This Is What Bernal Heights Looks Like from Atop Sutro Tower

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Every citizen of Bernalwood knows what it’s like to gaze out to the west from Bernal Hill and feel the sculptural, sci-fi presence of Sutro Tower standing proud above the City, Twin Peaks, and even Karl the Fog. For example, yesterday.

But have you ever wondered what it’s like to stand on Sutro Tower and look back at Bernal Hill?

Well, now you know, courtesy of the screengrab image above. From way up there, we look… unbig.

Earlier this month, the ever-awesome Exploratorium released a short documentary that provides a very satisfyingly geeky tour of the Sutro Tower complex, as well as lots of satisfyingly geeky history about how the tower works and how it came to be.

Of particular note to local YIMBYs will be the section at the end where the Sutro Tower spokesman considers the structure in the broader context of San Francisco’s other landmarks— while backhandedly suggesting that each generation’s Enemies of Progress should get over themselves:

“Everything that gets built in San Francisco is generally a problem when it gets built. The Transamerica Pyramid, certainly, and Sutro Tower very soon thereafter. Both have become icons of the City. People opposed the Golden Gate Bridge when it was built. But over time, people come to recognize it, and cherish it, and it’s become an icon and a real symbol of the City.”

Amen, and Hail Lord Sutro!

Here’s the video. The Bernal Hill cameo comes at around 02:15…

If Two Homes Are Built on This Bernal Heights Property, Will It Explode in a Giant Scorching Fireball?

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There’s a design review committee meeting happening tomorrow night, Wednesday, May 28 at 7 pm at the Precita Center.

The topic on the agenda will be that proposal to build two single-family homes at 3516 and 3526 Folsom on the southeast slope of Bernal Hill, on the undeveloped lot just below Bernal Heights Boulevard at Folsom and Chapman. There are questions to consider. Like, how is the new right-of-way going to work, since there’s no road there now, and the slope is so hella steep? And what about drainage, and the garden that’s now on the site, and the existing character of the neighborhood? Also, if homes are built here, will the site explode in a gigantic, scorching, San Bruno-style fireball?

The mortal peril associated with the giant scorching fireball scenario introduces a dramatic new element to the usual Bernal Heights design review fare. The giant scorching fireball scenario has been popularized by some neighbors around the proposed development site, and they have detailed their concerns in a flyer:

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Let’s zoom and enhance for better legibility:

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Blast radius! Oh my.

But is this true? Is this pipeline the same type that blew up in San Bruno? How likely is it that a giant scorching fireball scenario will ultimately engulf everything inside the red circle?

Remain calm, Citizens of Bernalwood. Let’s walk through this piece by piece.

The gas pipeline that runs through Bernal Heights is called Line 109, and it is definitely serious business. The 2010 San Bruno explosion is fresh in Bay Area memory, but that was Line 132 — a different pipeline altogether. That said, Line 109 also exploded once, in a giant scorching fireball, right here in Bernal Heights, back in 1963.

So there’s that.

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Bernalwood reported on the present-day status of Line 109 back in 2011. At the time, we said:

The good news is, our section of Line 109 is relatively new [installed in the early 1980s], and thus hopefully does not have any of the shoddy, 1950s-era welds that were blamed in the San Bruno explosion. Likwise, it seems that an active inspection regimen is in place to validate the line’s integrity.

And so, we concluded:

Given the magnitude of PG&E’s recent mismanagement of its pipeline infrastructure, and the tremendous potential for harm, unwavering diligence will be required by both Bernal Heights residents and our local authorities to ensure the pipeline will remain safe for decades to come.

So, diligence.

That brings us to the present day. Bernalwood has been contacted by a group of neighbors around the proposed development who have been raising alarm about the giant scorching fireball scenario and rallying to oppose construction on the site. We also sent a series of technical questions to PG&E, to get additional information about the status of the pipeline at this location.

We will hear from both sides.

