Podcast Transcript: Episode 274: Housing on the Bus Yard
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JW: Rafe Rabalais and Adrienne Heim, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
AH: Yes, thank you. Thank you for having us.
RR: Thank you very much.
JW (2m 22s): Yeah, thanks for being here. So before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves? We’ll start with Adrienne.
AH: So I’ve been with the SFMTA for five years, and September is my fifth year. I work for the public outreach and engagement unit under the communications and marketing division. And I worked on a number of projects throughout the five years I’ve been with the agency, capital programs in construction, projects with real estate and MUNI transit operation, so I got to see a lot of different aspects of what we do.
JW: And were you always interested in transportation?
AH: Yes, always interested in transportation. I grew up in San Rafael. So my dad was a toll taker on the Golden Gate Bridge and he would get free Golden Gate transit, so we would always travel by ferry and Golden Gate bus to go to the city or Santa Rosa, and I fell in love with the idea of being able to go wherever and access services, meet friends, entertainment.
JW: Awesome. And Rafe?
RR (3m 15s): Well, let’s see. I’ve been at the SFMTA for just shy of five years, I guess about four and a half years, and I work in the, essentially the real estate division of the SFMTA facilities and rail property management. My background, I guess before coming to the MTA was both as a planner and as a developer. I worked as an affordable housing developer for a number of years before starting with the SFMTA, and then a planner in kind of both the public and private capacity before that. The projects that I’m working on with the SFMTA, obviously the Potrero Yard is one of the biggest ones that I’ve been working on for the last several years, and the other projects in Potrero certainly falls in this category are kind of the synthesis of housing and planning. So the other housing and affordable housing developments that the SFMTA has been pursuing are ones that I’ve been managing as well over the last couple of years. So, very interesting work.
JW (4m 2s): Cool. And then were you always interested in transportation or planning?
RR (4m 5s): For a long long time for sure. I’m actually a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. So the land of streetcars, so kind of iconic streetcars there, and then also as a kid, I guess starting in kind of middle school high school was an occasional bus rider, I guess in the New Orleans Regional transit Authority, and that was that was really my first introduction to using transit on a regular basis and have loved it since then.
JW: Do you still celebrate Mardi Gras?
RR: I do. Yes, from afar. So, there’s nothing like being there and actually celebrating. I try.
JW: But you can get, you can try to make your own king cake.
RR: You can. You can order a king cake and they are as delicious here as anywhere else.
JW (4m 41s): So before we get started to talk about Potrero Yard and some of the stuff that’s going on, what’s your favorite transit line in San Francisco?
AH: I would say the 43, because it goes from The Excelsior all the way up to the Marina and I can access Golden Gate Transit and go up to Marin and Sonoma. Yeah.
JW: Nice. Nancy actually takes, my girlfriend takes 43 every day to go to work. So she loves that one.
AH: Ah, nice.
RR (5m 4s): Yeah, that’s great. As for myself I’d say probably the 49, which is a workhorse line, of course, up and down Van Ness, and my wife and myself and my son live in Russian Hill. So going from there to the SFMTA headquarters at One South Van Ness. It’s a straight shot on Van Ness, in spite of the construction on the Van Ness BRT, it still is pretty fast and pretty convenient, so.
JW (5m 24s): Nice, we always like to learn how people take transit. But for folks that don’t live in the Bay Area that are listening. Can you tell them a little bit also what the SFMTA does and how it’s structured because it’s a little different I think from a lot of transit agencies.
AH: Yeah, and there was a voter approval to create the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency from the Taxi Commission Municipal Railways, which is MUNI, and then the Department of Parking and Traffic, so melded together, voter approval 1999, and we manage all surface transportation in the City and County of San Francisco. That’s paratransit, taxi, pedestrian, bicycling, MUNI, and all things underneath that so.
RR (6m 3s): It’s a unicorn and that it’s a, it’s a comprehensive transportation shop under one roof. So, you know a lot of other cities, of course, we’ll have the transit only kind of component and then separate from that will be bike and ped and parking, but it’s a really unique organization and a massive organization too. I think we’re, I don’t know what the latest count is, but I think 6,000 employees.
JW (6m 21s): 6,000 with the bulk being our MUNI operators. For sure.
JW: Do you find that makes it easier to do your job to have everything kind of under one roof?
RR (6m 30s): I would say so. You know, I think just like any other big organization you have bureaucracy and you have a lot of different divisions and division heads. Obviously, you all have to work together but you know, it certainly makes it a lot easier. So you have to kind of navigate that when you have those conversations and you have to collaborate with other divisions of the agency, but I would say exponentially easier all operating under the same director in the same board than, you know, even other agencies of city government. So there is more of a unified kind of holistic purpose as we look at transportation challenges.
AH: Right, right. And geographically we have the planning department and Public Works kind of moving near our offices, which is at Market and Van Ness at the Bank of America building. So that’s even more advantageous for us to communicate on certain projects.
RR (7m 16s): Rights. Having any other city departments right there.
JW (7m 18s): Yeah, especially on the one we’re about we’re going to talk about soon.
