1731 Powell Street Site

The City isn’t about to lose a key Central Subway site to condos as the Examiner recently reported, for those plans were proposed and approved years ago.  Or as we reported in 2013:

“The demolition of the derelict North Beach Pagoda Theater is underway.

Once the theater is demolished, a shaft to extract the boring machines for San Francisco’s Central Subway project will be constructed upon the site which MUNI has leased for two years at $131,250 per month.

And once the machines are extracted and the shaft is closed, construction of The Palace at Washington Square, a five-story building with 18 dwelling units over a 4,700 square foot restaurant and parking for 27 cars, but no new North Beach Subway station, is slated to commence.”

What is news, however, is that Supervisor Julie Christensen is now pushing the City’s Real Estate Division to newly explore an acquisition of the site before the Palace project breaks ground.

Developer Joel Campos, who purchased the shuttered North Beach Pagoda Theater for around $4 million in 2004, has intimated that the 1731 Powell Street site is worth at least $10 million today.

Keep in mind that Campos was actually in contract to sell the building to a New York-based developer back in 2012, at which point the City likely could have acquired the site for significantly less and avoided paying Campos over $3 million in rent for the site over the past two years.

92 thoughts on “Supervisor Fanning North Beach Subway Site Flames”
  1. that subway makes NO sense without North Beach or Fisherman’s Wharf stations.
    Too bad they can’t construct the station and build condos about it..

    1. Don’t they do that in many other cities – with private buildings above transit stations? I would think most of the station could be beneath Washington Square, and this part could just serve as the exit elevator shaft / stairwells.

      1. Yup yup yup. Pretty much every downtown stop in Boston is in/under an office building; heck, there’s even a subway entrance in the side of the Old State House, which predates the revolution. (To be clear, that was not incredible foresight by the Puritans, but simply a retrofitting, LOL.)

        So yes a station entrance could easily be accommodated in a new condo building… I think the bigger problem is building the station itself, which is much easier and cheaper (order of magnitude?) if you can just dig down and build from the surface, instead of having to excavate and build entirely via underground access.

        1. Right. And fortunately here they could dig down, build the station, then put condos or whatever on top.

          Since that makes sense, it’s the one thing that we can guarantee won’t happen.

  2. It would be insane for the city to not purchase this. Although I also don’t see a reason why the station needs to take up such a large area. I’d think that you could build over the subway station? You see this in Europe a lot.

  3. I was in Singapore this year and they have malls, condos, and hotels built on top of their subway stations. Why are we so dense?

    1. And like London, Singapore partially funds subway extensions by owning the land they improve on…so they sell the rights back to Hotels for huge amounts to fund the billions that they spend. In other words…they recapture the added value a subway brings. SF…not so much.

  4. Campos bought the site for $4M in 2004 but he’ll ask for $10M for this site. I hope the city can buy this future subway station for a fair price. Julie Christensen is the best supervisor we can have. She is able to quickly identify this as a priority as a new supervisor.

  5. Not sure why this isn’t a no-brainer. The city should acquire the site, build out the underground T stop at the location and work with a developer(s) to develop multi-unit housing above it.

    1. Yes; assuming that the pent-up demand for S.F. housing continues (which it certainly should long-term, even if we hit a little downturn in a year or two), the City should even be able to “flip” the property for a profit – buy it now, build an underground station and station entrance, and then sell the now transit-adjacent site for future development. Win – win – win.

      1. This all implies that those that work for cities respond to incentives like private individuals

        The only time I see this happening is when you have a strong Mayor Daley type and/or some “city fathers” making rational decisions with less democracy. When you have what we have there is no such thing as win-win-wins

        Maybe I am just getting cynical though

        1. Daley? The original one or the most recent one?

          The more recent one basically helped bankrupt Chicago, which is fiscally as bad off as Detroit right now, despite a strong (downtown) economy.