Writing on behalf of the neighbors who oppose the project, Neighbor Maiyah tells Bernalwood:

The site is at Folsom and Chapman, right next to the community garden. There’s a huge gas transmission line right next to the two plots… just like the one in San Bruno. It’s the same line that exploded in 1963 near Alemany and injured 9 firefighters (one also died of a heart attack) and blew up a house. I’m now a part of a small group of concerned Bernal residents who are trying to bring to light the facts of this situation and to inform others of the potential dangers.

I saw the developer (Fabien Lannoye) at the East Slope Design Review Board Meeting in April and he seemed to be not very concerned about the pipeline, not knowing the exact depth of it. He sort of shrugged when he said PG&E had no record of it. Bernal residents had asked him for a comprehensive site plan, the exact location of the pipe, the impact on the nearby community garden, and many more questions and his answer was that he didn’t ever receive the letter in the mail. It made me feel uneasy to say the least.

Just thinking about that huge transmission line with heavy construction equipment digging and moving earth over and around it on one of the steepest grades in San Francisco (35%), makes me cringe.

One of our members recently emailed Robert Bea, Professor Emeritus at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley, who investigated the San Bruno disaster. She asked him if she should be concerned about the pipe line here in Bernal. He replied yes, with the facts that have been gathered so far: (1) the pipeline is old (1980’s) installed in an area with highly variable topography, (2) there are no records on the construction, operation and maintenance of the pipeline, (3) there are no definitive guidelines to determine if the pipeline is ‘safe’ and ‘reliable’, (4) there is apparent confusion about who is responsible (government, industrial – commercial) for the pipeline safety, reliability, and integrity.

This list is identical to the list of concerns that summarized causation of the San Bruno Line 132 gas pipeline disaster.

I live about a block from the proposed construction site, so I’m not too worried, but those of us who live right next to the pipeline are thinking twice about their safety right now.

That’s the argument against building two homes on the lots at 3516 and 3526 Folsom.

To better understand the technical issues, Bernalwood reached out to PG&E with a detailed series of questions related to Line 109 in Bernal Heights and potential construction hazards at the proposed development site. PG&E was very responsive, and we received answers to our questions late last week.

Bernalwood’s questions, and PG&E’s responses, are provided here in their entirety:

1. When was the section of pipeline under the the proposed home site installed? When was it last upgraded?

The line was installed in 1981. PG&E has a comprehensive inspection and monitoring program to ensure the safe operation of this line.

2. How often is this section of 109 inspected? What does the inspection entail? When did the last inspection take place? What were the results of that inspection?

This section of L-109 was successfully strength tested (via a hydrostatic pressure test) at the time of installation. PG&E records show no history of leaks for L-109 in this area.

PG&E has a comprehensive inspection and monitoring program to ensure the safety of its natural gas transmission pipeline system.  PG&E regularly conducts patrols, leak surveys, and cathodic protection (corrosion protection) system inspections for its natural gas pipelines.  Any issues identified as a threat to public safety are addressed immediately.  PG&E also performs integrity assessments of certain gas transmission pipelines in urban and suburban areas.

Patrols:  PG&E patrols its gas transmission pipelines at least quarterly to look for indications of missing pipeline markers, construction activity and other factors that may threaten the pipeline.  L-109 through the [Bernal Heights] neighborhood was last aerially patrolled in May 2014 and no issues were found.

Leak Surveys:  PG&E conducts leak surveys at least annually of its natural gas transmission pipelines.  Leak surveys are generally conducted by a leak surveyor walking above the pipeline with leak detection instruments.  L-109 in San Francisco was last leak surveyed in April 2014 and no leaks were found.

Cathodic Protection System Inspections:  PG&E utilizes an active cathodic protection (CP) system on its gas transmission and steel distribution pipelines to protect them against corrosion.  PG&E inspects its CP systems every two months to ensure they are operating correctly.  The CP systems on L-109 in this area were last inspected in May 2014 and were found to be operating correctly.

