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Go west, new housing — within reason

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Westside San Francisco, where homes are detached with lawns on four sides in District 7. (Joel P. Engardio/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Venture west of Twin Peaks and you will discover something very curious and strange, even by San Francisco standards: entire neighborhoods full of detached homes with a yard on all four sides.

Urban planners say this defies land-use logic, given the demand to live in San Francisco and the limited space of our small peninsula.

But District 7, which stretches from Mount Sutro to the ocean, is a unique and essential tile in the mosaic of our diverse city. It’s designed for families. It attracts people who seek a less frenetic pace and don’t mind a little more fog.

My husband and I own one of those detached homes. We enjoy the quiet surroundings and extra space for gardening while still being able to travel through the West Portal Muni tunnel to work downtown and access more lively parts of San Francisco.

I understand the anxiety westside residents feel upon hearing plans for San Francisco to build itself out of a housing shortage. We fear losing our quality of life if charming single-family homes are replaced with boxy condo towers and our neighborhoods become overrun with people and traffic.

Yet I’ve met an increasing number of longtime westside residents who are open to a reasonable amount of new housing along their transit corridors — as long as it doesn’t creep into the neighborhoods and is priced for working and middle-income families and seniors.

At first glance, Frank Noto fits the demographic I’d expect to oppose new development: He’s a senior, has owned his home nearly 30 years and is the president of his westside neighborhood association.

But the issue became personal for Noto, 65, when his adult daughter had to move back home along with her two children, ages 7 and 9. Noto’s daughter manages special education programs for San Francisco’s public elementary schools and can’t afford to live here.

“All my neighbors know people whose children cannot find homes of their own,” Noto said. “Decades of downzoning and anti-housing politics got us where we are today.”

Howard Strassner was a neighborhood leader in the 1970s, when he helped write the zoning code that restricted new construction on West Portal Avenue to a single story of 26 feet. He regrets it, especially since three Muni lines serve the area.

“The height limit was silly,” said Strassner, who is now in his 70s and wishes West Portal offered elevator condos with Muni access so he can stay in the neighborhood he loves when he can no longer maintain a large home and navigate the stairs.

Strassner also said downsizing from his home would free it up for a young family who needs the extra bedrooms.

I imagine several stories of ownership housing above retail along westside Muni lines would benefit everyone living in the nearby neighborhoods.

First, the creation of more homeowners will give westsiders more allies to vote down the parcel taxes that City Hall uses as an ATM. The new residents would also create demand for better amenities in the commercial areas.

Currently, every westside business district has stretches of shuttered storefronts, punctuated by the occasional vape shop or massage parlor. I’d certainly like more quality options for shopping and dining.

I’ve talked to a number of westside seniors who say it’s possible to help solve San Francisco’s housing crisis while preserving — even improving — westside neighborhoods.

One of my favorite ideas is from 78-year-old Eugene Lew, a retired architect. He recently designed a five-story elevator building in which all 15 units are 1,400 square feet, have three bedrooms and a parking space. It’s perfect for keeping families in San Francisco and would fit nicely on a transit corridor — or a section of the unused Balboa Reservoir near Ocean Avenue.

“Five stories is a useful height,” Lew said. “You can house more people and keep a nice scale. At five stories, you can still whistle to your kid in the courtyard and call him to dinner.”

Talking to seniors like Noto, Strassner and Lew convinced me that we need to make sure the kids and grandkids of longtime residents will have a place to live when they start their own families.

The future of San Francisco depends on it.

Engardio is a member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, representing the Westside. Email him at info@engardio.com

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  • Mickey Lim

    The problem is NOT that there is not enough construction in SF, it’s that there is not enough in the peninsula. Why are these projects not going up in redwood city, Cupertino, Mountainview – Why has SF become the breakfast community for the folks who work there?

  • notadvised

    When I suggest to these SF home seekers/complainers they search in Fremont, Union City, San Jose, etc for homes… they unravel, some going so far as saying that there is no housing in these areas. They seem to think because they get a job in tech in Silicon Valley, it gives them some kind of priority over the rest of us. Done with these entitled whiners. SF is not yours just because you want it.

