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Citing Van Ness, Geary Boulevard merchants wary of city’s transit plans

Crowds wait at a bus stop on Fillmore and Geary on Feb 15, 2022. | Camille Cohen

With the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project finally complete, the city’s transit agency is looking ahead—straight at the second phase of a Geary Boulevard project that’s already in motion.

Leaders at San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency say they’ve learned a lesson or two from the Van Ness boondoggle—and are already putting them to work, making projects happen faster, cheaper and with fewer impacts on local businesses. 

But some merchants on Geary Boulevard worry that like those on Van Ness, they’ll get left behind while the city focuses on speedy transit at the cost of parking for their customers. 

Alice Kim, who owns Joe’s Ice Cream between 18th and 19th Avenues with her husband Sean, said the couple plans to present the results of a survey they conducted that found more than 300 residents and local business owners oppose the current street design at a community advisory committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday night. They feel like their voices got lost in the public outreach for the project done last fall. 

“We really think they need to hear the local voice,” Kim said. 

The first phase of the Geary project was completed in late 2021, adding dedicated red bus lanes, pedestrian access platforms and other improvements along Geary and O’Farrell streets from Stanyan to Market. It was completed on budget and on schedule. Now, the second phase, currently in the planning process, would make similar upgrades in between 34th and Stanyan. 

“The plan on Geary was to basically duplicate Van Ness,” Jeffrey Tumlin, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s director, told The Standard in an April 1 interview. “And we’ve realized that we could deliver Geary in 1/10th of the time and get over 80% of the benefit and also deliver it at 1/10th of the budget.”

While outreach for the project was paused during the pandemic, SFMTA made temporary emergency fixes to the 38 Geary that painted in some of these red lanes and constructed temporary pedestrian platforms, in addition to traffic signal fixes. That project was approved to become permanent by the transit agency’s board in July 2021, paving the way for both projects to combine to create an extension of the side-running bus-only lanes all the way to the Outer Richmond. 

Once the project gets approval, anticipated for this summer, some construction could start immediately. The entirety of the project is expected to take around four years, including two years of design and two years of construction for an estimated $49 million, according to SFMTA. 

The faster timeline and cheaper sticker price are possible because the transit agency is planning to use side lane designs—so it won’t have to dig up and relocate aging sewer and water lines. 

Originally, the project was supposed to include center-running lanes similar to Van Ness. But the city found that it could get a similar reduction in travel time at a fraction of the cost and time if it switched to side lanes. Plus side-running lanes already built on the corridor were already proving effective, and feedback from a community survey from last fall found more than 60% of the 600 respondents support side lanes. 

But the major downside of a side-running plan is that it removes some parking, around one to two spots per city block, according to a March SFMTA presentation on the project. 

That’s the main concern raised by Kim, who said she and her neighbors are worried about the project’s plans to switch the angled parking spaces to parallel ones to make room for the bus lane—and that many parking spaces would be removed altogether. The extended metering hours, which SFMTA hopes will increase turnover of customers and make sure there are more open spaces, raise a red flag for Kim, too, because she thinks it will deter customers who can find free parking elsewhere. 

“We already don’t have enough business here,” Kim said. “[Customers] can all go easily to Clement, Balboa, Stockton and other places. They don’t have to come to Geary.”

The plight of Van Ness merchants and restaurateurs proved a cautionary tale for the Geary community, with business owners describing a dramatic drop in sales—and many businesses shuttered for good—as construction dragged on for years. Geary’s timeline should be much shorter, and the city is planning to change how it does construction to minimize effects on businesses. But before the project even breaks ground, Geary merchants want to make sure its design doesn’t set up the business corridor for failure.

According to the Kims’ survey, which they conducted from their business this spring, 95% of the 369 people surveyed opposed converting angled parking to parallel parking and 96% opposed extending metering hours. 

Marian Roth-Cramer, owner of Marian’s Dance Garden on Geary between 22nd and 23rd Avenues, has been on the advisory committee for the project since 2017. While she has some concerns about the project of her own, she said she was surprised to hear that some of the other businesses on the corridor didn’t feel involved in the survey process because of the amount of outreach work she’s seen the city do. Roth-Cramer said during the survey phase last fall, she went out personally to all the businesses in her area to make sure they filled it out. 

The city’s transit agency says it’s not only improved its communication with local businesses, but also how it executes on projects to minimize impacts to business. SFMTA points to its work with local businesses during the first phase of the Geary project as a success, and said it has made frequent and multi-channel communication with businesses and construction mitigation—strategies it learned during the Van Ness project—the norm for the future. 

Supervisor Connie Chan’s office, too, conducted a “corridor walk” last month, where SFMTA leaders and her staff met with business owners, church groups and educators to get feedback on the project, according to legislative aide Winston Parsons. 

Still, Kim said, it hasn’t been enough. To her, a redesign or even a delay to the project feel necessary as businesses recover from the already-devastating pandemic. 

“The loss from the pandemic hit us really hard, and it’s not like we can recover in just one year,” Kim said. “We are going to need more time.”