A potential housing development above the Potrero bus yard at 17th and Bryant could — and that is a big could — support 800 to 900 units of housing, according to San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency officials.

That, to put it mildly, is a lot of housing. And it would appear that 33 percent of that housing, per city laws, needs to be affordable.

“This is not necessarily where the project will end up, but 800 units — 850, 900 units — that’s kinda what the site can accommodate,” said Rafe Rabalais, SFMTA long-range asset development manager, during a working group meeting for the project at the bus yard Wednesday evening.

Rabalais, who directs MTA’s transit-oriented development initiatives, said the high unit count is possible because the yard spans two full city blocks, or 4.4 acres. He emphasized his estimates were “broad brush strokes.”

The SFMTA is proposing what no American city has attempted — ever, at least according to the transit agency. They want to pair with a private developer to build a housing development above a new and improved municipal bus yard that would store and service around 200 buses. So far, however, no developers have been identified.

The reason for the joint venture idea? Money.

The bus yard, built in 1915, is not adequately servicing the current bus fleet and is seismically unsafe. According to the MTA: “In many of the maintenance bays, the ceiling is too low to do roof repairs indoors or lift buses to repair them from below, slowing down work and making harder to keep buses in service.”

Those slowdowns, the MTA concluded, mean “longer waits and more crowding for riders.”

Oh, and in the event of an earthquake, the building could collapse. So changes need to happen. Money is needed.

According to initial estimates, it will take upwards of $400 million to upgrade the bus yard. And the MTA won’t be able to fund the upgrade even if voters approve a potential bond measure in 2022, which MTA officials hope will generate $200 to 250 million, said Licinia Iberri, SFMTA campus planning manager.

Photo by bhautik joshi

So, MTA is proposing a “joint development venture” in which the MTA would work with a private-sector developer who would build housing and help pay for the $400 million upgrade.  

A private sector developer, in theory, could help with the upgrade and still turn a profit because of the sheer scale of housing development. The latter would generate tens of millions of dollars, the officials estimated.

“This is a great way to provide something of value — community benefits, housing, affordable housing, community meeting space,” Rabalais said.

But, he said, the main reason is for the MTA to help finance its modernization project.

The main factor that will determine whether a housing project can offset the bus yard project’s costs is the number of market rate units.

A higher percentage of affordable units, he said, could reduce the amount of revenue MTA could generate from the project. In other words, too much affordable housing could defeat the purpose. Still, if the project were to include 800 units of housing — 264 of those, at minimum, would be affordable.

The largest fully affordable project in the Mission will include 157 units at 1950 Mission.

To raise the affordable housing percentage, the MTA would have to identify more public funding sources. The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development could commit to providing affordable housing subsidies. At present, it has not.

The absolute highest the building could go, he said, is 150 feet. The bus facility would be three “bus stories,” totaling roughly 70 feet, with an additional seven or eight stories of housing on top of that.

“Just to emphasize — this is not the project or project description … ,” Rabalais said. Rather, it’s a question of, “’could the concept work?’ And the answer is, ‘well, with the right parameters — yes.’”

The project’s plans are so preliminary that MTA is not entirely certain “joint development” will even pencil. Regardless, the agency’s rough timeline for the project sees construction beginning in 2023 and finishing in 2026.

Bradley Dunn, who’s running communications for the project, remarked on the complexity of the endeavor of building a facility that houses people and services massive vehicles — architecturally and legally.

He exclaimed: “There’s a reason it’s never been done.”