  • artificialintel

    It is if they can afford to pay, which is why the City is so expensive. If there’s a fixed stock of market rate housing, then over time it will become the property of those rich enough to win the bidding war for it. In the long run, there’s really only two choices San Francisco can either build enough housing for the people who want to live here, or become an exclusively rich community.

  • MLD

    My husband and I have lived in Forest Hill Extension for 30+ years. It would be shameful to ruin the quiet neighborhoods that characterize the West Side with larger-scale buildings placed willy-nilly, but it certainly makes eminent good sense to build 4-or-5 floor apartments with ground floor retail in existing retail/transportation hubs like West Portal and Ocean Avenue. Having a thriving commercial area close at hand would be attractive for homeowners and renters alike. In a free-market economy, the only answer to lack of housing is to build more housing or accept the fact that only the very wealthy can afford to live here.

  • sebra leaves

    The problem is, how do you guarantee that the new housing in your pristine single family neighborhoods will be a reasonable design so so much of it is not? How can you limit the heights to 4 or 5 story buildings? We know that given our current solar technology, it is possible to build the energy self-sufficient 4 or 5 story buildings designed by Mr. Lew, with yards and on-site parking.

    How do you open the west-side neighborhoods up to these options without allowing the 300 to 400 foot monsters in the SOMA neighborhood? Parkmerced, when it is built out will be sufficient to house many new residents while out-stripping the needed infrastructure to support that population.

    Many residents who oppose the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Bonus Plan (and this is what this is about) do so because they have already felt the brunt of the increased density in the Eastern Neighborhoods and do not want to encourage any more development along that scale. Most of us are also aware that huge new entitlements are already “in the pipeline” and would like to slow more growth in that pipeline until the already “entitled” units are produced and filled with residents. There is a question of how many units are filled now.

    There are lot’s of reasons to slow the process while we catch up and no reason to inflict any pain on neighborhoods not yet touched by the developer’s hand. Before wishing more density on yourself, you should talk to some of the reisdnts in the Eastern Neighborhoods. I am sure many residents on Potrero Hill would love to trade houses with you if you want to live in a more “vibrant” dense neighborhood filled with construction dust and less parking every day.

  • Don E

    I have been hearing that SF would become a City only for the rich for 50 years and it has not happened yet.

  • Don E

    That may be a good point but even if there were more housing down the peninsula does not mean many would prefer to live in the City anyway. In most cities in the Bay Area most people do not live where they work. People are free to choose where they live and work.

  • Don E

    Three floors above retail would probably fly. There are many examples along neighborhood commercial streets. However, that extra floor will be contentious.

  • Don E

    I have lived in Forest Hill Extension AKA Laguna Honda Park for 40+ years and I basically agree. However, convincing residents near West Portal Avenue to accept 5 stories (4 over retail) will be a hard sell. 4 stories might work.

  • I’m happy to read that some neighborhood leaders have come to recognize where and why they were wrong. Unfortunately, 50+ years too late to catch up and fix the damage caused by those no growth opinions.
    Park Merced is on the West side of town, and it seems to work. I don’t suggest SF go all Hong Kong with forests of high rises, though in some areas like downtown that has begun. I see nothing magical about 3 stories vs. 5 or 6 stories common in SF’s older apartment building stock which is sprinkled around all over the westside.
    Clearly, it makes sense to have highest density on the public transit corridors. People who would argue against that for any reason as just terribly close minded, and selfish (I’ve got mine, to heck with you).
    If there is a bigger negative quality of life issue than having to commute to work for
    hours each way, I’d like to understand what that is? Commuting by all methods other than foot or bicycle adds to pollution. It stresses people out, making them less productive. It takes valuable time away from family. It’s my understanding that most cities are not adding local housing as fast as they are adding new jobs.
    IMO Mr. Lew’s idea is OK as a conversation opener only. Notice he’s talking about 1,400sf apartments or condos. Those are not affordable at current rates for most people not earning $100K+. Contrast that with SRO’s which are tiny and have shared bath facilities, and much of the post 1906 apartment stock which offers studios @ 400sf, 1BR, and 2BR all 1000sf or less, very well designed and you can see the real problem is developers do not want to build on what worked so well in the past – really affordable, sustainable, unsubsidized housing! That’s needed more than more luxury condos IMO.
    Also, while most if not everyone would prefer to own their own place, for those who can’t to live with their parents or grandparents is more a blessing than a
    curse. Currently a large amount of bedroom sit empty all over the SFBay Area due to retirees not feeling they can trust renting out rooms to strangers. That won’t change unless cities make it easier to screen renters, and protect homeowners as landlords from what may be abusive tenants.
    I’m not sure Joel has any magic to bring to the S.F.B.S., but good luck. Calling yourself a Progressive is easy, actually making any progress is really hard!

