In late September, the publishers of several community newspapers and websites met with Mayor Ed Lee and his staff to discuss the city’s affairs. As the publisher of The Ingleside Light, I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Mayor Lee concerning both citywide and neighborhood issues. Here is a transcript of our dialogue.
Alexander Mullaney: How come the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency didn’t take a hint from the Recreation and Park Department and itemize what they wanted to do with the money its asking for in the bond? RPD always passes its bonds by good margins.
Ed Lee: There are different philosophies about how you approach the expenditure side of bonds. We’ve learned over the years, from Muni in particular. They have so much that they have to get done, and a great deal of it has to be reviewed from an environmental perspective before those projects get approved. There’s a lot in the pipeline they need to do. So it’s one of two reasons: they were as specific as they could be. But there’s a reason they’re not specific to the very detail of each individual project in a progressive way. That is, some of it is held up on the environmental review.
Alexander Mullaney: But RPD does not put any projects that haven’t done an environmental review. So, it’s feasible, but is it really that difficult?
Ed Lee: I think it is. Because they have so much they have to get done. I also think they have a lot of complex stuff, and sometimes, many of their projects are not singularly paid for by the bond. They have to be matched with other monies, be it federal or state because of the transportation connections. That’s also why they can’t be very specific. They need to be flexible enough to reach in to say, “OK, which one is ready? Which one has the agreement with Caltrans? With all the other modes that we can move on quickly, and that will get first treatment.” There’s a lot of that assessment going on. I know that is two categories of reasons, the environmental, and then the coordination has to happen. Because once you promise something as specific as a bond, within that, they expect to have it.
I think Muni is trying to say, “Hey, if we promise something, people could jack us up. People could really criticize them for not delivering, and I don’t think they really want to be in that position, because, quite frankly, in years past, there were a lot of promises when it came to Muni. I remember some mayor’s promise … I’m trying very careful never to say that. But to lead with things we can be successful on.
That’s why, for example, today we signed that nice procurement with Siemens. We’re going to able to deliver some new rail vehicles that people can see. We didn’t even bring a design yet, because we’re opening up the design right now to the ridership. We learned from the mistake BART made. We want our advocates and people like the disabled community to come in and tell us how to shape and design these things so that their ridership can be a plus into all their new Light Rail Vehicles. We need to do it right and we’re learning from past mistakes. You don’t want to come out with some engineer’s design and all of a sudden feel, “Hey, that’s not accommodating me. You want me to ride Muni?” Well, Uber’s too expensive, I had to take my pedi cab.
Alexander Mullaney: I’m going to play my diplomat role for Ocean Avenue. I sit on the [Ocean Avenue Association board of directors] and I want to talk about Invest in Neighborhoods. It’s been a boon for the neighborhood. It’s been very helpful. In fact, we’re going to launch an arts program called Second Sundays, and we’re going to have various restaurants and cafes host live music every Sunday, and the merchants are going wild. They’re going to get actual permits now for entertainment, and the OAA is going to do all of the marketing. So, without that support and funding, we wouldn’t be able to do something like that.
Ed Lee: Then you’ll see me there on Saturday. I’m walking Ocean Avenue with Supervisor Yee, and we’re going to celebrate the return of some of the merchants after that fire. But we’re also trying to make sure the little library area and the cove gets attention, because we want to build a new garden there for the neighborhood.
Ocean Avenue has changed, but I think it’s for the better. It’s a lot more lively now, there’s a lot of activity, day and night. I live not too far from there. So I’m always shopping at the Walgreens, and the Whole Foods now and some of the coffee places. So I get a good sense there’s a lot of good vibrancy going on there.
Alexander Mullaney: Something that’s interesting is the connection between Ocean Avenue and the Excelsior—which is the BART Station. This is one of the questions I submitted. The centerpiece the Planning Department designed for the Balboa Park Station Area Plan was to deck the freeway. Then they came back last year and told the Community Advisory Committee, essentially, “We can’t do it now.” Mostly because of Caltrans, which is kind of like the boogeyman in the area. None of the agencies want to do projects that involve Caltrans … because they might build a bridge for you. Do you have any ideas what’s going to happen? What could happen?
Ed Lee: I loved the idea of decking it. I saw those pictures. I thought that was incredibly innovative of some people to conceptually bridge even more and then use that top for open space and things of that nature. I’m not sure I accept just because Caltrans has their bureaucratic view that we can’t do it. But it’s incredibly expensive, I know that. We’d have to have a lot of federal dollars invested in it. Maybe that will keep that close because I’m going to raise it time and time again to see whether or not, because it’s a very, very good project for all of us to unite around.
Having said that, the reality is that so far, they said, “No.” What are we going to do to make that place a little easier. Right now, I think we’re focused on the Upper Yard and trying to fix that. There’s some development there. It gives us an opportunity to redesign the street and that intersection a little better. I go through that intersection. You know what I do now? I avoid it. I go down one street earlier so I can get to San Jose so I can just not get into that mess. So you know I know that intersection. Everybody else is trying to cross left and right. I think the Upper Yard offers us an opportunity to redesign that intersection area. That’s what I’m committed to try and do so that all the different conflicts will have an easier time to happen.
Alexander Mullaney: I know, I’m impressed how fast the project has moved in the last couple months. It’s about time.
Ed Lee: It is complex, though. Building over BART isn’t easy. We invested some serious dollars into the budget to get that done.
Alexander Mullaney: There’s another movement to get underground utility lines going.
Ed Lee: You’re talking about the guy who led it last time, right? I overspent, and there was a reason why, I followed him into the future because I had to get these streets done. It’s $250,000 per block.
Alexander Mullaney: But they’ll say it’s a job creating program, and it’s safety and there’s
so many benefits.
Ed Lee: Supervisor Tang came in to plead with me about it and I said, “Are you studying it? Okay I’m willing to study with you. I’m not so sure you’re going to come up with anything other than what I did as the city administrator to come up with the ideas.” But at the same time, if it’s that important to neighborhoods and our city, and we have an incredibly great economy, there can be a connection. We’re doing that with housing. We’re doing that with job creation. We’re doing that with all the other things, why not do it with something we think would really add more value to the city, that is enticing.
I suppose one could make the analogy that if we were able to get Google to wifi 30 parks, why not get some interaction in play with some utilities and see what they can do with us? Comcast comes to mind, AT&T, Verizon, these great companies that do have utilities and sometimes they’ve undergrounded in our city. Why can’t we create partnerships where they help us with that, along with the traditional PG&E and everybody else? I know I’m kind of the old cash register. We borrowed into the future to the tune of some $60 million so we don’t have anything left. That’s the picture, but that’s just the one dimension. I think we ought to be really creative, and if this rises to the level of importance that it is, we should have other entities that join in. If you’re living in those neighborhoods where you can benefit from it and you want to create an association with Comcast or something, maybe we can start that dialogue.
E-mail Alexander Mullaney at firstname.lastname@example.org.