Will Parkmerced’s construction spell bad news for students?

** This story was originally printed with information that stated that the new Creative Arts building would include housing and retail. The correct information is that there is a new Creative Arts building and a new housing building separately slated for construction. This change has been made in the story. **

[/media-credit] A view of Park Merced housing near San Francisco State University on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. (Sarahbeth Maney/Golden Gate Xpress)

Imagine beginning fall semester only to learn that constant traffic, construction noise and dangerous air quality may await you for the rest of your college career.

Parkmerced – the 152-acre sprawling neighborhood nestled up against SF State’s southern border – is the largest individually owned rental community in Northern California, according to the property owner Parkmerced LLC. And it’s about to get even bigger, adding 5,700 housing units to its 3,221 for a total of just over 8,900, with construction slated to begin in early 2018.

All of the townhouses will be demolished and replaced with much denser housing while the 11 high-rise towers will remain. Parkmerced LLC. says the first phase will add 1,600 units, along with demolitions of existing buildings over the course of four years. The entire project is set to wrap-up in 20-30 years.

“There is no doubt that when construction starts it’s going to be a cluster-fudge of traffic and problems,” said Aaron Goodman, neighborhood activist and former Parkmerced resident.

Parkmerced’s makeover is the second largest entitled development in San Francisco, as reported by the San Francisco Business Times. And the giant construction endeavor is right on SF State’s doorstep.

As construction ramps up, questions remain unanswered over how construction will impact students for the next 20-30 years. Traffic, air pollution, noise, and most of all: Will students be able to afford the state-of-the-art units when construction wraps up?

Pro-development groups claim the outcry is mostly based on the construction’s location: the city’s westside, mostly known for its sea of single-family homes and “do not build here” attitude.

But opponents including Goodman see the project as a health-hazard that will solely benefit the owner Maximus Real Estate partners, the same outfit currently under fire for their “monster in the mission” in the Mission District. He also claims that Parkmerced’s units, currently averaging $3600 for condos and $3000 for high-rise units, will end up being less affordable.

Goodman says a recently completed construction project just south of Parkmerced at 800 Brotherhood Way was a nightmare for residents. Heavy construction using grading trucks, water trucks and concrete trucks caused congestion for months. He says Brotherhood Way’s construction pales in comparison to the individual phases of Parkmerced’s construction, which includes multiple sites of construction along with demolition.

He also points to construction en-route for SF State’s Creative Arts building, which will see a redone building for creative arts students and a new housing and retail building.

“You have a huge amount of change occurring at once,” said Goodman. “You’re going to have three zones of construction occurring at once at Parkmerced, plus SF State’s going to have stuff going on, plus Stonestown may do work on their Macy’s site.”

Parkmerced’s Spokesperson TJ Johnston says they are making sure to avoid unnecessary holdups in the area, but he says it’s a “complicated process because it’s unclear when or if other projects are starting up in the area.”

“One the reasons why this first phase is moving slowly is because there’s coordination with the city, the utilities and transportation agencies, and others, to make sure there’s not undue negative impacts on the neighborhood and on the flow of the city,” said Johnston

But Parkmerced’s EIR spells out negative impacts to come including traffic, noise and hazardous air quality.

In the project’s EIR Errata, a follow-up document to the project’s final EIR, environmental hazards are noted as required by state law under The California Environmental Quality Act. Potential hazards include a “significant and unavoidable” construction-related impact to regional air quality along with “toxic air contaminants (TACs) “causing “adverse health effects.”

Specifically, section AQ-12 of the report says possible “diesel particulate matter (DPM) and other TACs associated with off-road construction equipment and on-road haul trucks”  may negatively impact air quality.

The EIR also says “significant project-related traffic would increase noise levels above existing ambient conditions” along with “significant increases in traffic from the project…”

Johnston said the document is a typical EIR assessment of potential construction impacts, similar to any other construction project.

“San Francisco employs the most stringent and successful environmental regulatory practices in the nation…” he continued. “We will adhere to the highest construction standards, both for the industry and for this environmentally progressive city.”

Marc Christensen, President of the Merced Extension Triangle Neighborhood Association (METNA) said in an interview that the “size and scope of the project demands increased air and soil quality testing in surrounding neighborhoods.” The San Francisco Public Health Department will be monitoring these changes at the perimeter of the site according to city law, but Christensen is requesting testing be done in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Environmental concerns aside, pro development groups tend to hone in on the location of the site: the westside of San Francisco, a part of town mostly zoned for mostly single family homes. In 2011, the Planning Commission changed Parkmerced to a special use district to avoid zoning limits that capped building heights.

Sarah Karlinsky is the senior policy advisor at local pro-development think tank SPUR, originally the San Francisco Urban Planning and Urban Renewal Association. She attended the February 10, 2011 Planning Commission hearing where the final draft of the project’s environmental impact report was approved by a vote of 4-3.

“We believe this project represents one of the few appropriate places to add increased density to the westside of San Francisco,” she continued. “It’s exciting to think about places not just on the eastside of the city to add density.”

When asked if Parkmerced’s rents will change for new residents, Johnston offered little consolation.

“There’s no way for me to predict what the market will be or what specific prices will be several years before any units are built,” Johnston said.

Johnston added that the project’s benefits include more than affordability, including the possible re-routing of the M-Line through Parkmerced, which he says will benefit students. He also points to the changing character of the neighborhood in general.

“Students will benefit from the fact that Parkmerced will change from an isolated suburban-style enclave, disconnected from the rest of San Francisco, into a true thriving neighborhood,” said Johnston.

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