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Go West, San Francisco: Manifest Urban Destiny

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Yesterday's SPUR forum on smart growth did not break much new ground. By the admission of the speakers, much of the discussion centered on already-discussed topics and published plans. The real insights occurred through the juxtaposition of the panel's various members. Ken Kirkey of ABAG, a recent SPUR regular, Sarah Dennis-Phillips of the city's Planning Department, and Ron Miguel, president of the Planning Commission, all gave their insights into what will constitute smart growth over the next 30 years.

For his part, Ken Kirkey did a decent job of outlining ABAG's housing target for San Francisco, roughly 65,000 units before 2035. He also touched on a popular theme for the day: the western neighborhoods are very well-served, some would say over-served, with transit infrastructure. Sarah Dennis-Phillips briefly gave a local context to the planning dilemma, creating capacity for growth while maintaining local character, while also drawing attention to the department's "Housing Element". And then came the rub.

Ron Miguel's opening salvo, that "change is not a dirty word"., rang more than a bit false. First of all, as has been well-documented here, the Planning Commission's devotion to consensus building has been a bit unproductive. Second, if recent history is any indicator, people are generally hostile to change, particularly when "change" means "higher density".

All of which brings us to the western neighborhoods. No one questions that there is excess capacity when it comes to future growth. The question left unanswered at yesterday's SPUR meeting is this: after considering the existing low density and existing transit infrastructure of the area, how does one convince the western neighborhoods to accept projected growth? If ABAG's projections are to be believed, these people will have to go somewhere. Yet as can be seen with the city's recent experiences with Visatacion Valley, neighborhoods generally want the increased activity and higher property values that come with economic development, but cringe at the increase in density.

So then, how do we craft San Francisco's 30-year vision? If we continue using transit as the signpost for development, signs point westward. How much will we need to draw input from the community as to how much growth they will accept, and how much will we need to simply plan for it? If Ron Miguel's expectation of one million or more residents in the next 20 years is any indication, my guess is that it will take a whole lot more than consensus building to get it done.

Spur Urban Meeting Center

654 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA