A Structural Engineer’s Outlook on Building in SF

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Rodrigo Santos is a co-founder of Santos and Urrutia structural engineers at 2451 Harrison Street. He came to the United States from Ecuador to study engineering and soon earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil Engineering from Stanford University.

He offered me a structural engineering view on the Mission.

Mission Local: You mentioned that the Mission is part of a national trend reversing the exodus from the cities that was created by the interstates and the golden age of the automobile.

Rodrigo Santos: It is curious that at the time following WWII we were decentralizing cities at home while the Marshall Plan was helping rebuild core cities with high density in Europe. Now we have decided to trade highways for elevators.

ML: Doing any kind of structural work in the city can be complicated and time-consuming. Can you talk about that?

SANTOS: The Mission District has the typical San Francisco block layout. Almost every structure has one or two walls that are positioned against that of a neighbor. Something as simple and non-controversial as replacing a brick foundation with reinforced concrete will involve a complex and time-consuming process. The engineering is straight forward. We live in a seismic area and much of the Mission lies on sandy soil and many of the houses were built before 1950. Building in the Mission calls for a standard and well-proven matrix of engineering, techniques and materials.

The challenges appear when the excavation to fix your foundation exposes the neighbor’s foundation. From an engineering standpoint this is well known territory. The work can be done very safely. Naturally, neighbors have the right to appeal the permits. The judgements relative to those appeals may be appealed. Once all the neighbors are on board the work must pass engineering, historical and environmental reviews before work can commence. The study may even include things as seemingly obscure as researching previous owners, as they may lend historical significance to an architecturally mundane property. San Francisco’s detailed, complex permitting process is necessary because it makes for a safe and historically respectful city. Proper planning, permitting, construction and inspection takes time and ads expense to even the simplest project.

ML: Santos sees one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the city not in building but in education and the threat of closing the City College of San Francisco (CCSF).

SANTOS: San Francisco has the most PhDs per capita than any city in the world, but, advanced degrees don’t make a sustainable city. A better-educated general population is essential for the long-term economic progress in the city. Some of my best employees attended City College and have then gone on to the University of California system. I have been so impressed by the level of commitment each of them had. Fortunately, the high schools in the city including Mission High have improved dramatically. City College provides an affordable path to prosperity. Great public education and in particular City College is important to the Latino population. Loosing CCSF accreditation would literally take out the path to becoming a “have”. Great education is critical to a sustainable city.

ML: When we asked Santos about housing he talked about the challenges and the time it takes. He pointed to the long development process of the New Mission Theater property.

SANTOS: The property was the home for a cinema that closed in 1993. Next door was the Giant Value discount store. City College of San Francisco wanted to develop its Mission Campus on the site and began the approval process in 1998. The old theater could be rebuilt to house, in part, City College’s performing arts program. The project met resistance from many different factions. Appeal after appeal finally caused City College to abandon the New Mission Theater site in favor of its current location on Valencia. In the wake of the process were two companies in bankruptcy and the property remained unused. The current development had the patience and flexibility to weather the storm of objection and has begun construction. Giant Value will become residential property and the New Mission Theater’s interior will be modified to become a multi-screen venue. The construction crane at the site is the first in the Mission since the 1960s. The process has taken over a decade and a half and occupancy has not begun. The time span and related process from theater closure to concrete pour illustrates the time that is needed to move a project through to construction.

ML: Why with the housing crisis are there so many undeveloped or unused parcels throughout the Mission?

SANTOS: Every one of those locations is currently under consideration by many competing groups. In the next five years you will see new construction on all of those locations. In addition, the mayor is encouraging the permitting and expediting of mid-income housing for those earning between $40,000 and $70,000. This segment of dwellings is critical to a sustainable city. The property at 1950 Mission St., just north of the 16th St. BART Station, has been sold by the Unified School District and may provide such housing.

ML: Can you talk about the infrastructure for the 190,000 new residents that are expected in San Francisco over the next 24 years?

