juan Pardo/Special to the S.f. ExaminerMayor Ed Lee speaks at a Market Street construction site Thursday to announce new measures to speed up housing construction in San Francisco.

S.F. looking to public lands to accelerate housing developments

In an effort to ease the housing crisis, Mayor Ed Lee is calling on city departments to take inventory of their vacant and underdeveloped sites to determine which ones are ripe for development — examining everything from historic reservoirs to smaller parcels.

“One of the biggest ideas that I know will be effective is the proper use of underutilized public space, public land. We are identifying all those sites as we speak,” Lee said Monday as he continued to promise an aggressive housing agenda for 2014.

The mayor is under increasing political pressure to address San Francisco's housing climate of soaring rents and lack of availability. Some attribute the situation to the flourishing local tech industry.

Since the review is only just getting underway, the development potential of the public sites remains unclear. But while using public land for below-market-rate housing is not a new model, the aggressive pursuit of the parcels is a different approach.

At least four sites have already been identified and are being examined for development of below-market-rate housing, according to John Updike, director of real estate for San Francisco.

There's 1101 Connecticut St., a 24,999-square-foot property in Potrero Hill. The 15,000-square-foot parcel at Fourth and Folsom streets, the site of the Central Subway's future Moscone station, is in a “very early exploratory phase.” And then there are about 17 acres at the Balboa Reservoir, on Phelan Avenue across from City College of San Francisco, and 36,398 square feet at 1950 Mission St.

The effort could become complicated because public lands are owned by different city departments or other public entities, such as the San Francisco Unified School District and CCSF.

This month, The City approved a land swap with the SFUSD for the parcel at 1950 Mission St. that's being examined for development.

Lee said the Mission site is abandoned and for “decades we've been complaining, 'Why isn't there a better use there?'” Now, he said, “That could be a site of both affordable and middle-class housing.”

And the site becomes attractive for investors and developers since it's public land.

“There's your subsidy already,” Lee said.

Financial institutions such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America are looking for such projects to invest in, Lee said.

“They need that land subsidy,” he said. “That is so expensive in this city. That's what has driven up costs. We are only 49 square miles. Because of that, that is a great part of the story of the affordability challenge in The City.”

There may be additional land opportunities with the SFUSD, which said it has three properties deemed “surplus” — a parking lot at 1350 Seventh Ave., a parking garage at 1340 Bush St. and vacant land at Seventh Avenue and Lawton Street.

Large swathes of land that could be used for housing are under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. In addition to the Balboa Reservoir, the agency said other potential housing sites are the 24,681-square-foot parcel at Putnam Street and Crescent Avenue currently used by a farmers market, the 4.5-acre Francisco Reservoir in Russian Hill, nearly 26 acres of Laguna Honda Reservoir Lands and the 12.25-acre O'Shaughnessy Boulevard open space.

The hope with ramping up such developments is that it could help bring down housing costs. San Francisco's local economy has turned around significantly, but rents have soared more in the past year than in any other major U.S. city. The median rent on a two-bedroom apartment increased by 10.1 percent to $3,250, according to online real estate company Trulia. The next greatest increase was New York's 2.8 percent increase to $3,150.

Lee has also appointed a housing task force, with recommendations due Feb. 1 on how to speed up and encourage housing development citywide.

Where to build

Mayor Ed Lee calls development on public land “one of the biggest ideas” to help with housing affordability. Here are four public land sites already being looked at for development of both low- and middle-income housing:

1950 Mission St.: 36,398 square feet

1101 Connecticut St.: 24,999 square feet

Fourth and Folsom streets: 14,810 square feet

Balboa Reservoir: 7.60 acres

Source: San Francisco Real Estate Division

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