As we wrote in February with regard to numerous recently cleared but undeveloped lots now dotting the landscape in San Francisco facing the loss of their city entitlements:

Our suggestion, grant the extensions but in exchange for turning undeveloped lots into public parks and maintaining them as such until construction is underway.

As John King adds today (or rather yesterday):

With ingenuity and a modest investment, San Francisco could breathe life into these voids until the demand for development returns. Some could be landscaped with fast-growing trees and shrubs that offer environmental benefits. Others could display art or offer casual spots for social interaction.

There are no clear models to follow: Any initiative must be acceptable to landowners, with details worked out in advance regarding such issues as maintenance and security. Done well, though, the payoff could far exceed the cost – creating short-term showcases rather than blight that drags its neighbors down.

Hear, hear!
Entitlement Extensions? We Say Yes, But With A Green Twist… [SocketSite]
High-rises on hold: What to do with empty lots? [SFGate]

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by ex SF-er

    the one major problem I see here is that the lots could be turned into a park and then when it is time to be redeveloped suddenly it’ll be “historic” or there will be a “save our green space” campaign or something.
    I don’t trust San Franciscans when it comes to development. they’re already too heavy handed and overly involved.
    I think this would be a great idea for any other city that gives property owners the property rights that they deserve.
    they would have to enact some VERY SPECIFIC and VERY BINDING city law that keeps the city’s grubby little hands off the rights of the park and keeps future NIMBY’s and preservationists in their place before I’d even consider it as a builder.
    unfortunately, an empty lot is “safer” for the developer. (not for pedestrians or pets or anybody else of course).

  2. Posted by D

    Pine and Kearny has been empty since the 70s?!? I walk past this vacant lot nearly every day and think about how nice a pocket park here would be. But, I agree with “ex SF-er”. Allowing a green space would only result in headaches for the owners when they wanted to break ground.

  3. Posted by salarywoman

    Unfortunately, what ex SF-er says is true. And it happens everywhere. It’s not just SF that is vulnerable to neighborhood appropriation of green spaces that are intended for future development. There might be ways to mitigate this, though, if the space continued to be fenced, was appropriately signed, and if access was denied at least one day a year. This only raises the cost to the owner. But it is worth thinking about. One possibility is a private park, private in the sense that that there is an attendant and a (small) fee for use. Just brainstorming here. No idea of how feasible any of this might be.

  4. Posted by Copernicus

    100% agreement with the two above. I can see an entire movement around the historic features of the Kentucky Bluegrass sod that was laid on a vacant site. Not to mention the burrowing owl and mouse species that will turn a polluted site into a wildlife reserve or, better yet, a rainstorm creating a ‘pond’ requiring California Fish and Game to step in and add five years to the process. Only in San Francisco.

  5. Posted by flaneur

    And yet, there is no denying empty lots drag an entire neighborhood down, costing the adjacent property owners a lot.

  6. Posted by badlydrawnbear

    @flaneur – There is no denying that many decisions made by BOS, the Mayor, and the citizens of SF are a drag on entire neighborhoods (refusing a permit for American Apparel in the Mission in favor of an empty store front for example) but the city just keeps on making them.
    I have to agree with the above posters from what I have seen of city politics as soon as these lots went ‘green’ or developed into some temporary public space, the developers would have a hell of time undoing it.

  7. Posted by Shza

    This is undoubtedly oversimplistic, but: why are you all so worried about disincentivizing speculative developers from buying land and doing nothing with it while they wait for the next bubble? This is the whole purpose of the old common law doctrine of adverse possession (i.e., squatters’ rights — “use it or lose it”).
    One obvious oversimplification is that some of these developers certainly bought land at bubble prices with the intention of immediately developing — and with the bubble’s burst their budgeting no longer pencils out. You wouldn’t want to set up a system where developers were put at risk that an unforeseen (ha!) economic turn could make forfeiture the most rational decision. That would deter investment you’d actually want. But you could just put a limitations period on it — there’s absolutely no reason not to disincentivize situations like the one on Pine & Kearney.

  8. Posted by "Dave"

    Maybe we can hire Amy Poehler to run the project?

  9. Posted by Anon

    Try this as an experiment: pick a dozen or so empty lots by lottery (npi), lift all planning overlays and allow the property owner to do whatever he or she wants with the property use-wise — think of it as the zoning equivalent of a free-trade zone.
    BTW, you can find lots that have remained undeveloped for decades in New York City.

  10. Posted by Copernicus

    @shza, Adverse Possession comes into play only when an asset holder neglects to assert his/her right to a particular piece of property. Are you suggesting that an unrelated third party just improve a piece of property that they do not own, and then hope that the ownership does not make a peep? Are you suggesting that a property owner forfeit their property should they not improve it in an agreed upon time? If the owner has the means/desire to simply let the property deteriorate, should that not be his/her right? A better use of political firepower would be a way to create some incentive for the owners to shell out additional money (possibly “good money after bad”) to improve the blighted, neglected properties. Streamlined permitting, reduced fees, etc.
    I like the lottery idea. But somehow I would bet that that the ‘friends’ of the standing mayor would always win the lottery. And the project would have to comply with zoning and building codes. But a streamlined approval process would be awesome.

