October 19, 2023 - From the October, 2023 issue

SF Public Works’ Director, Carla Short, Rebuts City’s ‘Doom Scenario’ Narrative

Most every metropolis in America is facing crises regarding homelessness, public health, and housing affordability, but it seems no city takes the brunt of criticism more than San Francisco. With frequent reports detailing the city’s troubles, all eyes are on the city of San Francisco for their response. TPR spoke with the interim Director of Public Works in San Francisco, Carla Short, about her Department’s array of service responsibilities, her leadership challenges; and also, the many successful initiatives and programs now provided. Also, Short candidly addresses her controversial predecessor and the need for the public to look past the actions of one bad apple and recognize the dedication of many passionate and hardworking city servants.

Carla Short

“I don't want to minimize our challenges, but I think [SF has] a narrative and perception problem, perhaps even more than the challenges that we face.” - Carla Short, Interim Director of Public Works in San Francisco

TPR: What services is the San Francisco Board of Public Works responsible for delivering?

Carla Short: As one of the largest departments in San Francisco, our portfolio is very large. Our most public facing work is the Operations Division, which coordinates street cleaning. Public Works does not handle sanitation or service the city garbage cans, but we are responsible for putting the cans out on the street. We have mechanical street sweepers, litter patrol, and steam cleaning, as well as graffiti abatement. We also have some programs that I think are a little bit more innovative like our Pit Stop Public Toilet Program.

Additionally, we have the Urban Forestry Program, which is also under the Operations Division. The Urban Forestry Program is pretty visible to the residents of San Francisco. Back in November of 2016, San Franciscans passed a positive ballot measure which allowed us to take over all the street tree maintenance for the city. The program is called StreetTreeSF. Prior to this, we had a bifurcated maintenance program - property owners were responsible for maintaining some trees, the city was responsible for others, and there was no standard of care. This program changes all that.

We also have building repair as part of Operations. They take care of restoring plumbing in the county jail, fixing a railing in the library and providing maintenance for other civic buildings. We also have our Street Repair Program, which takes care of the public streets, for example, by filling potholes. These are our day-to-day public-facing programs.

On the other side of the house, we have our engineering, architecture and landscape architecture teams. These teams are very public facing as well, but people don't always recognize it. They are designing the roadways, engineering bridges, and checking on the safety of tunnels. Our architects design and project-manage new civic buildings that are legacy projects. We have a new community center in the southeast part of the city, which is an extraordinary project. Though I had only been in this job a short time when it opened, I like claiming it any chance I get. For the community center, we did the architecture and landscape architecture design, as well as the engineering. It is an incredible community asset.

We also have finance and administration, which delivers most of the capital projects for the city for other departments. Our finance team does hundreds of thousands of entries in our financial system every year. They are the unsung heroes behind the scenes. They also do contracts for many other departments in the city. And then we have our Bureau of Street-use and Mapping, which ensures that sidewalks and streets are safe and accessible by permitting and inspecting the use of the public right of way. The bureau also does surveying and maintains the official map of the City and County of San Francisco.

Elaborate, as interim director of Public Works, on the priority responsibilities you've recently assumed?

I think people don't fully realize that SF’s Public Works Department is a large department with strong community ties. Employees take a lot of pride in our work. There's a perception that city employees just stamp plans and take a paycheck, but that is not at all my experience. We have so many employees who care deeply about the work that they do and about the city. Many employees were born and raised in San Francisco or have lived here a long time. I always tell people that most of us are doing this because we love it and we're invested in it and we take pride in it.

Having said that, the Department is not without its challenges. One challenge comes from the recent checks and balances we have put in place - it means that we are not as nimble and fast as we used to be. We cannot just tell people that they can do what they want. We must look carefully at what's being proposed. This has been frustrating for some community folks who say that somebody used to let them do something, like paint a mural on a bridge, and we still want to let them do that, but now we must go through several steps first, because we have to make sure that somebody else doesn't want to also paint the bridge, or whatever the case may be.

Some of these corrections surely have made us a little bit more bureaucratic; people don't want to wait around, but they also don't want the Department to return to the status quo. And, the perception that we don't clean the streets is also super frustrating. I always say we know what we're doing, and we clean well. The problem is the streets don’t stay clean for very long due to some very real conundrums around street behavior that don’t have quick or easy solutions. Maintaining the cleanliness is a current challenge that we must face.

San Francisco also is a challenging place to build as well as one of the most expensive cities in the world to build. Part of that reason is because of really great policies that decisionmakers have put in place, for example, requiring that new buildings now use only electricity and not gas to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. But that means we have to have electricity going to those buildings and if we don't have that electricity, we have to bring it from somewhere else in the city and that adds to the cost. We’re a union town and that means we have union workers, and we make sure that they’re paid living wages. That means things are more expensive. The balance of wanting to be nimble and efficient with having bureaucracy and great policies and great wages, all of that makes things more expensive and more challenging.

Our readers increasingly are reading about doom scenarios for San Francisco street life and the negative impacts the aforementioned are having on demand for retail and office space. From your platform in city government, are such perceptions “real”; and if so, how is the city’s Public Works Department working to address current street conditions?

I don't want to minimize our challenges, but I think we have a narrative and perception problem, perhaps even more than the challenges that we face.

In the past, I think departments have been too siloed; we have not, historically, worked in tight coordination with our sister agencies like the Department of Public Health, the Police Department, and the Municipal Transportation Agency. That is changing and we are coordinating our efforts more effectively.