RR (7m 22s): Yeah, sure. And one other thing I guess to mention too, this is kind of another technical detail but bears mentioning, is that we are a division of city government, so as we talked about working with other city agencies, that also allows for kind of closer coordination than if you’re you know, a standalone transit or transportation agency that then has to kind of interface with different jurisdictions. So, you know that also kind of helps with singularity of purpose and coordination among city departments.
JW (7m 48s): Does that sometimes make it last longer too, in terms of time frame because you do have to coordinate with so many entities. Does that make it difficult?
RR (7m 55s): I don’t know. I mean it’s tough to say since I haven’t had the alternate experience. I haven’t pursued kind of public sector development in the way that we’re pursuing at Potrero for another jurisdiction, but you know, I’d have to guess this is just speculating, but if you’re VTA, if you’re BART, if you’re WMATA in DC, that to a certain extent, right, you’re answering to fewer entities. But ultimately when it comes to TOD projects, you still have to work with a local jurisdiction too, so it’s you know, you’re maybe streamlined up to the point that you’re forced to interface with, you know land use agency, regulatory body, local elected officials, so, you know, I’d like to think that our way is a little bit easier in that we’re all under the same kind of big org chart I guess.
JW (8m 39s): So we’ve got all these wonderful new vehicles from hybrid electric buses and the new Siemens LRVs. And if I can anthropomorphize them for a second, where do they go to sleep at night?
RR (8m 50s): Well, that’s a great question, and it’s something that a lot of people don’t think about, unless you’re living close to one of those facilities that houses the rail vehicles or the buses. But it takes a lot of real estate. It takes a lot of real estate to house them and to maintain them. And for ourselves, we have a number of different bus and rail divisions across San Francisco, across the 49 square miles of San Francisco, and the buses and the Potrero Yard, which we’re going to talk about today, you know, San Francisco’s a little bit unique in that we have trolley buses that run on overhead electricity. So this is something that you used to see, middle of the 20th century as some cities were transitioning from street cars to buses, you had like in my hometown of New Orleans, they had trolley buses at one point and don’t have them anymore. But San Francisco is pretty unique in that we still have trolleybuses as a major, major component of our fleet. And so to answer your question, we have maintenance and storage divisions for our rail cars, maintenance and storage divisions and that’s streetcars, maintenance and storage divisions for our light rail vehicles, for our rubber tire buses that are hybrid diesel buses, and then a rubber tire buses that are the trolley buses. And so Potrero Yard is one of, kind of in the last category. It’s a rubber tire facility for our trolleybus fleet.
JW (10m 5s): And that gets us into the building progress program. MUNI has 20 facilities, yet some of them need updating more than others.What’s the process for updating a building that houses maintenance facility for vehicles?
RR (10m 16s): Yeah. That’s a great question. I think the, well, it starts with a planning process. So I think it starts with kind of seeing how all the pieces fit together and you know, which capital needs are the most urgent. So with as many facilities as you mentioned covering all the different kind of functions and vehicle types that we have, you know, you want to kind of start from an intelligent and strategic standpoint so that you’re not just kind of fixing things to fix things. But you’re saying well, how does the condition of this facility compared to another facility? And given the age of the city, given the age of our facilities, some of which date to the early 20th century, that’s a really important facto. And then I think from that, it’s really kind of a question of what’s the scale of investment that you’re looking at. So some of our facilities, you know, the needs are not so substantial. It’s really just a bathroom refresh or it’s maybe an upgrade to a mechanical system or something like that. And then for other projects like Potrero Yard and some of the other big, kind of overhauls of facilities that we’ll be undertaking over the next decade, decade and a half. You’re really talking about a comprehensive rebuild where the funding strategy is a lot more complex, the kind of public outreach strategies a lot more complex, and then obviously delivering the project is exponentially more complex than a minor capital project.
AH (11m 26s): Right. And so I would think of it as you know improving our MUNI facilities for operations purposes, but there’s also the other facilities that feed into the MUNI operations, but also other aspects of what the SFMTA does. So what Rafe was talking about, operator restrooms, we have facilities throughout the city to ensure that service performance is held at that certain standard. And that’s more in like the fix bucket, the kind of not quick build but less intensive financially build. And then looking at our existing bus facility and light rail facilities in a way where we can expand because there’s such limited land in the city. So that’s kind of like the overall view.
JW: And Potrero Yard, we’ll get started asking about that one specifically. How old is the Potrero Yard and what is some of its history? You know, you mentioned it’s trolleybuses now, but it was streetcars before.
AH: Yeah, I mean, Potrero Yard is the second oldest bus facility. The first one is Presidio. It’s 4.4 acres, about four and a half acres of land that sits between District 9 and District 10, where District 9 is in Supervisor Ronen’s district and encompasses the Mission, and then District 10 is Potrero Hill, Bayview, overseen by Supervisor Walton. So the perimeter is 17th Street, Hampshire and York and Mariposa and Bryant, and there’s about six lines that run out of Potrero. And then the ridership is about a 102,000 riders or a quarter of our ridership depends on those six lines that run out of the yard.
