City will turn Francisco Reservoir into a park, with no affordable housing

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A features plan for Francisco Park.

San Francisco is getting a new park – but the deal has left some wondering why a small portion of the new parkland couldn’t have been set aside to build housing for teachers and firefighters.

On July 8 members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously, amid a flurry of congratulatory exchanges, to transfer the Francisco Reservoir to the Recreation and Parks Department. Nearly everyone who weighed in during public comment praised the decision to convert the reservoir site into open space for the surrounding neighborhood. Located near Russian Hill on Hyde Street just above Bay Street, the Francisco Reservoir has gone unused for the better part of century.

One speaker did offer some balance. “We have the mayor and the Board of Supervisors constantly hitting us over the head saying we need housing,” she pointed out. “We have to start somewhere.” 

Under city law, publicly owned “surplus property” – as the Francisco Reservoir is categorized – must be considered for affordable housing before city departments may let it go for any other use.

Yet during years of discussion between neighbors and city officials to discuss this 4-acre parcel, the idea of building affordable housing apparently didn’t even receive minimal consideration.

Instead, the affluent neighbors wanted a park – and managed to raise nearly $10 million in private funding through several neighborhood associations to help make it happen. That money has been pledged for a park endowment, to cover development and maintenance purposes.

According to City Attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey, the city’s “enterprise agencies” are exempted from the affordable housing requirement in the surplus property ordinance – this applies to surplus parcels under the ownership of the Port, the SFPUC, the SFMTA, and the Recreation & Parks Department.

A memorandum of understanding approved by the SFPUC, which must win the approval of the Board of Supervisors and the mayor before being finalized, grants some $10 million from the Recreation and Park Department’s open space fund to purchase the Francisco Reservoir from the SFPUC.

Open space is generally a wonderful amenity in an urban environment, particularly for land that hasn't been used in decades. As Jan Blum noted at the hearing, the parkland will provide environmental benefits such as “habitat for migratory birds, as well as local wildlife.”

But the city’s decision to convert surplus property to open space comes just as Mayor Ed Lee is seeking to build 30,000 new housing units to stem the affordability crisis.

John Stewart, a prominent affordable housing developer appointed to serve on Lee’s affordable housing task force, told the Guardian that he got nowhere when proposing the idea of affordable housing construction for a small portion of the Francisco Reservoir parcel.

Stewart, who emphasized to the Bay Guardian that his company has no financial ties nor interest in developing a project there, penned an editorial for the San Francisco Business Times earlier this year on the Francisco Reservoir transfer, asking, “Why not expand the conversation to include the subject of housing?”

The idea was not well received. “I did not even propose tax-credit, tax-driven, very low income housing,” Stewart noted. “I proposed moderate-income, for teachers and nurses.”

The neighborhood plan showed the area at the end of the parcel, where Stewart thought housing could go, as a dog run.

Sup. Mark Farrell, who represents District 2, where Francisco Park would be located, was deeply involved in discussions about converting the reservior into a park. Farrell’s office didn’t return calls seeking comment, nor did the SFPUC.

“Sup. Farrell didn’t want me speaking to these groups,” Stewart said. “Nobody said, come by, come to our coffee klatch, make the case and we’ll at least talk it over. Nobody wanted to discuss it – that was clear. There was polite silence. But there was silence,” he said. “And their view is – and it’s understandable – they really want to have the whole thing.”

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