Saturday, May 24, 2008

MacArthur BART Transit Village: Boon or Bane?

The final environmental impact report (“EIR”) for the MacArthur BART Transit Village has just been released. For those recently paroled or emerging from comas, the transit village is expected to be built on the BART parking lot between Telegraph, Highway 24, 40th Street and West MacArthur, in the Temescal neighborhood. It will create some 675 dwelling units as well as commercial space. What the project will not include is any open space or parkland.

Two basic questions emerge: Is increased density beneficial and, if so, whom does it benefit? And, for whom is a transit village a benefit at that location?

The responses to the EIR comprise much of the document. Respondents fall into four categories: public agencies, people directly affected by the project, people from the area not directly affected, and others with an axe to grind. The people directly affected express concern over loss of light, trees, parking. Residents a bit further away, not directly affected, offer support for the project. Several of the responses perpetuate myths that obfuscate honest answers to the two questions posed above.

Is increased density beneficial? Frequently, proponents of inner-city urban density decry the loss of farmland and “greenbelt” open space as urban areas sprawl ever farther from their core. Freeway congestion and resulting pollution, we are told, will be alleviated by developing high-density projects at transit hubs. And the stress on wildlife and natural resources would be lessened if we all just stayed inside the anthill.

I do not know where such proponents live, so I have no justification for my suspicion that they reside in comfortable homes on quiet, low-density side-streets in communities like Berkeley, Piedmont or Palo Alto. But wouldn’t it seem that the main beneficiaries of preventing further development at the edges of suburbia would be the current residents of those suburbs? It is their views that would be paved over, their tranquility that would get ruffled by new construction. If sprawl should be limited, isn’t the obvious place to increase density the least dense urban areas, not the most dense? Shouldn’t the suburbs be re-engineered to carry their weight of the burden of increased population in the Bay Area?

Those attempting to sell the transit village to local residents tell us that the development will “bring the neighborhood up.” The increased density will benefit us, they claim, by changing the economic base of the neighborhood. The new residents will, by their critical mass, attract neighborhood-serving businesses, somehow drive out drug dealers and criminals, and result in a more upscale community.

As is frequently the case in such assertions, there is some truth there, but it is overstated. Transit village residents are unlikely to mix into the surrounding community to a high degree. Many of their needs will be met onsite. A transit village, by its nature, draws singles, not families who would mix at PTA functions. We currently have thousands of honest, hard-working people living in the community, and their presence has not driven away the criminal element. People from new developments in Emeryville walk constantly up and down 40th Street now, unlike years ago, but no drug dealers have fled as a result. Telegraph Avenue already has many businesses; there are not many empty storefronts. The new development will simply mean more people in our neighborhood.

The new units are not being built to house local families. They will house singles and couples from other communities, who have a need, and the resources, to travel to and from San Francisco on a daily basis. The beneficiaries of the project will be the developers, yuppies who can’t quite afford to live in San Francisco condos, and the owners of commercial properties close to the project site.

Project proponents also embrace a fantasy that transit village occupants will have little need for cars; some even suggest that parking spaces be eliminated, or be sold separately, to force residents to abandon the motor vehicle. Again, there is some truth here, but not enough. If one wants to commute to San Francisco, or go to the airport, BART is an efficient, convenient and cost-effective method. The Emery-go-round will take you to the movies in Emeryville and back, for free. But what if you need to buy groceries? BART does not service any large grocery stores. What if you need to pick up one child from school, take another to baseball practice, get the dog to the vet, see your doctor or just plain want to go to a park? What if you need to bring home plywood from Home Depot, or a dresser from IKEA?

The nearest grocery to a BART station is the Trader Joe’s in Rockridge. To my knowledge, there is no other grocery store near a BART station in Oakland. A typical local resident might be a single mother with two children. Okay, let's assume the mother takes her two kids from MacArthur to Rockridge and back (can’t leave them alone at home), and somehow they manage to lug a week’s worth of groceries on BART, in those tiny plastic bags that always tear, or in paper bags that get soaked in the rain. (Have you EVER seen anyone carrying groceries on BART? I have ridden BART frequently for 24 years. I never see anyone with groceries on BART). How much did it cost our hypothetical family to ride BART? $9.00 round trip. Just to go to Rockridge and back. Not too many will plunk down nine bucks for the opportunity to visit a Trader Joe's.

At one time JAMMI was farmland. Then, it became a “garden apartment” community of modest bungalows with beautiful back yards. More recently, the back yards have dwindled as speculators built additional “in-fill” units. The newest paradigm is to pile people on top of each other in condos with no open space at all.