Integrity Assessments:  There are three federally-approved methods to complete a transmission pipeline integrity management baseline assessment:  In-Line Inspections (ILI), External Corrosion Direct Assessment (ECDA) and Pressure Testing.  An In-Line Inspection involves a tool (commonly known as a “pig”) being inserted into the pipeline to identify any areas of concern such as potential metal loss (corrosion) or geometric abnormalities (dents) in the pipeline.  An ECDA involves an indirect, above-ground electrical survey to detect coating defects and the level of cathodic protection.  Excavations are performed to do a direct examination of the pipe in areas of concern as required by federal regulations.  Pressure testing is a strength test normally conducted using water, which is also referred to as a hydrostatic test.

PG&E performed an ECDA on L-109 in this area in 2009 and no issues were found.  PG&E plans to perform another ECDA on L-109 in this area in 2015.  This section of L-109 also had an ICDA (Internal Corrosion Direct Assessment) performed in 2012, and no issues were found.

Automated Shut-off Valves: There are two types of automated shut-off valves recognized within the natural gas industry: Remote Controlled Valves (RCV’s), which can be operated remotely from PG&E’s Gas Control Center, and Automatic Shutoff Valves (ASV’s) that will close automatically as a result of rapidly falling pipeline pressures and/or increased flows at the valve location. There is an RCV on L-109 in Daly City that can be used to isolate the section of L-109 that runs through this neighborhood.

3. Is this section of pipeline 109  “the same type that blew up in San Bruno?”

No. Line 109 operates at a much lower pressure and is smaller in diameter, and is of a much more recent vintage.

4. What safety procedures does PG&E put in place when home or street contruction occurs on the site of a major gas pipeline like 109?

Anytime a contractor or resident makes an excavation on franchise or private property, they must call 811 (State Law for Underground Service Alerts [USA]) in advance so we can identify and properly locate our UG facilities.  When our Damage Prevention group gets the USA request and identifies a critical facility like a gas transmission line in the scope of work, they notify the caller that they must contact PG&E for a standby employee.  PG&E must observe a safe excavation around our lines if any digging is within 10’ of it.  We must be present when they dig around this line.  Our standby inspector will instruct and guide the excavating party to avoid damage.  Excavators who violate this Law are subject to fines.

5. Does the steep grade of the Folsom site have any impact on Pipeline 109? Given the grade at the proposed site, are any special provisions or procedures required to ensure the safety of the pipeline during construction?

The grade of the street have no impacts on the operation of the line.  If the cover is not removed or disturbed within 10’ of the line, there are no special precautions needed.

6. Are there any specific technical or safety challenges posed by the proposed home site, and if so, how does PG&E plan to address them?

As long as the structures are built within the property lines similar to the existing [homes on Folsom Street], they will not pose any issues for us patrolling and maintaining that line.  The proposed home sites are not on top of line 109, and are no closer to the line than existing homes in the neighborhood.

Additional Background: In the area outlined in the map [Bernalwood sent PG&E, shown above], PG&E’s natural gas transmission pipeline L-109 runs down Folsom Street and turns east to follow Bernal Heights Blvd.  Line 109 in this area is a 26-inch diameter steel pipeline installed in 1981 and has a maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) of 150 pounds per square inch gage (psig), which is 19.8% of the pipe’s specified minimum yield strength (SMYS).  This provides a considerable margin of safety, since it would take a pressure over 750 psig to cause the steel in the pipe to begin to deform.

Whew. Someone should turn that into a TED talk.

Bernalwood’s conclusion from the above is as follows: The handbill that has been posted around Bernal Heights by concerned neighbors contains several errors. Line 109 in Bernal Heights is not the same type of pipeline as Line 132, which exploded in San Bruno. The inspection history provided by PG&E undermines the assertion that “there are no records on the construction, operation and maintenance of the pipeline.” Line 109 has been the subject of a recent and ongoing inspection regimen, and if the developer follows the required safety protocols, the hazards associated with construction on the proposed development site should be routine and manageable.

Here too, rigorous diligence will be required to ensure the project is executed and managed properly. If such diligence is applied, the Citizens of Bernalwood may soon enjoy the company of a few new neighbors on the upper reaches of Folsom Street, without having to endure the hardship and mortal peril associated with a giant scorching fireball emanating from the new home site.

