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.