Western SoMa Plan changed to lessen development impacts to nightlife and Muni

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Sup. Jane Kim (left) clash with Sups. Scott Wiener and David Chiu over changes to transit and affordable housing fees.

The Western SoMa Community Plan had its first hearing before the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee today, with dozens of speakers praising the eight-year citizen-based planning effort that developed it but with much of the testimony criticizing the plan's emphasis on facilitating housing development to the exclusion of other goals.

As we've reported, the nightlife community has in recent months been pushing for changes to the plan that would better protect nightclubs from complaints and pressure from nearby residents, particularly along 11th Street. Area Sup. Jane Kim has supported that effort and those concerns were echoed by Sup. Scott Wiener, the committee chair and a strong nightlife advocate.

“I have had significant concerns about this plan...and I'm hoping we can address them over the course of this hearing,” Wiener said.

Wiener also opened another front of attack on the plan by noting that it doesn't adequately pay for the impact that thousands of new housing units would have on Muni and other aspects of the transportation system. In particular, he criticized a policy in the plan that would let 13 large properties get increased density in exchange for higher affordable housing fees that would be offset by lower transit and other impact fees paid to the city.

“What are we doing to make sure our transportation system keeps pace?” Wiener asked of Planning Department staff, later asking again, “Where would we get the money to improve transit for these increased residents?” Wiener didn't get back any answers that seemed to satisfy him, so he asked for a more detailed report when the plan returns next week for a second hearing. That concern was echoed by the third committee member, Board President David Chiu, who said, “Building housing without money for transit will lead to long-term problems.”

The concern seemed to revive a losing fight that Wiener led in December over expanding who pays the city's Transit Impact Development Fee, which pitted transportation advocates against affordable housing activists. Fernando Marti of the Council of Community Housing Organizing rued the revival of that conflict. “We've been here before, pitting [transportation against affordable housing needs] as if it were a zero sum game,” Marti told the committee, noting the importance of policies to balance out market rate housing and calling it a “plan for stability in a neighborhood facing large-scale gentrification.”

Marti's COCHO colleague Peter Cohen, who was closely involved with the plan's creation, also urged the committee not to tweak the housing policies or the revenues it creates for affordable housing. “This is a major upzoning,” Cohen said. “In 20 years, perhaps all the market rate stock [of housing in the plan area] will be gentrified.”

But the issue raised most often during more than two hours of public testimony involved nightlife and the need to strike a better balance between housing development and entertainment, much of the input stirred up by the California Music and Culture Association, a industry-backed trade group that formed largely in response to crackdowns on clubs in SoMa.

“It's often said San Francisco can plan more for fun, and this is a great opportunity to do that,” said Guy Carson, a CMAC founder who owns Cafe du Nord. Longtime nightlife advocate Terrence Alan took part in the Western SoMa Task Force for four years before resigning in frustration, and he told the committee, “We are bringing up issues we felt marginalized in bringing up earlier.”

But several people involved with the task force, as well as speakers representing development interests, urged supervisors to pass the place without significant modifications. “There are dozens or hundreds of compromises in this plan,” Cohen said, urging supervisors not to upset that careful balance.

Task Force Chair Jim Meko – whose leadership was widely praised in the testimony – detailed the extensive outreach and detailed work that went into the plan, and offered a simple plea to the committee: “Please pass this plan so we can get on with our lives.”

The committee unanimously voted to support the change made to the plan by the Planning Commission to ban new residential development on the raucous 300-block of 11th Street, but to reverse the commission's decision to grandfather in one final 24-home residential project on that block, in the so-called “purple building” at 340 11th Street. A number of other small changes to the plan were also unanimously approved.

But Kim objected to Wiener's motion to eliminate the plan provision that would reduce the transit and open space fees and raise the affordable housing fees that developers of those 13 large parcels would pay. “I don't think it's good policy to reduce transit impact fees when we're increasing population,” Wiener said.

“This has gone through an extensive community process,” Kim countered, adding that, “I hate that we're always having this discussion about transit versus affordable housing.”

But Chiu sided with Wiener and the amendment was approved on a 2-1 vote with Kim in dissent. Yet Chiu held open the possibility of changing his mind next week when the plan returns to committee for a final vote – the delay prompted by the other revisions in the plan – when Planning staff will provide more information on the fee structure and its impacts.

If the committee gives final approval to the plan next Monday, it could be before the full board for approval the next day.