Newsom: S.F. is on upswing 

State of the City stakes out few groundbreaking ideas; quality-of-life issues stressed

Mayor Gavin Newsom played it safe with his State of the City address Thursday, highlighting key accomplishments and tossing out only a few new ambitious ideas.

Speaking to an auditorium packed mostly with city leaders, staff and commissioners, Newsom read his hour-plus speech from a teleprompter, without veering too far off the predetermined script.

He declared that The City’s economy is finally recovering from the dot-com bust and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, citing the creation of 6,300 new jobs in the last year. He also pointed to a record-breaking year for San Francisco’s largest industry, tourism, and the highest budget reserve in history.

He reminded the audience that San Francisco is now the new home of the state’s stem cell institute and said the announcement of a 200-employee biotech company moving into Mission Bay signaled a positive future for the budding biotech corridor. He recelebrated a plan to provide health care access to any San Francisco resident without insurance, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors this summer.

Newsom focused the majority of the speech on issues that he said "may seem small" but improve the "quality of life" for residents — potholes, parks, sidewalks, litter and graffiti — while acknowledging that they can make a difference in a politician’s approval rating.

Touting San Francisco’s position as an international city that has become a model for programs dealing with health care and homelessness, the mayor asked, "How do we dare to dream big while not forgetting … [to] address the small problems of urban life that make such a big difference in our quality of life?"

Citing the strong economy, Newsom said The City is able to begin tackling the more than $380 million worth of infrastructure problems, such as potholes and street repaving, that The City placed on the back burner during the lean economy of recent years.

Newsom is proposing legislation that will require public and private agencies, such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, that tear up the streets for improvements to return the pavement to as-good or better condition, ending what he called a "patchwork" of city streets. He discussed the recently launched Clean Corridors program, which will provide 100 commercial blocks that have long been ignored with a "higher standard of care and cleanliness" from The City.

The 39-year-old mayor announced initiatives that he had released in recent days: directing the Municipal Transportation Agency to explore placing Fast Pass distribution machines citywide and make installation of the NextBus technology a priority, and instructing the Taxicab Commission to install taxi stands at major transit hubs citywide and require all taxis to have Global Positioning System capabilities and credit card machines.

He also took shots at problems, including Muni, that have long plagued The City.

"Frankly, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the buses to run on time," Newsom said, while expressing enthusiasm for a new public transportation study that he promised would "fundamentally reform and improve Muni."

He openly supported the controversial Geary Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit system, which would provide bus-only lanes and give buses traffic signal prioritization. BRT has been a hot-button issue for merchants along Geary Boulevard who fear the loss of parking spaces to the bus-only lanes, but Newsom vowed to work with them and discussed the expansion of BRT to Van Ness and other bus arteries.

Two of the most significant announcements involved new law enforcement programs. One would target people living on the street who commit what’s known as "quality of life" offenses, which some residents complain make them unpleasant to be around. The other would require treatment for people on the street who are picked up repeatedly for alcohol-related offenses.

Returning to issues that were staples of his election campaign — homelessness and the creation of new housing — Newsom proudly provided numbers of successes to date: 2,222 homeless individuals have been placed in permanent supportive housing, with a total of 4,263 having left The City’s streets through various initiatives.

Newsom declared that the 5,570 new housing units placed in the construction pipeline this year and the $210.7 million he says The City has invested this year in affordable housing are not enough.

In an ambitious plan, he said he would tear down The City’s existing public housing and rebuild it. Dubbed "HopeSF," the plan would rebuild 2,500 public housing units, which would be paid for with 2,500 new units of market-rate housing.

Newsom’s speech also called upon community members to do more to support The City. He encouraged neighborhood merchants and residents to create community benefit districts in which property owners in an area agree to pay a special assessment fee to fund local improvement projects. He challenged public schools to make community service a key component for students before graduation. He promoted Project Homeless Connect, a hallmark of his administration. And, noting The City’s shortage of police officers, urged residents to "answer a new call to service" and become police officers.

"It’s time to get back to the basics," Newsom said.

Public housing offered as lofty goal

One of the most ambitious ideas that Mayor Gavin Newsom announced at his State of the City speech Thursday was a proposal to tear down 2,500 public housing units in The City and rebuild them to include an equal number of for-sale, market-rate housing.

The mixed-use housing would also include low-income rental units as well as ground-level retail development, Newsom said.

Newsom said the program, dubbed Hope SF, would create new neighborhoods in the Bayview, Excelsior and Visitacion Valley, preserving "existing neighborhoods by relieving the pressure for new housing."

The plan is likely to attract some suspicion from residents of the neighborhoods who have concerns that any redevelopment could push out existing residents, as more affluent city residents move into the areas. A petition to block a $188 million redevelopment plan in Bayview-Hunters Point gathered more than 21,000 signatures, although the effort was declared invalid by The City Attorney’s Office. Affordable housing advocates were also dismayed earlier this month when an agreement to build 400 rental units at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was brushed aside and the developer was allowed to go forward with building for-sale housing only.

City activist Julian Davis, a board member of the progressive San Francisco People’s Organization, said hedidn’t oppose the demolition of existing public housing to make way for a mixed-use, mixed-income replacement, but he would want the existing tenants to be given written assurance that would guarantee that they could return to their same housing site.

"You’d also have to make sure there’s affordable housing; you wouldn’t want that to be an empty promise and have it all become market rate," Davis said.

Mayor Newsom’s ideas and proposals

» A "Focused Enforcement" program, through the District Attorney’s Office, to target "quality of life" infractions committed by people living on the street.

» A pilot program on Muni’s 1-California line aims to speed up service and would include parking control officers at problem intersections during peak hours, expanding hours for express service, and back-door boarding.

» The feasibility of placing Fast Pass distribution machines at Metro stations and Muni kiosks throughout The City.

» Promised that Muni would offer prepaid parking meter cards available online by next year.

» Challenged the Taxicab Commission to create a centralized dispatch system, available online and by phone.

» By next year, all Recreation and Park users could go online to reserve playing fields and gymnasiums and register for classes.

» Placing public works on 100 commercial blocks to clean up trash, fix streets and remove graffiti.

» Promised that 311, a single phone number that residents can call to access all city services, would be up and running by this spring.

beslinger@examiner.com

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Bonnie Eslinger

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