SANTOS: This means new gas, water, electricity, roads, mass transit and sewers in addition to maintaining the century-old infrastructure currently in place. Consider the requirements of the new Transbay Tower development at 415 Mission St. This will be the tallest building on the west coast. City planners, led by Mission resident John Rahaim believe this kind of selective density will make the city more efficient and actually boost its character. The Sierra Club endorsed the development because of its density and public transit-centric design. I ask you to take a second and imagine the amount of “stuff” that will be going into and coming out of that place, besides people. Infrastructure is no small task. Extrapolate that image to every place in the Mission where you see new construction. No wonder the roads are always torn up.

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49 Comments

  1. Mel

    Thanks for posting this piece. It’s great to hear this perspective on building in the Mission, and in San Francisco in general.

    • John

      It’s an interesting and important topic although I would have preferred more discussion of the actual engineering and less of his tangential forays into political issues like City College and affordable housing.

      Just the facts, man.

      • poor.ass.millionaire

        I completely agree. For instance: How much is it more expensive to engineer and build in the city compared to other parts of the Bay Area? How significant is the soft story mandatory retrofitting for small buildings? Can many of these buildings be brought up to code with inexpensive fixes like sheer walls and anchor bolts?

        • Good questions. We will see if we can get them answered for you. Best, Lydia

          • poor.ass.millionaire

            Thanks Lydia.

            I also think johns questions following mine are very good as well.

        • Great Idea John, What kind of things would you like to have Santos talk about? I’ll go back over there and if he is available write another “engineering” piece. What do you think?

          • John

            From the reader’s perspective, it’s hard to know whether Santos covered more of the engineering stuff but you chose to emphasize more his socio-political commentary. Or whether that was his emphasis and you faithfully reflected that. It reads as if you asked him questions about CCSF and affordable housing.

            Anyway, PAM’s questions above are excellent. I’d also be interested in how the structural engineering issues vary across the city and even within the Mission. For instance the issues on a hill are quite different from being in the flatlands. And again where creeks and lakes have been infilled.

            In what circumstances are partial brick foundations actually adequate? What about brick chimneys?

            Is the common practice of putting garages under buildings prudent given that creates a large unsupported space?

            Aside from seismic issues, what are the biggest potential fail points of traditional SF construction?

            And what does he think is the maximum height that wood should be used for construction? I believe the city doesn’t allow more than five floors using wood and, even then, sprinklers are required – a prohibitive expense for many landlords.

          • John

            Oh, and one other question. There is a fashion for putting in huge wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling picture windows in new construction and rehabs.. These drastically reduce the width of the shear walls, which in my view compromise structural integrity.

            Does Santos think this practice is risky? And what changes to building codes does he anticipate if we have a major quake?

  2. landline

    I had forgotten the CCSF process for choosing its new Mission location. Too bad it couldn’t have built its wonderful addition to the neighborhood on Mission Street rather than on Valencia Street.

    Instead, we are getting the gentrifying monstrosity that is currently under construction.

    • John

      That project may be moot anyway, since CCSF has entered a death spiral of its own making.

      • two beers

        No, CCSF, hasn’t entered a spiral of its own-making. This highly-regarded institution (ask UC Berkeley Admissions) stepped on the toes of an arrogant and out-of-control private accreditation agency, and the accreditation agency is acting in vengeance.

        Unlike any other educational system in the country, CCSF had some financial and managerial issues, all of which are or have been addressed, but no one — not even the ACCJC — has questioned the quality of CCSF education. The accreditation itself has explicitly violated the US Dept of Ed guidelines for operation, and is the actual body in a death spiral..

        Please stick your elitist, rightwing, anti-government/anti-public institution prejudice where the sun don’t shine.

        I look forward to a re-interview with Mr Santos on the fascinating and exciting subject of flatland structural engineering solutions to partial brick foundations,

        • John

          I’d expect you to deliver that kneejerk response but the reality is that it doesn’t matter. Student enrollments are way down because of the well-known and much-publicized failings of CCSF and it’s uncertain future. Momentum is no longer its friend.

