Supervisors Hope To Acquire Pagoda Site For Subway, Not Condos

After hearing about plans for luxury condos to break ground this fall on the former Pagoda Theater site, District 3 Supervisor Julie Christensen issued a press release early Thursday morning announcing that she and District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener plan to push the city to buy the land instead, to house a future North Beach Central Subway station.

The Central Subway, which will open in 2019, will begin at Fourth and King streets and extend as far north as Chinatown, at Stockton and Washington streets. Many transit advocates want it extended even further north to Fisherman's Wharf, with stops there and in North Beach. However, a number of North Beach locals have opposed a subway stop in the neighborhood, saying it will jeopardize the character of the area.

Christensen has long been in favor of the extension and the construction of both additional stops. "Myself and others have been communicating with the owner of the property [Joel Campos] and his agents for a few months now," she said. "We’ve made it clear to them of our intention to talk more with them about acquisition. We’ve sort of been put off. I had heard a few months ago that the owner of the property was proceeding with plans toward construction."

"The owners are only going to believe we’re serious if we turn this into a formal process," she said. The first step will be to see if there’s any agreement on the value of the land, and what size of check the city would need to write to purchase it.

Photo: Rose Garrett/Hoodline

Christensen's statement came as a surprise to Campos'real estate broker Martin Kirkwood, who has insisted to us that Campos plans to build 19 luxury condos and a 4,700-square-foot restaurant on the site.

"I’ve met with Scott Wiener casually numerous times in the last two years," Kirkwood said, but they've never talked about the city buying the Pagoda site. "Not once has Scott Wiener approached Mr. Campos, myself, or members of the team to talk about purchase of this property ... Funny that they begin a traditional and social media campaign, instead of talking directly to the property owner and [the] people involved."

Christensen's response: "That's not true." She said she hasn't talked to Kirkwood, but she and Wiener have both talked to Campos and his agents. "They have been largely exploratory and informal conversations," she said. "What we’re doing now is making those more formal."

She also told us, "The site is important to me not only for an eventual subway entrance but for staging so we reduce the impact to the neighborhood. It would be helpful to be able to store equipment and to be able to manage the site from an off-street location."

"We have a lot of thumbnail, back-of-napkin calculations," Christensen said when asked how much money the city would need to purchase the site and which department would fund it. "We don’t know. That’s part of the process. The first thing is to find out how much money we're talking about." For their part, the SFMTA told us that their contract with Campos for using the space to remove Central Subway tunneling equipment has been finalized, and "the future of the site rests solely with the owner."

"What is it likely to cost us in the future if we have luxury condos on the Pagoda site and we don’t have that land available for staging?" Christensen asked. "I refuse to entertain the thought that Washington Square could be used for that purpose. I refuse to entertain that option. I just think this is a good bet."

"Chances are, it might cost us no more to buy the Pagoda site than it would cost to relocate the extraction," she added. "If that’s true, it would be crazy for us not to take this step to keep this option open.”

The former Pagoda Theater. (Photo: SFMTA/centralsubwayblog.com)

Kirkwood said other options along Columbus Avenue could be used for a subway stop, but Christensen said that couldn't happen without tear-downs. "I’d like to retain the North Beach character," she said.

Even if the city purchases the land, it doesn't yet have funding for the Central Subway extension. "We are on the wish list," Christensen said. "We know it ranks extremely competitively for federal funding." She said ridership on the T line would increase from a predicted 74,000 per day to 115,000 a day if stops were built in North Beach and the Wharf. That would benefit workers at the Wharf and drastically reduce congestion from tourists who might otherwise drive, she said.

She also noted that large, vacant spaces in North Beach are tough to come by. "We saw that when we tried to find land for a new North Beach library," she said. "The fact that we have this large vacant parcel is an opportunity."

When asked if the city would pursue eminent domain if it can't negotiate with Campos for the site, Christensen said, "At this preliminary stage, we’re going to take it one step at a time. I’m not yet concluding where this path will lead us. I only want to take this important formal step of officially engaging the property owner and letting him know of our official interest in the site. He’s certainly aware of my preference, and that of many of our neighbors."

We also asked if the condos could be a bargaining chip to drive the price up. "His intention to proceed seems to be in good faith," Christensen said. "I’m going to take him at his word."

Kirkwood questioned the timing of Wiener and Christensen's announcement. "It is campaign season," he said. "They’re both running for a seat. They need to say something to keep themselves in the media. Julie Christensen is running a very tight race, and Scott Wiener is trying to take a jump from local politics to regional politics, becoming a state senator."

When asked about what would happen if the city attempts to take the property by eminent domain, Kirkwood said, "I think it’s very irresponsible.  I think the city is so far away from reality in pursuing eminent domain. Studies have not been conducted. Taxpayer money has not been identified.”

"There’s a process, and it’s a long process to begin that. They would have to conduct studies. There’s so many things. They’re so far away from even talking about it. It’s so premature to even bring things up. We’re told we can start the project. Mr. Campos has paid his price. It’s almost as if no good deed goes unpunished."

Kirkwood also said the idea of an aboveground station is outdated. "These politicos have this fantasy of creating an aboveground station, when urban planners are building them underground. They don’t need a station; they just need a place of ingress and egress." He pointed to cities like Tokyo and Prague that build stations underground. "This idea of building something aboveground seems silly, and a waste of taxpayers' money," he added.

Some worry if the city buys the parcel, it'll sit vacant for another 15–20 years while the city vies for funding and goes through the long planning process. "The assumption is, we could find some reasonable interim uses that would activate the space and generate some income," Christensen said.

Even if the Pagoda parcel doesn't pan out, Christensen vowed to pursue the continuation of the subway line into North Beach and the Wharf. “We will not give up on the subway, regardless of the outcome of these negotiations," she said.

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Supervisors hope to acquire pagoda for subway