JW: And is there like, you discussed this a little bit before, but is there like a marker that tells you like, “Oh this facility really it needs to start the process of revitalizing itself”?
RR: Being overhauled?
JW: Being overhauled, yeah.
RR (13m 8s): Yeah for certain facilities, it’s pretty obvious when you take a look at it. (Laughs) You’re certainly welcome to taking a tour. And anybody for that matter, we’ve been offering, this is a plug, an unsolicited plug, but we actually have been offering monthly tours of the facility for those who are interested. So there’s a sign up on the project web page, and you know, once you go into the facility you really see that it’s old. It’s outmoded. It’s cramped. It’s certainly not ideal for maintaining the modern fleet of buses that we have, the low-floor buses that we have. So that’s part of it, not to be kind of glum about it. But you know, you see the facility and you realize it needs to be overhauled. But really kind of the genesis of the idea of overhauling the facility was part of kind of a planning process that I mentioned earlier, where we did kind of a comprehensive assessment of all of our facilities in two phases. There was one phase that concluded in 2013, and that was something that we call the kind of real estate vision report where, again, for the first time in recent memory, we looked at the full gamut of facilities in our facility needs and then there was a follow-up study that was completed in 2017. And so looking at kind of the condition of the facility and looking at the expansion in our bus fleet as a result of the city’s growing population. It was determined that three major bus divisions essentially had to be completely overhauled: Presidio Yard, Potrero Yard and Kirkland Yard. And so the determination was made for a variety of reasons to pursue Potrero Yard first of those three. So that’s basically it, you know, there was a big, big planning process looking at the entire campus of facilities that we have, the realization that these were kind of past their useful life and especially in the context of a growing bus fleet. So, essentially needed to be rebuilt.
JW (14m 52s): And so then there’s a discussion about housing as well that pops into that overall thought. And I’ve seen you know, one of the first things that I thought of when I saw the news that this was an idea, was in Seattle they had an old streetcar line that is now not operating, but when they were thinking about how to build a new facility for maintenance, they actually thought about building housing on top and the maintenance yard on the bottom and I’m wondering how that came about in this discussion for this specific facility.
RR (15m 20s): Yeah. Well, it really kind of came out of those earlier planning efforts that I mentioned, you know, that was one source at least, that going back to 2013 given the kind of scale of capital needs that the agency has and given the scarcity of land in the city, the thought was oh well, you know, here’s a way to potentially capitalize on some of that land value and have that land value essentially by using it, by capitalizing it for development purposes, offset some of the costs of rebuilding the bus yard. So that was kind of one thought and that dates back to again 2012-2013 when that kind of first became a little bit of a glimmer in the agency’s eye in terms of how to rebuild facilities. And then the second major directive, I guess that has informed that decision was back in 2014, then-mayor Ed Lee started a Public Lands for Housing program, directing not just the SFMTA but all agencies of the city. And this kind of gets back again to us being a city agency and following city policy and city directives. But Mayor Lee instructed all city agencies to essentially pursue housing on property under their jurisdiction that could potentially accommodate housing. So that was everything from you know, there’s not too much that’s surplus, that’s truly surplus that the city has but, you know surplus parking lots or land that’s you know, well-positioned for development but for whatever reason is not being used. So everything from that to properties like Potrero Yard that will continue to accommodate a city function, but because of their size and as Adrienne mentioned basically four and a half acres, which is a lot of land in San Francisco, but by virtue of their size, you know, air rights have to be part of that conversation. So, you know those two factors I would say are the biggest: the consideration of value initially and then secondly the policy directive from the mayor’s office to look at housing and kind of look under every rock and stone in terms of available property to pursue.
JW (17m 5s): And the fact that it’s an electric trolley bus facility, does that make it easier to consider housing?
RR (17m 10s): For sure. It definitely does. Unlike a diesel facility, we don’t have fueling and we don’t have other kind of, I mean I guess fueling is the big thing, you know and diesel storage and you know, if you look at one of those bus yards you basically have kind of a de facto filling station. You have a de facto gas station, you know, that lives as part of the facility. So it definitely makes it easier in that regard, just from the standpoint of kind of hazards and fire risk. And then secondly also sound. That’s another element is that you know, there’s a slight kind of clanging of the wires which I’d say is part of the kind of ambient noise, pleasant ambient noise I would argue, of San Francisco, as a transit enthusiast.
JW: I would say the same thing. (Laughs)
RR: And so there is that kind of noise as the buses pull in and pull out, but they’re very quiet. You certainly experience that on the street as a rider, that you don’t have kind of the roar of especially an older diesel bus kind of starting from a stopping position, so that certainly makes it easier as well both of those factors.
AH (18m 2s): But correct me if I’m wrong, we are looking at the goal by 2035 to transition all of our buses to battery electric buses. So we are in part of modernizing including infrastructure to support that effort.
RR (18m 14s): Yeah, and that’s a great point. Yeah. So the fleet when we complete Potrero Yard, and we’re expecting to complete it by 2026, it will be actually a mixed fleet there. So a portion of the buses will continue to be the trolley buses running on overhead wires. But by that point we will have started the procurement of battery electric buses. So it’ll be a different propulsion system for those buses. But still the same effect of not having to worry about sound which will be nice.
