Development proposed for empty lot in Excelsior

Development proposed for empty lot in Excelsior
Jessica Sequeira

El Tecolote (USA)
30 August 2012

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin outside of the SFMTA Building on Van Ness Ave and Market St where he is making an announcement in support of transforming the Balboa Park Upper Yard from a parking lot to affordable housing for District 11 families, to a crowd of protesters, on July 26, 2012. Photo by Beth LaBerge.

Rooftop gardens, a quiet courtyard, a farmers’ market and, above all, apartments with a fixed and affordable rent—this vision might seem optimistic for San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood, where the average annual household income is only $25,490.

But faced with rising prices, this vision might soon become a reality for working-class residents in the largely immigrant neighborhood, who are working to create a community housing space in an area they claim is underutilized: the upper yard of the Balboa Park BART Station.

“We’ve been hearing testimonies left and right about multiple families living in the same small apartment, and about the necessity of working a double job just to pay rent,” said Carlo Sciammas of People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, one of several community organizations involved in planning. “The upper yard would be a great space to develop.”

The Balboa Park station is the most heavily trafficked station in the BART system, but the large asphalt lot alongside it—the size of a soccer field—stands nearly empty during the day.

Once a “bone yard” for light-rail storage, it is currently used only as unofficial employee parking, and many residents feel that it is an eyesore.

At a workshop last September, community members constructed possible development models out of Legos, and in February they sent hundreds of heart-shaped Valentines to Mayor Ed Lee asking him to “show love” for the project. Lee replied with a pledge of his support.

The hope is to create an affordable, community-focused space for a neighborhood that, according to an American Community Survey, has more people packed into each household than anywhere else in the city—three-fourths of whom speak a language other than English at home.

Young people love the diversity and vibrancy of the area, but worry that it’s too expensive for them to stay.

“Even though my family has four people working full time, it’s not enough to make ends meet because we have to pay for the car, insurance, groceries, utilities, health care, education, and sending money back home,” Lyra Ibarra, a 23-year-old nursing student living in the Excelsior, said in a recently released community report.

Along with PODER, the Filipino Community Center, Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, and Asian Neighborhood Design are supporters of the project. Yet despite the community’s enthusiasm, challenges remain.

Some of these challenges are structural: Sandwiched between BART and Highway 280, pedestrian safety, noise levels, air quality and building vibrations will have to be taken into account.

Others challenges are bureaucratic: Funding for the project has not yet been found. Legal rights are also uncertain. From the start, BART has been excited about the project, said Sciammas, but the lot technically belongs to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which is a different organization.

SFMTA says it has “preliminarily determined that it does not need the yard in the short term and can make it available for residential use,” according to Paul Rose a media relations manager. If given the full go-ahead, the Mayor’s Office of Housing can purchase the land, and development can begin.

In the meantime, Excelsior residents continue to show their support with the hope of speeding things along.

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