By Joel P. Engardio
Students of history know that “Nixon in China” is a metaphor for difficult change that requires a push from an unexpected advocate.
Maybe “Seniors on the Westside” will become a similar catch phrase for solving one of San Francisco’s most vexing problems -- not enough housing for everyone who wants to live here.
Meet Fred Martin. He’s a 70-plus senior who rails against youth on skateboards when he speaks at Westside neighborhood meetings. But he’s also a visionary.
“My street is full of empty nesters. Many had to sell their house or died,” he said. “That tells me we need senior housing -- and West Portal is a good place to put it.”
What Martin proposes is revolutionary because it requires raising the height limit on West Portal Avenue to build multiple-story condos over retail along a transit corridor. It’s the kind of urban planning and density that Martin’s generation has been fighting against for decades on the Westside.
“We opposed everything and anything. Everything was taboo,” Martin said. “If you stood on the corner for 24 hours you became a historical landmark.”
Today, West Portal buildings are limited to just 26 feet -- lower than any commercial district in The City.
Howard Strassner was a neighborhood leader who helped write the restrictive zoning code. But he had a change of heart.
“The height limit was silly. It took me a long time to understand that,” said Strassner, who is in his 70s. “Now I want to raise it.”
Why? Both Martin and Strassner said they fear not being able to maintain a large home and navigate stairs some day. An elevator condo with Muni access would let them stay in the neighborhood they love, even if they quit driving.
“I can get to my seat at the opera in 20 minutes thanks to the Muni tunnel at West Portal,” Stassner said. “That’s why I want to stay here.”
There’s additional benefit if Westside seniors downsize to nearby condos. It frees up their two- and three-bedroom homes for a new generation of families who are fleeing San Francisco because housing is in such short supply.
“People pushing baby strollers is good for the neighborhood,” Strassner said. “It livens the place up and doesn’t hurt anything.”
More foot traffic will also rejuvenate the West Portal business district.
“Condos on the Avenue could make this a more fulfilling community where you can do a lot of things without driving your car,” said Matt Rogers, owner of Papenhausen Hardware.
For Westside residents who want to preserve their neighborhoods of single-family homes, allowing a little density along Muni lines might placate urban planners looking to build high citywide. The Westside will be able to say it has done its part.
There is precedent. When the West Portal tunnel was envisioned a century ago, advertisements touted it as a marvel that would produce more housing and an easier commute.
Yet plenty of Westside residents are skeptical of the regional trend to put more housing next to public transportation. They’ve seen Livermore and how so-called transit corridors are devoid of character. It’s not an irrational fear, given the homogenization of America by strip malls.
That’s why it will take “Seniors on the Westside” like Martin and Strassner to convince their gray-haired neighbors that a few condos on West Portal won’t wipe out the neighborhood’s charm. Especially if the new buildings are filled with unique ground floor retail and interesting people above.
“It will be attractive to seniors who are spry and viable. I work out at the Y every day,” Martin said. “But first we have to stop those skateboarders who race down the street. They give you the bird if you try to tell them to slow down.”