Hayes Valley’s Supervisor is Pushing to Get Rid of PROXY. It’s a terrible idea.
District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston did a lengthy Q&A for Hayes Valley constituents a couple evenings ago at Phonobar on Grove St. He stayed long and engaged gamely on wide-ranging topics.
Near the end of the event, Preston himself brought up the fate of “Parcel K” — the open plaza at the east of Patricia’s Green. This popular quarter-acre area— anchored by a coffee shop, ice cream vendor, outdoor gym, and juice place — is home to regular outdoor movies and other neighborhood events, as well as acting as nexus between weekend closed streets and the park. It’s a part of the “living room” of Hayes Valley.
Preston wants it gone. Or to be fair, what Preston really wants is to build affordable (below market rate) housing on this plaza, which was earmarked for that purpose decades ago. And he wants to build it as soon as possible: Preston says he’s been pushing hard within the city administration for the RFP that is going out to developers imminently. The loss of the plaza is the collateral damage, and Preston admits to being OK with that. I’m not, and I’m not alone in that.
I feel strongly about this public space and have written on this topic before, mostly in the context of thinking thoughtfully about how to thread a tricky political needle. Unfortunately the die appears cast now, without creative solutions in the offing. So here I’m writing simply as a resident, a neighbor, and someone who cares deeply about the future of San Francisco.
Preston referred to this plaza as “Parcel K,” its technical city real estate title, which disconnects it somewhat from its incredible community value. What’s there now is called PROXY, a “temporary activation” thriving for over a decade. This lot (parcel of land) appeared along with many others when the Central Freeway was demolished around the turn of the millennium. The lots along the former freeway route were transferred to the city to become various forms of housing (mostly), which by now has been fulfilled on almost all of them, including several fully below-market-rate. Parcel K — along with its even smaller neighbor, Parcel L (currently hosting Biergarten) is among the last remaining “undeveloped” lots.
And no wonder they’re still undeveloped! They’ve turned out to be marvelous places, the kind of rare jewels that are nearly impossible to create on purpose, let alone be blessed with by accident. As Preston quite correctly pointed out during his event, multiple supervisors before him slow-walked plans for construction here, likely because they knew it would be highly controversial to take away a beloved amenity.
But where I think Preston sees hypocrisy, others see wise urbanism and smart politics. He spoke at length, and with real conviction, about this topic and I’d like to cut through the “discourse” about this to get to the heart of what’s happening here.
“Saying yes to a plaza means saying no to affordable housing! You’re not AGAINST affordable housing, are you?”
This is a false choice and it must be rejected. It’s a very narrow way of understanding both the city’s acute housing crisis and the range of solutions to it. Hayes Valley over the last 20 years has welcomed more new housing, and more below market rate housing, than nearly anywhere else in San Francisco outside the high rises of South of Market. The neighborhood still has some vacant parcels along Octavia Blvd, and plenty of low rise stock ripe for upsizing, plus a community that is not at all resistant to continued addition of BMR housing. Meanwhile, the nearby area south of the Van Ness/Market intersection is slated to bring thousands of new units online in the coming few years, including hundreds and hundreds of BMR units.
You can hold two ideas at the same time: building more housing of all kinds is urgent and crucial to future civic health of San Francisco, and also, kneecapping one of the best public spaces in San Francisco is shortsighted and unfortunate. These are not mutually exclusive and you do not have to believe that they are.
Especially for only a few dozen apartments, because that is what is at stake here. Maybe (maybe!) 50 apartments. That’s not zero, but that’s the tradeoff. It’s easy to get wrapped around the axle of San Francisco’s parochial politics — or one’s own internal litmus tests for progressivism or YIMBYism — but the reality is that we are losing a remarkable public space forever, in return for just 50 apartments. Those are the concrete stakes here; the rest is noise.
“PROXY was never meant to be permanent.”
So what? We tried something, and it turned out that we learned some new things from it. It surprised us, in the best way possible. We are allowed to recognize magic when we find it, and make new decisions.
There’s an alternate future here where the community reconfigures PROXY as something more permanent and even more multi-functional. Think of the world’s greatest piazzas, in Venice, London, Paris, and New York.
“Parcel K is an affordable housing site.”
