SF Apartment : June 2017


High-Speed Changes

by Emily Landes

Two of San Francisco’s main thoroughfares are in the midst of a major transformation. Both Geary and Van Ness avenues are in the process of being overhauled to make way for the city’s first-ever bus rapid transit lines. A few years from now, these two arteries will look unrecognizable to city residents, with designated bus lanes, improved landscaping, and safety enhancements designed to make the city easier to navigate by foot, bike or bus.

The projects are not without their concerns for property owners, including construction noise and debris, loss of parking and increased traffic congestion. But with trends showing more and more renters interested in living near public transit, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency believes owners should see a long-term gain in exchange for some short-term pain.

Project Particulars

The first project up is Van Ness Avenue, where a two-mile stretch between Mission and Lombard streets will be affected by the new rapid transit route. Construction has already begun and is expected to continue through 2019. Since work began last fall, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose, “The roadway has been prepared for construction by removing the median, landscaping and overhead contact system that powers our electric trolley buses, while protecting trees that will be preserved. To improve circulation and safety on Van Ness Avenue, most left turns were permanently eliminated.” Rose added that construction is a little behind schedule, due to the winter storms, but that the contractor is working toward “recovering” some of that lost time.

Next up, utility work will begin to replace the city’s aging sewer and water systems. During this phase of work, Van Ness will be divided into northern and southern segments, with Sutter Street as the dividing line. One crew will start work on the eastern side of Van Ness at Lombard, while another will work on the western side of Van Ness at Sutter. Each team will work its way south until they complete each segment, then they will repeat the sequence on the opposite side of Van Ness.

During this two-year phase of construction, traffic will be moved to the former median while construction takes place in the outer lanes. After the utility work is done, traffic will be moved to the outside lanes and construction will begin on the rapid transit system itself. This system will include physically separated, center-running transit-only lanes with new boarding platforms. Finally, for the last six months of the total 36-month construction schedule, crews will work on safety improvements like sidewalk extensions, street beautification (including 210 new city trees), testing and bus operator training.

Currently, over 35,000 passengers ride the 47 and 49 line buses every day, according to the SFMTA, and 16,000 of these board and off board on Van Ness. “When construction of the project is complete, we anticipate a 35% increase in customers boarding in the project corridor,” said Rose.

The Geary project is still in the planning stages, but the first major environmental approval from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took place in January. An additional environmental approval is expected this summer at the SFMTA Board, according to Rose, as well as federal approval later this year.

While the project is still undergoing review, the proposed changes are similar to those included in the Van Ness project. These include the extension of existing dedicated bus-only lanes to Stanyan Street; relocated and more accessible bus stops; sidewalk extensions for increased visibility and shorter crossing distances for pedestrians; traffic signal upgrades; and water and sewer infrastructure repair. Eventually, these improvements would run all the way from Market Street to 34th Avenue, but the first phase currently under discussion stops at Stanyan.
At this point, the SFMTA are “continuing collaborative stakeholder engagement with the goal of presenting the first phase of transit and safety improvements—between Market and Stanyan—for implementation approvals this winter,” said Rose.

Questions and Concerns

One of the most important stakeholders is the property owner community, as homes and businesses along these corridors will be affected by this construction for many years to come. While some owners are supportive, others are concerned that all the additional traffic and noise—not to mention the loss of street parking—is not worth the end result.
Eric Andresen, a property owner and president of West Coast Property Management and Maintenance, has seen traffic come to a near standstill by his company’s Van Ness offices as construction has gotten underway. “The traffic has become horrendous,” he said, “and they’re really not even working on our part of the street yet, other than to restrict the number of lanes. Cross traffic routinely blocks the intersection and getting up and down Van Ness is significantly harder than it was before.”

Additionally, Andresen fears that the current congestion will not be alleviated by the end of construction or the newly efficient bus lines. He points out that before the construction, there were three lanes for cars on Van Ness. Afterward, there will only be two, as well as the permanent removal of most left turns along the corridor. “I have no clue how only two lanes, and virtually no left turns, will make things better on Van Ness,” he says. “It’s going to be what we have right now, which is not good.”

SFMTA spokesman Rose acknowledged that, “Major capital construction can be disruptive in the short-term.” But he pointed out that since the rapid transit project is coordinated with utility upgrades, all the work will happen in one round of construction, which should minimize the need for any future disruption.

Rose and the agency also believe that once the new transit system is in place, it will improve traffic considerably. “Rapid transit benefits everyone,” he said. “For current Muni riders, it means being able to start your commute a little later and still have confidence that you will arrive to work on time. That improved customer experience means new people moving into the city can move in without bringing a car, allowing the city to grow without increasing traffic congestion.”

