Fight about preserving Parkmerced is inevitable

There is a certain inevitability about the fight to save Parkmerced, not unlike the summer fog that envelops it.

Even small proposed developments incite big neighborhood battles in San Francisco, let alone a plan to add 5,700 new units. Talk of density always brings fear, especially in a place that is filled with acres of open space.

And no one wants to see their homes demolished or to be temporarily relocated, even if they get a new home for the same price for as many years as they wish.

These are things we could count on, just like the sorry financial shape of Parkmerced’s owners, which received the same economic slap other large real estate investors did during the past few years.

But the idea that Parkmerced should be saved, essentially untouched, because it’s beautiful and historic? That stretches credibility almost as much as the argument that it should be protected because it’s along the flight pattern of migratory birds, a statement that was raised in all seriousness amid the rhetorical chorus that formed at last week’s Planning Commission hearing.

I say all this because after the commission’s vote to move ahead with a $1.2 billion development plan to bring Parkmerced into this century, it just means we’ll be hearing it all again when the project moves to the Board of Supervisors, where all planning fights ultimately end. And the longer the battle goes on, the louder it gets.

Still, the questions linger: Are you really negatively impacting the “rental stock” if you triple the number of units you’re replacing? Is 60-year-old housing built for returning World War II veterans really charming? And is nostalgia a reason to maintain the status quo?

As the largest single apartment complex in San Francisco, with more than 3,000 units, Parkmerced has been a steady workhouse for The City’s rental market and a largely affordable housing outlet for struggling students and the elderly for decades. And its circular roundabouts and large green spaces make it an interesting example of what passed for creative landscaping back in the middle of the last century.

But to say that Parkmerced is dated and drab would be an act of kindness. About 10 years ago, I did a column listing the 10 ugliest structures in San Francisco, and the Eastern Bloc-meets-suburban- sprawl layout that is Parkmerced was an obvious nominee. And besides the expected hate mail came numerous comments from the site’s residents who agreed with me.

So the only surprise in the whole drama over the future of Parkmerced isn’t whether the current configuration is worth saving. It’s that the people fighting the development aren’t raising the right questions about The City’s ability to absorb the expansion.

“We are all for overhauling ugly Parkmerced,”  Realtor Sandy Onken said in a note to me when the project first came to light. “The problem is adding 5,700 new units. Think how much traffic and congestion that will cause along 19th Avenue and Brotherhood Way. All those people will want to have cars and visitors who drive to meet them. Those streets are already packed.”

Those are legitimate concerns as anyone who drives along that area during rush hour can attest. The streets around San Francisco State University are packed during the school year and 19th Avenue, during peak times, is more like a parking lot than a state highway.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency reportedly has plans to alter the M-line route and direct it through Parkmerced to ease the traffic crunch. But anyone who knows the state of Muni understands that achieving that goal will be about as easy as predicting the weather — next February.

By building the new units over a 20-year period, the developer, Stellar Management, should be able to determine if the market will uphold the expansion. Yet it’s hard to imagine 14,000 new residents in that corner of The City today.

Still, city supervisors would do well to ignore the idea that the “original vision” for Parkmerced is something worth embracing, and that its suburban-sprawl-like layout is special and endearing.

It’s a period piece, a period when architects disliked cities. And it shows that time capsules don’t make for the best living quarters.

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