January 21, 2014

Developing The Balboa Park Reservoir Amidst A (Housing) Drought


With a 100-year drought underway, it would be nice if it were filled the brim, but the 25-acre Balboa Park Reservoir which was built in the 1950's has never held a drop of water and has primarily served as an oversized parking lot.

While roughly half the Balboa Park Reservoir site is controlled by City College, and upon which the College recently started to expand, the majority of the site remains in the hands of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) which has expressed interest in exploring the development of the site, one of the largest underdeveloped sites in the city.

With a the framework for a program to help coordinate the development of San Francisco’s publicly-owned sites having been drafted amidst a 3-year housing drought, the Balboa Park Reservoir is likely to be on the short-list of sites for priority development.

The Framework For Developing San Francisco's Publicly-Owned Sites [SocketSite]

First Published: January 21, 2014 10:30 AM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

Look, a huge, underutilized portion of land in close proximity to BART. An invaluable resource with the potential to tastefully create a new neighborhood ambiance and add a significant amount of units to the area.

So why do I feel (well, know) we will end up with three-story buildings over bank branches with a large communal farm taking up half the space?

Posted by: JWS at January 21, 2014 10:47 AM

3 stories of residential above commercial would probably work out to something like 25-50 units per acre... so, 625 - 1250 units. I believe these simple low-rise 4 story wood frame buildings are less expensive to build than taller structures, so perhaps could more easily achieve middle-income rents, in a middle-income neighborhood.

Posted by: outtahere at January 21, 2014 11:09 AM

If the city is going to develop the site, work out a deal with Riordan so they can have enough space to lengthen their track to 400m. Its only 350m, and if you look closely you can see its a square, not an oval.

Posted by: Helmut at January 21, 2014 11:12 AM

The stretch along Phelan can house a variety of retail/commercial on the ground floor, but I like the idea of creating a neighborhood addition, rather than a stand-alone complex of underground parking garages and condos devoid of character. There is also a great opportunity to add some height in places, rather than a flatscape of mundane, Soviet-esque housing. Phelan can also act as a seamless bridge between the college campus and Ocean Ave. commercial/transit district.

Posted by: Mark at January 21, 2014 11:32 AM

A plan for the reservoir was included in the Planning Department's plan for this area. It was adopted in 2009, and had a full EIR backing it up. The eastern half of the reservoir was assumed be CCSF's expansion, and the western half was divided into open space and housing, about half each. You can cobble it all together by reading through the plan. Not sure on the total unit count, somewhere around 1,000 I think.


Posted by: insighter at January 21, 2014 11:45 AM

I believe these simple low-rise 4 story wood frame buildings are less expensive to build than taller structures, so perhaps could more easily achieve middle-income rents, in a middle-income neighborhood.

Or, it would just lead to more developer profit per unit. Why would they sell them for less just because they cost less to build? They'll sell for whatever price the market will bear, which is why it's absurd to zone for less density than the market desires in the hopes that it'll lead to cheaper units.

Posted by: anon at January 21, 2014 11:53 AM

It's not a property that's on the market. The city would be setting the development terms, mix of units, etc. I suppose they could simply sell it off and clone stamp the Avalon Ocean Avenue complex on the site, which are currently listed as $2700 1bd / $3500 2bd... but I imagine with such a high profile political issue, they'd be more interested in doing subsidized or mixed income housing.

And yes, my personal preference is 8-12 story condo blocks everywhere with minimal parking, but I can't imagine that being approved in what is currently a mostly single family / 2-3 story commercial neighborhood (even with its blessed BART and muni light rail access -- if you want to see real criminal underdevelopment, look at Ashby station in Berkeley). Regardless of who develops it, the 4-5 stories of Avalon are probably the max you could expect.

Posted by: outtahere at January 21, 2014 12:11 PM

$2700 for a 1BD on Ocean Ave.? Don't know who's renting them...certainly not the tech folks. But, that's Avalon for you...cheap construction, high rents.

Posted by: Mark at January 21, 2014 12:20 PM

One way to mitigate the concerns of plunking a tall development down in the middle of a low-rise neighborhood is to use variable heights. Three stories on the western edge where it meets the existing neighborhood, then tapering up towards the eastern interface with CCSF.

The area around the Balboa Park station is amazingly poor use for a potential TOD site. Large surface parking lots, recreational fields, transit vehicle maintenance facilities, etc.

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at January 21, 2014 12:23 PM

Thanks for the link to the planning document. The proposed height limits were mostly 40-45 along Ocean Avenue, 55-65 where Avalon Ocean Avenue is located, and up to 160 over the BART area. http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/General_Plan/images/balboa/bps_map_height_districts.pdf

Posted by: outtahere at January 21, 2014 12:25 PM

@outtahere - I understand that the city could mandate development terms, but I don't see why that would lead to lower prices unless the city bought it or sold it to a non-profit that would be willing/forced to rent below market.

"Cheaper building materials" doesn't somehow mean that a developer will rent it for any less than the market is willing to pay, which may be slightly less than units with views in tall buildings, but is very, very unlikely to be any lower than any of the current units in the area (they would almost certainly rent/sell for more than existing units simply because they're new).

Posted by: anon at January 21, 2014 1:32 PM

I could be reading the politics wrong (I'm still new in the area) but I have to assume the current housing politics would force any large scale development like this to have a heavy mix of subsidized units dictated by the city, or developed by the city directly. Yes, the natural outcome of below market rents are waiting lists and subsidies, but for the politicians being held responsible for continually increasing rents, a minor technical detail. Just have to say, "we delivered X affordable units."

Posted by: outtahere at January 21, 2014 1:41 PM

How are they going to get interior street access for any development? They can't extend streets at the northern edge south (Riordan school there), on the south edge is the new Avalon (condemn a ROW through their parking lot), on the west is the Westwood neighborhood, I can't imagine getting approvel to extend those small curvy suburban-esque streets to accommodate 1000+ housing units... That leaves access on the east off Phelan, but that too is already being claimed by the CCSF expansion. I hope someone's thought ahead.

OTOH, should be lower construction costs - no need to excavate for foundations :)

Posted by: Sierrajeff at January 21, 2014 2:08 PM

@outtahere, oh you're definitely correct there. I thought you were implying that if the city downzoned this, that somehow because shorter buildings are cheaper to construct that this would lead to lower prices, which isn't at all the case. In a heated market like SF, lower supply can really never lead to lower prices, regardless of actual construction costs.

Posted by: anon at January 21, 2014 3:38 PM

Yeah, sorry for misunderstanding. Basically meant to state that given the real-world limitations on height in this area, and the likelihood the units will be subsidized in some way due to publicly owned land, perhaps some lemonade could be made using less expensive construction techniques requiring less subsidy per unit (-> more units)

Posted by: outtahere at January 21, 2014 3:53 PM

Lee Street was extended as part of the development and now stops at the edge of the site. I assume the plan would be to extend it north and connect it back to Phelan.

Posted by: Adam at January 22, 2014 12:40 AM

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