By Elisa Laird-Metke
Portola District resident, mother, and community activist. She's played an active role on the Portola Urban Greening Committee and most recently organized the neighborhood's first produce bounty swap.
I read with interest a neighbor’s post a while back about what she’d like to see happen to the Portola’s greenhouse property, and why she came to that conclusion. I’ve since seen a few posts on the neighborhood listserv and Nextdoor.com about the greenhouse property at 770 Woolsey and what might become of it. I love the creativity, but also notice there seem to be some misperceptions about what could go there and what the current proposals are. I put together a few dreams of my own about the property, and what it could become. I should start with the caveat that I’m no expert on San Francisco zoning or building approval processes, so if anyone else has other info, please chime in!
There’s a lot to say, so here’s a summary:
First off, the proposal for the property by The Greenhouse Project that you may have heard about is not for a “park” in the sense of the parks that the Portola already has—playgrounds, hiking trails, and playing fields—it’s a MUCH more innovative proposal for urban agriculture! And while I agree that the limited and high-priced housing situation in SF is a huge concern, there are a number of reasons why this particular parcel is a poor choice for high-density housing. Perhaps most importantly, this is the last of the dozens of greenhouses that once defined the Portola, and therefore our very last chance to meaningfully retain one of the historic greenhouse properties.
A different kind of park: urban agriculture!
There are many places in this city that offer recreational opportunities, but only a few places in the city where food is being grown in a public space. Many of those exist on borrowed property and, like the Hayes Valley Farm, will sooner or later have to fold when the owner of that property asks. This property has the potential to be a permanent, thriving farm and an educational site for environmentally sustainable food production in our densely populated city. There is so much potential: maybe it hosts field trips for kids, becomes a training site for local youth, creates jobs, provides fresh produce and flowers to local restaurants—there are so many possibilities!
I’m not the only one who thinks so. Last year, the PUC held several planning meetings about the daylighting of the Yosemite Creek, which will take place in 2016. Among the numerous Portolans who attended those meetings, the most popular idea by far was to see some form of urban agriculture continued on the 770 Woolsey property, to support preservation of the neighborhood’s Garden District identity. That may mean rebuilding greenhouses or creating something new, like a small-scale farm. Neighbors have had a number of ideas, including growing flowers and vegetables. How great would that be?? The Portola could have a model city farm or greenhouse demonstration site that gives San Francisco’s urban kids the opportunity to see up close how flowers, fruits, and vegetables grow. And the Portola would be looked to by other neighborhoods and other cities as a model for how cities can become more self-sustaining by growing their own food.
Why not housing or a grocery store or other commercial use at 770 Woolsey?
The property’s current zoning restricts its uses to either housing or agricultural or open space. The property is zoned RH-1 (residential housing) and allows for development of 34 lots, with up to 4 stories to be built on each lot. It is not zoned for traditional commercial uses, including mixed use (housing over storefronts), so the property would have to be rezoned before a Trader Joe’s, ice cream shop, or other similar commercial use could be built there. Although a rezoning request is technically possible, it is very unlikely that such a request would be granted given the make-up of the surrounding neighborhood (single family houses and schools) and the fact that the surrounding streets are not built to handle commercial traffic. If the property is purchased by a developer, an all-residential housing development is virtually assured.
Any housing built there would most certainly be high density—well above what is typical of the rest of the neighborhood.
The greenhouse property went on the market again this year, and developers lined up to place bids. It has been in and out of escrow a couple of times, and may again be under contract now. If a sale is eventually finalized, any developer will want to get the most profit possible, which means building the most units permitted—probably 2 or 3 units per parcel (depending on allowances by the city). So this means there would likely be from 68 to 102 new dwelling units in ONE BLOCK of the Portola. And, at four stories, they’d be at least twice as tall as the houses all around them and not in character with the surrounding neighborhood, which is mostly two-story houses.
I have heard several comments from neighbors over the last month saying they think housing is a good idea, but only if it is done this or that way. But the reality is that we as neighbors won’t have a say in what style of housing is built—developers build what makes them the most money, which means high density housing.
The Portola doesn’t have the transit infrastructure to support so many new units.
To address the city’s long term need to reduce congestion, new housing must be placed in areas well served by public transit. There is very limited Muni service in that part of the neighborhood, and it is not close to SF’s transit “arteries” like BART and Muni light rail. If each new unit houses 1 or 2 adults, and Muni isn’t viable, think of how many additional vehicles would be crowded into the Portola. Whether the new units are mostly luxury or below market rate is irrelevant—there will be many more units than this one block can reasonably support.
In contrast, we’ve all seen empty lots around the city that are dusty wastelands surrounded by chain link fences, where adding housing would eliminate blight and be a big improvement to the area. Many are in places where existing public transit infrastructure makes adding dozens of new dwelling units viable, without adding strain to the existing community or destroying a block with such obvious and unique potential for open, green space uses.
The Portola’s greenhouse legacy is all but gone.
The greenhouses at 770 Woolsey are the last remaining in the Portola—there used to be dozens of greenhouses around the neighborhood and all the others have been torn down…to make room for housing. I’d rather not see the very last greenhouses meet a similar fate and lose the last of the Portola greenhouse legacy. I know many of my neighbors feel similarly about holding onto this last vestige of an old way of life in San Francisco that is virtually gone, by continuing to have greenhouse agriculture on this special site.
So where do things stand with the property now?
The property has been on the market for quite a while. It is unclear how long it may take to complete a sale, but even if the developer currently expressing interest completes purchase of the property, high density housing isn’t immediately going up—the developer will still have to obtain permits and jump through other hoops before the city approves the building project. If other, important uses for the property are shown, they could be considered during this process.
Parcels a whole city block in size are extremely rare in modern San Francisco. Let’s keep this one intact, and allow it to become an example of what the Portola once was, as well as a model of restoration and sustainability for other neighborhoods and cities to follow. Past and future, all rolled into one preserved city block!
That’s my two cents—what do you think?