Amazon is using San Francisco’s zoning policy to plot a huge expansion in the city. Some locals aren’t happy

At 888 Tennessee St., at the foot of a slow street and across from Esprit Park, Amazon has established an UltraFastFresh logistics center. A half-mile southeast at 435 23rd St., just to the south of the Potrero Power Station, a large sign outside a 75,000-square-foot warehouse says “welcome Amazonians.” And farther to the south, at 749 Toland St., Amazon has a 112,000-square-foot delivery hub.

But Amazon’s biggest and most controversial incursion into San Francisco is a proposed 725,000-square-foot delivery hub at 900 Seventh St., a 6-acre rectangular parcel in Showplace Square that Amazon bought for $200 million. For decades that site was home to garbage trucks, a fleet of 300 that each morning would rumble out onto the streets of Showplace Square at an hour the streets were still dark and most city residents still in bed.

Now the trash trucks are gone — the garbage company Recology relocated them to Brisbane — but a proposal from the new property owner is causing consternation from neighbors who say that a heavy industrial use no longer fits in a creative neighborhood that has evolved into a mix of housing, design and artist spaces, light “advanced” manufacturing and an expanding California College of the Arts campus.

 Amazon is using San Franciscos zoning policy to plot a huge expansion in the city. Some locals arent happy

Amazon plans to expand into San Francisco by turning this location at 900 7th St., and others, into facilities for the company.

Samantha Laurey/The Chronicle

David Meckel, senior adviser to the president at CCA, said three daily shifts of 400 workers would generate 2,800 car trips, in addition to the 70 Amazon trucks that will be coming and going from the facility. The traffic could create a pedestrian nightmare for CCA’s 1,600 students as well as for residents at 888 Seventh St, a 224-unit that overlooks the future Amazon site.

“To me it’s not about Amazon, it’s about the intensity of the use,” said Meckel. “I’d have the same concerns if it were FedEx or UPS. For me it’s about urban design.”

On Tuesday, the controversy prompted San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the neighborhood where the logistics center will be located, to introduce legislation that would seek to place an 18-month moratorium on all new parcel delivery services in the city, including Amazon’s proposed Seventh Street development. The legislation will go before the Land Use and Transportation Committee in the coming months, followed by a vote at the full Board of Supervisors.

The move, backed by the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers union , is the latest battle in the war between organized labor and Amazon, which has planned or already opened more than two dozen distribution centers throughout the Bay Area, according to Jim Araby, strategic campaign director with United Food and Commercial Workers.

“The city needs the tools necessary to evaluate the impact of this project,” said Araby.

Will Roscoe, who lives at 888 Seventh St., said the pollution and traffic would worsen air quality in a neighborhood in which freeways and Caltrain already generate high levels of particulate matter. About a dozen years ago, Roscoe, who works for a nonprofit, was evicted from a building in the Western Addition. He said he feels like the Amazon project will once again force him to move.

“Hundreds of people now have come in to make this their neighborhood and this just really turns the clock back to a massive usage that is antithetical to a livable neighborhood for people with children, seniors,” he said. “It’s contrary to that.”

But while a busy distribution center may feel out of sync with Showplace Square’s current vibe, it is in fact just what city zoning calls for. And Recology decided to sell the site only after neighbors had rejected its 2018 plan to build about 1,000 units of housing there.

At a pre-application meeting at the site on June 27, 2019, a packed room of Dogpatch and Potrero Hill residents lambasted the idea of building housing on the site. One called it “a land grab and giveaway to developers.” Another resident said San Francisco suffered from a “PDR crisis” — PDR stands for production, distribution and repair — and that the property should remain zoned for industrial uses. One attendee called it “a bad project,” while another argued that “housing is not needed in the neighborhood.”

If the vocal opposition was intended to give Recology cold feet, it worked. Recology first cut the number of proposed units in half. Then, facing an uphill approval process that was likely to drag on three or four years, not including delays from environmental lawsuits common in San Francisco, the rubbish company gave up and sold the 6-acre site to Amazon in 2020.

“We received an offer and determined it was in Recology’s interest to accept it,” Eric Potashner, then the vice president and senior director of strategic affairs at Recology, said at the time.

While the housing plan would have required a series of zoning changes and conditional use authorizations, Amazon’s proposed 57-foot-high warehouse is consistent with the Eastern Neighborhoods land use plan adopted in December of 2008 after a decade of debate. The site is part of a block of parcels roughly bounded by Seventh Street, Division Street, Potrero Avenue and 16th Street that were zoned for industrial uses.