  • goodmaab

    Was downin mountain view this weekend lots of empty lots and parcels near transit and adjacent to parks schools and one story office buildings and intersections with 3 gas stations on each corner I’m with Mickey we need equitable development down the peninsula

  • goodmaab

    Equitable taxation of the firms that build here and south on the peninsula to fix housing and transit imbalanced planning is required regardless. Currently SF is taking more but getting less financial support

  • goodmaab

    Agree, west portal should have been densified a while ago. The NIMBYs stated aok to ruin Parkmerced but not look at any infill or redo with taller towers (11 unrettofitted) in Parkmerced currently. The SFBOS ignored stonestowns empty parking lots and sfsu’s growth impacts now we have a half baked 19th AV funding project to tunnel and still not adequate and equitable density across the Westside. the nimby issue was the neighborhoods supporting Parkmerceds redevelopment but ignoring their own backyards and local streets ????

  • goodmaab

    Walk west portal and there are a number of single story large banks that can have housing built above I would guess at a min 500 more units can be built just on west portal but than muni is still lagging

  • goodmaab

    Parkmerced will only be for the rich and Robert Rosania is only concerned with profits. That was not true of the met-life corps original premise to build Parkmerced as essentially the west sides housing backbone. The real issue is where else can housing of that same scale and size be built on the Westside without total tear down and redensification of Westside housing? The SF bay guardian had an April fools column that suggested just that, now we see the reality of that joke.

  • goodmaab

    If you can get Parkmerced approved the neighborhoods will need to accept just as much change equitably

  • goodmaab

    Transit is key on the Westside and the 19th ave link dead ends in Parkmerced for a measly 70 mill
    Will take a few billion to connect to Daly City Bart and the city agencies unfortunately did not make the pied piper developers pay up front for demolition and density. Poor deal…..

  • twinpeaks_sf

    I will not tell you how long I have lived in Laguna Honda because it is irrelevant.

  • HowdyNSA

    That is an odd thing to claim.

    When I moved here houses were $250,000. Now they are 1 to 2 million dollars.

    How many people in the USA walk around with 1 to 2 million dollars cash in their pocket?

    I think 1 to 2 million dollars cash would qualify as “rich” in the minds of about 99% of the residents of The United States Of America.

  • HowdyNSA

    Why don’t you talk about what your plans will do to the quality of life?

    Where I live everyone has trolls living in their garages now. Something that was illegal for decades. The pedestrian traffic has tripled and quadrupled as a result. Some people may wonder why that is a bad thing. It is bad because all those strangers mean the neighborhoods are no longer safe like they once were. Just the other day there was some crazy walking up and down the street checking car and garage doors. He spent about 15 minutes trying to get into the garage of some 70 year old ladies down the street who finally called the cops on him. And of course the boys in blue rushed over to take care of the problem. 20 minutes later after the crazy had already given up and left the block……..

    Then there is the fact that every troll seems to bring two cars with them. What was once a peaceful neighborhood now looks like a car dealership lot with people circling around the block looking for parking. They park on the very ends of the block where their back end hangs out in the street. They park with 6 inches in between themselves and the next car which means they have to bash the other cars when they get into or leave those spots, or they trap people who won’t bash other cars in order to move their car. And for some reason the people who have those trolls in their garages refuse to park in their driveway, even though it is their fault the parking situation has become intolerable.

