Northside SF
North Beach Beat
Attack of the Tunnel People
As the name implies, this column’s focus is North Beach (one of the 10 finest urban neighborhoods in the United States since 2007). But if it’s all right with you, I’d like to range a little further afield this month. Our subject will eventually have a dramatic impact on North Beach for sure, but this is really a citywide issue.

I refer, of course, to the Rose Pak Memorial Subway Tunnel to Nowhere or, more prosaically, the Central Subway project.

If you’ve wearied of reading about San Francisco’s latest boondoggle – the West Coast version of the Big Dig – feel free to skip this screed and turn the page. I’m not setting myself up as a planning expert. (Whatever that is; haven’t seen one of those around here in ages.) I’m just riffing; one concerned San Franciscan to the collective other. But I’ve got eyes, and I can see. Fact is, I’m tired too. Tired of all the lame bureaucratic justifications for this dunderheaded project, starting with the lamest one of all: the subway will relieve congestion in Chinatown (or, as the planners like to call it in their monochromatic jargon, the “Stockton Street corridor”). They’re apparently serious. “Relieve surface congestion along the Stockton Street corridor.” That’s what it says, right there on the SFMTA’s website.

Really? You think a subway with only one stop in Chinatown, that heads south to the Mos-cone Convention Center, SOMA, Dogpatch, and Bayview, is going to clear the traffic off Stockton Street? Most of the Chinese who take transit to shop there come from the west, from the Avenues. They’re not going to ride it. Those who drive in, often from out of town, have no need for this underground train either.

SFMTA spouts some other drivel about the subway improving the riding public’s quality of life and bolstering the city’s economic health, but those are the same red herrings tossed out by all developers when they smell a killing. The city does it too, usually to justify handing over the crown jewels to someone like a billionaire software mogul to get him to hold his boat race here. Oh, people benefit all right, but they’re always the wrong ones.

This isn’t an original thought but let’s repeat it anyway for effect: The Central Subway is a sop to Rose Pak and the powerful Chinatown lobby. A subway into Chinatown won’t do squat to alleviate congestion, but it will do wonders for property values along the very same Stockton corridor, especially when the city proclaims Stockton a “transit corridor” and relaxes height restrictions to let developers build up, up and up.

Relieve congestion? This stupid subway will only make it worse. And it’s this new philosophy of marrying transit improvements to high-density development that threatens to destroy – or, if you want to be slightly more restrained, transform – one of the world’s great cities.

“Manhattanization” – the practice of stuffing as many people as possible into as small a space as possible by building taller buildings – is now the official mantra for those plotting our city’s future course. The idea is to increase population density along these so-called “transit corridors,” the theory being that all these people will ditch their cars and take buses and streetcars instead. More wishful thinking.

Less than a generation ago, Manhattanization was a dirty word in this town. While we admired New York from afar, we knew we had a much better thing going here and had no desire to emulate our bigger East Coast sister. We were smarter then than we are now.

A lot of newer San Franciscans, those with no past here, don’t seem to mind the idea of Manhattanization too much. They didn’t know San Francisco before it went high-rise crazy, when it was still known as the Paris of the West. Well, Paris would never throw up the kind of garbage we’ve seen cropping up around here, especially south of Market.

Many of us living in North Beach (one of the 10 finest urban neighborhoods in the United States since 2007) fear the encroachment of 21st century San Francisco. We don’t have to be planners to understand that the Central Subway’s Stockton– Washington station is only a temporary terminus for the T line. Logic dictates that this subway will have to be extended into North Beach and on down to Fisherman’s Wharf to justify its existence.

When it arrives, that will make Columbus Avenue a “transit corridor” too. And there goes the neighborhood.

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March 2012
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