JW (18m 39s): It’s so interesting because I think I saw somebody post this, maybe was on Twitter a couple of months ago discussing this, but electric buses and the discussion about lithium and how hard it is to get, and which countries you pull it from and how, you know, the situation in Bolivia right now, etcetera. It’d be interesting to see whether it’s actually more beneficial to keep the wires and actually install wires in more cities just because of the fact that batteries have this rare earth metal that’s kind of hard to get.
AH: That’s tied to that, yeah.
JW: It’s hard to, it’s hard to think about, you know, and I’m all about, I like the idea of electric buses and transitioning, but that’s just like an interesting side thought that I’ve had when I think about that as well.
RR (19m 15s): Yeah. It’s a really interesting question. I’m wading into something that I’m a lot less informed on than a lot of other folks with the SFMTA and with other transit agencies, but you know, my understanding– there are a couple of things with that. One is that you know, we do have the benefit of one of the cleanest bus systems, and I think it is the cleanest in the United States which we like to brag about.
AH: Yes, powered by Hetch Hetchy. (Laughs)
RR: So, right, powered by hydroelectric power. So all of the, the fact that we have a bus fleet and I don’t know the breakdown percentage-wise, but that’s so many buses are on trolley wires. That is obviously a great starting point. We’re about to start evaluating, and this is a study that will be underway really in the next month or two, bringing an expert team on board to look at all of the infrastructure that we will need to make this conversion to battery electric buses. And one of the questions that we’ll be looking at is exactly that. Whether or not there is a way to kind of, you know, not abandon the overhead infrastructure or the wire infrastructure and kind of leverage that for, whether it’s battery charging while the buses are in route, you know that kind of thing. So that’s kind of an open question as to how those two technologies can maybe merge because they’ve been thought of kind of separately, in part probably because there just aren’t that many trolleybus systems across the United States. They’re pretty scarce and across North America, they’re pretty scarce, but and also in part because the battery electric technology is so nascent at this point and evolving but there is potential to kind of, you know, to do both. From an operational standpoint, you know, the overhead wires once they’re in place, obviously we don’t have to worry about tremendous capital costs just kind of minor repairs, but there is a not insubstantial capital cost to erecting those wires, and there’s a substantial maintenance cost of maintaining the wires. And you know, when you have construction projects when you have breakdowns, accidents, those kinds of things, you know, it’s a little bit more inflexible than a system that’s unconstrained by those wires I guess and that need to maintain that infrastructure. So that might be one reason why transit agencies across the country that are looking to go greener and emissions-free are not thinking about kind of looking to this technology that works perfectly well for us.
JW (21m 14s): That’s a cool thing that the MTA is doing as well is those segments, the green segments in the city where the hybrid electric buses turn off their engines.
AH: Yeah, the green zones.
JW: Yeah, so that’s pretty cool too. I think that’s something that you all are doing that a lot of agencies should be looking at. Going back to the electric infrastructure though, as it pertains to the yard. That’s an interesting discussion as well, thinking about how you’re going to charge all these buses overnight and what the infrastructure is for the electricity. So I’m wondering how much, I’m sure you all thought about this a lo, but what are some of the things that need to be thought of for that specific infrastructure?
RR (21m 47s): Yeah a couple of things. I mean, you know, first of all, the electrical draw is enormous. So what we’re estimating right now is about 12 to 15 megawatts of electricity that would be drawn as a result of all these buses overnight being charged and it isn’t like we would flip a switch. There are a number of vendors out there that have developed and are continuing to develop technology to kind of phase the charging. So it isn’t like you pull some massive piece of switchgear and the lights dim in the whole area. (Laughs) But there is you know, there’s the idea of kind of phase charging over time. So there are computer programs that can determine, you know, which are the buses that need it the most and that can kind of allocate a charge in an efficient fashion. So that’s one aspect of it. And obviously we’d be going out to a variety of vendors through competitive solicitation to determine which of those technologies really would work best for our system. So that’s kind of one element is the charging infrastructure in the software associated with it. There’s kind of some space implications to that as well too, and the concept that we’re looking at now is overhead charging infrastructure. So as opposed to having, you know concrete islands between the parked buses that take up valuable real estate, we would instead have overhead chargers that would come down from the ceiling and be supported perhaps through like a gantry system in the ceiling and then come down to electrify the buses. So that’s a consideration. Another consideration is just all the switchgear, location of the switchgear, to make sure that it’s accessible and allocating enough space in the bus yard to accommodate, you know, pretty substantial electrical infrastructure in comparison to the electrical infrastructure that’s required now, which is not insubstantial but much smaller than the draw that we see at the yard to accommodate the electric buses. And then I’d say, you know, a third element is just kind of the upstream electrical infrastructure. Just making sure in working with PUC, working with PG&E, that that capacity exists, that the existing substations have enough juice to basically power that kind of draw. And if not, what that looks like and how we actually make sure that we have the electrical infrastructure that we need to charge the buses overnight.
