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Planner retires, looks back on reshaping San Francisco transit

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Peter Albert stands inside the SFMTA Headquarters in San Francisco on May 26, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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In his decades-long career, Peter Albert has quite literally reshaped San Francisco.

After working for The City for 30 years, Albert retired May 31. But his hand in increasing walkability and transit access will be felt by San Franciscans for decades to come.

The City’s various departments have hundreds of planners — in transit, housing and parks — but few oversee how the end results of those departments interact. In 2008, an entirely new and unique position was created for Albert that bridged the gap between the Mayor’s Office and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

His dual role as Manager of Urban Planning Initiatives placed him under the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and also the SFMTA, allowing him to mold transit in and around vital new developments.

More recently, Albert led the charge to reshape transit around the 10,000 housing units that will soon sprout in Hunter’s Point. He’s also played a vital role planning transit for the immense Parkmerced project by Stonestown — and for the controversial Warriors arena planned in Mission Bay.

He also managed the rollout of SFMTA’s transit operations for Super Bowl City earlier this year, and the America’s Cup in 2013. His most important task at those events: to prevent traffic meltdowns.

For all the public acrimony over those occasions, few could say traffic snarled.

But for all the massive redevelopments he’s restructured transit for, Albert is known across San Francisco for a more humble trait: listening.

Katy Liddell, president of the South Beach/Rincon/Mission Bay Neighborhood Association, noted Albert is always quick to insert himself in a community where transit changes are planned to ensure residents’ concerns are heard.

“Our relationship truly heated up when the Warriors were proposing to put their arena on Piers 30/32,” Liddell recalled. “The concerns around transportation soon grew to more than just those around the arena, but for the entire eastern waterfront.”

Albert quickly took note of their concerns. He met with groups of neighbors, even small ones, she said.

“Peter actually listens to us. He cares,” she said.

During his last week at the SFMTA, Albert described his role simply: “I’m just plugging something into the wall, it was there all the time.”

Planning point of view
By many accounts, Albert approached projects by looking at a neighborhood with a planner’s eye.

In Visitacion Valley, for instance, residents have few public transit options. One Muni line heads downtown from there, he said, but its route on freeways made it “an iffy proposition.”

Neighbors live a stone’s throw from Caltrain, but rarely ride it to head downtown. Why? They lacked walkable paths to get there, Albert said.

So when Universal Paragon Corp. planned to redevelop an abandoned industrial site, previously home to the Schlage Locks factory, Albert saw the “plug” that needed connecting.

Plans for the Schlage development site were retooled with community feedback in 2012 to feature walking connections to Caltrain, and facilitate more biking and mass transit. Developing the site “did more than just build buildings, it made connections,” Albert said.

Speaking to the San Francisco Examiner, Albert shifts between listening intently, soft-spoken explanations, and assertiveness — traits that prove useful in countless community meetings. When asked just how many he’s sat through, he said, “In the shipyard, we did something like 260 meetings alone. That was just three of my 30 years.”

In a city where planning meetings are sometimes drowned by boos and hisses in response to even mild proposals, Albert actually finds some intense feedback productive.

“I like that this is a place people care about so much, they’re willing to spend hours and hours in a community meeting over the smallest change,” he said.

“I’d rather work for a city that cares too much than a city that doesn’t care enough.”

‘In love with San Francisco’
Albert was in awe of San Francisco from an early age, when he first moved to California from his native Pittsburgh, Penn. As a child he played tour guide for his relatives visiting from the East Coast, taking them to San Francisco via BART and later, by Muni bus.

They would tell him, it’s a European city, it’s such a different kind of city, because this city is so walkable.

“It made me fall in love with San Francisco even more,” he said.

Albert has two children, a daughter, 29, and a son, 27, both of whom were raised in The City and attended public schools. He credits his wife Libby Albert for much of his work, and said she is a “constant.”

“Every neighborhood that felt I helped them owes a thanks to my wife,” he said.

Storied career
Albert started his career during Dianne Feinstein’s mayoral administration in the 1980s. San Francisco’s infrastructure was in an “awkward place,” he said, halfway between being transit rich and car-centric.

Albert did work planning for the San Francisco Unified School District before transitioning to the Planning Department. He moved to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority next, and then BART.

While at the authority in 1996, he authored the county’s Transportation Element, an influential statement of intent guiding transportation planning throughout San Francisco County.

Eventually, Albert landed at the SFMTA. Just one year ago, he left his dual role at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and SFMTA, which is now held by SFMTA staffer Carli Paine.

Albert’s last year at SFMTA was spent as Director of Planning.

“The appeal of working in the work I do now goes back to the idea of architecture,” he said, which he initially studied in college. “You can make great places, but you have to understand the puzzle pieces that make a place great.”

