Planner retires, looks back on reshaping San Francisco transit

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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