Slow Crime Wave – Selling MUNI property to developers – Case Study: The Upper Yard

John Entwistle reporting on August 24, 2016 from the Balboa Park neighborhood of San Francisco.

Update January 8, 2019: Details change continuously but the plan stays in place. The latest “Draft Capitol Plan, Fiscal Years 2020 through 2029” explains that the Mayors Office of Housing & Community Development is now in charge of the development of the Upper Yard. The plan remains the same: Taxpayers pay to convert a transportation facility owned by the public into a privately owned publicly subsidized housing complex run by City Hall Cronies. Here is the latest:


Original Post: When those sanctimonious administrators at MUNI say that some set of tracks or infrastructure is necessary to the operation of the railroad I think about the Upper Yard out by Balboa Park Station. That little yard was a real workhorse for the MUNI system. I used see that yard on my way to City College, the trains raised to head level across San Jose Avenue facing that giant old brick building that used to be part of the Geneva Yard, later renamed for Cameron Beach.

The Upper Yard at San Jose Avenue & Geneva back in 1997. Photographer: Jon Bell.
Light Rail Storage and Maintenance
In order to meet significant population and employment growth and to limit auto use, the SFMTA needs to increase light rail service, and accordingly storage and maintenance facilities. The SFMTA is planning a major light rail extension, the Central Subway, and increased service on existing lines, which will require a major fleet increase. The Green Yard (northwest of the Geneva/San Jose intersection) has insufficient space to accommodate future forecast needs for light rail. The Geneva Yard (southeast of the Geneva/San Jose intersection) can accommodate the daily historic streetcar needs, but not the special service fleet or the inactive streetcars in need of repair.
The Upper Yard is a satellite LRV storage facility southwest of the Geneva/San Jose intersection. It has until recently been used for overnight LRV storage and for staging M-line pullouts that do not need to travel through the Geneva/San Jose intersection during the peak hours. It will be critical to help absorb the needs when tracks are replaced in the Green Yard. It also provides operational flexibility of increasing importance as the fleet grows. — The Balboa Park Station Capacity and Conceptual Engineering Study, (2011).
Upper Yard back in 2001 with Balboa Park BART Station in background.
The Upper Yard in 2001. Note the red brick MUNI building on the corner of San Jose  and Geneva in the background to the right.

As you can see this was a working rail yard. This area had been just another street with small lots but in 1942 the Department of War consolidated those lots and when the war was over the Market Street Railroad ended up creating the train yard there. MUNI bought the Market Street Railroad and in the 1970’s expanded and built the Green Yard and the Geneva Yard as part of the BART/MUNI construction of that time.

Two illustrations serve to visually guide one through the past 80 years of history on this site. First we see the place back in 1940, before the roads took over. The next shot is more recent and demonstrates what has happened. Road space has replaced the rail assets and the highway was built creating a huge rip in the fabric of that area.

In this model the main road is Ocean Avenue. Geneva Avenue does not go all the way through. The Upper Yard is covered and massively interconnected to the North, East and South. San Jose & Ocean Avenues have great tracks.
Here we see the same area today zoomed in a bit closer (losing Ocean Ave). The covered part of the Upper yard has become a roadway. The rest of the Upper Yard is a parking lot. Geneva Avenue has been built up into a huge surface road and the Southern Freeway dominates the area.
Transit-Oriented Development and Asset Development
As discussed in Chapter 5, SFMTA is committed to pursuing Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), including strategic use of its own property assets. This could involve use of SFMTA properties to increase transit ridership, promote sustainable development, and provide income to SFMTA. — Short Range Transit Plan, SFMTA, Oct 2, 2007.

Now let’s jump to the 2000’s. The Era of Willie Brown & Gavin Newsom and the evolution of San Francisco’s new mobility manager, the SFMTA. Real estate is the mania of the day and developers are looking for more land to build on. The 6,000 or so acres owned by the county is starting to look pretty good. And it turns out that our $12 billion dollar MUNI system has a bunch of properties out by Balboa Park that are located along transit routes. This makes sense since those properties are things critical to public transit systems like bus depots, train yards and mechanical engineering building shops.

SFMTA owns a significant amount of land in the Balboa Park area, including the Green Yard, Geneva Yard, and the Upper Yard. In 2004 SFMTA transferred the Geneva Office Building to the Recreation and Park Department for development as a community facility. When Metro East relieves some of the pressure on the Green Division, SFMTA will have an opportunity to reexamine the operation and efficiency of these pieces of real estate, and evaluate whether a joint development project can be contemplated. SFMTA would also have to make some decisions about Muni’s current and future need for the Upper Yard, service plans for the rail and bus lines through this area, and how to store, maintain, and dispatch a growing fleet of historic vehicles. — DRAFT FY 2008 SRTP for Public Review, (Oct 2, 2007)
[Click here to read the CEQA declaration and documentation of the Geneva Office Building. It’s informative and has nice maps and pictures. Sf Planning department document.]