Reasonable minds might reasonably view this matter differently. Either way, see you at the design review meeting, 7pm on Wednesday, May 28 at Precita Center.

Neighbor Attends Design Review Meeting, Gets Depressed, Sees “Dark Heart” of San Francisco Housing Crisis

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Neighbor Jenna attended last week’s neighborhood review meeting for the proposal to build new homes on the “secret lot” at York and Cesar Chavez. Bernalwood noticed a few tweets she sent during the meeting, so we invited her to share her notes with us. Neighbor Jenna reports the meeting was somewhat depressing — though it helped her understand why San Francisco’s housing crunch is unlikely to go away anytime soon:

As you know from this post, there is a proposed 6-unit development attempting to go in at two of the empty interior lots inside York, Hampshire, Cesar Chavez & Peralta. I live on the 200 block of Peralta, not immediately bordering the land, but up a bit.

This meeting was bigger than the last I went to, which was also very frustrating. (That one was about the house on Alabama near the cafe that’s currently under construction. The woman that owns that Alabama house left the meeting in tears because she was being hated on for wanting to renovate and move into her own home).

This proposed development is mainly reasonable. Offering four single-family homes with 3-car parking, water capture & recycling and solar panels and 2 unit townhomes on the 25′ lot / access way on York. While the final “design” hasn’t been done, what was shown looks fine, if generic.

As far as I understood, both by the committee’s acknowledgement & the owner & architect, this is the fourth or fifth visit to the NE slope special committee with as many different proposals. The most recent previous proposal was for 12 units total, instead of six.

The entry to the interior lot containing the 4 single-family homes is through the garage on York shared by the townhouses. So, in theory, if each unit had two cars, there would be a total of 12 cars coming and going every day from a single 12′ garage. In my opinion, this is the most troublesome part of the proposal, but that’s part of city life. I can’t imagine if they had the 12 units with 2 cars per (24 cars!) going into one garage on narrow York.

According to the owner, he bought the land in 1979, and has been “trying to build ever since.” Wow.

After presentations from the owner, the architect, the fire deputy for our part of Bernal, and the geology expert who did the land and grading surveys, questions were flying.

The stuff you’d expect to hear was in abundance: Blocking light & views, the entrance on York, traffic behind people’s houses on the “driveway”, where will the garbage bins go, how will they prevent landslides, how tall are the units, how tall are the retaining walls, where will the water go, etc.

While I understand that people’s most valuable possession is their home, the objections to this eminently reasonable proposal began to feel more and more outrageous. People were saying, they bought their houses because of access to the “nature” lot behind their houses, the trees and quiet, concern about electromagnetic sensitivity” to a proposed car turntable, etc. Legally, homeowners have no right to “light, views, or nature” of undeveloped lots. This should have been part of research done during the purchasing phase and a risk taken by homeowners purchasing homes bordering undeveloped, but owned, land.

To me, it was a lot of “we like it the way it is” even though the development, in my opinion, would bring much needed housing to desirable Bernal and create more neighbors to add to our community of awesome folks.

There were objections to the (legal) heights of the roofs, the height of the retaining walls, fundamental misunderstandings about the way cisterns and water recycling works (I can’t tell you how long we spent on fundamental mis-understanding of the water re-direction) , and objections to things that are relatively new or rare like the car turntable (we spent a good 15 minutes on making sure everyone understood it was an electric turntable, not a turn around circle).There were even more objections about the construction noise, parking during construction, and the construction starting just after the Cesar Chavez construction was ending.

There were people challenging the experts on their reports. Particularly the fire marshall and the geologist. Challenging him on what was bedrock, exactly. Saying that the excavations would cause the collapse of the hill and surrounding retaining walls (many of which were hand-made by the owners). Challenging the fire marshall on the ins-and outs of his experience fighting fires at properties like this one.

