens on land in San Francisco. Not saying we want to stop (all) growth, but Rahaim is a planner, and he should know: Growth happens when you encourage it and allow it. Growth doesn't happen in places where you don't allow it.
There is no growth in Bolinas, because the people who live there don't want it. There's less growth in Berkeley, because the people who live there want less. Again: Not the model I want to use. I don't want to live in Bolinas any more than I want to live in Manhattan. But San Francisco does control our own fate, and we should never forget that.