As cities undergo some of the most rapid growth of the past 100 years, can neighborhood-scale innovations bridge the gap between our current urban infrastructure and the low carbon cities of the future? With this question in mind, ULI San Francisco held an event on January 26, 2017 at the offices of Mithun. Moderated by Sandy Mendler, Principal at Mithun, the panelists included Eric Corey Freed, Chief Community Officer at EcoDistricts, Lisa Fisher, Urban Planner and Sustainable City Team Lead at the San Francisco Planning Department, and Toral Patel, Stewardship Program Manager at Build Public.
Eric Corey Freed was first to speak and discussed EcoDistricts’ model of urban regeneration, a framework called the EcoDistricts Protocol. Eric described the Protocol not as a prescriptive list, but rather a process whereby practitioners work relentlessly to pursue equity and inclusion, accelerate a thriving urban equality, tackle the climate crisis with resiliency, make collaboration inescapable, embrace transparency and peer exchange, and focus on impact. Eric described EcoDistricts goal as “disrupting urban regeneration” from the Neighborhood up.
Next to speak was Lisa Fisher, who discussed the City of San Francisco’s efforts to effect district-scale innovation in San Francisco and amplify the co-benefits of change and development. By Lisa’s account, the City of San Francisco has several crises related to affordability, displacement, housing, and sustainability. In working toward solving these, San Francisco is exploring an EcoDistrict framework for several of its plan areas including Chinatown, Central SoMa, and the Mission Rock and Pier 70 planned developments. The City’s vision for these districts is that they will; be intentionally sustainable, exceed City goals and requirements, look beyond the building scale, have measureable baselines and targets, and create meaningful partnerships between the community, developers, utilities, and public agencies.
Lisa went on to describe some details of the Central SoMa plan, which will potentially include 7,000 new housing units and seven million square feet of commercial space by 2040, and is projected to encourage a two-billion-dollar increase in economic activities. Lisa indicated that the plan prioritizes creating a healthy, sustainable, and climate-positive district that is resource efficient and highly resilient. This will be achieved through green roofs, flood protection, energy efficient and renewable building materials, 100 percent recycled water in parks and open spaces, EV requirements, street trees, and LED street lights.
Toral Patel from Build Public was the night’s final speaker. Toral discussed Green Benefit Districts, which can be created by communities as a funding and governance structure to effect positive change in a neighborhood. Per Toral, a Green Benefit District has a defined boundary, and a stated plan to use community funds for public realm maintenance and capital improvements. Green Benefit Districts focus on residential and mixed-use zones and are governed by a local board of directors. Build Public helped to setup a 193-acre Green Benefit District in the North West Potrero Hill and Dogpatch neighborhoods in San Francisco.
A lively question and answer session followed the presentations, where the panelists discussed working in an environment where ‘NIMBY’ voices and gentrification are sometimes seen as two opposing negative forces. One suggested strategy was to utilize inclusionary zoning to push back against gentrification while encouraging meaningful change. The panelists also suggested that retaining neighborhood character should always be a key outcome, and to focus on public spaces, which all agreed should be equitable and inclusive as well as safe and clean. Lastly, the panelists noted that it is important to create governance tools and funding mechanisms to catalyze neighborhood empowerment.