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We Need to Build Housing, Not Ugly Hi-Rises On Landfill

Updated: Jul 22, 2019 15:47
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As we saw in the Marina in 1989, earthquakes threaten buildings on landfill. C.E. Meyer, U.S. Geological Survey

A few months ago I suggested 11 reasons why Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) were the best option for increasing density in San Francisco. I first wrote about the advantages of ADUs, like limiting displacement, reducing income disparity, and retaining the city’s character. Now I look at concerns about building high rises, like earthquakes, climate change, and the looming, if fascinating, bust coming—when tech moves to a city of their own.

Earthquake Country

In the last couple of months, we’ve seen what can happen when you construct a gigantic, heavy building on landfill. They’re blaming the sinking and tilting of Millennium Tower on the Trans Bay Terminal project, under construction next door. It, too, will probably sink and tilt. A certain amount of settling is always expected. But no matter how you look at it, both these big projects are built on rubble.

We live in earthquake country, between the massive San Andreas and Hayward Faults. San Francisco is on constantly shifting tectonic plates, and earthquake experts are saying there’s a 72% chance that we’ll have an earthquake of at least 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years. A 6.7 or greater magnitude earthquake is no joke. (The Loma Prieta quake in 1989 was 6.9.)

Specialists in construction and earthquake safety plan carefully for such things, but have they considered that a certain amount of pressure on fairly unstable land is viable, but lots and lots of it may not be? What can be said with absolute certainty? What happens when you put many large construction projects on a pile of rubble near a fault line? Does anyone know? Does anyone remember what happened in the Marina—also built on landfill—in the 1989 earthquake? The buildings that collapsed there weren’t remotely as big and heavy as the Millennium Tower, nor were they already tilting, but they went down.

Landfill and other types of turf have liquefaction issues, meaning it shakes harder in an earthquake. Almost all of SOMA, Mission Bay, and Hunter’s Point waterfront is on land subject to liquefaction, even if it’s not landfill.

It seems wiser to build on terra firma, but there isn’t much available. What we have is back yards and garages, for light, small ADU construction, on bedrock—a much less scary place to be in an earthquake.

earthquake sf

89 quake, San Francisco. Alamy

Climate Change

It’s easier to build where there’s less human opposition, in the parts of town where there are fewer people to displace and the bay views are grand. So the building of bay front towers began without the slightest thought to climate change and the anticipated rise of sea level, which has the potential to turn the glass lobby of Millennium Tower into an aquarium by 2050. Mission Bay, the Warrior’s stadium, and swaths of SOMA could be floating under about 8’ of water.

Now the city is thinking about how to keep the water from engulfing our shiny new buildings. It can be done; the Dutch have been doing it for a long time, but the Venetians are losing the battle. Venice probably will be under water in our lifetimes. What do we need to do to defend buildings against the rising tides, and how much will it cost the taxpayers? All of us will pay dearly to keep Millennium Tower above water.


More Than One Plan B

The city has done a lot to accommodate the expanding tech industry and its workers, including new high rises. All those welcome dollars in town severely altered the meaning of “market rate.” And because the rents went up astronomically, the cost of goods sold did also. Now even well paid tech workers are saying it’s too expensive here, and many of them are intending to find jobs elsewhere soon, in places where they can buy a house.

Some pundits are saying that tech will never leave an Francisco. But rumor has it that the titans of the tech industry are planning another city of their own, somewhere to be determined, for 50 – 100,000 people. It will be fully wired, with only driverless cars, and probably drone deliveries, robot servants, the complete future fantasy of sci-fi novels. I hope it has solar roads. In any case, TechTown will become the place to be for the wired community, not San Francisco, and we will really have another of our celebrated busts when it’s ready.

In the meanwhile, the market for luxury units is tanking, and the demand for affordable units continues. The cost of constructing high rise units for low income dwellers is far too steep without major subsidies. So the city’s at something of a stalemate.

sf hi rise

new developments SF

Big Opportunities for Non-Corporate Players

Corporate developers can’t be bothered building ADUs because there’s no massive profit in them. But there is profit. Mid-sized, or even small, independent contractors have a huge opportunity here to form collaborative deals with property owners. Here are a few possible scenarios.

Let’s say a contractor and a homeowner reach an agreement to build a half-floor garden apartment in a garage. Perhaps they split the cost of materials and permits, or perhaps the contractor assumes all costs at the outset. By contractual arrangement, the contractor and the homeowner agree to split the rent on the ADU for a given number of years after that. Specifics, like length of payment, workmanship, percentage of costs, change of ownership, and splitting profits could vary completely by individual agreement, as could the work. You could turn an already existing basement room into an unassuming studio, or transform a raw space into an Architectural Digest layout.

Maybe homeowners are willing to front the money themselves for the ADU, and simply pay contractors navigate City Hall and build them.  If a modest studio costs around $50K to build, and rents at $1,000 a month, it’s just profit for the owner after a few years.

Are there potential hazards in these arrangements? Sure. There are potential hazards in getting on a Muni bus. You need contracts.

About 100 applications to build ADUs have been submitted to the city to date, but so far, nothing’s getting built. The city is even willing to help with the process, and they’re streamlining red tape. However, a contractor willing to partner with an applicant, who already knows the Planning drill, simplifies everything for the homeowner—which means it’s more likely to happen quickly—especially if the contractor is willing to finance the work.

Writing in The San Jose Mercury News, Richard Scheinin said, “If just 10 percent of the Bay Area’s 1.5 million single-family homes had granny flats for family members or other tenants, that would add 150,000 new units.” UC Berkeley professor Karen Chapple conducted a study in 5 East Bay communities, and found that 30% of the homeowners in those areas were interested in adding an ADU.

The city has recognized the wisdom of building ADUs and is actively promoting them. For more information, you can watch this video:

For all you contractors out there, opportunity is waiting, and there couldn’t be a better time to capitalize on it. A sudden massive influx of new units would make space for those threatened with displacement, but also make it possible for the tech industry’s disgruntled employees to stay here and still save for a down payment. When the Emerald City rises somewhere else, and a lot of our tech neighbors defect, we’ll have some room for artists again.


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P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal is a San Francisco native, writer, therapist, and life coach. Literary agents have called her a clever niche writer, but none of them can figure out what the hell her niche is.