Tunnel Vision Is No Way to Build a Tunnel

By Joel P. Engardio

Given San Francisco’s housing crisis and traffic congestion, if you had $1.6 billion to build a tunnel, where would you put it?

I’d start digging down Geary Boulevard, from downtown to the Outer Richmond. Then I’d encourage construction of multistory, middle-class housing along the way with vibrant ground-floor retail.

A subway would save commuters from the cursed 38-Geary bus, which crawls along miles of failed car-first planning from the middle of the last century.

But a Geary subway won’t happen anytime soon. Too many San Franciscans deplore change and defend “neighborhood character” as never better than the day they arrived. Geary isn’t purposefully retro or shabby chic. It’s just worn and dated.

So what’s the next best destination for a $1.6 billion tunnel?

We could connect the Caltrain station near AT&T Park to tourist magnet Fisherman’s Wharf, including stops for conventions at the Moscone Center, shopping in Union Square and dining in North Beach. Giants fans and conventioneers could easily zip between attractions, creating an economic boom for local merchants.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is building that tunnel -- sort of. The Central Subway inexplicably ends in Chinatown. When it’s completed in 2019, disappointed riders will wonder why it was built with such tunnel vision.

Infrastructure projects are always too expensive, but doing them right is worth the cost when they serve the ages. Now that we’ve started digging, we must figure out how to go all the way to the wharf. Everyone regrets BART didn’t build more track 40 years ago. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

Chinatown is a great destination. But additional stops in North Beach and the Wharf are needed to realize the Central Subway’s full economic potential, a true reduction in traffic and even some housing solutions. Long-neglected neighborhoods in southeastern San Francisco would also be connected to the wharf with a one-seat ride along a seamless T-Third line.

The demand exists. The Wharf has more than 10 million visitors a year – up to 70,000 on peak days – plus the 8,000 people who work there. There isn’t enough parking and streets are clogged. Muni’s historic cable cars and vintage streetcars are transportation jewels that attract riders, but they’re often mobbed.

A modern subway would augment the vintage trains by serving a growing need for capacity and speed. Imagine the wharf’s 3,400 hotel rooms and 90,000 square feet of meeting space connected to the Moscone Center by subway. The Wharf would become a lucrative convention satellite just minutes away.

Tech start-ups seeking cheaper rent and easy access to SoMa could fill the empty office space above the Wharf’s restaurants and shops. With Bay views and a subway to get around, people would also want to live there. San Francisco desperately needs more housing and the Wharf has plenty of room to build it over retail stores and on unsightly parking lots.

“It makes sense to connect the Wharf to the rest of the city,” said Troy Campbell, director of the Wharf’s Community Benefit District. “The more people who can live and do business here, the better. We can start building four-story condos right now under current zoning.”

While the Wharf is ready to embrace more multistory housing, North Beach residents would protest it with pitchforks. But North Beach is already among the densest neighborhoods in San Francisco, which justifies a subway.

“The subway is a salvation, not a threat,” said Julie Christensen, a 30-year North Beach resident and one of the leaders of the effort to extend the Central Subway at sfnextstop.org. “Everyone used to come here, but many stay away now because traffic and parking is such a hassle. The subway will keep North Beach viable.”

North Beach has a glorious past: Barbary Coast, beatniks, the Condor and Lenny Bruce. But it’s been 50 years since North Beach defined the Zeitgeist.

Yet opportunity exists for today’s innovators to make North Beach relevant again. Lots of vacant commercial space is available for a new generation to work, create and play – if they can get there.

“The irony is that North Beach could be more like what the old-timers want it to be,” Christensen said. “A subway will give us less traffic, wider sidewalks and more pedestrians. We can have a 1960s village-like feel that’s also economically viable and vibrant for the 21st Century. I hope I live to see it.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner March 16, 2014