          So even if your highly selective interpretation of ACCJC turns out to not be total self-serving horsecrap, the death spiral will continue as fee-paying students vote with their feet and their wallets.

          I happen to think there is a role for a stripped down and liberalized community college, as I believe some parts of it are worth saving, if meaningful reforms and budgetary discipline are inplemented. We’ll see.

          • two beers

            Student enrollment is down because of bad publicity from elitist and racist creeps like you who get their jollies waging class war on the 99%.

          • John

            How is it “racist” to point out the problems of CCSF?

            This should be good.

            And bonus points if you can do so without resorting to cliches like “the one percent” or maudlin, sanctimonious utterances of political correctness.

          • two beers

            A high percentage of CCSF students are working class minorities.

            The .01% elite salute you for your unflagging efforts in the class war against workers, students, families, minorities and other bastions of maudlin political correctness!

          • John

            2beers, so your point is that if someone somewhere criticizes an institution frequented by non-whites, that their criticism is necessarily racist?

            By extension, if I enter a WholeFoods and see rats and roaches, reporting that health hazard is not racist?

            But if I enter a Mexican produce store, and see rats and roaches, then my reporting of that is clearly racist since “A high percentage of people who work and shop there are working class minorities.”

            What’s it like on your planet? You’ve been totally brainwashed by political correctness to the point where you cannot think clearly any more.

          • two beers

            The attacks against CCSF are bogus.They get traction with foot-soldiers like you, because it’s such a juicy target; it’s a threefer: you can smear public institutions, minorities, and the working class, all at the same time. It’s a freaking trifecta for your ilk.

            Like any institution, CCSF has some minor problems. Unlike any other institution, there is a campaign to destroy CCSF, using these minor problems as justification. The ACCJC attacks are ludicrous and hypocritical, and have nothing to do with the quality of education at CCSF. One of the supposed deficiencies for which the ACCJC wants to destroy CCSF is that CCSF spends TOO :LITTLE on administration and bureaucracy. Read that again, my little libertarian tool.

            But go ahead and echo those lies. Breathe deep of that invigorating racist air! ……aaaahhhhh!

          • John

            OK, 2Beers, so you cannot back up your wild allegation that criticizing CCSF is racist in nature.

            As I expected. I rest my case.

          • two beers

            I didn’t say what you’re saying I said. As expected, you’re lying.

            I __did__ call you racist; being racist, you couldn’t resist a chance to smear a public school with a large minority enrollment

            I wish you would rest your case, because it’s pretty damn tiresome.

          • John

            Caught in a lie by your own words, 2Beers. Your exact words were :

            “Student enrollment is down because of bad publicity from elitist and racist creeps”, clearly implying that criticism of CCSF was racially inspired.

            That allegation has been thwarted.

          • marcos

            The usage is ambiguous, “elitist and racist creeps” could be construed as”elitist creeps and racist creeps” i.e. some of the creeps might not be racist, just elitist.

          • John

            Nice try but no cigar, marcos. 2Beers later tried to defend his position by stating: “A high percentage of CCSF students are working class minorities.”

            The implication was clear. He was trying to use the random fact that students at CCSF are majority non-white to deflect any criticism of that institution on the basis that it was racially motivated.

            Whereas in fact CCSF flaw’s would be the same even if it was an all-white liberal arts college in the MidWest where, I feel sure, he was educated.

            The irony is that 2Beers is smarter and more educated than the other kneejerk liberals here, and is actually capable of genuine argument.

            Which just begs the question of why he so cheaply and quickly resorted to playing the “racist” card rather than debate rationally?

          • marcos

            You bear the white man’s burden with a dignified aplomb, John.

          • John

            Evidently you misunderstand that concept, marcos.

            My point was that intelligent debaters should not spuriously and gratuitously introduce race into every debate because they think the other participants are so riddled with political correctness that they will immediately throw in the towel.