  11. Posted by Shza

    Copernicus, maybe I should have been more clear. I was not suggesting that adverse possession actually had any application here. It was a quasi-analogy. Putting together a deal whereby blight could be turned into temporary public green space obviously wouldn’t even fit the “adverse” part of adverse possession — let alone the many other factors.
    If the owner has the means/desire to simply let the property deteriorate, should that not be his/her right?
    You state this as if it’s a rhetorical question with an obvious affirmative response. In fact, the question poses a value judgment. There are many reasons (foremost, efficiency) why a priori you would not want a system in which the bundle of rights included in a property entitlement includes the right to create blight.

  12. Posted by Anon

    Copernicus:
    Nope — all zoning rules would be waived. State building codes and all all other local, state, and federal laws would remain in place. Neighbors would still have all legal rights (e.g. actions for nuisance or trespass) vs. the lot owner.
    As I said, just an experiment. I would be willing to bet that the results would not be what SF’s planning caste would predict.
    Anon at 11:33

  13. Posted by jamie

    With all the kids trapped in day care centers adjacent to mom’s and dad’s office building in the Rincon Hill neighborhood, it would be great to have a good sized outdoor space for kids to play at Fremont and Harrison … and a much nicer image of “welcome to san francisco” for drivers coming into the City from the Bay Bridge’s Harrison Street exit that makes that corner the first thing they see after their eye leaves the downtown skyline view. It would be a good dog park location too, though we’ve already got a dog park in the pipeline at Bryant and Beale courtesy of a couple of residents (not Emerald Fund as has been mistakenly reported here and there recently) at Watermark who have taken stewardship of their neighborhood to an exemplary level and have done the legwork between Caltrans and the City to make it happen.
    Anyway … that Fremont and Harrison Street corner sure needs a facelift of some sort. It is the first block people see when they enter from the first exit off of the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. Community gardens are overly ambitious, but if it can maybe involve the kids or teens from nearby non-profits like Year Up, there are some wonderful temporary opportunities.

  14. Posted by D

    I’m all for some sort of incentives for undeveloped lots to be used for green space or other, productive uses. I’m just looking at it from an owner’s POV.
    If I owned an undeveloped plot of land in SF, it would have to be one heck of a sweetheart deal (i.e., effectively a buy-out) for me to take it. I’d be worried that any deal I take would be subject to protests, media scorn, and politics later. I’d essentially want to be able to write off the property after I took the deal.

  15. Posted by two beers

    I’m all for green space, but how about accommodating some jobs, as well? Not that many of you actually work an honest job, but how about building warehouses and factories, to revitalize the PDR sector that actually employs people to make things? Because, in case didn’t notice, the dotcom failed, the FIRE (financial, insurance, real estate) sector failed…you entitled folks hate the working class who built and made this city great, and then you managed to tear down their places of work to erect your hideous and empty condo towers of glass and steel, and your faux live/work lofts.
    You people screwed up royally, screwing both the working class and yourselves in your quest to turn SF into a Disneyland for the privileged, and yet you’re still so smug and entitled…

  16. Posted by Copernicus

    “you people …” lol

  17. Posted by two beers

    Yeah, “you people.”
    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair).
    You don’t see it, because it’s too much of a threat to the little niches you’ve built for yourself on the carcass of SF.
    Developers think they’re still entitled to the absurd return on investment they got on their condo loft monstrosities of the last fifteen or so years. That ROI was an an historic anomaly, and it won’t be coming back in our lifetimes (although you can be sure it will at some point…). That ROI was unsustainable partly because it displaced a large and necessary part of any legitimate and strong economy – good jobs for the working class (i.e. the PDR sector which most of you despise and contemn), and affordable housing for those workers.
    SF, like California itself, will choke on its own vomit, because it went for the unsustainable, the brass ring chimera, the pie-in-the-sky get-rich-quick scheme, and it turned its back on the people who actually make your frigging society function.

  18. Posted by D

    Two beers:
    I understand you’re upset at the way the city has changed. I understand you’re upset at the attitude of people working in the “FIRE” industry (which I am not). But, what does this have to do with this story?
    Many of the comments here are saying that land owners won’t go for any deals. If the land owners won’t agree, then the only constitutional way to create an alternative use of the space would be for a government agency to purchase the land through eminent domain. Is that what you’re suggesting?

  19. Posted by Dan

    If vacant plots of commercial land could be reassessed at current value, one wouldn’t see vacant lots in the Financial District staying vacant for 30 years.

  20. Posted by bk

    two beers:
    all of that ‘stuff” is done more efficiently in places outside the city. Why would it make sense to build major distribution warehouses in SF when they can be located next to a major port with continental rail connections in Oakland? Or inland, where land is cheap and the facility is not sitting on Bay mud which will liquify after the next quake? It was not a yuppie conspiracy that deindustrialized San Francisco.

