THE CITY OF San Francisco’s management of the Bayview Vehicle Triage Center — a so called “Safe Parking” place for residents living in their vehicles — continues to be challenged by problems of its own making.

The latest stumble came this past Thursday when regional air quality regulators decided to redo public notice of the city’s application for a permit to run diesel generators at the site. Prior notice of the period for public comment was apparently not was given to the people living there.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the agency that decides permit applications for uses that may affect air quality in the region, advised Thursday that the comment period “has been re-noticed and that the notice is being delivered to the VTC residents.” The notice period now runs through May 1.

The setback is the just latest in the city’s attempt to create a safe place where people living in their cars or RVs can park and access supportive services. The site — an old parking lot in Candlestick Point State Recreation Area — was acquired through a two-year lease from the state that expires just after the end of this year.

The agency’s determination means that a decision on the permit will not happen, at the earliest, until approximately 16 months into the 24-month lease.

Despite public promises that the site would have electric service that would allow RVs to have power, the site has not yet been connected to PG&E’s grid. In the meantime, the city has only been able to power the overhead lights in the parking lot.

At first that lighting was provided by 16 small diesel generators that were loud and foul smelling, according to VTC residents.

The city did not get a permit for the generators. That attracted a federal lawsuit from a neighborhood group under the Clean Air Act. After the lawsuit, the city replaced the diesel generators with more than a dozen solar-powered pole lights. It also applied for a permit to run two large diesel generators that would provide “prime power” to the entire site, including the RVs, pending a connection to the grid.

Put it in writing

Because the Bayview area — home of many manufacturing and industrial uses — is an “overburdened community” as defined in the air quality regulations, public notice of an opportunity to comment on the permit application was required.

The regulations mandate that the notice be in writing and that the district or applicant (here the city) “distribute the notice … to each address within a radius of 1,000 feet of the source.”

The generators are to be placed within the VTC, very close to the vehicles parked there. Because of that proximity, residents of the VTC would arguably have the most immediate interest in air quality on the site.

In early March, Bay City News reported that some residents living in vehicles at the VTC said no notice of the comment period had been distributed to them.

In part because of the delay in getting prime power to the site, the Bayview VTC has only been able to accommodate 49 of the 155 vehicles initially planned.

Attempts at that time to find out if notice had been given to the residents were lateraled from the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) — the agency in charge of the VTC — to the Department of Public Works — the agency managing the electric project. DPW did not respond to the question of whether the residents had been notified.

The cost of services at the site has become an issue. In part because of the delay in getting prime power to the site, the VTC has accommodated far fewer vehicles than originally anticipated. While 155 vehicles were initially planned, the site has only had 49 to date. That has driven the per person cost higher than expected, according to HSH.

A Bay City News analysis in February calculated that the per person cost for the first year of operation of the VTC was $175,000, more than triple the city’s cost of providing a shelter bed to a person experiencing homelessness. The price differential is even sharper than that because the city must pay the cost of leasing or acquiring a shelter bed, whereas at the VTC, the resident stays in their own vehicle.

The cost issues at the site result to some extent from the fact that the city only has a two-year lease on the site and much of its spending has been on capital items that could theoretically serve for a longer period.

‘Not a permanent project’

When the concept of the site was first presented to the Bayview neighbors, Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for HSH, emphasized that the site would only be in service for two years.

Cohen promised the neighbors that “this is a temporary proposal, this project is intended to be short term. This is not a permanent project. We are working towards a two-year lease with state parks.”

The Bayview neighbors were skeptical, citing a long history of city decisions to site unpopular land uses in Bayview and Hunters Point.

Those neighbors proved correct.

In a March 20 presentation to a community working group, the city advised that it was going to open discussions with the state about extending the two-year lease.

The Bayview Vehicle Triage Center at Candlestick Point in San Francisco is shown. Neighbors of the site have been skeptical of the city’s claims that the two-year project to provide a safe parking site for homeless people is only temporary. (Google image)

The next day, Cohen emailed the director of the California State Park and Recreation Commission and formally requested an extension.

She reported that in the operation of the VTC, “we have been able to provide a safe, clean, and dignified place for people living in their vehicles to stay while connecting with social services and housing assistance.”

The letter did not mention the cost or power issues, nor the promise to the neighbors.

Shirley Moore is vice president of the Bayview Hills Neighborhood Association. She said the association is vehemently opposed to the extension. She is angry about the initial decision to open the VTC and she challenges every aspect of its operation, especially its cost.

She says that San Francisco uses the Bayview District as its dumping ground for the city’s “societal ills.”

No country club

It is particularly concerning to Moore that between this winter’s flooding and the VTC, the state park has become inaccessible to the neighbors. She believes that never would have happened in any other part of the city.

She tells of taking her grandchildren to Golden Gate Park because of the condition of the nearby state park.

“My grandchildren call that the ‘country club’. They like going to the country club because there is nothing out here in this area even remotely like [that],” Moore said.

She said she isn’t surprised that the city is seeking an extension of the lease.

“It has always been my opinion … once they got it here, they were going to keep it here as long as they could keep it here permanently,” Moore said.

Joe Dworetzky, Bay City News

Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist. He practiced law in Philadelphia for more than 35 years, representing private and governmental clients in commercial litigation and insolvency proceedings. Joe served as City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia under Mayor Ed Rendell and from 2009 to 2013 was one of five members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission with responsibility for managing the city’s 250 public schools. He moved to San Francisco in 2011 and began writing fiction and pursuing a lifelong interest in editorial cartooning. Joe earned a Master’s in Journalism from Stanford University in 2020. He covers Legal Affairs and writes long form Investigative stories. His occasional cartooning can be seen in Bay Area Sketchbook. Joe encourages readers to email him story ideas and leads at