Thus our local version of transit oriented development: converting transit infrastructure into housing developments. The first example of this was a long term rental, the Vitale Hotel downtown on the Embarcadero on the site of a bus lot. That project was very successful and followed the tradition of renting the land to the developer which ensures a long term income to MUNI. Interestingly this was abandoned subsequently and sales outright is the new normal. A one time payout for MUNI (Chump change) and that’s it.

Back to Balboa Park. The Phelan Loop, that bus turn off and passenger loading area by City College and the fire station beside the reservoir hit the block first. This site of approximately 1.4 acres at Ocean and Phelan Avenues served as the off-street terminal for the Muni’s 49-Van Ness/Mission trolley coach route and the 9X motor coach route. Three other bus routes, plus the K-line streetcar, stop adjacent to this property, on either Ocean or Phelan.UpperYard-RestoSellPhelanLoop

From: SF Board of Supervisors, Land Use & Economic Development, May 24, 2011.

UpperYardPhelanLoopOutcomeSource: Golden Bear Partners Proposal, May 16, 2012.

But that wasn’t enough. Lustily, they eyed the three train yards: Green, Cam Beach, & the Upper Yard. Plotting and pondering they tried to find ways to develop those lots but the costs of the work was too high for the low real estate values of that area. And the yards were all needed for transit, of all things. If we could just move these damned trains somewhere else we could generate some income here, but alas, our hero’s were stuck.

And that’s when the SFMTA employee parking stepped up to the plate. You see, MUNI has been hiring people for decades and has thousands of employees and they don’t take MUNI to work. They drive and they need parking at work. That’s why there is a big parking lot under the Green Division Maintenance Building across the street from Balboa Park and that is why you see cars parked all over the MUNI yards during the daytime when the operators are driving buses and streetcars around the city.

Inside the Green Division underground parking lot. (At night.)
Green Division & Geneva Yard
Located diagonally from each other, Green Division and Geneva Yard share some parking facilities. The site superintendents estimate that 90 percent of employees drive to work at Green and Geneva, while a few use the adjacent BART station. RPP area “V” starts just south of these facilities. Green is located along San Jose Avenue, on the north side of Ocean Avenue. The 7-acre site is a full-service light rail vehicle facility.
Green has about 500 total employees. It is estimated that about 15 percent of operations employees at Green park on-street. Within Green Division’s garage, there are about 75 dedicated parking spaces. There are typically about 10 personal vehicles parked in the Green yard, including four reserved for management.
Across the street, Geneva Yard is Muni’s primary facility for historic street cars, providing storage and maintenance for up to 50 cars, as well as a paint/body shop for light rail vehicles (LRVs) and historic cars. At Geneva, there is some parking from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. While construction currently limits parking space more than normal, there eventually will be about 30 parking spaces at Geneva.
In between the two facilities is a light rail vehicle parking area that is used for employee parking between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. when the rail vehicles are in service. Vehicles enter and exit from San Jose Avenue. The upper yard can hold up to about 60 personal vehicles which must display an SFMTA placard to park there. Violators are ticketed. The Green placard works at the Metro East facility because operators sometimes cover shifts at other locations or may transfer to a different facility. — SFMTA Employee Parking Proposal, July 22, 2010.

So when the SFMTA managers decided to store some items (never described in detail) in the Green Division Garage it caused a serious crises for workers used to parking there. SFMTA used this to justify allowing an employee parking program to be set up in the Upper Yard annex which immediately made it harder to use that yard for it’s original purpose as parking pressure mounted. For several years there was an uneasy tension between parking and LRV storage/staging.UpperYardParking-PhaseOne

Above pictures from SFMTA Employee Parking Proposal, July 22, 2010.

So far, so good, but keep in mind that this particular little train yard has a hit out on it. As a functioning train yard it is essential to the delivery of MUNI service. But if it were nothing more than a parking lot there would be no defending it from the developers. At this point we are halfway there by manufacturing the parking crisis to get the private cars into the train yard. Now we need just one more crisis to kick the trains out once and for all time to come. And, as we shall see, that came almost immediately, glory be to the almighty!!


Source for layout diagram from above, click here.

Upper Yard Storage Operations
The Upper Yard is currently used for employee parking and is equipped to store excess LRVs at night so that yard movements in the Green Yard can be more efficient. It can also be used for morning pull-outs of the M Line to avoid sending multiple cars across the very busy intersection of Geneva Avenue and San Jose Avenue. These problems could be mitigated by using the excess storage available in the Geneva Yard, as mentioned earlier. The Upper Yard provides no additional maintenance capabilities. It is only used for LRV storage and employee parking. It should be noted that the Upper Yard is not currently being used to store LRVs, as the switch tongue for the yard was moved to Church & Duboce for urgent repair. Once the Green Yard re-rail starts, however, the Upper Yard will again be used for LRV storage. In the future, the Upper Yard is anticipated to store LRVs or HSCs until additional storage capacity is available elsewhere. — Balboa Park Station Capacity and Conceptual Engineering Study, November 7, 2011.

Cutting the tracks to the Upper Yard.

