The Cow Palace—a longtime home for rodeos, livestock expos and even controversial gun shows—is now being considered for a whole new purpose: an RV and tiny home village for unsheltered people in San Francisco.
Supervisor Joel Engardio, who represents the Sunset District, pitched the idea in a June 4 blog post, saying he wants to convert untapped parking space at the Cow Palace into a place to provide “shelter, sanitation, and behavioral health services.” The proposal—which originated with Sup. Ahsha Safaí, whose district includes San Francisco's portion of the Cow Palace parking lot—comes as San Francisco is fighting a court order that bars the city from clearing street encampments as long as the number of unhoused people exceeds the number of available shelter beds.
“We can’t afford to wait,” Engardio told The Standard in an email. “Let’s take bold action and create the shelter we need for several thousand homeless people and make the injunction moot.”
San Francisco’s intractable homelessness crisis has dialed up the pressure on the city to build more housing. Under a state mandate, the city needs to build 82,000 new homes by 2031. Engardio’s proposal would be the latest installment of RV parking and tiny homes projects in San Francisco aimed at stemming the housing crisis.
However, details around the housing proposal are murky and a supervisor representing Daly City had criticized Engardio for spitballing the idea in his blog before reaching out to neighboring officials in San Mateo County. He noted that such a project would require state funding and collaboration across several agencies.
“It’s convenient to be a District 4 supervisor and then ship [homeless people] to Daly City,” Canepa said in a phone interview. “It’s not collaborative.”
Engardio later reached out to him to discuss the proposal further, Canepa confirmed to The Standard.
Engardio said his idea for the Cow Palace is still preliminary, but he plans to work with fellow Safaí to bring state officials into the fold. Other key players would include the Cow Palace’s board of directors and officials in San Mateo County, as the majority of the venue’s 15-acre parking lot sits on the other side of the county border.
However, he added that he was “more than willing” to meet with Engardio to explore putting housing at the Cow Palace.
Allison Keaney, CEO of the Cow Palace, said she had not been approached about any proposal of tiny homes or RV parking at the venue and declined to discuss whether a new housing village was viable. But this isn’t the first time the Cow Palace has been pitched for housing.
“There have been discussions around the development and the shift of property,” Keaney said.
San Francisco’s City Attorney’s Office, which is appealing the court order barring the clearing of homeless encampments, declined to comment on the feasibility of RV parking or tiny homes at Cow Palace.
Tiny homes projects have sprung up around San Francisco in recent years, and they’re intended to serve as temporary residences where formerly unhoused people can live as they obtain employment—and, in some cases, deal with substance abuse issues—before moving into permanent housing.
However, tiny homes can be costly to build in San Francisco and frequently face opposition from neighboring residents.
Safaí, whose district is next to Cow Palace, said he spoke with Engardio about the plan and supports it, along with expanding tiny homes across the city.
“We should be spreading these across San Francisco," Safaí said in a phone interview. "They have been a great success.”
Officials for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said they broadly support RV parking and tiny homes projects, and Mayor London Breed’s proposed budget would fund an existing Vehicle Triage Center at Candlestick Point to create roughly 600 new shelter beds.
Cow Palace opened in 1941, but its roots date back to 1915, when business leaders observed the popularity of the livestock exposition at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition that year. They resolved to build a permanent structure for such events, according to the Cow Palace’s website.
In 2019, state Sen. Scott Wiener introduced Senate Bill 281, which would have transferred authority over Cow Palace from the California Department of Food and Agriculture Division of Fairs and Expositions to a joint powers authority consisting of San Francisco, Daly City and San Mateo County. This regional group would have been charged with redeveloping the site into housing and commercial space, but the bill ultimately died.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also tried to sell the Cow Palace in 2009 along with other state-owned properties, including San Quentin State Penitentiary and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, to raise money for the cash-strapped state during the recession, but the proposal never went through.
Despite being in the early stages, Engardio remains hopeful about reinventing the space surrounding the Cow Palace.
“This is an idea that will require a lot of negotiation, and it's just the start of an idea,” Engardio said. “But it's worth trying.”
This post has been updated to reflect that the idea for housing at the Cow Palace originated with Sup. Ahsha Safaí, and includes additional comment from San Mateo County supervisor David Canepa.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at email@example.com