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SF plans to build housing on top of a bus yard in first-of-its-kind proposal

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A proposal to build housing on top of the Potrero bus yard would help fund upgrades for the facility. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

Ham and pineapple. Peanut butter and bananas. Some combinations may sound odd at first blush, but work.

San Francisco’s transit agency hopes they’ll achieve the same magic when they build a historic first: Housing on top of a Muni bus yard.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is preparing to rebuild and revitalize its 103-year-old Potrero bus yard at Bryant and Mariposa streets. The facility is out of date in numerous ways — from its size to its electrical system — that slow down the repair and deployment of modern buses, staffers told the San Francisco Examiner.

That’s especially troublesome as the SFMTA gears up to provide Muni service for an ever-expanding San Francisco population, driving a need for more buses.

The issue is prompting the agency to propose a third floor for the two-story Potrero Yard, which would expand its storage capacity from 138 buses to roughly 200.

But the sorely-needed project is expected to cost “hundreds of millions” of dollars, said Licinia Iberri, an SFMTA campus planning manager.

In order to help foot a portion of that eyebrow-raising bill, SFMTA planners are proposing something they’ve never tried before: a developer-created housing project directly above the bus yard. Affordable housing would be part of the equation, but the entire development could not be 100 percent affordable with only SFMTA funding, as a major driver of the development is the need to help pay for roughly 10-15 percent of the bus yard project, Iberri said.

“This would be the first of its kind,” she said, but if San Franciscans want to see 100 percent affordable housing “SFMTA would not be able to do this alone” and would require city help.

On a tour of Potrero Yard, Iberri outlined just how badly SFMTA needs to revamp it.

She pointed first to the ceilings, which stopped about two feet above the buses lined up inside. The building is too short for mechanics to jack up the buses so they can work underneath them. Instead, there are 70-feet long, four-foot deep pits for mechanics to slide under the buses, which force Muni’s gearheads to bend like contortionists in order to remove a simple bolt, said Juan Solis, a transit mechanic.

Solis was crouching down and reaching behind a bus wheel when the Examiner approached him. Solis explained the mechanics are prone to injury when they bend and contort to maintain the vehicles.

“You have to be very slow,” he said, a necessary practice that slows down bus maintenance systemwide.

A new facility would also allow better storage techniques, SFMTA staff said. The yard right now is configured to store buses in a straight line, so quickly-fixed buses often have to wait behind buses with longer fixes in order to exit.

Yard modernization would also allow Muni to convert to an electric battery fleet, without the need to attach to overhead wires, Iberri said. The facility doesn’t have the wiring necessary to charge battery-powered buses, but the revamp would make Potrero Yard state-of-the-art.

All these improvements “are basic, and core to our work” said SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum.

It remains to be seen, however, if the Mission District will back a housing project on-site to help pay for these upgrades.

Scott Feeney, an organizer with Mission YIMBY, a pro-housing development group, sits on the working group for the modernization project, which members of the public are free to join.

“I’m optimistic that neighbors will support height so we can get housing the neighborhood needs,” Feeney said.

SFMTA has dabbled in housing before, as Moscone Garage will be soon be replaced with 100 housing units, and the Central Subway station at Fourth Street will also see development in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Housing. It’s also a chance to live on top of a piece of San Francisco history, said Rick Laubscher, a Muni historian who runs the Market Street Railway nonprofit.

The Potrero Car House opened its doors in 1915, becoming Muni’s second-ever yard for vehicle storage and maintenance, Laubscher told the Examiner. The first was the Geary Car House, which dates back to Muni’s founding in 1912, where Geary streetcars were stored.

So can SFMTA really combine housing with a bus yard and make it work? Laubscher what made it possible was the type of buses housed at Potrero: electric trolley buses, the ones that run on yellow poles reaching up to overhead wires.

“The trick is, there’s no exhaust from vehicles,” he said.

SFMTA will discuss proposals for the Potrero Modernization Project at public open houses on Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Sports Basement store on Bryant Street. Construction is tentatively pegged for 2023.

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