    I am guessing people who never lived out here don’t know how peaceful and beautiful it was so they think throwing up 3 to 5 story buildings is not a big deal. It is hard to describe what it feels like to drive down a street that was once bright, open and sunny, but now feels like a dark corridor because 3 to 5 story buildings have been erected.

    For all you people that don’t mind living in boxes, who don’t mind strangers and crazies wandering your neighborhood checking your car doors or your garages to see if they are open, and don’t mind living in a car dealership, why do you have to do that to the west side?

    Why do you have to uglify what was once one of the most beautiful places on Earth?

  • Neotrix

    The future of The City does not depend on more housing! Especially on this side of town! Stop writing these articles! Stop inviting new development and height limit increases! Show me a neighborhood where new development was affordable for families and did some good. Leave our side of town alone. Stop being selfish and try to change things because your grandkids can’t find housing. Just because your kids had to move back home or what not does not mean that now we all need to deal with development and new housing. This future of this city depends on people not being so greedy! It depends on people not being so selfish! It depends on local government running this city properly and people doing their job! Stop writing articles like this and inviting people to crowd and develop our part of town!

  • Don E

    The City has become more upper middle-class. Working class and middle class jobs left the City decades ago. I am not sure that is a bad thing. It is better than urban decay. If you moved here when houses were $250,000 you are part of the “problem.” You added to the demand for housing and increased the price. Most people move to SF for the lifestyle which included the current neighborhood character. So why do you want to change it? Make it more like where you came from?

  • Don E

    There is no evidence that if you build more housing there will be less commuting. Over 80% of the jobs in the Bay Area are not in SF. Most people do not live where they work even in more affordable Bay Area cities.

  • Don E

    What does equitable density mean? I prefer density diversity; not cookie-cutter neighborhoods.

  • Don E

    People who live near West Portal and would be impacted by development on West Portal are not impacted my Park Merced. What does equitably have to do with the price of beans?

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    What a strange way to frame this. How often do people pay cash for homes? You need between 10 and 20 percent of the purchase price in cash. $200k in cash isnt rich. Large swaths of the middle class have this in equity in their current homes.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    People move here for the character of specific neighborhoods but get priced into cheaper areas with few of the qualities that attracted them. So they travel more and hope the area they could afford becomes more like the area they wanted.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    This is satire, right?

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    If they wanted to live in the suburbs, they wouldn’t be buying here and commuting South. SF needs more housing because there is high demand for housing here in the city.

  • goodmaab

    Yes they are impacted, when you cannot board an M-Line downtown… Due to overcrowding… Than you drive. Also equitable development deals with the issue of Transit, Housing, Open Space, and other issues. Equitable means you build of equal density in ALL neighborhoods in SF, meaning you add a proportional desity in West Portal, Miraloma Heights, St. Francis Woods, etc. to equate the Parkmerced totals, do you have room for 5700 more housing units in your neighborhood? If you cannot see where to place more density, why should it disproportionately affect one neighborhood? That’s called redlining, which is illegal…

  • HowdyNSA

    It is the only comment on a new account, so I believe it is safe to assume the author is playing games.

  • Kirb Haen

    The Westside/Avenues are the neighborhoods of “No!” It is our Staten Island.

  • Don E

    Yes overcrowded Muni would be a factor, but we also have K and L. The main issue would be parking, shadowing and privacy. There are benefits and harm from more density; some like it others don’t. More density generally means fewer families with children. We don’t need one size fits all. It is not red lining. There is no legal requirement to have equitable development. Regarding Muni 45% of my neighbors don’t work in the City mostly San Mateo and Alameda County. And maybe half of the 55% work downtown but 40% of those drive.

  • Neotrix

    No satire and no playing games here. You fools who think that because there’s a demand for housing that means you just build and it solves a problem are trippin and are part of the problem with our city.

  • BFlatlander

    I think it is high time that the city exercise eminent domain. and seize large swaths of the avenues for development. It is ridiculous to have that many single family homes owned by poor people. That area should be high rise city. One building would hold a street full of poor people and then some. The nice part of the city should stay nice for the people who can afford it.