            Card playing is the tactic and first resort of those who lack faith in their arguments.

          • marcos

            Racism, sexism and homophobia are tightly integrated into the fabric of American culture. That is not up for debate. The only thing up for debate is what we’re going to do about, how we’re going to deal with it.

          • John

            The fact that there may be a lot of racism in America is not a reason to mindlessly weave it into every discussion topic regardless of relevance.

            If a problem is primarily economic then treat it as such rather than play identity politics or overplay tired old race cards.

          • marcos

            Race is relevant to a conversation about higher education, especially in the Mission.

          • John

            Even the city has abandoned it’s race-based school allocation system, as required by law, so I am surprised to hear you make that claim.

            Of course, if someone sees everything through race-tinted glasses, then every problem is a race problem. My point here is to debunk such a blinkered and prejudical outlook.

          • marcos

            The only real issue that remains is whether and how race is discussed.

          • John

            Race should be discussed where the overt topic is race. If the issue is more economic or educational, then I see no reason to inject race into that because that invariably makes the debate emotional and partisan.

            In fact, I’d go as far as to say that playing a race card is itself a racist act. The true post-racial folks do not make everything about race at all.

          • two beers

            Dishonest John either doesn’t know the difference between an inference and an implication, and is simply ignorant, or he does know the difference, and is just dishonest.

          • landline

            Let me get this right. The guy who injects race into every discussion that he can decries playing the race card.

            Anglo-saxon this, Hispanic that, the names on the website are Spanish in origin so the website’s impartiality is in doubt.

            The guy has white supremacy so far up his ass that it can’t see the elitism and homophobia he also spouts.

            And if I were marcos, I might inquire about a restraining order because he urged people to break windows at marcos’ house while another commenter posted marcos’ address.

          • marcos

            It is internet stalking. Mission Local and the SF Bay Guardian retain their HTTP server logs that contain IP addresses.

            My bet is that the guy who posts my address is developer pimp Tim Colen from the Housing Action Coalition, an individual who gets paid to represent in a public capacity luxury condo developers. Colen got upset one time when some planning commissioners urged me to display a Google street view image of his home during public comment at a commission meeting after Colen had pimped for more high rise luxury condos with less parking in existing residential neighborhoods the east side. Colen lives up in the heights, in a single family detached home with a two-car garage and often drives to work in Civic Center, hence the hypocritical actions of a public person needed to be made public.

            On the other hand, I am a software engineer by trade and participate politically in my community as a volunteer. I am not a public person at this point in time hence the rules are different.

            In this article, Santos plays the typical low life manipulator who claims that since John Rahaim lives in the Mission, he’ll do right by the neighborhood as planning director. From what it looks like, we’re seeing nothing but canned tomatoes strewn on our walls and a mattress set aflame in the hallway. Maybe as an encore the fire chief will reprise her twofer beaning of spouse with pint glass?

            For all of the sound and fury of the housing protests, one negative side effect has been for Lee to flip popular pressure to justify “streamlining” and accelerating the approvals process for more luxury condos. Did the organizers have any contingency plans for when their agenda got coopted and rammed down the Mission’s gullet?

          • John

            landline, I never suggested that anyone breaks marcos’s windows nor have I publicized his address which, in any event, is public information.

            Marcos expressed support for window-breaking as a political protest and so I made the natural inference that he would totally understand it if someone did that to him as a protest against his political views.

            If anyone needs a TRO around here it is me to protect me from your persistent stalking, which has now resumed after you claimed you were going to cease and desist.

            And for the record, I am NEVER the first person to introduce race into a discussion, but I will slap down any gratuitous racecard-playing which is a common tactic for some, evidently.

            Finally, this website is not “Spanish in origin”. I have no idea why you would make such a spurious claim.

          • marcos

            John, as in toilet, always playing the victim card.

          • John

            marcos, my point was that he is behaving badly and that is a sign that he cannot debate calmly or correctly.