    1. Eminent domain is a possibility, but that doesn’t allow the City to simply take the site.

      The City would have to offer fair market value, which is why the $10 million figure, or an unprecedented $500K+ per door, has been unofficially proffered.

    2. Under the U.S. Constitution, the use of eminent domain requires the payment of compensation for the property taken.

      The issue is not whether SF can seize the property, but rather what it would cost SF to do so.

      1. Also, to use eminent domain you would need to determine that there is, indeed, a compelling gov’t interest. Which means having a plan that says “we need to have a station here”. Which I don’t think, technically, we do, although folks have been trying to make that happen (and should!).

        1. It is rare that a court would say it is improper for government to seize property (occasionally, you have seen it in cases where private property is taken and then handed over to a private third-party and so there is not the requisite public use). I think you might be thinking of the narrowly tailored test for government regulation of speech, etc. Land-banking for a future subway extension would most likely be a sufficient reason to seize the property.

          I would doubt any dispute would turn on the legality of taking the property, but I could certainly see there being a disagreement over the fair market value price.

        2. There is no requirement for a “compelling government interest”; the government merely need to be taken the land for “public use”. Even that requirement has been watered down so much that governments have taken land for office parks and casinos being developed by private developers. In contrast, taking land for a subway station is entirely consistent with public use.

  6. The Central Subway is indeed a subway, but it’s being built with short platforms – two cars long – that will limit its future capacity to something more like a streetcar. Planners should be mindful of its built-in capacity constraints when planning land use, and future extensions; once the subway reaches capacity, any additional transit trips will rely on surface transit routes.

    I suggested to some folks working on plans for a northward extension that the City look at a route that continues through North Beach, and then turns west to run under Russian Hill to serve the Marina, and end at a transit center in the Presidio, where North Bay bus riders could transfer for a subway connection to downtown. I was told that, because of the two short platforms currently under construction, that the capacity of the whole line is insufficient to serve a longer corridor.

    1. that really sounds like BS someone was giving you. the current market street subway only utilizes two car trains, “unlike it did originally”. the only reason they got longer platforms was due to bart. in addition, who says that the people in Chinatown will actually use a platform that is around nine stories deep and a maze to transverse. personally, i think people will use a north beach and fisherman’s wharf station due to the distance from market street (union square). and don’t get me wrong, due to the TBM standards, i think the union square maze or design was completely wrong with poor connections to the current market street subway. yet, this all said, i believe people will utilize a deeper TBM subway when they have to transverse more than a couple of city blocks.

      1. All excellent points.

        To which I’d simply add, that even with “only” 2-car trains, presumably the Central Subway could be run with head spacing as tight as the Market Street underground, i.e., a 2-car train every couple minutes. That should be able to deal with capacity issues quite nicely.

        1. I can’t imagine that an elderly lady with two or more bags of groceries will descend into this subway. She’ll ride the 30, the 45 or the 8X.

          1. on the bright side the elderly Chinese will be able to get to their biomedical research jobs and to see Warriors games

  7. History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. London trod a similar path in the 1980s. Thatcher’s government planned (Thatcher’s government disbanded Greater London government, so the national government did what passed for metropolitan planning) a major new financial center at Canary Wharf in the London Docklands to accommodate the boom in the City’s finance industry after financial deregulation.

    Being Thatcherites, they were very keen on private commercial development, and a good deal less keen on public infrastructure provision, and in particular public transit. The plan was to build an automated light metro, called the Docklands Light Railway, to serve the new center. As soon as it was built it was realized that the two-car platforms were too short, and they were lengthened at considerable expense (DLR was elevated; had it been a subway, lengthening the platforms would have been considerably more complicated.) Plans to extend the Tube’s Jubilee line eastwards were dusted off, and the line extended in 1999.

    Unfortunately the parallels between London under Thatcher and present-day San Francisco don’t end there, but here’s hoping we can learn from their experience, and begin to plan land use and transportation in concert.

      1. Or maybe the point is that no matter what their stripe, governments have pressures/incentives that cause them to be poor at long-term planning.

