Ordinarily, this week's San Francisco Planning Commission meeting would feature all the passion and polemics that make land use politics in the city such a blood sport.
Housing advocates would line up to extol the virtues of building 1,100 housing units on the 17-acre Balboa Reservoir parking lot next to City College, a project that will be up for the first of several necessary approvals on Thursday.
Some residents from the Westwood Park and Sunnyside neighborhoods would testify that the development would overwhelm their low-density residential areas. City College professors and students would blast it as a giveaway of public land to profit-seeking builders. The developer would note that 50% of the project is affordable and that apartments will be set aside for faculty and staff from city college.
But with public meetings moved online because of the new coronavirus pandemic, the city's normally noisy community planning process, which can be exasperating and a model of a healthy democracy, has entered uncertain territory.
"People are confused about out how to participate," said Sue Hester, a land use attorney who has been attending Planning Commission meetings for 40 years. "What if you don't have a computer? You can't watch the commission. Can we have informed public comment? These are some big cases and deserve a full hearing with public participation."
On Thursday, the commission will hold its first remote meeting through video conferencing. Members of the public can submit their comments in writing to [email protected] The meetings will be streamed live on the city government website, www.sf.gov , where there will also be instructions on how to call in to comment.
The hearing is also significant because it is also the first hearing for the city's new planning director, Rich Hillis, who started March 12, right before the health emergency brought most of the city to a standstill.
Instead of sitting up next to the dais where the city's planning commission deliberates, Hillis will be at home monitoring the meeting as family life with three kids swirls around him. The commission meeting, which starts just after the lunch hour and often stretches until well after dinner, competes with the increased household duties that come with sheltering in place.
"Like most city staff, I'm working at the kitchen or dining room table," Hillis said. "My wife is a disaster service worker, so she is at Moscone (convention center). We have family breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's busy."
Still, Hillis said he expects "substantive discussion and comments from the public" at Thursday's meeting.
He said planning agendas during the health emergency will focus on keeping large housing and public infrastructure projects moving.
"We are trying to ease into this and be thoughtful about what we put on the agenda, really limiting it to critical infrastructure," Hillis said. "Especially housing and affordable housing."
Amy O'Hair, the Sunnyside representative on the Balboa Reservoir Community Advisory Committee, said she is scrambling to make sure neighbors can participate in the hearing. She said she is concerned that many residents don't have adequate internet access or technology skills.
"Some local residents have a sense that the constraints of the current crisis may give short shrift to public input," she said.
Corey Smith of the Housing Action Coalition said that he is optimistic that pro-density groups — who tend to be younger than slow-growth homeowners who often oppose tall buildings — will show up virtually to back the Balboa development.
"I think the pro-housing constituencies will be able to participate more than they would if they had to show up in person because you can advocate while sitting at your desk at home," Smith said.
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