Future shock is a San Francisco tradition older than cable cars and sourdough bread, but the start of a new year—and a new decade—provides an excuse for optimism, ambition, and even perhaps some aspiration.
And although nobody knows what will happen in San Francisco in 2020 and beyond, with the advantage of foresight it’s easy to spot a few things that likely well should happen if the city wants to keep growing in the near future—and, like it or not, the city will definitely keep growing.
So before the big ball drops on another January, let us collectively dare to dream.
- Above all, more housing. This sounds like a no-brainer, but of course it’s not. San Francisco is always making more housing these days—the SF Planning Department hoped to net a gain of 4,700 units in 2019, although new housing estimates won’t be ready for a few months yet. What the city really needs is more housing for the future, because the pipeline is so long and because oftentimes developers choose not to build right away (San Francisco issued more than 3,000 permits nobody used in 2018). The city needs to incite thousands of new homes in 2020 that will come to fruition in 2022. And in 2023. And well beyond. With our metropolis’s population boom slowing, there’s an opportunity now to catch up—before a new boom or the next recession shuts that door.
- And specifically, more affordable housing. The terms “affordable housing” and its beefier big brother “100 percent affordable housing” are easy to throw around—almost everyone likes these ideas in theory, and often they’re cited as the preferred alternative to, well, whatever sort of housing people shun for reasons ranging from design to price. But affordable homes aren’t just a political platitude, they’re a practical goal for the city—one that SF has been falling short of for years. Per the Association of Bay Area Governments, by the end of 2017 San Francisco had issued permits for only 19 percent of its very-low-income housing goal by 2023, 21 percent of low-income housing, and just 13 percent of housing for moderate income households. With the new housing bond set to go into effect, it’s now or never.
- Make SF architecture more daring. The Mira building at 163 Main finally rippled into reality this year. Mission Bay may have a similarly staggering new Studio Gang-designed addition in its future. And the surprising, elliptical SoMa development by Boston Properties set to break ground in 2020 is a welcome challenge to the visual status quo too. While not everyone will like these buildings today, the current building boom needs to become more comfortable with risk-taking design and statement buildings in order to turn into lasting works of architectural art. The fear of creating new “eyesores” is well-founded—especially for San Franciscans mired in execrable nostalgia—but the city should look as bold and innovative as its citizens, not like another strip mall or cookie-cutter housing complex like one might find in Orange County.
- Really think about creating new places to build. We’re not saying SF should finally upzone the west side. It’s certainly an attractive idea, but there are legitimate worries—not just aesthetic objections and NIMBYism, but sincere risks about tenant displacement, for example—that should give us all pause. That said, people have got to live somewhere, and making most of the city inaccessible to most new housing will no longer cut it. The tentative conversation needs to get less tentative in 2020—because the clock never stops ticking.
- Yes, more Homeless Navigation Centers. The Navigation Center experiment is not perfect: It treats homelessness after the fact rather than addressing the root causes; the centers are designed to be temporary; and while the program does transition people into housing, they rarely end up living in San Francisco. That said, if people really want a solution to the city’s homeless crisis, there’s no remedy without getting people into housing, and right now SF has no better tool than the Navigation Centers. That means more people are going to have to accept that centers will have to open in their neighborhoods and that you can’t sue your way into a solution. Not everyone will like it—but where is it written that you can solve any long-term crisis without sacrifices?
- Real protected bike lanes across the city. The need for protected bikes lanes in San Francisco was made tragically clear this year. A protected bike lane has a buffer between the bike lane and the vehicular lane or street parking. The city needs to implement them with the expeditiousness that is showed in March following the death of cyclist Tess Rothstein to avoid another fatality at the hands of drivers, whose numbers are increasing on city streets.
- More public toilets. Any kind, anywhere. It’s surreal to have to make this point, but downtown San Francisco, in particular, is in dire need of more ways to address people’s sanitary needs. Somehow we’ve grown used to the idea that public facilities should be the exception rather than the norm in the busiest areas. A well-designed sewer system is the hallmark of a great civilization, but it doesn’t do any good if you can’t access it. While recent efforts have focused on bathroom access as a homelessness issue framed around the city’s Pit Stop program—which is indeed important for reasons that should be so obvious that it’s hard to believe we have to talk about this—this is, without getting into graphic detail, the definition of an everybody issue.
- Start designing a new subway extension. Preferably to the Outer Richmond. It’s time.
- Make SF transit cheaper. The price of riding Muni doubled for most riders between 2009 and 2019. The price of a standard monthly pass was $45 in the beginning of 2009—now it’s $81, with the latest price hike coming earlier this year. Even cable cars are set to get more expensive in 2020. BART will also hike fares yet again in January. Transit agencies plead necessity—both SFMTA and BART base fare increases on inflation and a mechanistic formula that goes up with the price of everything else. The problem is that the people who rely most on public transit—including low-income residents and people with disabilities—are among the least likely to have their wages keep up with inflation. And how can SF meet its self-appointed transit goals if barriers to entry keep climbing higher?
- Make Muni two-thirds reliable. The city charter mandates that Muni achieve an 85-percent on-time record. This is not going to happen—certainly not next year, and maybe not even in our lifetimes. In November, buses and trains hit the mark just 56 percent of the time, and that was a high all year. There’s only so much we can realistically ask from the system. However, we could dare to dream of, say, a roughly two-thirds on-time rating for buses and trains, a figure that seems paradoxically inadequate but also unattainable. Still, there are practical steps that the city can take to improve these numbers, such as bringing in more new train cars—the old ones break down constantly—and helping relieve the chronic driver shortage.
- Somehow, some way, figure out how to reopen the rotating restaurant and bar at the Hyatt on Market Street. Because if we can’t have fun structures, preferably ones that revolve while dining, what’s the point?