  8. Shame this wasn’t included in the Central Subway Phase 2. About a year ago SFMTA published a Phase 3 study that includes a North Beach station and extension to the wharf (pdf at namelink). Costs are in the $500 million to $1 billion range, depending mostly on how much is subterranean. Very expensive project for an area that expects negligible growth, but the land cost is so small SF should buy it just to hold for a raining federal money day.

    An extension to the Wharf would make more sense if it was part of a loop back that ran under Van Ness to the 16th St BART and then along 16th St to the UCSF hospital and Warriors Arena. Better use of the Van Ness BRT money, IMO.

    1. @Jake, as for the loopback scenario, another option would be to connect to the E/F line at the wharf to loop back around on existing track running along the Embarcadero. That should be a really cheap (to implement) option. And money saved there could be spent at the T/E/F connection location to extend the E/F into the Marina.

      1. Sadly, the E/F are streetcar lines that don’t run on any given schedule. If we’re talking light rail, forget the E/F. Also, the loop under Van Ness makes total sense since BRT won’t make a dent in the travel time.

        1. @Mark, luckily for you, you’ve missed my rants on exactly what you said. The E *should* be light rail with real schedules and all the other bells and whistles – including rerouting it from terminating at CalTrain to the planned loop in Mission Bay as an extra line adding mass transit capacity to that location, and the F should be restricted to Market only.

          Well, I guess you’ve now heard my rant on the E line…

          1. Given the SRO conditions that I see on so many of the historic streetcars along Embarcadero, there certainly appears to be the demand / need for increased E service.

      2. Some of the alignments include a station at Kirland, fairly easy to connect with the waterfront. Marina is just much lower priority/ROI than running along Van Ness or about 20 other potential subway stops. For example, consider a subway station at the new hospital at Van Ness and Geary. It would off load a lot of auto and bus trips and be in place for an eventual Geary subway.

        1. @Jake, its funny you say that about the Marina since the Phase 4 plan is all about extending the T from the wharf to the Presidio either through the Marina or Cow Hollow. Then again, the Central Subway plan for phase 3 and 4 only looks at certain geographical locations, excluding Van Ness. Not that I disagree with you about something better than BRT on Van Ness…

          I made my “observation” prior to reading through the report. I guess I should work for SFMTA.

    2. Why does it need to be tied to growth per say? There seems to be a very large ridership if they extended and it improves the transit options for existing residents that rely on transit

      1. Growth is one factor in the ROI. It generates new taxes to help pay and causes increased trips which need to be handled. The existing transportation in that area is adequate, certainly better than many other neighborhoods, so hard to give it a higher priority, though NB and Wharf are historic/romantic/etc. and it just seems unconscionable to stop before getting there.

        The potential NB/Wharf ridership will never be as large as the potential along Folsom in SoMa or Van Ness, which are both increasing in density. FWIW, more than 40% of the people that live in NB either walk to work or work from home. And there aren’t a bunch of tall office buildings with commuters clogging the roads to get there. Anyway, no money, so fighting for pecking order hardly matters.

        1. one word: tourists. Key to our economy. Imagine conventioneers being able to travel quickly, on one line, from Moscone to the Wharf area… or from the Arena to the Wharf. And the benefit to north shore hotels, of being able to advertise quick and prompt service to Moscone.

          I think there’s a huge untapped market for transit in the NE corner of the city, that goes far beyond the current specifics of where residents there currently live and work.

          (Not to mention – while Muni may technically provide “adequate” service in North Beach… let’s be real, the bus service in N.B. and Telegraph Hill is slow and not user friendly; a direct underground line from the Wharf to N.B. to Union Square and beyond would be an amazing upgrade.)

          1. Sure, there would be more tourist trips to the Wharf if they could take a subway instead of the cable car. And it would be nice to be able to leave your convention at Moscone, get over to the Wharf or NB for an early diner and make your Warriors or Giants game. Uber has an app for that. Scales well too, until you try to get through the area with the really bad traffic, which is FiDi/SoMa/MB, not NB/Wharf or Marina or Presidio.

