South San Francisco, CA March 9, 2018 by Mel Ellison, ESC Correspondent
Like the rumbling of a jet on takeoff from SFO, the sound of discontent can be heard throughout South San Francisco, but are our City officials listening? The grumbling is emanating from longtime residents who are tired of their concerns being ignored by City planners and Councilmembers, and by the increasing numbers of biotech commuters stuck in traffic jams as they try to make there way to the burgeoning biotech community east of 101. The source of all this exasperation is, of course, the two issues facing not only our City, but the Bay Area, and the State of California as a whole: Housing and Traffic.
Its understood that these issues are regional and involve dynamics such as housing supply and demand, that can’t possibly be solved on a local basis only. But we as a City, in the form of our elected and appointed officials, can and must take a realistic look at our situation and at the very least, not exacerbate an already difficult problem by continued unrestrained growth and development. Daily, from my study window, as I enjoy my morning coffee, I look out over Oyster Point and see the cranes and skeletons of new biotech construction rising up and beginning to blot out my view of Mt Diablo to the east.
As if all the existing traffic congestion and housing woes aren’t already enough, City officials have given the go-ahead for even more construction with the approval of a deal with Greenland USA….a China based company that was ardently courted by our City officials….to develop some 80 acres of Bay front land in Oyster Point. A development vehemently opposed by the biotech company that started it all, Genentech, because of…what else?….the increased traffic congestion it will bring.
On the other hand, if you listen to the PR from Greenland USA, you would think they are building some sort of Utopia east of 101 that is going to solve all of South City’s housing and traffic problems. Acres of new biotech space are being constructed along with a housing development. If we were to believe Greenland USA, all of the old and new employees of Oyster Point biotech companies are going live in this new housing and bicycle to work, thereby magically solving not only our current traffic congestion and housing problems, but those problems when magnified after construction of millions more square feet of new office and R & D space.
It should be noted that the current driving force behind the City’s recent downtown development and biotech expansion is in part due to City Manager Mike Futrell. Arriving here three years ago from his native Lousianna, Mr. Futrell had no roots or other connections to SSF prior to accepting the job as City Manager. Although he has addressed quality of life issues during his tenure, reinforcing South City’s place as the world’s renown biotech center seems to be his main focus, as he seeks to move upward.
Meanwhile, where is our City council on all of this? On January 11, 2018, the City Council met in a yearly Special Meeting, referred to as a “retreat”, where topics of importance to the City are discussed. Issues from the past year as well as issues that need to be addressed in the coming year comprise the meetings agenda. So what is literally topic #1 of the meeting’s agenda? “Parking, U-turns, and Pedestrian Safety” which is as close as the Council ever came to discussing the traffic congestion that roils our streets and highways during commute hours every weekday. According to the minutes of the meeting, the Council discussed…at length, mind you…. traffic congestion on Grand Ave especially during the hours of 11:00 am and 1:00 pm, and on weekends. Many solutions were put forth for this apparently pressing problem including, but not limited to, bollards down the middle of the street, restriping, stricter enforcement, and from the Department of Public Works director Kim, the notion that longterm improvements to “streetscaping” would eventually solve most of the issues at hand. I wonder if longterm improvements to streetscaping would solve the crushing traffic problems experienced weekdays on Hillside Blvd and other roads leading to and from Oyster Point during commute? But we’re apparently not to worry about solutions to the existing commute traffic nightmare or any plan or vision for the increased traffic from the new development in the future either…..the Council’s discussion of traffic at this meeting never left Grand Ave.
Another one of the topics on the Special Meeting agenda concerned a study by Godbe Research commissioned by the Council regarding resident satisfaction. 471 residents were interviewed and the most important issues to residents according to this study were….you guessed it….housing and traffic congestion! It’s important to reiterate that none of the agenda topics at this City council Special Meeting concerned our pressing housing and traffic problems. Why? I did notice that one of the first items in the minutes of the Special Meeting, under the heading of PUBLIC COMMENTS, is the phrase “comments are limited to items on the Special Meeting Agenda.” I would expect that if the Council’s agenda did include the hot-button topics of housing and traffic, the SSF residents would have given them an earful. But by not being part of the agenda, that problem was “solved”.
Change is inevitable and, along with that change, comes the growing pains and the discomfort of seeing our way of life change drastically. But this change needs to be tempered by common sense and a realistic view of what is actually going on in our City. As it is, our City planners are rushing ahead with building plans with apparently little regard for the inherent problems of poorly planned expansion and growth. When I asked a Council member at a recent event, “What are you doing about the traffic?” the answer, given with a somewhat condescending smile, was pre-packaged talk of a new CalTrans station, SamTrans, and everybody living where they work. As the Council forges ahead with new construction….which really translates to more taxes and income for the City…..the sad fact is that we all know, and most definitely the Council knows, that nothing is really being done to plan for the additional traffic. The attitude seems to be, to paraphrase a line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If we build it, they will come…but getting here is their problem!”
As the City plows ahead with new construction the saddest aspect is the apparent disregard for what has made SSF a great place to buy a home and raise a family. A place where we take pride in our neighborhoods, and appreciate the small independent stores like the now closing Bronstein Music and in time, South City Car Wash. These small businesses are more than just stores but are part of our extended family….part of the fabric of life that makes SSF a great place to live. Yes, change is inevitable and a part of life. But not all things of the past need to be crushed and disposed of. It might be time to step back, take a deep breath….put aside for a moment the windfall of new taxes in the City coffers from all the shiny new biotech buildings….and for once really consider the quality of life here in SSF. Sure, the traffic and housing concerns are regional, but big changes can and do begin locally. If we decide as a city to make quality of life the number one priority instead of the prestige of being a biotech center, everything will sort itself out including the City’s place in the biotech world.
“The city planners have overseen a great destruction of our downtown cohesion, and have solidified an enormous wasted opportunity.
We could have built on what was wonderful and historic, developing our unique charm into an absolutely appealing little niche area, which would have been the envy of many towns around us.
Instead, we have a great wall of tastelesness and incongruity which have both dwarfed and rendered extinct all opportunity for a beautiful footing to our downtown area.
Where we might have had appeal and attractively authentic flair, we now have only crass and garish multi colored heft.”
Rob Estra, South San Francisco resident
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Mel Ellison is a free-lance writer and photographer who covers special features for Everything South City as well as taking the role of co-admin on our social media. Married to Lynn Brunetti, they enjoy family time with their grandchildren and enjoying their Brentwood neighborhood in South San Francisco. When not dazzling us with his photography you will find Mel on the open seas pursuing his love of sailing. He is also an accomplished musician with many credits to his name.
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