If one listens to recordings of old Italian residents telling what the community was like 80 or 100 years ago, one finds there was a strong sense of community. Everyone knew each other. Children played in Temescal Creek. People sat on front porches in the evening. Neighbors would play accordions, drink homemade wine, and dance in the street until dark. The tiny bungalows were bearable to large families because people lived outside. The street, the yard, the sidewalk were part of the living space.

Today’s society is different. People hunch in front of computers instead of sitting on porches. To socialize, people go to online communities like FaceBook or MySpace. We may not know who lives next door. Temescal Creek has been buried underground. The neighborhood has been scarred by a huge, concrete freeway. Open space has dwindled.

But things always change. Tomorrow’s generation may value parks and open space even more than we do. What will they do? Once open space is gone, how do you get it back? Wouldn’t it be great if the MacArthur BART parking lot became a huge, beautiful park? We have plenty of housing in this neighborhood already. Is more housing for displaced San Franciscans the “highest and best use” of one of the few large parcels left here? We have as much density as we can bear. What don’t we have?


Charlie2 said...

Right on. As I campaign for city council at-large, I've told audiences that one principle for evaluating a development proposal is: on balance will it make life better or worse for the existing residents and merchants? Sometimes there is a gasp in the room, apparently because the idea is such a rejoinder to public officials' constant harping that we must make way for more people no matter what.

One of my opponents harps that we must densify (my word, if it is a word) to save the planet. So why aren't Pleasanton, San Ramon and so on expanding in dense fashion instead by sprawl?

TomCat said...

But what if you need to buy groceries? BART does not service any large grocery stores. What if you need to pick up one child from school, take another to baseball practice, get the dog to the vet, see your doctor or just plain want to go to a park? What if you need to bring home plywood from Home Depot, or a dresser from IKEA?

To answer some of these questions.......
There is this new piece of technology called a bi-cycle. It does wonders to connect transit/grocery/other destinations.
Bi-cycles have things called baskets that fit groceries and other small parcels.

Why are you hauling out the 'family argument, when you already state numerous times that families will not move to the transit village?

You could always walk your dog to the 2 dog parks within 5 blocks of the village. just think- more exercise for overweight fido. and really, what size dog is going to be shacked up in those apartments?

What would you need a 4x8pice of plywood if you are living in a condo?

Zip car and city car share already are established at that BART station.
Like it or not, Peak Oil will be rearing its ugly head sooner than you think. People will find a way. We are adaptable creatures. Scare tactics are a great way to squash dissent though.

zirkus said...

I agree with tomcat. When living in SF without a car, I would make more frequent trips to the market and as a result I had fresher produce and was less wasteful with it. Even will owning a car now, I hardly ever need use it and I live 1 block away from MacA BART. I think you are trying to apply suburban sensibilities to an urban environment. With the child obesity epidemic, you would think that a walk to the farmers market, genova delicatessen, or whole foods would do the tots some good.

I do think the new dwellers will help deter drug dealers loitering. After putting down $$$$$$ for their place, they're gonna bitch about the crime. The more bitching, the more likely the police and politicians will crack down on crime. I don't really see any dealers on 40th St. They hide out mainly on less dense streets where the condo owners do not tread. What we need is more concerned people on these streets and market rate housing is the way to do it. They are less likely to accept the status quo of ghetto.

I also think that large MARKET RATE developments on MAIN THOROUGHFARES ONLY will increase the value of the existing bungalows, Victorians and Edwardians.

FYI, condo and apartment dwellers normally do not need plywood.

JAMMI Journalist said...

Thanks, all, for taking the time to comment, and for keeping me honest. You make some good points. I had to go back to the “conceptual” plans in the EIR for a reality check. I think we all agree that the transit village is unlikely to draw many families with children. Most of the units are one-bedroom, with a number of two-bedroom units. I don’t see a single three-bedroom unit in the plans. You are right, Tomcat; families will not move to the transit village.

Zircus makes a good point that the drug dealers transact business mainly on side streets where the condo owners will not tread. The houses on these side streets, though, are already market-rate. What we need are more owner-occupants in these houses—people with roots and a stake in the community. I don’t see a connection where the construction of a transit village largely for upscale singles from other communities will result in a transformation of rental housing on nearby side streets to owner-occupied, but possibly there will be some draw if MacArthur BART becomes more of a neighborhood center. With the City intending to build high-density, low-income rental housing on MLK and West Mac, I don’t hold out much hope that the transit village will stir positive changes on the west side of the tracks. However, time will tell. . .