JW (23m 47s): So we also talked about housing. The initial, if we did a FIR, the initial discussion was thrown out there wasn’t actually official or anything was like 900 units or something those lines and now it’s down at 500. How do those numbers get decided in terms of how many units the site can handle?
RR (24m 4s): Right, right. That’s a great question. And you know, like it’s kind of an overused expression, but like all design processes it’s truly an iterative process, you know with a lot of different inputs and a lot of different stakeholders. So, you know the earlier models that we did looking at housing on the site, we really just kind of wanted to do an internal first pass to see whether or not any housing development would work on the site and so kind of our initial kind of crude thought was you know, let’s see how many units can fit and let’s see what the financials look like for that number of units on the site. And you know, we weren’t kind of working from a completely blank canvas, but we were working with input from the planning department on how the site could potentially be transformed into something that looks and feels very different from its current condition. We knew that rezoning would be involved, the site currently is zoned just for 65 feet in height, and we know the bus facility just by itself as a three-level bus facility will have to go up to 75 feet. So that was kind of a starting point that we knew that we’d have to kind of think creatively about, you know, the potential of the site in a way that’s very different from the current zoning of a site.
JW (25m 10s): It’s kind of an indentation in the hill a little bit so maybe that’s…
RR (25m 13s): …It is so there’s a pretty big great change as well going south to north on the side. So that’s another thing that we had to kind of work with. And then so understanding that we would have to kind of reconceptualize the site from a height and bulk and zoning standpoint, we went to the planning department. This is about two years ago, early 2018, just for some initial guidelines, you know. What conceivably is the maximum height that the planning department could potentially get behind and what are other kind of design considerations? And one of those incidentally is the square or the park that’s immediately to the north of the site, Franklin Square, so we had to be mindful of shadow considerations. We didn’t want to build towers on the park so that they would be, you know, enshrouded in darkness, you know for much of the year. And as anybody who knows San Francisco can attest, it gets chilly and windy and not infrequently wet.
AH: A good transition between the park and the rest of the neighborhood is what our goal was.
RR (26m 3s): Exactly, exactly. So we wanted to kind of preserve that sunshine and sunlight as much as possible. So those were kind of our initial design parameters that we’re working with and then kind of within those parameters as I mentioned, we were kind of testing the upper bound of what the site could potentially accommodate. So looking at up to 900 units, that was really the emphasis was on the “up to,” you know, and that was not something that we had really kind of vetted with the public, not something that we had gone back to the planning department to kind of flush out in more detail. And then after having really engaged in a community conversation about the site things like shadow, things like height and other urban design considerations, and then after having gone back to the planning department, we thought that you know, the number that we’ve kind of rested on now, which is the number that’s been officially submitted to planning for their formal review, environmental review process, that that was really a number that could accommodate, you know, a lot of the inputs that we’ve received from a design standpoint while also still building a lot of housing. And that number is about 560 right now.
AH: (26m 59s): Right. And the result of that was also feedback from the community and other stakeholders. I mean, this is, I think we’re setting precedent here where we’re building housing above an active maintenance and operations facility. So not only with the directive from former Mayor Lee but you know, understanding the needs for the Mission who have long wanted affordable housing for their longtime residents and community members. So it was a lot of feedback in regards to having workshops in the beginning of 2019 to talk about the massing, to talk about the shadow considerations on the park and just the flow around the facility and the aesthetics of the facade, and as well as kind of going back and forth and talking with the planning department, with public works, and with the district supervisors. So I think there’s been a lot of input received to get to that point. But we also have a 13-member working group that’s comprised of members who are invested in certain topics. Say we have two front of line working group members, one who works out of Potrero Yard and another who works out of woods, who can speak to the staff needs. Then we have a member from District, and then someone from the youth commission. So we want to vary all of those different perspectives to make sure that we kind of speak to the community and everyone else who benefits.
JW: Well as you said, this is something that I don’t think many agencies if any have done around the country. I imagine maybe somebody’s done it somewhere in the world, but it seems very innovative in that way. Is there something that you all learned that other agencies can kind of take away? That you might do a little bit differently the next time or maybe things that you saw happen that might have changed your perspective on certain things that are going on in the planning process?
RR (28m 46s): Yeah, I would say, you know the interface between obviously the housing piece and the transit piece is really critical. We made an intentional decision at the outset and so I would counsel, you know, other agencies to do the same. As, you know, first really define what your transit need is and we haven’t kind of solved every design challenge because there are certain things that have kind of cropped up as we’ve gone into a more and more detailed stage of design that are still kind of unresolved challenges. But if you start with the core transportation and transit purpose, that’s obviously the best place to start, you know, you don’t want to be kind of frankensteining a transit facility after you’ve determined the number of housing units that you want on the site. So that’s really important. And there are all sorts of just kind of planning and building code and design challenges that come with that too. Elevator cores and means of egress and those kinds of things are really kind of critical. So those have been some of the design challenges that we’ve worked through. We do have the benefit of a really good interdisciplinary team so that’s been great, you know a great kind of architecture and design team, SITELAB Urban Studio, who’s been working on the project and then HDR has been our transit facility design expert, all working under Hatch Associates Consultants. So that’s been a great team that we’ve had to kind of assist us with the process but you know, the interface between those two things, you know, you wouldn’t think that it would be easy and it isn’t. So it requires a lot of deliberate thought in terms of how they mesh in as seamlessly as possible.