Ken Rich, who was project manager at the Planning Department for the Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning, said the city tried to strike a balance between protecting industrial jobs and creating room for new housing. The plan has generated thousands of new housing units in Dogpatch and Potrero Hill. It also has prompted property owners at sites such as 1 DeHaro, 100 Hooper and 150 Hooper to build PDR spaces for advanced manufacturing.

The Eastern Neighborhoods plan’s goal of protecting light industrial jobs on a swath of land that would have otherwise been gobbled up by tech offices and housing developers has done what it was intended to do, according to Anne Taupier, director of development at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

“A clear set of rules to play by were established and it really hasn’t changed since then,” said Taupier. “We think it has worked and is continuing to work.”

The opposition to Amazon’s Seventh Street plan is motivated not just by land-use issues but by the company’s track record of crushing unionization efforts and its reputation for grueling work conditions, according to J.R. Eppler, a board member with the Potrero Boosters neighborhood association.

Eppler said that neighbors around 888 Tennessee St. have had success over the past year working with Amazon on issues like traffic, parking and security.

Friends of Jackson Park is in talks with Amazon about the company possibly contributing funding to badly needed improvements. But the labor issues are harder to negotiate, he said.

In a recent San Francisco Standard article, two supervisors, Aaron Peskin and Walton, suggested that the city had been overly receptive to Amazon’s project and less than up-front with residents and other stakeholders.

Taupier said Amazon is at the very beginning of its approval process and there would be ample time for residents and elected officials to shape the project.

“We are going to have conversations with Amazon about supporting our local small businesses, including our brick-and-mortar retail businesses,” said Taupier. “We will make sure they understand that San Francisco has expectations that if you are going to do business here, you are going to be part of the community.”

In the meantime the empty rectangular lot feels like an island in a neighborhood that has moved on. To the north is the condo building at 888 Seventh St., which houses many senior Chinese immigrants. To the south on Hooper Street are headquarters for Adobe and a new SFMade building that houses a roster of manufacturing businesses including robotics groups, a distillery and fabricators of items including drapes, bags and hydrogen tanks for the automobile and industrial markets.

Scott Mason, a San Francisco commercial real estate broker who specializes in industrial properties, said Amazon is among a select group of well-funded users who qualify for PDR sites but have far deeper pockets than the typical family-run auto body or plumbing supply company. He said mom and pop PDR companies needed to make a city like San Francisco function cannot compete in a market dominated by Amazon.

“Your everyday smaller company in San Francisco is having a tough time,” he said. “The venture-backed tech-driven company can pay more per square foot because they are not working off a regular balance sheet.”

Stephen Maduli-Williams, Amazon’s manager of economic development policy, said construction at the old Recology site would not start for 18 to 24 months. He said there would be retail at the site and Amazon would work with local residents and businesses to determine what sort of goods might be sold. He said the company is looking into how Amazon could support Jackson Park.

“We intend to use this time to listen to and engage all of our neighbors and stakeholders, with the goal of reaching a shared vision not only for the project, but to also create long-lasting partnerships” he said.

For Dogpatch and Potrero residents, there is an increasing sense that Amazon “has the neighborhoods surrounded,” said Eppler. Roscoe said he is concerned that some neighborhood groups will successfully squeeze Amazon to fund various needs, leaving residents to live with the trucks with the blue smiles coming and going.

“Nobody speaks for our building,” said Roscoe. “We don’t want it. Nobody I’ve talked to is like, ‘Oh yes, good idea.’ The others in the coalition are going for community benefits — but what community benefits could they give us? Free gas masks? Lifetime cancer screenings? The benefit we need is to not be subjected to traffic and pollution.”

Doug Bloch, political director at Teamsters Joint Council 7, said Supervisor Walton’s push to delay planning on the project represents an escalation in the “trench warfare” the unions have been engaged in against Amazon over the past few years as the company has sought to build warehouses in and close to urban areas like Contra Costa County, Morgan Hill, Santa Rosa, Hayward, Gilroy and San Jose.

“The battle has come to San Francisco — this is the big one,” he said. “This is San Francisco saying we need to pause and evaluate this project and what it means for our communities and our workers.”

J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @sfjkdineen

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