Among the infinite array of options for recreation and entertainment in San Francisco, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research presents some unusual options. Its Financial District headquarters hosts a weekly slate of speeches, panels, and other events to rival any of the city’s rock clubs or discos – at least for audiences who think urban and regional planning is groovy.

Gabriel Metcalf
Gabriel Metcalf
That calendar is just one of the many programs sponsored by SPUR, a think tank and policy organization founded in 1906 to help the city rebuild from the earthquake and fires. Has it ever. With the economic boom of the past 20 years, some of it arguably promoted by SPUR, the organization has grown to cover much of the Bay Area and provide a prominent voice in the region’s countless planning debates. President and CEO Gabriel Metcalf joined SPUR in 1997 -- the year before Google’s first search engine came online -- and became executive director in 2005. In the intervening years, he has witnessed, commented on, and helped shape the region’s economic and demographic growth ever since.

Metcalf recently announced his departure for The Committee for Sydney, a SPUR-like organization in Australia’s largest city. He spoke with CP&DR’s Josh Stephens about his tenure in the Bay Area and his hopes for its future.

The Bay Area has changed dramatically since you joined SPUR. How do the actual changes match up with the changes you might have expected 21 years ago? 

It’s been such a fascinating time to work in the Bay Area. One thing that happened is the economy of the Bay Area became stronger and stronger and increasingly the different parts of the Bay Area have merged into a single economy, powered mainly by what we call “tech,” but not exclusively. People used to worry whether San Francisco had an economic future, as long-time headquarters firms kept moving out, and 20 years ago Silicon Valley was really in a different geography than San Francisco. Things are different now.

In contrast to the radical changes in the economy, the physical urban fabric of the Bay Area changed much less. The Bay Area did not add very much housing and didn’t add very much transit and this has been the source of all the trouble, as the failure to scale up the built environment to match the scaling up of the economy has driven housing costs through the roof and sent shockwaves of displacement across the urbanized region. And on the transportation side, it’s led to the famously impossible commutes for most people.

It’s still an incredible place, and it provides a really high quality of life. But nowadays you have to have a lot of money to be part of it without struggling.

What SPUR accomplishments are you most proud of? 

SPUR has been fortunate to be part of some very successful campaigns, coalitions, legislative efforts and ballot measures. We’ve helped secure billions of dollars for public transit expansions, affordable housing, parks and other public realm investments. SPUR has also been instrumental in a whole series of plans and rezonings that have enabled thousands of new buildings to be created in infill locations near transit.

Some of the wonkier efforts have been perhaps less visible to people, but I think just as important — restructuring city transportation agencies into a multi-modal integrated transit agency, getting the SFPUC out from under its rate freeze so it could rebuild the Hetch Hetchy water supply system, establishing a long-term capital planning process in city government, things like that.

But in the long run, SPUR’s biggest impact might be changing how people think. Really making the case for urbanism: for embracing compact growth and embracing the pedestrian and bike-oriented city instead of the car-oriented city.

Under your tenure, SPUR branched out formally to Oakland and San Jose. What did that expansion accomplish? 

The Bay Area, like Los Angeles, like many cities, has a poly-centric form. San Francisco is just 11 percent of the Bay Area’s population. At the same time, the big regional planning decisions are made by local governments rather than by regional agencies. So we came to believe that most important way we could impact regional planning issues was to create the capacity to go deep in the other big cities of the Bay Area. It’s still very early in this effort, but so far it’s been incredibly successful. I believe that we will not be able to solve the Bay Area’s most important problems unless we learn to come together as a region.

What positions has SPUR taken that were not embraced as much as you'd have liked and might have benefited the region had they been heeded? 

Starting in the mid 1990s, SPUR began calling attention to a crisis in housing supply. San Francisco had been adding population since the 1980 census and it was clear that our local planning system was much better at stopping bad things form happening than enabling good things to happen. It was clear already that if we didn’t make changes we were going to end up with a terrible shortage of housing and drive up costs.

We’ve had a lot of victories and a lot of losses on housing. But overall, any objective observer would agree that we have not managed to move the Bay Area nearly far enough on housing policy.

In his 2016 book The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies, Michael Storper had kind things to say about the Bay Area, especially its connections among civic leaders region-wide. Is he right, and can those connections persist? 

The Bay Area is very civically connected. In spite of some big policy disagreements, generally people are willing to engage with each other in a respectful way. That is a very good base to build on. The Bay Area needs to do a better job overcoming the jurisdictional fragmentation. It’s not just that 101 city governments competing for tax base. It’s also the 27 transit operators and the 149 school districts. If the civic connectedness is going to translate into real-world problem solving, we need to strengthen, we probably need to actually strengthen regional governance so that we can take on some of our problems in a more coordinated way.

Many old-time residents, especially in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, are concerned about the loss of community caused, in part, by the influx of tech workers and tech money. What do you make of those concerns? 

I think we need to honor people’s attachment to their communities. My own view is that opposition to new housing is not always driven by homeowners’ desire to drive up their own home values. So, I think this needs to be a respectful conversation.

For people who moved into their home a generation ago with the expectation that it would remain physically the same for the rest of their lives, I can understand how disturbing it must be to contemplate changes they never expected. At the same time, I think we need to help some of these long-time residents see that we are faced with a difficult dilemma. If we do not make a place for newcomers in our communities— which de facto means by allowing higher density apartment buildings and shifting a car-oriented way of life to a more transit-oriented way of life — then we are going to destroy the social fabric of our communities even while we hold on to the physical fabric.

I think we need to help long-time residents see that their progressive values, for example the idea that America should be a haven for immigrants from all over the world, require us to make some personal sacrifices by allowing neighborhood change we might not otherwise wish to have. I think these are conversations that need to happen with compassion and respect.

What made you choose Sydney? Do you anticipate parallels between Sydney and the Bay Area / California? 

Sydney is an incredible city, and yes, it does have a lot of parallels with the Bay Area. It has its own booming economy and its own struggles with affordability. It has its own low-density areas and its own struggles with transportation infrastructure. It has an energy and ambition that I love and I’m really excited to take everything I’ve learned here in the Bay Area and have the chance to apply it to another amazing world city.

What will you miss most -- or least -- about working in California? 

This is a special place, with some of the most brilliant, creative, interesting people in the world. In this moment in history, America needs California to live up to its highest potential as a beacon of hope — a real-world example of a socially inclusive, diverse, progressive, ecologically resilient, future-oriented society. The whole world is watching to see how the California model faces the challenges in the coming years.