Let’s stay with that point about removing the switch tongue for the Upper Yard for a moment. This was a major act of sabotage that essentially converted a $30 million dollar (replacement cost estimate) MUNI asset into a blighted parking lot. Lets walk out into San Jose Avenue (late at night so we don’t get run over!) and take a good look at those tracks as I did a few weeks ago with my hound dog. Our picture series starts on the M-line track headed North on San Jose (which becomes the J-Church inbound track when it crosses Geneva in about a hundred yards). The Upper Yard is dead ahead to the left. Oops…
This is a lot more than a missing switch tongue. This is a complete removal of an entire switching option.


These rails are filled in flush to the pavement with some sort of concrete type material to disable the tongue in this switch entering the yard.vlcsnap-2016-07-01-00h46m55s572


That thing in the center is the tongue. They removed the entire switch from the main track and filled the yard switch with stone. Everything they won’t do on 17th St.
So, we’ve done the deed and the train yard is left to languish. Storing construction equipment and keeping the place dark are nice touches. Think blight!!
Next we cue up the local “housing activists,” a particularly self interested group of very well funded San Francisco AstroTurf specialists who can play the race card, the disability card, and the poverty cards like its a marked deck. Which it is, by the way.
Next MUNI & the SFCTA fund (Your Prop. K sales tax at work!) a whole slew of “studies” that all conclude that MUNI doesn’t need this train yard and that selling the entire parcel for pennies on the dollar to a specific developer (like “Golden Bear Partners” for example) and then paying them to build a gigantic rental complex is the best possible use for this land. UpperYardBestPlanSource: SFMTA Real Estate & Facilities Vision Report Appendixes, Jan 2013.
Now MUNI’s Real Estate Division kicks in with great drawings of small structures with pretty round roofs suggestive of something in scale with the neighborhood around it. Renderings are put out and public support grows. The drawings show trees and plaza’s and it all looks innocuous. What’s not to like about Transit Oriented Development for people who aren’t rich? Hell, the Mayor’s office will even kick in a hundred grand or two per unit just to help the poor developer recoup his investment. We’re pro-housing, right?!?UntitledUpperYardSFMTAProposedDevelSource: Balboa Park Station Capacity & Conceptual Engineering Study, October 2012.
UpperYardYellowLineSource: BART, June 2016.
UpperYardSaleResolutionSource: SFMTA
And note that they say Sale, not rent. Wow!!
As mentioned above, Golden Bear Partners was listed as the developer of choice for the Upper Yard project. That does not mean this is a done deal. I wouldn’t dare go that far. But I think their proposal is amazingly revealing and is definitely similar to whatever outcome will eventually grace this lovely old MUNI train yard. Let’s see what these fine folks have in mind.

And what do you think they are proposing to pay MUNI for the land to build this huge complex of over a hundred rental units?UpperYardGoldenBearPriceSource: Golden Bear Partners, May 16, 2012.

UpperYardMOHFundingSource: Golden Bear Partners, May 16, 2012. (These guys are brilliant at what they do and I urge you to read their proposal. Well written, good history.)

So there you have it. From vital train yard to rental housing above a garage with air pollution soaked courtyards. Throw in a bus loop and half a muni yard (Geneva, across San Jose Avenue) and you have sold off a good part of our municipal transit systems property holdings in Balboa Park. Is this income significantly helping MUNI? No.

Is this an isolated situation, just one area and a few facilities? No. This is the new face of the SFMTA. They want to sell off numerous well located properties despite the fact that these strategic locations and holdings are important to public transit in San Francisco, both now and into the future. This will have a lasting effect for generations to come. Are we to store MUNI trains and buses in San Mateo? How will they get to and from their service areas?

And just to tie this into the tracks on 17th Street that we want removed. MUNI is stonewalling us when we ask why they can’t just use the Duboce Street tracks for those trains they want to run on 17th Street. Can anyone read these documents and then stand in front of that huge space at One Buchanan directly under the Old Mint and say that MUNI wouldn’t like to sell that off?

Maybe it’s my background in real estate but I would not believe such a claim without irrefutable proof. Not in today’s climate. If they would do it in Balboa Park you can bet they would do it on Market Street. And SFMTA has already stated that they want to dump the huge sites North of Market like the one by Laurel Heights  and the one near Fisherman’s Wharf as well as several others.

I will leave you with the final suggestion that our 8 MPH transit provider should work on their core mission and stop trying to sell the yards to developers. I got a better idea. Paint some crosswalks over here in the Castro by Mission High School and Dolores Park. People are dying on the streets of San Francisco while these SFMTA clowns  and SFCTA hacks are spending millions of our sales tax and other transit dollars on real estate shenanigans.vlcsnap-2016-08-31-13h13m41s990

‘Nuff said…

Why do we care? Because this mother and her kids were maimed by the MUNI tracks on 17th Street on May 19, 2016 and those heartless car obsessed bastards at the SFMTA refuse to rip out their unneeded tracks or create a safe bike path to prevent that from happening again. These people need to be arrested, prosecuted & sent to jail for rehabilitation.


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