JW (30m 6s): That’s the thing you talked about earlier, was working with a lot of different agencies as well, inside of the city. How many agencies are involved in this process?
RR (30m 14s): So the MTA obviously the SFMTA is kind of foremost among them. We’ve also been working closely with Public Works, especially as we’re kind of trying to, starting to pivot now towards actual implementation and delivering the project. So we’re going kind of from feasibility stage and planning to increasingly detailed stage of design and then procurement of a developer which is kind of a whole other topic. So that’s been you know, Public Works’ kind of emerging role on the project. The planning department as I mentioned has played a very big role in kind of shaping the urban design conversation, especially with such a large site. So we didn’t go to planning and say here it is, you know, it’s dead. It’s been again kind of an iterative conversation with planning and bouncing ideas off each other in terms of something that works. Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development has been another partner, Office of Economic and Workforce Development and then also Recreation and Parks Department, especially as the shadow on adjacent Franklin Square is concerned. So that’s a lot.
JW (31m 7s): It is a lot. Plus all of the design folks and HDR and stuff that you have to get involved as well.
RR (31m 13s): Exactly, it’s great.
JW (31m 15s): How does the design move forward and how involved is the public in the design of the building?
RR (31m 20s): That’s a great question. And I think you know this is kind of the intersection of design and planning and public process and the two truly should overlap, you know, that one is not in a vacuum from the other. So what we talked about a lot at the SFMTA Inner Communications Division and in all of the projects that we pursue, whether or not we do it perfectly it’s something that I think has become much more of a mantra within the agency is obviously the importance of public process. And as you begin to think about public process, thinking about the decision space before the community, so, you know, it’s not having meetings for the sake of having meetings. But really what are the questions that we’re asking the community, what are the things that we want them to weigh in on? And for this project, you know, there’s been a lot of decision space with the community, you know. Kind of getting back to the design process, we first started with defining kind of the core transportation need and transit need of the site, which is kind of I guess a little bit separate from the public process, you know, because it’s very very, technical. We know that we have kind of this core need to rebuild this facility which is outmoded and accommodate an expanding bus fleet. So that much was done, you know a little bit more just within the agency and with technical staff, but for really almost all the other elements of the project up to this point, this kind of beginning of the environmental review process point where we are from a design standpoint, there’s been public involvement on any number of questions the question of shadow, the question of height, the question of kind of design treatment, you know, right-of-way treatment, transportation mitigation measures for folks getting to and from the site. And we anticipate that there will be a lot more decision space, a lot more kind of public conversation as we go into a more detailed phase of design. So things like public art, actual kind of architectural treatment, which we haven’t even started to broach yet. There will be the opportunity for ground floor commercial spaces at the site, so what those kind of looking feel like, you know, what meets the community’s needs. So, you know, we do anticipate a big public process, or we have had a big public process and we anticipate a lot more public process. Yeah, and I would say to that some of that is also just inherent in the size and the, you know, the nature of the project that you know, we couldn’t, for a four and a half acre site in the midst of a true kind of mixed use dense neighborhood, you know, we knew from the outset we couldn’t say, “Well this is what we want to build.” We knew that this would be a radical kind of reconceptualization of what’s on the site, so we had to start by asking questions rather than telling people things.
AH (33m 45s): For sure. Definitely. And I think just going back to our workshops where we were talking about, “Well, so what kind of housing would you like? What kind of building would you think would work with the neighborhood?” Which is also part of our building progress program, is to be how to be a better neighbor. What issues are existing that we can kind of remedy, where it’s graffiti or debris around the facility, how best can we kind of respond to that? So it’s a matter of just building that relationship with the community. We also should be cognizant of that we are in the Mission, so not only should we just reach out to people who are regular workshop and community goers, you know, go meeting to meeting but we really have to reach out to the monolingual community. And that’s meeting them where they are, whether that’s at church or at community events. That’s something that we’ve been aware of so we want to hear all those voices. That’s kind of our goal, was radical transparency.
JW: There’s also a discussion about affordable housing too, and right now plans are for 50%. Do we know what level of affordability that is yet, or is that for the planning process to figure out?
