A Green Tomorrow
by Emily Landes
When the plans for Parkmerced were unveiled on the eve of World War II, it was described as “a community of tomorrow” because it brought a suburban lifestyle to the city. But, 70 years later, the leadership at Parkmerced says the community’s car-centric design, low-density garden apartments and water-wasting lawns are relics of the past. They have a 20-year plan to create a new “community of tomorrow,” this one emphasizing mass transit, neighborhood amenities that will cut down on resident car trips, energy efficient and water-saving strategies, and modern, high-density mid-rises for the way people live today, and will be living for years to come. “The core vision is to make Parkmerced a model for the future of urban living,” explains P.J. Johnston, who handles communications for the community.
Only an M Ride Away
One of the most important changes in the new 20-year plan for Parkmerced is the transformation of the area from a neighborhood where residents must use their cars to get to work and amenities to one that contains its own Muni stop, as well as its own restaurants, shops and grocery stores. Parkmerced currently has a very high ratio of car trips per person compared to other areas of the city, according to Johnston. That’s a huge problem when looking at how to “green” a community, since cars create air pollution, use nonrenewable resources like gasoline and have even been linked to the rise of obesity.
That’s why Parkmerced has been working with Muni for more than two years to create new stops for the M line inside of the community. Currently, the closest stop on 19th Avenue is more than a 10-minute walk for most Parkmerced residents. Johnston says that 10 minutes is the threshold that planners use when determining whether or not people will use public transit.
Not only is the bus stop far away, but it’s also an undesirable place to wait. The narrow platform is often crowded with the Parkmerced residents who do make the trek, not to mention San Francisco State University students and those coming to or from the Stonestown mall. It’s also located in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares in San Francisco, with cars speeding up and down 19th Avenue on either side of the platform.
Parkmerced’s master planners at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill know the new M stops will make it significantly more convenient and appealing for residents to use public transit. The vision is to create a transit hub at the entrance to Parkmerced and a market place on Crespi and Juan Bautista Circle, with amenities like coffee shops and dry cleaners, which will make Muni a safer and more attractive option than driving. “Instead of crowding on a platform that can’t contain everybody in the middle of the busiest and most dangerous Muni stop in the city, it’s actually in the heart of the community,” says Johnston.
Of course, neighborhood-serving businesses do more than create an attractive place to wait for the bus to take residents away from their homes. They also make staying in the neighborhood more desirable, which should not only cut down on car trips but also make for more satisfied residents. Bert Polacci, director of community outreach and government relations for Parkmerced, says that in the many outreach meetings he has run, residents always mention that they want to be able to walk to retail, restaurants and grocery stores. He points to the hugely successful new weekly farmer’s market in Parkmerced as evidence that people are absolutely desperate for opportunities to get out of their homes and be a part of a local event. “A community needs a social heart and folks need to be able to get out and meet their neighbors,” he says.
A Grand, Green Scale
Residents have also requested changes in the open spaces at Parkmerced. Rather than large lawns that aren’t typically used by the residents because the spaces are so unwieldy and undefined, tenants have asked for children’s playgrounds, sports fields and even community gardens. Planners want to give them all that, as well as a two and a half acre organic farm, which will be run by a third party but will have plenty of opportunities for residents who want to be involved. (In a symbiotic relationship, the farm would provide produce for the onsite restaurants.)
Amazingly, even with the addition of a working farm, eight new neighborhood parks and many rooftop community gardens, the new green spaces will require significantly less fertilizer and less potable water than the large lawns that are mostly unused by residents. (Parkmerced currently uses 55 million gallons of water each year for irrigation.) One reason is that the landscaping will consist largely of native, drought-resistant plants. Also, the new plans include a system that will use filtered wastewater for irrigation. Water efficiency will also be paramount in the reimagined Parkmerced, where the current low-density garden apartments will gradually be replaced by a community of higher-density, higher-efficiency homes—over the course of 20 years, the 3,200 units will grow to an ecocentric neighborhood of 8,900 homes. Through conservation measures, efficient fixtures and using recycled water, Polacci promises, “We’ll use less water 20 years from now than we do today.”
Also, rainwater that used to flood the beleaguered sewers during the winter will instead go through a natural watershed under the community and will replenish Lake Merced. The sheer amount of rainwater that will be kept out of the sewer system will lower the number of days per year when raw sewage overflows into the ocean from eight to seven.
The green improvements don’t stop with water; all of our natural resources will be used more efficiently under the new development plan. Vertical wind turbines (which don’t kill birds like traditional turbines do) and photovoltaics will provide renewable energy, and energy efficient fixtures and appliances will be the norm in the new units. The community recently unveiled it’s Eco-Home, a mid-rise unit that: has brand new technology that monitors utility usage so tenants have an up-to-the-second readout of their electric, gas and water consumption; uses motion sensors in bathrooms and corridors; has sustainable materials like bamboo floors, Eco Rock recycled sheetrock and recycled-glass tile; and has PVC-free window coverings and VOC-free paint. One lucky family won the right to live in the unit rent-free for the year, but Johnston says this model home is the “beta” for all future units at Parkmerced.
He believes that the scale of the green changes proposed at Parkmerced make the redesign that much more important. He points to the tons of compostable materials saved from the landfills when Parkmerced began using the green carts as one example of how size does mater. “It’s the scale here that makes these efforts so big and so impactful,” he argues. “Where else do you have 3,000 units all pulling in one direction? So, in the future, when you have 8,900 units pulling in one direction, that can really be transformative.”
With all of the new changes coming to Parkmerced, particularly the addition of all those new units, Johnston admits that some residents have voiced their concerns. “Any project this size in a community that’s essentially been frozen in time for several decades is scary to people,” he concedes. Parkmerced leadership has taken part in more than 200 meetings, not only to get input from residents but also to quell their fears about the renovations. There were some worries that the new towers would block views, but Johnston says the new buildings will stay at the same sight lines as the current buildings.
Another unfounded concern seems to be over rent control, especially for some long-term residents who have been living in their units for decades and are on fixed incomes. But they have nothing to worry about since all tenants relocated from their existing units to a new apartment home will be paying the same rent-controlled amount that they do now. In fact, Polacci says the promise of a brand-new unit at a rent-controlled price is a factor that is being pitched to potential new residents as well. People know that if they move into an outdated garden apartment today, in a few years they will get to move into a brand new apartment at the same price, he says. Plus, the development plan is set up in such a way that the new units will be finished before the old units are demolished, so tenants will only have to move once.
The leadership at Parkmerced believes that all of the coming changes are going to make the community more attractive to future residents. Johnston’s parents lived in Parkmerced 40 years ago, and he recalls that even at that point the community had garnered a reputation for being worn down and isolated from the rest of the city. That’s part of the reason the community’s staff has been working so hard to get the plans for a modern neighborhood with a community spirit all its own out to the public.
So, after 70 years, can Parkmerced once again become the “community of tomorrow”? Polacci, for one, has no doubts. “We believe that in the future other neighborhoods will pattern themselves after Parkmerced,” he crows. “We will lead the way.”
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the SFAA or the SF Apartment Magazine. Emily Landes is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine. Copyright © 2010 by Black Point Press. All rights reserved.