            FWIW, I suspect the Chinatown Station is partly the payoff for the lost tourist traffic after the Embarcadero Freeway was closed. And the only reason transit is adequate in NB is that it is so close to FiDi jobs and the Market St mega-transit that it hardly matters how well MUNI operates in between.

            These arguments are about priorities and choices for best return on limited $. All these issues of trips, travel times saved, funding resources available, geology, etc go into the decisions. Unfortunately, there’s not much Federal money, CA already delayed critical major infrastructure and has a whooping bond debt, and seems rather unlikely the Wharf hotels, restaurants, and tshirt shops are going get enough increase in business to foot the bill. So dream on, the SF waterfront has always welcomed dreamers. Or maybe Nancy P. can pull one more $$$ out of the DC hat.

          2. “partly”? LOL – if that’s not pretty much the *sole* reason for the Central Subway, I’ll eat my hat.

            Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that extending the T to N.B. and the Wharf is a top priority – but rather, give the obvious and available opportunity, we should act on it (at least as far as adding a N.B. station, if not further extending it right away). If we were starting from scratch, sure there are much bigger priorities (Geary subway, Van Ness subway [love your loop idea, it plays well with my own desire for an E/W connection along 16th from the Arena to BART to Dolores & then Castro], further undergrounding of N Judah [the surface streetcar is a romantic idyll, but let’s face it an underground N Judah would be far faster and hence more suited to user needs], a 2nd SoMa subway paralleling Market, a 2nd transbay tube, etc.).

            As for money – I suppose you state the current reality, but it’s a very frustrating and, in fact, idiotic reality. Interest rates are so low right now that we could build infrastructure today and pay it off 20 years from now at essentially the same price. I think a generation or two from now, people will be castigating today’s politicians for not taking advantage of these interest rates.

          3. A second Transbay tube is desperately needed, but it should not come into SF, it should go from Oakland to SSF or, best option IMO, to the SF airport area. So many commuters are using the BB to get to Peninsula jobs, someone posted 20%, this would provide a great answer to reducxing BB congestion.

            Another tube coming into SF and SOMA makes no sense. IMO.

          4. @Dave your consistent East Bay boosterism is to be admired; but the fact is that the current tube is at capacity, and a 2nd tube to the City is needed both to address continued increased in growth, and to allow late-night or all-night BART.

            Also we’ve got Caltrain and HSR coming to the Transbay Terminal (eventually), and if planners can get their long-term goals in order, it makes exquisite sense to have a heavy rail line as part of a 2nd tube to the City (so that, in some idyllic future, Caltrain and/or HSR can continue to Oakland and Berkeley and intersect with Amtrak, and/or Amtrak can actually come to the City instead of having to switch to motor busses for the last leg.

            Finally, I’ve yet to see traffic studies that show that a significant portion of the traffic on the Bay Bridge and in the BART tube are from people heading from the upper Peninsula to the mid- and southern East Bay… if that were the case, then the San Mateo bridge would regularly be gridlocked as much or more than the Bay Bridge. So in short, I’ve yet to see a demonstrable case that the demand is there for a 2nd tube as a southern crossing, as opposed to a 2nd tube to the FiDi/SoMa area.

          5. Since another transbay tube is so expensive and, hence far in the future, perhaps it would make sense to go ahead and build the BART loop on Geary out to 19th Ave then down to Daly City/Colma and worry about tying it into a new tube later?

          6. @Alberto: excellent point. There is a current need along Geary/19th Ave. While it takes 17 min to get from Daly City to Montgomery station via BART today, it takes nearly an hour to get from the Richmond to Montgomery/Market down Geary (not factoring in travel time on 19th Ave if that’s where you’re coming from). If BART is built along these two major corridors, the existing MUNI light rail system could be feeder lines into the new BART line with transfer stations at Stonestown (M), Taraval (L) and Irving/Judah (N).

