Build housing over SoMa Caltrain

One of the lesser-known memorable sights in New York City is the four high-rise apartment towers lined up like gigantic dominoes atop the main highway to the George Washington Bridge, which connects upper Manhattan across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Four thousand middle-income residents live in these towers, enjoying million-dollar views, spacious rooms and close-by transit connections.

Manhattan is also in the early stages of creating a new West Side business tower district above the Long Island Rail Road yard. London built a bustling multi-acre office and retail complex above the downtown Liverpool Street train station. And Paris has put housing, offices, schools, parks and the National Library over three of its busiest railway centers, which also serve more than 75 million travelers annually.

The technology and economic know-how for constructing popular, successful high-density building complexes in the air right over metropolitan railroad tracks and highways is already fully proven. Doing the same thing here in San Francisco above Caltrain’s SoMa rail yard at Fourth and King streets is being advocated in a new public policy paper from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

Although SPUR is clear that its report only sketches what someday could be, the potential civic benefits it outlines could hardly be more self-evident. Value of the land, if fully built out, is estimated as at least $2 billion and could fund virtually every upgrade on the Caltrain wish list.

High-density development above and around The City’s Caltrain station would create a link connecting the two fast-growing SoMa neighborhoods now divided by fenced-off rail tracks. With slight rezoning, the entire AT&T Park area could become one of The City’s most vibrant locations for much-needed housing.

The Caltrain station is located at a key public transit hub offering some of the Bay Area’s greatest potential for improved regional commuting convenience. The site is adjacent to Muni’s N-Judah and T-Third light-rail stops. It will also ultimately become the starting point for a new Central Subway to Chinatown and North Beach, a green-lighted project now in planning phases. Someday Caltrain might even continue underground to an expanded Transbay Terminal at Third and Market streets.

For an urban transformation as ambitious as constructing high-rises above the Caltrain rail yard, intensive cooperation would be needed between government regulators and private developers. Fortunately, some of the starting pieces are already in place.

Rights to build on the property are shared by perennially cash-starved Caltrain, which recognizes its existing station will soon be inadequate to meet demand, and Catellus Development, major builder of Mission Bay, which considers the property ideal for high-density and is exploring all options. Surely two such highly motivated partners ought to be able to work together to get such a promising project off the ground.

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