A major SF rail yard project aims to transform public transit. Could it also bring more housing?

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Nearly a decade after the late Mayor Ed Lee floated the idea, Caltrain and owner Prologis are working with renewed vigor on a plan for one of San Francisco’s most alluring and convoluted development sites: the 20 acres of Caltrain rail yards that straddle South Market and Mission Bay.

While the gated land offers a chance to bring together two of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods and accommodate thousands of new homes, sporadic efforts to present a vision have in the past been thwarted by the mind-bending complications involved in this. which is one of the most important transit hubs in the Bay Area.

Among the questions posed are: Could the Caltrain tracks be underground as part of the downtown rail extension that will eventually bring both Caltrain and high-speed rail to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center? Could Caltrain move its rail tank yards to a less dense area to the south to free up land for housing and other public uses? What might a new Fourth and King Caltrain station look like and could it be connected to Muni’s central metro, which is due to open in November?

While some of these questions were explored between 2013 and 2018 – there was a multi-agency study, a white paper by urban think tank SPUR and a community working group – planning around the site has been quiet over the of the last four years. So far.

This week, Caltrain and developer Prologis, which owns the 20-acre site, are working with architects, engineers and other public agencies to complete a “case study” that will showcase solutions for the future of rail in San Francisco. as potential development – likely a lot of housing – on any land freed up by the reconfiguration of the Fourth and King Street train station and rail yards that span four blocks.

“I think everyone can agree that a chain-link fence along several blocks between neighborhoods, with trains idling and spewing diesel fuel, is probably not what everyone wants to see. “, said Geneviève Cadwalader, vice-president of Prologis. “So there’s an opportunity to generate excitement about what (the site) could be for the neighborhood, for the city, for the region.”

The trains are seen at Caltrain yard at 4th and King in San Francisco.

Felix Uribe, freelancer / Special for The Chronicle

On Wednesday evening, the project will be reintroduced to the public with a virtual community meeting, according to Michelle Bouchard, Caltrain’s interim executive director. In a statement, Bouchard said the transit agency is “proud to partner with Prologis to plan a future rail yard that includes a mixed-use development fully integrated with transit.

“We look forward to hearing from our neighbors and community partners and working together to potentially deliver a community asset that provides a unique passenger experience and expanded access to public transit,” she said.

The potential rail yard redevelopment is different from other major public-private megaprojects because the conversation won’t be guided by San Francisco’s normal fights over affordable housing, building heights, or open space. It will be shaped by the question of what best serves the future of Caltrain and high-speed rail. The size and location of any land that may be made available for housing or commercial buildings will be entirely determined by what Caltrain decides to do with respect to moving the yards, burying the tracks and extension of its service to the city centre.

The fact that Caltrain and Prologis have reached an agreement and are deeply embedded in a formal business case “brings the pre-planning and design work into a more formal process which we hope will result in a viable layout for Caltrain.” and what can be built in and around and on top of Caltrain,” said Leigh Lutenski, deputy director of the San Francisco Office of Labor and Economic Development.

“Now is a good time to re-engage the public and work with Prologis and Caltrain, to start thinking about broad strokes about land uses and densities,” Lutenski said. “Of course, it’s all about finding the right solution for the rail infrastructure.”

While the 20-acre site presents a mind-boggling array of challenges and constraints, it also presents “an opportunity to build a new micro-neighbourhood,” according to Anne Taupier, director of development at the Office of Economic Development and Workforce. work of San Francisco. .

“The kick-off (community meeting) is a really big step – every time we start engaging the audience, we learn a lot,” Taupier said. “Much of the work that has happened so far has been engineering work in the weeds. Much of this work has already been done. This is a big project and an exciting opportunity. being able to modernize rail is going to be so critical to San Francisco going forward.

The move to reignite the public conversation around the development is timely as Caltrain is less than two years away from ‘electrification’ – changing its train system from diesel to electric. The new seven-car trains will be cleaner, faster and carry more passengers. They will also prepare the ground for California’s high-speed rail network, which will run on the same tracks.

Caltrian's 4th and King Yard and Station in San Francisco will finally be developed after some delays.

Caltrian’s 4th and King Yard and Station in San Francisco will finally be developed after some delays.

Felix Uribe, freelancer / Special for The Chronicle

Mark Hansen, Senior Vice President at Prologis, said: “Our first priority is to create a modern transportation hub that works for the community.

He added: “It is happening. We talked about it on the edges for a long time. We are now at a point where there is a lot of commitment from all the stakeholders we have worked with and everyone recognizes that this is the perfect time for this to happen.

Transbay Joint Powers Authority executive director Adam Van de Water said his agency was also working with Caltrain and Prologis. He said he was focusing on “the downtown expansion into the basement of the Transbay Transit Center and possibly high-speed rail.” But he said dense residential development on the rail yard would also help his cause.

“Transit-oriented development would result in mutual benefits in terms of ridership and funding,” he said. “It’s hugely important, but of course the transport has to work first.”

Change can’t come fast enough for Bruce Agid, who overlooks the rail yards from his condo at 300 Berry St. He served on the original committee to review the rail yards. He is patiently waiting for electrification.

“We have a balcony, if you open the door and sit there you hear the roar of diesel engines from 4:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.,” he said.

The potential for housing, retail and open space on rail yards would make Mission Bay feel connected to SoMa, he said. From now on, he can look across the yard to his neighbors Fifth and Townsend. But to speak to them in person, he must head to Fourth Street, pass through the railroad yards, then backtrack one block west.

“Of course it’s something you can do – but it doesn’t do much for the community,” he said.

After a dozen years at Mission Bay — and many long meetings to discuss the future of the Caltrain site — he said he’s trying not to get too excited about change.

“It’s really great that Prologis is making this effort and working so closely with Caltrain,” he said. “But we know it’s a long way to go. You have to temper people’s expectations.

JK Dineen is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sfjkdineen

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