            More generally, I do not understand why people cannot debate issues here without getting all riled up and personal. There are some here who hate others based purely on a political difference, and that isn’t something I can understand.

    • landline

      To clear up any confusion, the excellent CCSF building and campus on Valencia Street is long finished. I was referring to the new condo monstrosity on Mission Street on the site that CCSF originally chose for its Mission campus.

      I’m sure most Mission residents, whose familiarity with the neighborhood extends past their keyboards, already knew that.

      • John

        So you’d prefer the condos to be on Valencia Street? The confusion remains.

        I’m well aware of the location of the CCSF building, even if it likely to be re-purposed soon.

  3. Old Mission Neighbor

    Small nit: the Transbay Tower is at 415 Mission St. 181 Fremont is a different project.

  4. landline

    To clear up any more confusion, I have not responded directly to “John” since the Sunday before last.

    However, he has responded to almost every comment I (and everyone) else has written since he appeared on this website.

    And as a reminder, he analyzed the last names of the ML staffers in an attempt to discredit its credibility. Plus he asked Rigoberto Hernandez if he was related to Roberto Hernandez in another laughable attempt at race baiting and discrediting.

    Enough is enough.

    • John

      landline, you have continued to respond to me. Either by starting a new indentation as here. Or by responding to someone else who was debating with me. But in both cases you address the points I made so you are effectively responding to me. Your claim to be “ignoring” me is an obvious lie.

      You come across as obsessed with me and that is as unhealthy as it is ineffective. Even marcos knows when to deflect a debate into humor. But not you.

      But thank you for now admitting that I never said that ML was “Spanish in origin”. Another lie.

      • landline

        I am responding directly to you now. You comment on every topic and respond to every post so of course anyone who comments here is almost automatically responding to you.

        I stopped responding to you directly and will no longer be lured into flame wars to enable your pathological need for attention. Also, I want to spend my time more productively than “debating” issues with someone whose main activity is internet commenting as evidence by your thousands of comments here and on sfbg.com and who knows where else.

        If fantasizing that I am stalking you makes you feel important or needed or helps you fool yourself that you aren’t actually the loser that you are, have at it.

        • John

          landline, I don’t care whether you respond to me or not. But claiming to be ignoring me while simultaneously disguising your responses with prefixes like “To clear up any confusion” was as transparent as it was dishonest.

          I encourage you to focus on the topics and not on the personalities. And a little emotional range and control so that you can differ with someone politically without getting angry wouldn’t hurt either.

          • landline

            Taking advice from you about internet commentary and “emotional range and control” is akin to a using heroin addict giving advice to an using alcoholic about substance use.

            Useless.

            Hey, you are a hero in your own mind and you think that sharing your mostly worthless and false statements is a worthwhile endeavor, so knock yourself out. And if you are self deceptive enough to think you are convincing people of the rightness of your positions by bludgeoning them with thousands of comments, more power to you.

          • John

            landline, you just said you will no longer be lured into flame wars. Yet here you are flaming defensively.

            Was that your last direct response to me or will the next one be the last one?

            I know you want to duck. But it’s just too difficult, isn’t it?

  5. Pamela

    Excellent article.
    Very balanced about what is going on with the development process, as well as development in the Mission. Would be great to see more articles like this.
    From reading this, & how long it takes to get something done since the theatre closed [20 years!!], I can understand how frustrating it can be for the property owners & the developers. It most cases the projects have been approved by all city depts. Then some NIMBY throws a monkey wrench into the works & it’s back to the drawing board. Nothing gets down.
    If the cinema project had been completed right away, think of how much less the cost of housing was in the 90s. More people would have been able to afford to live/stay in the neighborhood.
    Glad to see that finally Mission Street is upgrading, improving.

  6. ThatGuy

    Landline and twobeers talking about education! Bahahahahahahhahahaahahahahhaa!!!!!

    Go back to your SROs and blab with your buddies there.

Comments are closed.