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Better infrastructure and density are not mutually exclusive

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A recently installed cistern is seen at 5th Avenue and Balboa Street. (Courtesy photo)

San Francisco Examiner columnist Sally Stephens recently wrote that San Francisco needs to build the appropriate infrastructure for transit and fire safety before building new homes in the western and southern neighborhoods of The City. As a resident of the Richmond, I am sympathetic to the need for better infrastructure, but this is a false dichotomy. We can and should improve our infrastructure while building more homes in neighborhoods like the Richmond simultaneously; we have an obligation to do both. We cannot build a better city without doing both.

We already have some of the best public transit in the United States, so it is odd to complain our transit cannot carry enough individuals. Still, we must keep supporting and improving it. Funding for the Geary Bus Rapid Transit project was approved in 2003, and we are still waiting for it to be implemented. The reason for the delays? An onerous amount of process where “concerned” citizens can delay projects for years while 52,000 daily riders wait for a better ride.

We cannot wait for the future promise of trains or BART, especially when those ideas are being used as a reason to delay our current, outlined infrastructure improvements.

We already have a plan designed. We are ready to move forward with it. If people are so concerned about having better transit, we need to take less than two decades to do projects like this. I agree with Stephens that “the mere presence of public transportation isn’t really enough.” However, the solution isn’t to complain our transit isn’t good enough or to use that as a reason to not build more homes. It’s to take tangible action to make our transit better while building more homes.

SEE RELATED: City pulls funding from 150-unit Forest Hill affordable housing project, citing pushback from neighbors

There are always reasons to say no. We need to start focusing on reasons to say yes. Demanding better infrastructure before building more homes is a classic NIMBY trope. However, the nature of state Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 827, co-authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting, is designed to allay those concerns — to help our housing stock grow along with our infrastructure.

New homes help finance needed infrastructure upgrades through impact fees and new taxpayers. New homes will be built slowly, over time, as space becomes available. It’s still San Francisco; it’s not like anything is going to be built overnight. So as we add more homes on stretches like Geary Boulevard, we can also work to improve our trains and buses. We can take the time to install cisterns and upgrade our water system on the west side. It’s disingenuous to say we cannot do both, or that one is dependent on the other.

We have a plan to improve the water supply system in the works, as a Chronicle article recently outlined. We should be concerned about the potential for fires, so let’s do our best to improve that system as quickly as possible and start getting it built. I hope the same folks concerned about our fire safety will move expeditiously to support the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as it installs this system, including supporting the bonding necessary to ensure those of us on the west side are safe from the threat of large fires in case of emergencies. We deserve the same level of fire safety as anyone else and we need to focus on providing a system that truly protects all of our residents in case of a catastrophe.

I live in a soft-story building still waiting to be seismically retrofitted. I’m acutely aware of the need to build and maintain homes and infrastructure. Where is the same concern for upgrading or building new seismically sound homes for people like me to live in? We’d rather live in buildings we know will withstand the next big earthquake since it could happen at any time.

However, our current housing market makes that difficult. If we built more homes, it would be easier for folks to move someplace safe. But in such a constrained market, many of us don’t have that choice. We need to build a city that stops asking folks to make those choices. That takes a better water system and better homes. Let’s put an end to these false choices and choose a better city.

Jane Natoli is an organizer with Grow The Richmond, advocating for a more vibrant, dense Richmond District, where she resides.

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