          7. totally agree. and think the geary subway is way more important that the central subway to nowhere. most of that area is already walkable

            my wife takes the express California from 6th Ave and it takes her 48 minutes on the bus to get to 1 market.

            That’s 4 miles, or 12 minutes/mile and <5 mph. I could honestly speedwalk there faster.

            and 6th Ave is only halfway across the city. Its shameful that its faster to get from Oakland than from the Richmond.

          8. Yup – I live near Park Presidio in the Inner Richmond, and while I fare better than your wife (via the 31BX), it’s still 20 to 35 minutes, depending on traffic (and the inevitable Muni hiccups). Or I can go to Embarcadero and take the N-Judah, *and* walk all the way through Golden Gate park, in 30-35 minutes. Batshit crazy that the bus takes so long.

    3. Problem with all of this wishful thinking about new subway lines in SF is the bigger issue of the need for a single Bay Area transportation authority. Will it be inefficient? Sure but now we have multiple such authorities each equally inefficient and worsening the situation compared to what a single “inefficient” agency would do.

      I just learned, hearsay – a 90 year old neighbor, that SS streetcars used to run down the Peninsula. I’m going to have to check that out as I’ve never heard of it. But the concept, even if she dreamed it, makes sense.

      Posted on another thread the need for a single SF/Oakland airport authority. With the new BART tube, if build, connection both airports as well as Oakland and the mid-Peninsula.

      So, are you landing at SFO West or East?

      The fragmentation in critical public services, such as transportation, in the Bay Area will hurt it over time compared to other metro areas with single authorities spanning multiple counties. Portland had a single multi-county municipal transit system years ago. Decades ago. Not to mention other major cities/metro areas.

  9. Obtaining this lot is key for phase 3 of the Central Subway project. Keep in mind that, even if phase 3 gets this lot, the Wharf station will end up sharing tracks with the E/F lines at some point. There is a very, very, very big sewer line in the way when heading north under ground, so it isn’t a straight shot north, and the line will probably need to run in street car mode above ground for at least one stop.

    1. i am not sure about the whole sewer line argument. (?)
      you realize the TBM’s have already burrowed under the three level market street subway?
      i know there were some engineering challenges, but the whole TBM angle is for things
      like the sewer system. –think something major like the British channel.

  10. At some point within the next 10 years SF will reach a breaking point in terms of traffic and congestion and will be forced to create new subway and rail lines.

  11. 10 million is not so outrageous. The city should go for it.

    Consider the city is purchase a Mission site for 18.5 million for 72 units of affordable housing. That is equivalent to about 4.625 million for 18 units. This is 5.375 million premium, compares with 3 million for 2 years rent. With a site right on top of a future light rail station, frankly we should put even more housing over it, making the land cost even more justifiable.

    The city should have been decisive to purchase the land in the first place. But now is not too late.

  12. shift this money to a project on the west-side or south east side where we have numerous projects and lacking connectivity between the systems.

    the central subway takes away from other systems needed repairs and improvements….

    see save muni website…..

  13. To build the extension from union square to chinatown (only) makes no sense. If this does not go all the way to fisherman’s warf, it should stop at union square.

  14. Or dig up the park, right across the street, and put the station there. right? the city owns the land and the new units will add a little bit in property taxes.

    1. My thoughts exactly. Why buy real estate when the stop can be under the already-owned park? It would be like the St. James railway station in Hyde Park, Sydney.

      1. My guess is the neighbors have already been all over Christensen telling her NOT disrupt their park, even if construction was just temporary.

      1. Peskin opposes any change period. Some politicians pride themselves on getting things done. Peskin prides himself on blocking things.

  15. I question the need for the Central subway. The money could have been better spent on other transportation projects.

    But it is going forward and it’d be crazy to stop it a Union Square and not go all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.

    The City could exercise eminent domain here and possibly build BMR units above the station. Win/win.

