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San Francisco Railyard Project Also Offers Housing Potential

Renewed efforts to develop the 20-acre Caltrain site has increased excitement surrounding the transformation of regional transit, but also the potential to develop housing or commercial buildings if Caltrain moves its railyards underground.

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

While the fenced-off land offers a chance to stitch two of the city's most dynamic neighborhoods together and accommodate thousands of new housing units, sporadic efforts to put forth a vision have in the past been stymied by the mind-bending complications involved in what is one of the Bay Area's most important public transit centers.

Among the questions have been: Could the Caltrain tracks be underground there 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 relocate its rail storage yards to a less dense area to the south in order 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 Subway, set to open in November?

While some of those questions were explored between 2013 and 2018 — there was a multi-agency study, a white paper by the urban think tank SPUR, and a community working group — planning around the site has been quiet in the last four years. Until now.

This week Caltrain and developer Prologis, which owns the 20-acre site, are working jointly with architects and engineers and other public agencies to complete a "business case study" that will lay out solutions for both the future of rail in San Francisco as well as potential development — likely a lot of housing — on whatever land is freed up by the reconfiguration of the station at Fourth and King streets and the railyards that stretch four blocks.

"I think everybody can agree that a chain link fence along multiple city blocks between neighborhoods, with trains idling and spewing diesel fuel, is probably not what everybody wants to see," said Genevieve Cadwalader, a vice president with Prologis. "So there is an opportunity to generate excitement about what (the site) could be for the neighborhood, for the city, for the region."

On Wednesday night the project will be reintroduced to the public with a virtual community meeting, according to Michelle Bouchard, Caltrain's acting executive director. In a statement, Bouchard said the transit agency is "proud to partner with Prologis to plan for a future railyard that includes 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 signature passenger experience and expanded access to transit," she said.

The potential redevelopment of the railyards is different from other big public-private mega-projects because the conversation will not be driven by the normal San Francisco fights around affordable housing or 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 whatever land can be made available for housing or commercial buildings will be entirely determined by what Caltrain decides to do as far as moving railyards, undergrounding tracks and extending its service downtown.

The fact that Caltrain and Prologis have entered into a agreement and are deep into a formal business case "brings the pre-planning and conceptual work into a more formal process that 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, a deputy director at the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

"It's a good time to reengage the public, and working with Prologis and Caltrain, to start thinking in broad strokes about land uses and densities," Lutenski said. "Of course it is all predicated on finding the right solution for the rail infrastructure."

While the 20-acre site comes with a mind-bending number of challenges and constraints, it also presents "an opportunity to build a new micro-neighborhood," according to Anne Taupier, director of development at San Francisco's Office of Economic & Workforce Development.

"The kickoff (community meeting) is a really important milestone — whenever we start to engage the public we learn a lot," said Taupier. "A lot of the work that has been happening to date has been in-the-weeds engineering work. A lot of that 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 in the future."

The decision to jump-start the public conversation around the development is timely because Caltrain is less than two years away from "electrification" — changing its system from diesel-hauled trains to electric. The new seven-car trains will be cleaner, faster and carry more passengers. They will also set the stage for California's high-speed rail network, which will run on the same tracks.

Mark Hansen, a senior vice president with Prologis, said "Our first priority is creating a modern transportation hub that works for the community."

He added: "It's happening. It has been talked around the edges for a long time. Now we are at a point where there's a lot of commitment from all the stakeholders that we've been working with and everybody is recognizing that now is a great time to actually make this happen."

Transbay Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Adam Van de Water said his agency is also working with Caltrain and Prologis. He said he is focused on "getting downtown extension into the basement of the Transbay Transit Center and eventually highspeed rail." But he said that a dense housing development on the railyard would help his cause as well.

"Transit-oriented development would drive mutual benefits in terms of ridership and financing," he said. "It's incredibly important, but of course the transportation has to work first."

The changes can't come fast enough for Bruce Agid, who looks out across the railyards from his condo at 300 Berry St. He served on the original committee looking at the railyards. He has been patiently waiting for electrification.

"We have a balcony, if you open the door and sit out there you hear the roar of the diesel engines from 4:30 in the morning to 12:30 at night," he said.

The potential to create housing, retail and open space on the railyards would make Mission Bay feel connected to SoMa, he said. As of now, he can look across the railyard to his neighbors at Fifth and Townsend. But in order to talk to them in person he has to schlep over to Fourth Street, cross the railyards, and then backtrack a block west.

"Sure, that is something you can do — but it doesn't do much for community," he said.

After a dozen years in Mission Bay — and many long meetings to discuss the future of the Caltrain site — he said that he tries not to get too excited about the prospect for change.

"It's really great that Prologis is making this push and working so closely with Caltrain," he said. "But we know it's a long way out. You have to temper people's expectations."



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