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At Balboa Reservoir, Many Prefer Empty Parking Lot to Housing

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Housing in San Francisco has been so woefully underproduced these last few decades—such that population growth vastly outpaces construction—sending the city scrambling for a solution. That's led a few advocates in some counterintuitive directions, such as the proposed moratorium on market-rate residential construction in the Mission, which could become a ballot measure in November, and also a similar but shorter moratorium proposed this week by Supervisor David Campos. Things have gotten so bad that someone cooked up the inspired but massively code-violating scheme to build housing in the streets, and the press is covering it as if it makes sense.

Undeveloped lots in San Francisco are hard to come by, but a few remain in public hands. One of the sites that the city's Public Land for Housing Program has identified is the Balboa Reservoir in Westwood Park, a 17-acre plot just west of the Balboa Bark BART station, bordering one of the City College of San Francisco's buildings. (The reservoir is not in fact a reservoir, but a parking lot leased to City College by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.) On Tuesday night, the San Francisco Planning Department and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development hosted a community workshop to gather input on how the site should be used. The room was packed; people crowded around platters of mini-sandwiches. Feedback stations spilled out into the hallway. When the time came, everyone gathered 'round to hold hands and excitedly wonder about their incoming neighbors and bicker about how best to design buildings their new best friends would want to live in. Just kidding.

People defended the parking lot.

"I'm really concerned about them taking away the parking from City College, and I'm really concerned about the density of the neighborhood," said Westwood Park resident Frank Kalmar. "It seems like this is almost a foregone conclusion. You can't get a feel for how many people they're talking about moving in here."

At the first community meeting, in January, the greatest proportion of participants asked for open space (24 percent), followed by affordable housing (13 percent). At Tuesday's meeting, city officials asked attendees to weigh in on the kinds of open space, housing, and other amenities they would like to see. The city will use the community feedback to inform the request for proposals that will go out to developers in the fall. The Public Utilities Commission would either sell or lease the site to a developer or group of developers, and then a community design process would kick off in 2016.

Even before the feedback portion of the proceedings began, suspicion flitted around the room. Someone asked, "Are people here from San Francisco or are there groups from outside San Francisco?"

Nine stations were set up where attendees could give their comments around topics like housing, transportation, and open space to a facilitator with a magic marker and an enormous sticky pad of paper. People were invited to share their own ideas, and to put colored stickers next to the ideas they liked from other people.

Not everyone was opposed to housing. We overheard one resident, who lives just over the berm from the reservoir site, explaining that he wanted a building limited to four or five stories, something that wouldn't block his light. "I saw a 50-story Blade Runner proposal," he said, referring to the concepts that the prohousing activist group SFBARF had mocked up. In advance of the meeting, SFBARF had gathered the concepts on their blog, and also had a box of bound booklets on hand. The sketches are essentially visual pieces of advocacy that promote density (and not genuine proposals that the city is looking at or is even aware of), but they did sort of confuse people.

Some participants wondered why the site has to be housing at all. Mike Martin, one of the meeting's leaders and a Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development staffer, says the reservoir's availability makes it attractive for study. "This was a public site. We said, 'Let's look at it,'" said Martin. "People are saying, 'Is there a backroom deal?' No, there isn't."

The truth is actually more simple, and more boring: The mayor's Public Land for Housing Program seeks to identify underused public sites that could support housing. The Balboa Reservoir, a 10-minute walk from BART, is particularly well poised for transit-oriented development. The groundwork for housing at the site was laid in the Balboa Park Station Area Plan, adopted in 2009, which includes an objective asking the city to consider housing as a primary component of any development on the reservoir.

The ideas attendees voiced ranged from single-family homes to high-density multi-unit buildings, from bungalows to a tiny-home backyard showcase, from mixed income to 100 percent affordable units. There were also requests to "keep away investors (non-city residents)" and "end this plan, give property to City College."

· Sad Chart Confirms SF Isn't Adding New Housing Fast Enough [Curbed SF]
· SF's Population Is Growing Way Faster Than Its Housing Stock [Curbed SF]
· Moratorium on Moratoriums [Curbed SF]
· Mission Housing Moratorium Could Become Ballot Measure [Curbed SF]
· Petite Moratorium [Curbed SF]
· Building Streets for Humans Rather Than Cars Could Help Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis [Vox]
· How to Revolutionise San Francisco: Make Its Streets Look More European [The Guardian]
· Balboa Reservoir Site Study (PDF) [SF Planning]
· Balboa Reservoir Proposals [SFBARF]
· Balboa Park Station Area Plan [SF Planning]