Architects work with windows, walls, roofs. But with a city, he said, you work with “parks, buildings, sky.”

That, he said, is his pallette.

Now, however, it’s time to put his brushes down, and leave the planning to someone new. He’s leaving with the SFMTA in a “good place,” he said.

He was able to live his dream, he said, to “do something that’s academic, but also do something from your heart.”

And from his heart came transportation infrastructure, shaping the work, school and lives of countless San Franciscans.

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  • Peter A. Kirby

    Good riddance. The only problem is that another clown like this is going to come in and do more damage. If you like a filthy city filled with angry people run by a bunch of astroturf groups like the Bike Coalition and Walk S.F., then you could say that this guy has done a great job. If you like what these arrogant pricks have done so far, you’re going to love what they are about to do to Van Ness Ave.. It looks like this guy got out just in time. May the cult of politically correct government consume him.

  • SFMikey

    Peter is really a talented and likable guy. Very skilled at his job. I wish there a few more like him working for the city.

  • sffoghorn

    Not enough chem trails, huh?

  • SFgrown

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic. Anyway, per your breakdown, I could say he’s done a great job! The only bit I don’t agree with you on is the “angry people” part. Although if you live in SF, I know there’s at least one!

  • Flubert

    Certainly if the fruits of 30 years of my labor was the current Muni system, I’d probably not be tooting my own horn

  • goodmaab

    Thank you peter for listening to the concepts the ideas and the concerns regardless of the results. We can only hope for improved listening when it comes to transit moves in SF. TOo often driven by politics and developers we need ears listening to the ideas of the community and willing to test the engineers on their perceived routes. Thank you for your time and efforts at multiple projects and issues!

  • sfsoma

    Job well done? Hope so, in light of the giant pension and free health insurance for life that we will be financing. Suhr is getting 200K+. Wonder what this “public servant’s” take is?

  • David

    Who took a whiz on your corn flakes this morning? Seems like the only angry person is you. Maybe you can move and free up some space for the rest of us? I’m looking forward to the finished product on Van Ness. Imagine being able to take a bus going faster than walking pace!

  • David

    If you read the article, you’d notice that only a portion of those 30 years were at Muni. And Muni now is way better than the Muni from 10 years ago. Not great, of course, but still way more tolerable than it used to be!

  • David

    Who is Suhr?

  • HZCrane

    Why are you so angry? Have you even met the guy you’re calling an arrogant prick?

  • HZCrane

    Don’t be bitter.

  • sfparkripoff

    “He’s leaving with the SFMTA in a “good place,” he said.”

    I have to agree with other commenters and say good riddance to this guy! The SFMTA spends more money and delivers less service per capita than
    any comparable transit system in the United States because they have been siphoning money away from public transit to redesign streets. The SFMTA was taken over by urban planners in 2000 through Prop E. They promised the public that they would reign in MUNIs $350 Million budget and improve MUNIs on time rate. They lied!

    MTA Planners immediately turned the SFMTA budget into a slush fund for unemployed urban planners and morphed the city’s “Transit First” policy into redesigning streets to cause gridlock and traffic congestion. From 2000 to 2015 The SFMTA spent millions of dollars in “traffic calming” projects to slow down traffic and now that the streets are GRIDLOCKED they are spending Billions more to speed it up again with “Transit only” lanes and BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) projects.

    What else has SFMTA planners done for Taxpayers since 1999? For starters they increased their spending from $350 Million to over a Billion dollars a
    year! Next, they increased our property taxes and our rents by passing a
    half dozen transportation bonds, then they inflated MUNI’s on time
    performance figures and paid themselves bonuses.

    Reduced parking and restricted traffic lanes have created daily gridlock and EMPTY bike lanes have spread across the city like metastatic cancer. San Francisco is now rated the third worst in the country for parking the second worst for driving.Muni delivers less than 98.5% of scheduled service and has never met 85% of on time performance. Let take a moment to thank the planners who are, “leaving SFMTA in a “good place,”

    ( clap clap clap clap clap clap)

  • sfparkripoff

    From 2000 to 2015 urban planner at the SFMTA spent millions of dollars in “traffic calming” projects to slow down traffic and now that the streets are GRIDLOCKED they are spending Billions more to speed it up again with “Transit only” lanes and BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) projects.

    Reduced parking and restricted traffic lanes have created daily gridlock and EMPTY bike lanes have spread across the city like metastatic cancer. San Francisco is now rated the third worst in the country for parking the second worst for driving.Muni delivers less than 98.5% of scheduled service and has never met 85% of on time performance. Let take a moment to thank the planners who are, “leaving SFMTA in a “good place,”

    ( clap clap clap clap clap clap)

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