Beyond the big one: Real recovery in San Francisco

Last year San Francisco’s Patrick Otellini became the world’s first municipal chief resilience officer, a position sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of its 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) program. We spoke with him about his experiences to date and plans for the future.


What are the most important lessons you’ve learned since taking on this role?

Well, being the first city to launch our strategy through the 100RC process, we were very much a pilot. Everyone acknowledged that this was a new experiment.

In my previous role as San Francisco’s director of earthquake safety — as in a lot of work that we do in the city government — our work was very focused and very intentional. And we were very successful in a lot of our efforts. But when we started with 100RC we were able to take a pause, step back into a research phase, which allowed us to understand things in a more dynamic way. That’s been a treat that we don’t often get in the public sector. In going through that process, we’ve been able to strengthen a lot of our existing programs, identifying cobenefits and beginning to tie these together in a really great way.

Can you give an example?

In my opinion, the eastern seawall, on the Bay side, is the Achilles’ heel of San Francisco. It’s aging infrastructure — it’s a century old. It’s not ready for a seismic event. It’s not ready for sea-level rise. It’s got every major utility passing through it. And it also has the Transbay Tube, which takes thousands of people into San Francisco on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] every day.

Typically we would approach something like this from, say, a seismic safety standpoint. Well, then you only have a small community of advocates that are really passionate about preparing for the earthquake. But they’re by themselves. When you start to layer in other elements of resilience and look at the multihazard aspect of things… Say you’re talking about sea level rise, for example. Then all of a sudden you start to get the more traditional sustainability folks involved. And then you leverage the effort with the utility companies that have private-sector interests at the site. All of a sudden you get to build an advocacy group around the idea that, hey, we’re all in this together. By doing something that hits these cobenefits we can actually do something really important for San Francisco.

So it’s about building the political will, but also about smart planning.

What financing strategies have proven successful for urban resilience initiatives?

This is something that San Francisco has been doing well for a number of years. We have a 10-year capital plan, and that has been the saving grace of our resilience efforts over and over again.

When we do a general obligation bond, for example, we routinely do earthquake safety bonds for retrofitting public safety facilities and other pieces of infrastructure that need it. We can’t just do a single bond for several billion dollars; we obviously have to break that up over a number of years or a number of election cycles. So having forward thinking on that has led to a process that really is resilience thinking at its finest.

When we talk about resilience, we’re often really talking about applying a new lens to an existing problem. And I think our 10-year capital plan has really exemplified that, making us able to plan for our financial future, for these big projects that sometimes don’t get planned for because they seem unapproachable.

When we talk about resilience, we’re often really talking about applying a new lens to an existing problem.

What doesn’t work in terms of funding?

One of the examples I like to use is from the ’90s after the Loma Prieta earthquake, when we started requiring that brick buildings, unreinforced masonry buildings, go through seismic retrofit. The way we dealt with funding that was to create a $350 million general obligation bond. It went to the voters, raised property taxes — and 20 years later we see that only about $50 million of that $350 million was ever used.

Unfortunately, sometimes when cities or public entities create these finance programs there’s so much red tape. There are so many qualifications and requirements; the process can be cumbersome. So we saw people going to the private sector. The private sector was responsible for financing a lot of these retrofits.

When we launched the Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Ordinance project in 2013, when I was director of earthquake safety, we wanted to think a little bit differently.

We started thinking about PACE funding, which stands for Property Assessed Clean Energy. It’s a mechanism where basically you’re borrowing money and paying it back through the form of increased property taxes on your parcel. You’re able to get a loan for things like solar panels and other clean energy improvements. The thinking is that if you put solar panels on your home, your energy bill is cheaper and you can pay back the loan — it’s basically a wash.

We looked at this and said, “Well, wait a minute. Seismic retrofit is a true act of sustainability. You’re retrofitting a building — you’re extending the lifespan of the materials, you’re keeping these materials on-site in the event of an earthquake and not diverting them to landfill.” So we approached it that way and actually passed legislation to expand our PACE operation. That way, if you’re qualifying for our financing program, not only can you do seismic retrofits, but you can also do all these clean energy improvements under the same loan. So it was a way to, again, combine efforts and flip the model on its head.

This financing program went live in December and we already have $40 million in underwriting. And it didn’t raise property taxes a penny. So it’s been a very successful program so far.

What does social resilience mean to you?

Again, I’ll talk about our soft story ordinance, which mandates the seismic retrofit of about 5,000 buildings in San Francisco. That’s the homes of about 120,000 San Franciscans, or about 15% of our population.

When you think about this ordinance from the 30,000-foot level, you’re just fixing a building. But when you think about the social implications, it becomes very multifaceted.

The first thing to consider is the obvious aspect of response and recovery. If we’re able to stay in our homes, we’re kick-starting that recovery. If we’re not in San Francisco after the disaster, we’re stalling it — you have the Katrina effect.

Our priorities come from the community; that’s why we have a lot of confidence in our approach.

There are other interesting threads around social resilience. To qualify for the soft story program, buildings have to have been built before 1978. Well, 1979 is when San Francisco introduced rent control, so by definition all these buildings are subject to rent control. So we could potentially have 15% of our population that lives in rent-controlled housing suddenly homeless and having to try to find new housing at market rates in San Francisco. Those people aren’t going to stay in San Francisco. It becomes a huge tear in the fabric of our community.

On the face of it you think, “Oh yeah, we’re just strengthening buildings.” But in reality there are all these threads of social resilience that go through it. You start to see these things not just in terms of the residents that live there but also in terms of the small businesses in these buildings that probably don’t have any continuity planning. So to keep them operational is also huge, these businesses serving neighborhoods in San Francisco, because they run on such tight margins to begin with.

A store in the Mission neighborhood

Resilience is such a huge topic. How do you prioritize?

That’s a good question. Our priorities come from the community; that’s why we have a lot of confidence in our approach. Before we started doing the 100RC work, the City and County of San Francisco spent 10 years in the community working on a community action plan for seismic safety. That process ultimately gave us 17 key priorities to address resilience in San Francisco. Those have been built out into a 30-year plan with 50 tasks which we oversee. So a lot of that prioritization was done through some really hard work saying, “Okay, San Francisco, what’s important to you when we talk about resilience?”

And I’ve been very proud of how the programs are operating. Our soft story program is enjoying a 99.9% compliance rate for the first type of seismic program like this ever done in the world.

What current resilience initiatives are you most excited about?

I’m really excited about trying to make recovery real in San Francisco. By that I mean recovery with an equitable lens: thinking about our vulnerable populations and, most importantly, keeping as many San Franciscans in San Francisco after the disaster as possible. If the disaster happens and FEMA evacuates the city, that’s just not going to be the ideal situation for us. We want to keep people here.

San Francisco City Hall, which underwent a major seismic retrofit

What that means is that we have to look at our housing, right? We know that an earthquake or other hazard can damage a lot of the housing units and make them unoccupiable. In that case, where are we going to put our residents? So we’re developing programs right now to make quick repairs to homes after a disaster so that people can shelter in place.

We’re also developing an interim and transitional framework for the city. We want the communities to plan for their own recovery; we’re giving them a say in how we do the land assembly for laying out FEMA trailers or whatever other recovery housing comes into San Francisco after a disaster. We’re trying to do that in a smart way that’s efficient for the city — planning now so that we’re not devastated after the disaster.

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