    Why the MTC has not initiated eminent domain proceeding against the Hines property on Rincon Hill is beyond me. That is an equally critical sites that needs to first be devoted to transportation betterment. IMO.

  16. Even if the Pagoda parcel doesn’t pan out, Christensen vowed to pursue the continuation of the subway line into North Beach and the Wharf. “We will not give up on the subway, regardless of the outcome of these negotiations,” she said.

  17. … or close off the little-used half-block of Powell St next to the little separated corner of Wash Sq, convert it into a plaza that contains the station entrance. not sure what all is underneath the street there, but this seems like it would be a neighborhood amenity in addition to the new functionality.

  18. 1) just buy the **** site already. it’s not going to get any cheaper anytime soon. too bad it didn’t happen sooner, but thems the breaks. It’s way less than 1% of the total cost of the project, probably it could fit within the contingency reserve.

    2) zone it to allow a taller-than-normal building as was done in the transbay district, something not too outrageous but taller than nearby stuff. Then you can sell/rent for more money and make some money back. Make the developer build the first floor as station access, but have the station below ground. Sorry, no parking on-site either.

    3) you can still run a 3-car train to a 2-car platform. This happens in london for trains longer than the platform, the first and last doors are programmed not to open. yes it is Inconvenient and it would have made more sense to have allowed for a 3 or 4 car platform, but it is not a deal-breaker by any stretch to extending the line past there.

    1. Given your London example, you expect MUNI to be able to operate 3-car trains on 2-car platforms?

      It’s my understanding that MUNI will operate only 1-car trains on the T-line, similar to what they currently use on the K/T. Regardless, once the trains start running on the surface that’s where the inevitable delays start happening. Check Nextbus…3 min, no wait, 5 min, no wait, 8 min, no wait, Arriving, no wait, 10 min. There will never be a schedule, unlike BART.

  19. this is so stupid, the plans to expand (should money appaer from the gov’t etc) would not put a station there at all. this is stupid. spend money for a site they don’t need, just to look “busy.”

    1. They bought the site to remove the tunnel boring machines because in their eyes it made more economical sense to build two tunnels a half mile longer than needed and rent the Pagoda site than end it all in Chinatown and pull out the machine pieces in a shaft there.

  20. @Dave: have you ever ridden the 38 Geary…the bus line with one of the highest riderships east of the Mississippi River? Or the 28? Try it some time. You’ll quickly see the need for a subway.

    The problem with BART is that it acts more like a commuter rail system than an urban mass transit system.

  21. I was against the Central Subway, but now that it is being built it seems absurd not to extend it to Fisherman’s Wharf. But I’d say that should be the last subway construction San Francisco undertakes

    As for a subway on Geary: It would cost billions and billions and billions. The best we are going to be able to do there is the planned Bus Rapid Transit.

    Second Transbay Tube, massive Bart expansion = Pie in the sky dreaming.

    1. @Mark F.-this kind of 1950s thinking is what prevents the Bay Area from ever producing a real transit network and addressing traffic congestion and sprawl. You think traffic is bad now? Even LA has rethought its stance transit.

      The money spent on extending BART to SJ is costing billions and billions and billions. The money would be better spent on a line under Geary/19th Ave where there are hundreds of thousands of daily riders who need better transit.

      1. The amount of money BART has spent to expand out to farflung suburbs is amazing. How perverse that we’re building subways to enable sprawl. Take the ride out to Dublin sometime.

        1. Sprawl indeed. Just look at the current BART projects in progress. The Warm Springs/S Fremont station will be 5 miles from the current Fremont station (the Irvington infill is still up in the air) and consists of a huge megastation with an enormous parking structure. Heck, even the Caltrain stations are closer together than most BART stations and it’s considered a commuter rail line with fewer trains running on the line. Sometimes the fault rests on the transit agency. Perhaps if we had a single agency covering the entire Bay Area more sensible projects would be built.

  22. Muni is basically free for those backdoor riders whose command of english is magically limited – the subway will be harder to ride for free hence I doubt many will switch.

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