Finding the Best Places to Build Westside Housing
By Joel P. Engardio
When State Senator Scott Wiener told me about his plan to require California cities to build four to eight stories of housing within one-half mile of transit corridors, my advice was to make an exception for San Francisco.
Local backlash against Senate Bill 827 has been fierce, especially on the Westside, where I live in a detached single-family home. I understand why residents of San Francisco’s unique, lower-density neighborhoods do not want a multi-story apartment building adjacent to their house.
Yet, Westside residents can be persuaded to accept more density a few blocks away on our actual transit corridors. That’s why I asked Wiener to drop the one-half mile radius for San Francisco and strictly define a transit corridor as both sides of a street served by a Muni train.
This compromise would provide plenty of benefits that Westside residents can rally around:
- More dynamic business districts. Long stretches of single-story retail are no longer sustainable. We need housing above retail on western Muni train lines along Judah, Ocean, Taraval and West Portal. Added density will generate the foot traffic necessary for better neighborhood amenities, which nearby homeowners will enjoy.
- New housing for multiple generations — from young professionals trying to stay in San Francisco to seniors who may want the option of aging in place in their neighborhood by moving into a building with an elevator.
- An incentive to build a much-needed subway tunnel under Geary Boulevard to downtown. Geary would benefit from new housing — if it had a train. The buses serving Geary are woefully inadequate. Focusing on transportation infrastructure is equally important as housing. They must be built together.
Wiener said he was willing to negotiate the distance of the transit corridor radius, but wouldn’t give it up entirely.
“Our housing deficit is so huge that we’re not going to solve it if all we do is allow new housing on commercial corridors,” Wiener said. “Look at the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, the most famous homes in the world. They’re next to two apartment buildings that are seven stories and four stories — the same height my bill calls for — and they look fine.”
When Wiener recently spoke to the West of Twin Peaks Central Council — a coalition of 20 Westside neighborhood associations — the senator ended up in a respectful debate with the audience.
“I’m afraid your bill will destroy our family character,” said a man who has lived in West Portal for decades.
“I’m for family housing,” Wiener replied. “And I’m seeing young families leave San Francisco because they can’t find a place to live.”
“We bought houses on the Westside because of the charming neighborhoods,” said a Miraloma Park resident. “If we wanted high-rises, we would live downtown.”
“I’m only talking about four to eight stories, not 30,” Wiener said. “This won’t revolutionize the Westside overnight, if it revolutionizes it at all.”
Wiener pointed out a six-story apartment building that’s been in West Portal since 1929. But West Portal Avenue was downzoned to one story in the 1980s, despite being served by three Muni trains.
One longtime Westside homeowner offered a concession.
“Put more housing on West Portal Avenue where the single-story banks are,” he said. “Put apartment buildings on a real transit corridor, not in our neighborhoods.”
Then another longtime West Portal resident suggested an additional location.
“You can build housing on the Stonestown parking lot,” she said. “That’s a perfect place for it.”
The comment surprised Assemblymember Phil Ting, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 827. He supported building 600 units in a parking lot behind Stonestown Mall nearly 20 years ago. Intense neighborhood opposition killed the housing.
“People thought it was the worst thing ever. But had we built it, 1,000 people would have homes who don’t have one now,” Ting said. “Today, the ability to own a home is a dim prospect for everyone under 40 in San Francisco. An entire generation feels shut out of the American dream. We need a place for our kids and grandkids to live and I don’t want to waste any more opportunities.”
When I asked Ting about amending Senate Bill 827 to eliminate the one-half mile transit corridor radius in San Francisco, he said it was unlikely the radius would apply here.
“People have the misconception that neighborhoods will be bulldozed and replaced with high-rises. But Senate Bill 827 is not about demolition,” Ting said. “It’s about maximizing available land — like the Stonestown parking lot that still sits empty.”
Ting said amendments have been added to Senate Bill 827 that defer to San Francisco’s anti-demolition laws. But Westside residents don’t trust the Board of Supervisors will always keep those protections in place. And they fear a state law that removes local ability to determine what a neighborhood looks like.
Senate Bill 827 addresses a statewide supply crisis caused by suburban cities that benefit from transit, like BART and Caltrain, but refuse to build new housing. It also ensures subways under construction in Los Angeles serve enough density to warrant spending billions of transportation dollars.
But the transit corridor radius in Senate Bill 827 is too broad for San Francisco. Why?
Los Angeles is vast and San Francisco is a tiny peninsula. A one-half mile radius around transit corridors will up-zone our entire city. That’s asking too much when we’re already the fourth-dense city in the United States. Other California cities need to build their share of housing.
We can continue to house more people through innovation. I previously wrote about a six-story idea called Dom-i-city designed to keep middle-income families in San Francisco. Every unit has three bedrooms. The building would be ideal for a Westside transit corridor, Balboa Reservoir or Stonestown Mall. If residents wanted one in a neighborhood, it would fit in the footprint of three attached Sunset homes. The difference is the existence of Dom-i-city would be driven by choice and popular demand — not forced by state law.
A growing number of Westside residents are now willing to build common sense housing on West Portal Avenue and at Stonestown Mall. That is a remarkable shift in attitude compared to just a few years ago. But support for any new housing could evaporate as people fight an overreaching Senate Bill 827.
If there’s agreement that more housing is needed for our kids and grandkids, then let’s use a targeted approach to make it happen on the Westside. Let’s build on our actual transit corridors served by Muni trains while retaining the beauty of the surrounding neighborhoods. Everyone wins.