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Infrastructure first, density later

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San Francisco has reportedly outgrown its auxiliary water system and could struggle to fight fires in The City’s western and southern areas in the case of a major disaster. (Emma Chiang/2016 Special to S.F. Examiner)


People who live in the western and southern parts of San Francisco were recently alarmed to hear that our neighborhoods could burn to the ground after a major earthquake because there might not be enough water available to fight any fires that had started.

That’s what happened in 1906. After the earthquake, there were so many breaks in water mains and service connections that firefighters lost water pressure in the hydrants and hoses and, therefore, could not stop the flames that consumed a large part of The City.

An Auxiliary Water Supply System was built in the northeastern section of San Francisco after 1906 with pipes, connections and valves built to withstand a major earthquake and to ensure the system could continue to provide enough water pressure to fight fires. It was completed in 1913.

In the century since then, The City grew out beyond the limits of the original auxiliary system. There was talk of expanding the system into the Richmond and Sunset in the west and southern neighborhoods such as the Bayview, Ingleside and Excelsior. A few extensions have indeed been added, including one to part of the Bayview that apparently has trouble providing water at the pressures needed for firefighting.

Over the years, there was little political will to spend the money needed to expand the auxiliary system to the rest of The City. As a result, the water supply systems needed for firefighting in most of the western and southern neighborhoods have not been brought up to the same standards as the auxiliary system in The City’s northeast. Should the unreinforced water pipes fail after a major earthquake, multiple conflagrations from ruptured gas lines, once started, would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission recently released a study of options to update firefighting water supplies in the Richmond. But there’s no timetable for how long the improvements will take nor how The City will be pay for them. Additional studies of options are needed to protect water supplies in the Sunset and the southern neighborhoods.

Clearly, it will be years, if not decades, before the western and southern parts of San Francisco have the same protections against fires after an earthquake that the northeast section has had in place for more than a century.

At the same time, we are being told we need to increase housing density in the western half of The City — that we need to change the character of our primarily single-family-home neighborhoods to ensure there’s enough housing in San Francisco for all who want or need it.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, for example, has proposed legislation (SB 827) that would override local zoning laws and allow construction of housing four to eight stories tall within a half-mile of major transit hubs, like BART or Muni stations, and within a quarter-mile of bus stops with frequent service during rush hours.

Nearly all of San Francisco falls within one or both of those criteria and, therefore, construction of these taller buildings would be allowed on nearly every street in The City.

But the mere presence of public transportation isn’t really enough. The transit has to be able to carry all the added people efficiently and reliably. Try getting on the N-Judah during morning rush hour now and you may well end up having to wait as several overcrowded trains pass you by. Then, imagine adding thousands and thousands more commuters along the route and an annoying situation will quickly become untenable.

Any increase in housing density should only happen after the infrastructure — including transit and auxiliary firefighting systems — has been upgraded to accommodate the additional people.

There’s no doubt that we need more housing, especially housing that is affordable for middle-income families. But does it make sense to build, build, build in the western neighborhoods when the existing transit and other infrastructure cannot support thousands of added people there?

Does it make sense to put more and more people at risk if firefighters can’t get enough water pressure to stop a firestorm in the western neighborhoods after the next big earthquake because the needed improvements to the water system have not yet been made?

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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