  21. Posted by Jimmy (No Longer Bitter)

    @two beers: All SF really needs is more capacity on BART to shuttle all those lower class workers who serve us in and out of the city from the East Bay. And higher tolls for drivers, so that the hoi polloi can’t disturb us after BART closes down.
    Just come in (via public transit), work quietly, don’t complain and then go home, preferably to another city, and let us enjoy the yuppie oasis that we deserve. Is that too much to ask?
    Honestly, we own San Francisco now, so who cares what other people think?

  22. Posted by El-D

    i.e. the PDR sector which most of you despise and contemn
    What is the “PDR Sector”? The only PDRs I know of are the Physician’s Desk Reference and various People’s Democratic Republics, neither of which make sense here.

  23. Posted by flaneur

    PDR: Production Distribution & Repair.

  24. Posted by two beers

    El-D: “PDR” is the abbreviation for “production, distribution, and repair.”
    Over the last twenty years, the modern San Francisco Gold Rush has re-purposed hundreds of properties which had formerly provided space for these occupations, resulting in thousands of lost working class jobs.
    The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was supposed to find a balance between preserving the dwindling PDR properties on the eastside, with the developers’ need to tear those properties down, in quest of an insane ROI. The Plan, though, will protect little, and is mostly one big loophole for the developers to climb through.
    So, this is where we are: empty lots, empty skyscrapers, emptying lofts, dwindling tax revenues…
    The Wages of Greed.

  25. Posted by two beers

    bk: the line about SF not being fit for PDR is a tautology, received wisdom, a cliche. SF is a short truck ride to the East Bay docks.
    Industry left SF because the land became temporarily over-valued, as the developers sought to convert the cheap industrial land into expensive condos and offices. Seems like there is an oversupply of lofts, condos, and offices, which threatens to crater SF’s economy, but there is an under-supply of industrial land, land which could actually provide jobs and contribute to the economy.
    Cabinet-makers, auto shops, artists, bakers, fabricators, and the like don;t need large swaths of industrial land, and they don’t need to be next to railroads or ports. They simply need to be near the heart of any vital urban area, on land safe from the Land Pirates who will and have destroyed everything they touch.

  26. Posted by two beers

    Jimmy: couldn’t agree more.
    D: I know I’m ranting and not directly addressing the issue of the post, but the subject sets me off, and I’m just trying to place it in a larger context, a context ignored by some commenters here.
    I don’t know about eminent domain. Go that route, and the Land Pirates will be screaming “comuniss!” at their next teabag social. But the laws and loopholes were created to allow the pirates to re-purpose much of the eastside. There should be a way to reverse and/or prevent it going forward, and The Plan will do neither.
    Now that we’re hosed, the pirates and their enablers are saying “whocoodanoode?” But they squelched the voices of reason when a different route could have been followed, because reason isn’t that sexy when there are lofts to build, and properties to over-appraise, and rent-controlled tenants to evict, and mortgage-backed securities to bundle, and credit defaults swaps to write, and politicians to buy…
    It’s all of a piece.

  27. Posted by noevalleygal

    How about raised bed community vegetable gardens (higher ones, say three feet high) in these lots – with an explicit agreement and signage that it’s a month to month scenario. When it’s time to build, the beds can be moved. No people won’t be happy – they never are when green space gets turned back. With this approach though expectations can be managed, the space can be utilized, and the planters can find new homes in other public spaces or in backyards.

  28. Posted by freddy

    two beers wrote:
    “Cabinet-makers, auto shops, artists, bakers, fabricators, and the like don;t need large swaths of industrial land, and they don’t need to be next to railroads or ports. They simply need to be near the heart of any vital urban area, on land safe from the Land Pirates who will and have destroyed everything they touch.”
    Another myopic view of SF as an Utopian island in a sea of capitalistic sharks. There’s absolutely no practical land-use reason why any of the activities you describe need to be located within SF City limits – you may have some “social diversity” or “social engineering” reasons for wanting to see them mixed into Downtown or the Marina but I haven’t seen you attempt to make that argument (yet) although it’s obviously where you’re coming from (you probably believe in bussing school kids 10 miles across town too …). The Eastern Neighborhoods PDR protections will lead to zoning blight and will be seen as a total failure a few decades from now.

  29. Posted by anon

    PDR zoning in the Eastern Neighbrhoods = zoning for gold mines in the hope of finding gold.

  30. Posted by two beers

    freddy: you repeat the tautology.
    If locally-owned businesses that cater to locals have no necessary function in a city, why does any business have any function in a city?
    Hell, we don’t really need schools or hospitals here either, do we? We can bus our kids to Marin for school, and we can go to Palo Also for our meds.
    Do we even need any housing in the city? The only viable businesses in the city are restaurants and tourism…how about we tear down all the houses and build more restaurants and t-shirt shops for the tourists?
    I’ll thank you not to assume some devious “social diversity” or “social engineering” on my part. Nice codetalk, there. Your KSFO bumpersticker is showing.
    What’s your utopic vision of SF, Mr Galt? Mile after mile off empty office buildings and condo towers? Enjoy your dead city.
    I do agree the Eastern Plan will fail, but because it protects too little existing productive land use, and has enough loopholes to turn the eastside into the sterile dead city you seem to desire.

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