Preston kept saying this. But I was there this morning and what I saw was a park, and a great one. You can get rid of the plaza if you must— and that is the tradeoff Preston is affirmatively making — but there’s no doubt that PROXY is much more than some low-value distraction. There are certainly other moves possible that would be in keeping with our collective values.
“Our hands are tied anyway; this is legally bound to be affordable housing.”
This is politics, and any plan that hasn’t happened yet can be altered if there’s political will for it. The status of one piece of city real estate versus another is a legal and administrative fiction and is open to change.
Preston’s conviction here is real, though, and he comes by it honestly. His hands are not tied; he talked about how his administration has made a point to expedite this particular project, even cutting a deal on a different project in a way that provides funding to kickstart Parcel K development.
“This community made a commitment and we have to keep it.”
No, we don’t! Anyway, whose commitment are we talking about, and to whom?
What Preston is referring to is the status of all the former freeway parcels, enshrined in the Market & Octavia planning process — begun and fully concluded during the George W. Bush administration — which slated Parcel K for eventual use as below market rate housing, just one among many lot designations. First of all, what did the residents involved in that process know about the future popularity and specific value of Parcel K in particular? Nothing. Hindsight is 20/20, so maybe it’s OK to use hindsight here.
Secondly, it’s been twenty years! I’ve lived in Hayes Valley for a whole decade myself, but even I missed out on that planning process by an another whole decade. At what point can we say, look, the situation and tradeoff calculation is actually different now, we have better information, and we should look at it afresh?
Let’s build those same affordable units in conjunction with other projects nearby. Easier said than done, perhaps, but it can certainly be done. And as far as the ghosts of any former community meetings go, I think that would meet the spirit of any commitment.
“Making temporary activations permanent creates bad precedent.”
Preston pitched this as one reason to “fulfill the commitment” of closing PROXY. The city apparently gets scared that people will like temporary activations too much and push back against their termination. First of all, heaven forbid people should enjoy nice things.
But more importantly, although I understand this concern, what matters to actual individual citizens is not the philosophy of city real estate policy, but the excellent plaza in the middle of our neighborhood.
PROXY has been there since I moved to the neighborhood a decade ago, and it’s a big part of the draw of the middle of the neighborhood. Let’s figure out how to say yes to that!
Hayes Valley’s former freeway parcels have seen other temporary uses before construction, including e.g. the Hayes Valley Farm at what is now the Avalon apartments. But despite being well loved, the farm was obviously different in kind. PROXY is a quarter acre that gets more foot traffic and more “users” than probably any other plaza in the city, certainly by square foot and in often likely in absolute numbers. That doesn’t look like just some “temporary activation”, it looks like a miracle of urbanism.
The future of San Francisco must be one of abundance.
We are a world-class city with some world-class challenges. I’m a lot less interested in how San Francisco sees itself today than in how San Francisco will be in 2050, or 2075. Will we be able to welcome more young people? Will we be more friendly to families? Provide a broad array of amenities and living styles and options? Leadership on business and culturemaking? Those are things that our city leaders should be working on. Much of that is housing writ large, and part of that is also incredible public spaces. The long view says you need a lot of things, and in that long view, PROXY is frankly a small site which if built on will result in a small number of apartments. Meanwhile that plan sacrifices the plaza for all time. We need a lot of construction here over the coming decades. But sliding directly from that premise to the conclusion that we must build on Parcel K specifically isn’t going to get us to the future version of the broadly world-class city we should be aiming for.
Is there anything I can do about this?
Preston knows many are wary of his plowing ahead, but I believe him when he says he’s immovable on this. So although you should definitely let him know your thoughts, I wouldn’t expect a change of heart. In the political realm, there are two other things you can do:
- Vote Preston out. It’s OK sometimes to be a single-issue voter, and on this one, I am. Dean Preston is up for re-election next fall (2024). Push him and his eventual competition hard on this topic. But that’s almost 18 months away, and although breaking ground at PROXY by then is unlikely, once a development agreement is in place, it will be very difficult to stop.
- The next cycle for ballot initiatives in SF is the presidential primary election next March (2024). There’s plenty of time to put together a ballot measure that would stop or change the construction plan for PROXY/Parcel K specifically.
Many residents are unaware that there is any change planned for Parcel K at all— especially anyone new to the area in the last ten years. Please share this broadly. Thank you for reading.