He pointed out that, even before construction began, average speeds on Van Ness were only nine miles an hour for private vehicles and eight miles an hour for buses. With even more development coming to the already dense area, something needed to change. “By providing public transit with a dedicated right-of-way, conflicts between buses and private cars—a cause of delay for both types of travelers—are significantly reduced,” he said. “Public transit will become a more attractive and sustainable option, but it’s true that some people will always need to drive. That’s why the Van Ness Improvement Project includes improvements for drivers, too. Traffic signals on Van Ness, for example, will be outfitted with the latest technology that will allow for retiming of signals to make the flow of traffic more efficient.” Removing the option for left turns will also keep cars moving and should also cut down on the number of pedestrians hurt in this high-injury corridor, he added.

The promise of quicker, safer travel has caused other property owners to welcome the coming changes. David Wasserman is a property owner and attorney whose offices are just north of the Van Ness construction zone. He admitted that trips to and from his office have taken longer than usual during construction, but overall, he’s willing to wait it out with the hopes that the SFMTA’s promises live up to the hype. “It will be an improvement that is long overdue,” he said, adding that he’ll use the new lines regularly to get to and from court at McAllister and Van Ness. “This is a good thing and well needed.”

Tenants Love Transit

Although there may be differences among property owners, it seems clear that tenants are largely supportive of public transit. “We know that transit stops near multifamily apartments see high levels of ridership,” said Rose. “Public transit is an amenity for nearby residents that provide another choice to get to work that avoids the hassle of driving downtown and the cost of parking. We’re seeing apartment rentals advertise nearby transit as an amenity more and more.”

According to a 2015 Zillow Group Mover Study, 70% of renters want to be close to their job, school or transit. Also in 2015, a Trulia survey found that 34% of millennials ranked a short commute as more important than the rental’s location. Another survey from Trulia two years earlier found that 58 percent of adults with children considered commute length the most important factor after price when considering a home. (Forty-six percent of adults without children agreed.)

“Commute is consistently one of the most important amenities when it comes to a home search,” said Yardley Ip, general manager of Trulia Rentals. “We see that point come through in our research at Trulia often.” Ip pointed to an April 2017 Trulia survey that asked more than 2,000 U.S. adults which amenities were most important to them when choosing where to live. Proximity to work, restaurants and grocery stores was the second-most important feature, just behind safety.

With more tenants seeking housing that shortens their commute times, Trulia recently unveiled a new feature called “Rent Near Transit” that combines rental listings with transit lines. “We saw a great opportunity to combine these two things in the search experience so consumers can filter out listings that are not convenient for them, and ultimately move faster in their search for their next home,” said Ip. “It’s performing well and we have received positive feedback from our consumers. In fact, we’ve expanded the feature’s availability from six cities at launch to 13 major cities earlier this year.”

The increased desirability of living near high-speed transit may have a positive effect on home values along transit lines. A 2013 study from the American Public Transportation Agency found that, on average, residential property values performed 42% better if they were located near public transit with frequent service. The survey also found that cities that had the highest level of service, like Boston, saw the biggest boosts in property values versus homes that aren’t near transit. In that city, residential property in the rapid transit area outperformed other properties in the region by 129%.

Will owners along these avenues see a bump in property values and rents after construction is complete? It’s impossible to know for sure, but if public transit continues to be a popular choice among renters it stands to reason that they will put a premium on living along a rapid transit route.

The Underground

With the trend toward transit clear, the Geary and Van Ness projects are only the beginning of the transformation underway in the city. One of the most exciting, large-scale projects is the Muni Subway Expansion project, which would put the entirety of the “M-Oceanview” line underground. (The underground portion currently ends at the West Portal station.)
The project is still in its beginning stages with a previous round of public outreach that ended in early 2016, according to Rose. He added that ParkMerced, one of the largest rental communities in the city, was involved in the planning, as the M currently stops near its 19th Avenue entrance. For now, owners who want to know more should sign up for updates at connectsf.org.

Though the estimated $2.5-to-$3-billion project is likely years away, Rose can already imagine how such a massive undertaking would transform the city. “The project would create a tremendous change by providing BART-like service along the M-line, meaning a faster and more reliable trip,” he said. “It would also transform 19th Avenue by redesigning it to reuse the space currently used for the M-line median for wider sidewalks, a landscaped median, and an off-street bike path, making for a much safer and more comfortable street.”
Even more exciting to Rose is “the game-changing benefit” to current Muni subway overcrowding. “Introducing a full subway would unlock the ability to utilize the existing subway tunnel to its fullest capacity,” he said. “For example, in conjunction with our rail fleet expansion, the project could potentially allow us to run four-car trains from one end of the city to the other without having to slow down at the surface.”

And why slow down when the city’s momentum for rapid transit seems to be moving full-steam ahead?

Emily Landes is the former editor of SF Apartment Magazine. She is currently a freelance real-estate writer in San Francisco.