The new politics of dense development in San Francisco 

Keeping San Francisco from becoming a forest of skyscrapers once dominated conversations about development in The City. Opposition to such “Manhattanization” was a platform that environmentalists, neighborhood groups and outright foes of development used to block construction projects.

But times have changed.

The onset of global climate change and the automobile-dependent sprawl that helped create it have forced developers, planners, urbanists and even environmentalists to rethink the future of a city facing significant population increases but almost no room left for horizontal expansion.

Click the picture for renderings of the future developments.

Past rejection of density propelled the growth of suburbs and the carbon emissions of longer car commutes. But today’s dominant paradigm favors dense, transit-oriented infill developments that encourage walkable access to schools, stores and services.

The transformation of the South of Market neighborhood and the creation of Mission Bay are two prominent examples of such development. More recently, even bigger projects have begun moving through The City’s approval pipeline.

In Hunters Point, developers will soon begin construction on a small part of their proposal to build 10,000 new homes. Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a plan to build 5,700 more homes at Parkmerced. The board is set to consider a separate vote on about 8,000 new housing units at Treasure Island on June 7.

Politics aside, growth in San Francisco depends, above all, on the sheer demand for housing.

By 2035, the Bay Area is expected to be home to about 2 million more people and 902,000 more homes, with almost all that growth concentrated in existing urban areas. This daunting 29 percent population increase has prompted regional planners to urge local governments to reduce their per-resident carbon emissions by 15 percent.

That’s the crux of the “Initial Vision Scenario for 2035,” which was released in March by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments. The report envisions that while the Bay Area’s population grows from 7 million to 9 million people, San Francisco will add roughly 90,000 households, pushing its population to around 1 million.

Predictions such as these are encouraging Bay Area cities to greenlight dense transit-oriented housing to help curb car and truck emissions and buck the suburban development trend that has reigned since World War II.

Environmentalists will keep fighting developments that involve the addition of traffic, but don’t expect the same kinds of fights over greater density in San Francisco.

“People understand if you just say ‘no’ in San Francisco, there’s going to be a million more people living in Modesto, and that’s a horrible carbon footprint,” said Jason Henderson, an assistant professor of human geography at San Francisco State University. “The City is willing to absorb its share of growth.”

But Henderson also said such growth will require an investment in transit.

“We’d have to buy a lot of new buses and a lot of new trains,” he said.

For instance, although the Sierra Club dislikes the parking plan at Parkmerced, developers linked construction of new housing units to a Muni light-rail extension, and the group did not oppose the project.

Instead, the opposition to Parkmerced rested with tenants who love the character of their postwar townhouses. Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, regards such housing as an anachronism.

“Parkmerced was from an era when people were fleeing cities to places with green lawns and easy car access, removed from the problems of the inner city,” Metcalf said. “What we’ve learned since then is that more-traditional city forms give more options to people. We need to say no to development that is car-oriented and yes to development that is transit- and pedestrian-oriented.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ approval, in a 6-5 vote, of the massive Parkmerced redevelopment seems to suggest an emerging political consensus in favor of Metcalf’s viewpoint.

The fight over Treasure Island, which would bring 16,000 more people to the middle of San Francisco Bay and presumably add to the already snarled state of Bay Bridge traffic, is different.

Despite planners’ efforts to beef up ferry and bus services and include amenities that would reduce off-island trips, detractors still can’t see how the project won’t involve more cars. John Rizzo, the political chairman of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter, said his organization supports infill development, but Treasure Island doesn’t fit that bill.

“To say people are always going to take the ferry or do everything they need on the island is just kind of crazy,” Rizzo said. “If you densify an area and it doesn’t have any transit, it’s just going to clog everything up.”

No sure bets when it comes to housing

Months of political tip-toeing before Tuesday’s approval of a massive housing redevelopment at Parkmerced should demonstrate a simple lesson: There is no exact formula for predicting whether development plans become reality in San Francisco.

Parkmerced has most things The City’s fractious development intelligentsia are now seeking — dense housing in an existing urban space with access to San Francisco’s mass-transit system. From 1975 until the early ’90s, political leaders faced opposition for approving large buildings even when they were located close to transit nodes.

That was underscored, San Francisco State University political science professor Richard DeLeon said, by the 1986 approval of Proposition M, which put caps on high-rises, among other limits.

By 1992, when DeLeon’s book “Left Coast City” was published, the local pro-growth movement had been hampered by increased political clout of neighborhood organizations seeking to preserve San Francisco’s special character. But with the rise of the movement known as “urbanism,” the rules of the game have changed.

“Now there is more of a shift to extract as much as possible in community interests and strike hard bargains,” DeLeon said. “The most radical force on Earth is capitalism. ... There’s something to be said for politically mobilized forces that challenge these market forces to eventually produce a deal that has popular legitimacy.”

In Hunters Point, developers proposing to build 10,000 new homes also promise to maintain affordable units in a city that badly needs such housing.

That was the deal hashed out by progressive former Supervisor Chris Daly in 2007, when he helped facilitate 360 rent-controlled units in South of Market’s Trinity Plaza. Daly also pushed for developers to pay into a community-stabilization fund for residents and businesses that would be affected by a Rincon Hill high-rise development in 2005.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, whose district includes Parkmerced, said the more recent development includes more affordable-housing options than Trinity Plaza, which passed unanimously.

“The general concept of smart growth, development on transit lines, is starting to spread across the political spectrum,” Elsbernd said. “But development issues in San Francisco are never black and white. There are always other interests.” — Dan Schreiber

Treasure Island

2,800 Current residents

16,000 Projected population increase

8,000 New homes

2,000 Affordable housing units

2032 Projected completion

Transit options


  • Increased bus and ferry services are aimed at reducing car trips on and off the island, which is in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Planners want a ferry to downtown every 15 minutes and a Muni express bus every seven minutes in the morning and five minutes in the afternoon. A tentative plan would require drivers to pay a $5 fee to drive off the island on weekdays.

Source: Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development


7,300 Current residents

13,000 Projected population increase

5,700 New homes (8,900 total)

3,200 Rent-controlled housing units

Projected completion

Source: Stellar Management

Transit options


  • A realignment of Muni’s M-Oceanview line will take riders further into the redeveloped neighborhood, with a zero-to-low emissions shuttle bus that brings less-connected residents directly to the Muni stop. The M line runs northeast to downtown.

Source: San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

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Dan Schreiber

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