All of this, in my opinion, is fine to bring up as a concern. But once the question was answered by an expert, it was challenged and re-challenged. There were people saying it was wrong to remove mature trees, chasing off the “nature” permanently. (If anyone wants extra squirrels, they can have mine!) There were even people simply saying “we like the way it is” and the standard “it doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood” argument – which seems to be a catch-all when reason fails. (There were even jabs and jokes made about how “rowdy” the patrons of Precita Park Cafe were, twinged with resentment. I’m so grateful for that cafe, it changed in a huge way, how we live and participate in our neighborhood).

In my opinion, we are in a desperate housing crisis in SF. There are not near enough available units to cover the number of people trying to live here.

As a homeowner who recently purchased a home (4 years ago) that 20 years ago was in an IDENTICAL situation, with two interior lots that their owners worked for YEARS to develop, I can feel the pain of the owner and architect acutely.

I’m SO grateful for my home, and my neighbors, and we watch out for them and they watch out for us. But our lot was the same as this one before the development. The neighbors used to run and play in our lots with their dogs and plant plants and treat it like public land, even though it never was. This created deep resentment during planning and development, which lingers to this day.

We fell in love with Bernal Heights because the neighborhood felt like a community. We could go the park with our dog and have people asking after us and catching up. For me, this meeting was extremely frustrating because it seemed like people felt entitled to things that ultimately weren’t theirs. It felt very uncompromising, negative and un-neighborly.

Is the owner going to get rich over this? Probably. Are we going to get six great new neighbors to watch out for our ‘hood? Likely. Are six families going to get to move to the neighborhood of their dreams? Yes. Will people’s lives be impacted in the short term? Definitely. Is everything ultimately going to be fine? Yes. Better, even.

One friend later told me I had seen “the dark heart” of the housing problem. Other friends said they stopped going to their neighborhood meetings because they couldn’t take it. The folks at these meetings are driving new and different perspectives away through their sheer endurance.

We live in a city. Cities are dense. We need to progress. This is not the face of progress.

Old Bernal House Is Not Crappy, It Was Just Built That Way

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Neighbors  Kiren and Carolyn are continuing with their big home renovation project, and along the way they are learning some enlightening facts about a few of the more unfortunate aspects of their home’s fundamentals:

The Internet tells me that no, our house was not built by someone so blitzed out on opium that he forgot to build the framing. Instead, it was built in a style that had brief fits of popularity across the US from the mid-1800s through the turn of the century. Called “plank framing”, with 12″ wide wood planks running vertically from the foundation to the roof. Battens could be nailed along the seams, though some owners find glued cloth instead.

According to one of the few writeups on the technique,

The low cost, combined with the little skill needed for their construction, made it a popular house type in communities where quick and/or inexpensive housing was in demand. Groups of these box houses are typically found in communities that were originally company-built mining towns, lumber camps, tenant or workers cottages on farms, and summer resort communities that were popular around the turn of the last century.

Despite all this, Neighbor Kiren retains impressive poise, concluding,  “I feel better knowing that our bones were part of a construction trend (which admittedly was short-lived, probably for a reason), and not simply the result of sloppiness, corner cutting, amnesia, and the like.” 

In other words, Neighbor Kiren and family are glad to know that whoever built their house was not necessarily hepped up on too much Goat Chaser — although it is also possible that they were.

PHOTO: Exposed plank framing at Neighbor Kiren and Carolyn’s house, via Bernal Renovation

Sign Up Now to Get a Sidewalk Tree In Front of Your Bernal Home

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Neighbor Phil Pierce live on Tompkins Street. By day he works as the community outreach coordinator for Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), the greentastic group that organizes sidewalk greenery plantings here in the City.

Neighbor Phil is spreading the word that Friends of the Urban Forest is planning a tree-planting in Bernal Heights, so if you want one in front of your house, you should sign up now:

FUF has green ($$) to make your block green!

Do you want to get a tree in front of your property?
We are coming to the Bernal Heights, and now is your chance to be a part of it!

Friends of the Urban Forest has funding to subsidize 75% of the costs to plant trees, with a Community Planting Day planned for June 14, 2014.