RR (34m 52s): You know, we’ve modeled kind of certain scenarios in terms of the affordable housing, and so because you have to start with the financial model, you obviously can’t kind of you know establish goals or make promises without having done that due diligence. And so everything that we’ve modeled up to this point is with those units being, and this is in the weeds of affordable housing finance, but those being low income housing tax credit qualifying units. So, and that’s actually another thing that we’ve heard from the community. Back in February of 2019, we had a big community charette and open house and a question was asked at that point: “Do you, first of all do you support housing at the site?” So that was kind of obviously a very, very kind of open-ended question or very kind of initial question to ask, and ninety percent of the folks who had attended say yes, and then we asked what kind of affordable housing would you like to see because affordable housing can mean different things to different people, and the feedback that we got is you know, look, the folks that are very vulnerable in the Mission, not to anybody’s surprise who knows the community, these are folks that are not in the kind of moderate income side of the spectrum but more in the lower income side of the spectrum. And so yeah, so that’s essentially we modeled so far is folks that would qualify for low income housing tax credit units and you know, there’s still a lot of decisions based though around that that we’ll be working with their working group on and working with community and ultimately a developer as to you know, what exactly that kind of spread looks like, of affordable housing.
AH (36m 10s): There’s also been questions about during our outreach and just working with the working group about having city workers carve out space for living above the yard. As you know, we have an operator shortage and a number of our operators have to commute two hours to and from, and they cannot be late because they have to pull out at 4 a.m. to get service out on the road to support all of our residents, visitors, employees. So I think we’ve been working with the city attorney to figure out if that’s something that is possible, but then it goes into the question about, so who qualifies? Would that be a firefighter, a teacher, an operator? We can’t just you know, solely just open that up to operators so I think we’re still going to have those ongoing conversations.
RR (36m 53s): Yeah, lots of conversations, you know both in terms of kind of income level and in terms of kind of, you know job classification, all those kinds of things. Those are very, very big internal conversations that we have to have as we kind of flesh out that concept.
JW (37m 6s): That would be an awesome commute though, right? Down the stairs.?
RR (37m 10s): Very close. And we’ve heard that you know, we’ve done, we should mention too that we’ve done a lot of inreach too over the last several years with our maintenance staff, with their operation staff, and indeed that’s something that we’ve heard from any number of people as you know, as long as we’re building housing let’s see what we can do to provide housing for MUNI employees.
JW (37m 28s): I bet there’s a good safety argument too, just because folks live closer, they’re not driving the two hours each way and then driving their shift and then driving back and it’s just a lot of driving, which we know stresses people out.
RR (37m 40s): For sure and then to drive.
JW: And then to drive, right.
RR: To then drive a bus for a number of hours.
JW (37m 46s): Has there been any pushback? Any arguments against building housing and you know, fixing the yard up and just kind of saying, let’s you know fix it and make sure it works the way it is and let it go?
RR (37m 55s): I would say that, you know, and our kind of really detailed community conversation around Potrero dates back to I guess about the fall of, well kind of at the highest level with their facilities program generally, I would say kind of late fall of 2017, so a little over two years. And then we really been kind of talking Potrero in depth for maybe about a year and a quarter or so, and it’s funny one of the things that’s emerged from those conversations is seemingly, you know, a pretty widespread acceptance of kind of the core functional need for this new bus facility. You know, we really haven’t gotten much pushback from any group or any entity about the need to rebuild the bus facility. And I think some of that is conveying of course the need that we have and some of that is, you know, what people see from the exterior, some of it is what people see from the interior if they’ve taken a tour where you know, the need for the new facility is pretty self-evident. So, you know, so that has not really sparked much controversy.
AH (38m 52s): Except with preservationists. Like some of them.
RR (38m 55s): And there is, right and that’s a great, that’s a great point. So the building dates back to 1915 and as Adrienne said it’s the second oldest bus facility that we have. So, you know, we have heard I guess from some folks, you know a desire to preserve the historic building, but I would say that is not, you know…
AH: It’s not overwhelming.
RR: ..that’s hardly kind of a unanimous kind of opinion or one that’s been especially loud and prominent.
JW (39m 16s): There might be more fervor if it was like 18-something I imagine.
JW: Instead of 1915.
RR (39m 22s): Yeah, and it’s you know, it’s fine, aesthetically. (Laughs) It’s not a superstar of a building. So I think that’s maybe part of it. But right so that’s one issue, I guess in so far as the bus facility itself is concerned, but you know in terms of pushback, I mean, I wouldn’t couch it as that so much as you know, there are a lot of folks that are continuing to be keenly interested. So, you know, we have had a range of opinions, I’d say about kind of two topics in particular. One is affordable housing, where you know, certainly some people see a piece of public property and they say, you know land is as scarce as it is, you know, it should be 100% affordable, period. So you know, so there is that faction and you know, what we’re talking about right now is a goal of 50% affordability which is basically double what’s required by the planning code, you know, which we feel is ambitious but attainable, but that’s certainly kind of one question, is what level of affordability is possible and financeable. And then I’d say the second issue which is a transportation issue is around the decision not to have parking on the site. So we would be rebuilding the bus facility with, you know, outside from our vehicles, that would be MTA vehicles in service, that would have no parking for our operators and maintenance staff on site and no parking for the residents on site as well. So, you know, there’s definitely been some opinions about that.
JW (40m 38s): I imagine so. Parking is very…
RR: Always controversial.
JW (40m 43s): Well, it’s parking. (Laughs) Have you gotten any reactions from the outside? I mean, interest from folks from around the country or media. I mean, obviously I’m interested because I’m interested in this, but have you gotten any interest from the outside?