You only need to pay $135 and choose what species you want — then FUF will handle all of the prep work, remove the cement, provide the tree itself, and do three scheduled tree care visits over the first three years of the tree’s life to help it thrive!

For more information, visit the Bernal Heights page.
or
Contact Caitlin@fuf.net, (415) 268-0772

Deadline for forms is 4/30

PHOTOS: Friends of the Urban Forest

Wednesday: Cesar Chavez Ribbon-Cutting to Celebrate Our Sexy New Infrastructure

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It took two and a half years, a lot of dirt-digging, and plenty of construction-related delays, but at long last, the Cesar Chavez Improvement Project is nearing completion.

Frankly, I think it looks vastly better than it did before, and way better than Army Street ever looked in it’s long history of arterial awfulness. We also got some sexy new sewer pipes out of the deal, and a dedicated (though unseparated) bike lane. Yet I confess: I’m a sucker for long overdue infrastructure projects and decorative palm trees.

Now that we’ve endured several years of congestion in the cause of  building of a better future, we’re all invited to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony tomorrow, Wednesday January 29, at the new (and newly named) Si Se Pueda Plaza in front of The Palace restaurant, at the intersection of Mission, Chavez, and Capp Streets:

DPW will host a ribbon cutting for the completion of the Cesar Chavez Streetscape Improvement Project on Wednesday, January 29th, from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm. Please see the attached flyer and below for more information.

The newly designed corridor improves safety for people walking, taking transit, and biking on the street. The project also added greening, stormwater-management features and road repaving. Together, these improvements will enhance the neighborhood for many years to come.

Thank you,

DPW Project Team

Cesar Chavez Streetscape Improvement Project Ribbon Cutting

Date: Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
Time: 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
Location: Si Se Puede Plaza, 3047 Mission Street (NE Corner at Mission & Capp streets)

chavezribbonPHOTOS: Top, by Telstar Logistics

This Proposed Freeway Tunnel Under Bernal Heights Would Have Destroyed My Home

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Courtesy of Eric Fischer, king of the map geeks, your Bernalwood editor was alerted yesterday about a 1941 map detailing a freeway proposal that would have required the construction of a 2945 foot-long automobile tunnel under Bernal Hill.

Unlike other unrealized plans to tunnel through our neighborhood, this scheme would have created a tunnel running underneath the most central parts of Bernal Heights, via Andover starting at Cortland on the south side, and exiting beneath Shotwell on the north:

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On the bright side, the exaggerated side-cut elevation of Bernal Hill is rather cool:

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There’s a lot of obvious things for everyone to dislike about this idea. Yes, of course, cutting the neighborhood in half and clogging it with smog-belching automobile traffic would have been terrible and all… but the real issue for me is that the northern portal of the Bernal Heights Tunnel would have been located on the exact location of my Precita Avenue home:

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Indeed, it appears that the very spot where I write this sentence right now would have been appropriated to make way for a four-lane concrete slab carrying traffic in and out of the northern tunnel opening.

All in the name of progress, naturally.

What this means, of course, is that in some sort of alternate science fiction timeline, the tunnel project was approved and completed, resulting in the condemnation and demolition of my home. Which means I never ended up in Bernal Heights, and Bernalwood never existed, and we would not be enjoying this lovely day together.

Of course, in an alternate-alternate science fiction timeline, it’s also possible that I used a chronological wormhole to return to 1941 as a time-traveling NIMBY to prevent the construction of the Bernal Heights Tunnel from happening in the first place. It’d be kind of like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, only I’d be armed with vast wads of inflation-appreciated cash and an intimate understanding of bureaucratic minutiae. (As an added bonus, I’d probably also warn them about Pearl Harbor.)

Or perhaps that’s not science fiction at all. Perhaps the only reason we are enjoying this lovely day together at all is because some Future NIMBY actually did travel back in time to prevent the tunnel from ever being built!

The mind reels…

PHOTOS: via the ever-fabulous Eric Fisher