RR (40m 54s): I would say most of it’s been regional, you know, and you know there are, I know that other transit agencies, you mentioned Seattle, I guess it’s Sound Transit in Seattle that’s looking at doing kind of a similar facility.
AH (41m 4s): LA Metro’s looking at that, but they’re not in the planning stage yet, it’s just an idea.
RR (41m 9s): And I know MBTA in Boston has started to look I think at one of their facilities at the possibility of doing, you know, kind of co-locating housing above a rebuilt transit facility, their bus facility. So, you know, so there are a couple of you know, a couple of projects that are earlier in the planning stage than us that are looking at this concept, but, you know both in terms of kind of comparable projects and media interest, we haven’t heard too much that’s outside of the city and metro.
JW (41m 34s): I recently got an email from a councilmember near Victoria, BC, British Columbia, who was interested in how to maximize housing on public land. So I just sent him some information. Rafe, I forgot to tell you that. (Laughs)
RR (41m 47s): Well, there you go. No problem. International interest, there you go!
AH (41m 49s): But you know, people are just interested. We just gave a tour and presentation to a group of seventeen students from San Luis Obispo Cal Poly who are working on a project to see how they would build Potrero Yard. Those students are actually going to stay in the city for about six months to work on something similar and kind of I guess update us on just where they are with that work. So that’s interesting.
JW: The architecture school or planning school?
AH: It’s for the planning, for the planning department. They’re at Cal Poly. They’ve also worked on other projects I think at Lake Merritt BART Station and somewhere else I can’t remember. Oh, Safeway. The Safeway at Duboce and Church.
JW: That would be a big project. I think that might be larger than 4 acres.
AH: Yeah. Yeah, totally.
JW: So what’s next for you all? What’s the, what’s the process going forward?
RR (42m 38s): We have a couple of big milestones that we’re working on, and I should say that the you know, the big milestones that we’re working towards, these are things that also really interface with community process, you know, so not separate from community process. One is, you know here in California of course, we have the California Environmental Quality Act. So we have started the CEQA, we’ve started the CEQA process. We formally kind of jump-started that in November of 2019 and so the CEQA review process is underway, ultimately leading to the completion of the Environmental Impact Report or EIR, so that’s a very big process that is underway. And we’ve started that really in the interest of schedule as much as anything else because we do have this kind of hard deadline to deliver the project as our bus fleet grows, because we need a place to put the buses. We started that process without a developer on board, and so we will be kind of handing that off to a developer that’s selected through competitive solicitation and that’s the other big milestone is issuing what we’re thinking of now is a two-stage process request for qualifications to shortlist interested firms, followed by a request for proposals. And public process really interfaces with both of those things in so far as CEQA has any number of kind of public notification and input opportunities built into the CEQA process and schedule, so it will be a CEQA scoping meeting around call it March or April of this year. So that will be an opportunity for public feedback connected to CEQA, and then there’s public process associated with that developer solicitation because of course the solicitation is an opportunity to really kind of establish the parameters and the rules and the guidelines of what you’re looking for. And what I think we have to be mindful of as we go towards that is you know conveying the things that are kind of the have-to-haves in the project versus the nice-to-haves, and distinguishing between the two because we certainly want interest from firms that are willing to partner with us on the project and will be able to deliver it while at the same time really conveying those things that the community thinks are absolutely essential. And we started with some of that, you know, the kind of building massing and the affordability target and approximate number of units, but any number of other things that may or may not be memorialized within the solicitation like…
AH (44m 46s): Community assets.
RR (44m 46s): Yeah, community assets, right, all those kinds of things.
AH (44m 50s): And we don’t want to forget that we want to keep our staff at Potrero and at One South Van Ness where we are located updated about our process, as we’ve said over several years we’ve been talking about that we are going to be modernizing Potrero Yard, but now it’s actually becoming real, the first half. So we want to make sure that they understand, you know, upcoming we’re going to talk about how we’re going to move staff temporarily when construction starts in 2023 to our other divisions, which is MUNI Metro East and 1399 Marin. So we’re getting that prepped. So when construction starts, then we can move them there and then start operations out of there and maintenance of the buses there as well. So yeah, there’s a lot going on internally.
JW: Yeah, it sounds like a process inside of a process.
RR (45m 33s): Yeah, no it really is. And I should also mention just detail design too. So some of that will happen when we have a partner on board and kind of the design detail, everything that we’ve done from a design standpoint I should say right now is kind of I guess detailed conceptual design. That’s probably the best way to put it to kind of know, you know, what fits on the site, what is a layout that works for our operations needs. What’s a layout that works as I mentioned earlier in terms of the interface between housing and the transit facility, but we will have kind of a final design team come on board that will take us all the way to construction documents and lots and lots of design issues that we’ll need to work through as we go from now to there. So that’s a big step ahead as well.
JW (46m 10s): Cool. Well, Adrienne and Rafe. Thanks for joining us, we really appreciate it.
RR: Thank you very much.
AH: Thank you, it was a great conversation.
RR: Yeah, we really enjoyed it as well.