For example, we are part of a multi-agency task force that is on the ground every day tackling open-air drug markets and drug use. Our main job at Public Works is to go in after outreach workers connect people suffering from substance disorders with services, or police arrest dealers.  

I am heartened that the City is not sitting back in addressing the drug crisis. Imagine if somebody went into the Tenderloin neighborhood with a rifle and killed hundreds of people, we'd all be screaming for action. This drug crisis is killing hundreds of San Franciscans annually. It is an absolute public health crisis. We can’t be numb to it. We need to reframe this as the public health crisis that it is and focus on how we care for people. It's crazy how many people are dying from this opioid crisis every day. While our role at Public Works is somewhat limited, we take a lot of pride in our work and try to be part of the solution. These folks who signed up to be street cleaners also helped revive people from overdoses, which is not what they were expecting to do. We need all hands on deck and to look at every possible solution to address this issue.

Another example is our role in addressing San Francisco’s large illegal vending problem. I think LA has had some of these challenges, as well. There's a state law that decriminalizes vending, and I do think the law was well intended. It says that if you want to sell your handicrafts or your grandmother's old wardrobe, you can do that and it will not be a criminal act. But we find that there are a lot of stolen goods being sold. Public Works is responsible for enforcing this by issuing permits to vendors, and there are a lot of great people who will get the permit. But the people who are selling stolen goods are not generally the ones who are applying for permits.

This is a real challenge, and I do have to give kudos to our Street Inspection Team because their normal job, or what they thought their normal job was, is inspecting sidewalks for sidewalk defects, not inspecting sidewalks for people who are fencing illegal or stolen goods on the sidewalk. Public Works has done an incredible job working closely with the Police Department to rein this in and keep the sidewalks clear and accessible for people. The problem isn’t resolved but the street conditions have been improved, especially when our inspectors are on site. We run the operation seven days a week, and access to and from transit stops and neighborhood storefront businesses is noticeably improved.

Drilling down on your departmental responsibilities, how daunting are the sub-surface challenges to SF’s critical infrastructure - roads, pipes, water systems, coastal sea-rise caused by extreme weather events, etc.?

The challenges are huge. We recently had a big water main break, which impacted homes and businesses along several blocks. While our sister agency, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, runs the city’s water system, we had our engineers on site right away to check on the integrity of the roadway not just where the break occurred, but along adjacent blocks to make sure there were no related washouts that could result in street failure.

Ground-penetrating radar technology that identifies voids is not necessarily new, but is under-appreciated. In some areas of the roadway, the road looks okay for now, but if the subsurface washes out, we're in trouble. We're also core drilling, which means drilling little holes through the pavement to identify any gaps that must be addressed. Subsurface damage is not necessarily seen right away, but if the roadway collapses, everybody says, “How come we didn't see that coming?”

With storms and extreme weather events increasingly battering California and the nation, elaborate on whether there is increased interest in subsurface visualization technologies given the sizable cost & liability of not knowing what lies below city streets & new buildings.

Our hydraulic engineering team is looking at the existing infrastructure and modeling. What used to be called the 100-year storm is now happening on a five-year basis, or on an annual basis due to climate change. The hydraulic engineering team looks for capacity gaps – in other words, areas prone to flooding because the storm-management system serving that area does not have the capacity to handle heavy rainfall. In those cases, we look for possible solutions. Do we add more catch basins and expand the size of the pipes or is there another alternative?

I’m always pushing for nature-based solutions. For example, instead of installing a bigger pipe, can we mimic natural solutions and use green infrastructure, such bioswales that use rocks, soil and vegetation to capture rainwater and send less water into the storm drain or flooding onto the street? It can be a challenging sell to the public because, though it's being done in other parts of the country and even in some places in San Francisco, it is an expensive process if it's brand new. I would argue it's a lower cost in the long run, but there might need to be a bit of a capital investment. I think we must look at how we work with nature rather than always trying to manage it. That means looking for opportunities to capture water and have other co-benefits like rain, open space, and additional area for trees. This is not new technology per se, but it's one that I hope we will embrace more of as a city.

What about sea level rise? Is that a growing concern?

The primary focus for sea level rise in San Francisco is within the Port of San Francisco jurisdiction, but we are part of the City’s sea level working group that includes our engineers.  The Port is working on a big project with the Army Corps of Engineers, and we actually just went public with some preliminary ideas to get some feedback. We want to know what options are available to try and address sea level rise, and if there is any federal support. Again, I think there is a real opportunity for these nature-based solutions. San Francisco does have a historic waterfront, and we want to protect those assets. That means we're probably going to have to raise the seawall in places along the waterfront. We may also need to both repair and elevate our bridges to address projected sea level rise. Our role on the engineering side is to anticipate future conditions and design, build and retrofit accordingly.

Pivoting to building design and construction, San Francisco has experience with high rises sinking into the ground. Enlighten our readers, what are San Francisco’s unique building and construction challenges?

San Francisco has large areas that are built on fill, so as we design, we need to be sure we know what is underground. A lot of what we do is seismic retrofitting - taking old historic buildings and making them seismically sound in the event of an earthquake. When San Francisco was developed, a lot of it happened without all the infrastructure being planned systematically. For example, we're restoring the Mission Branch Library, which is the first of the branch libraries in San Francisco. It's in the Mission District, and was a Carnegie funded project. It's a beautiful building, but past efforts to make it more seismically sound diminished the elegance of that building. So now we are retrofitting it to be both seismically strong and to recapture the historical architectural splendor.

When we do projects like this, we constantly come across unforeseen conditions. We think we know how the foundation was laid in the past, and then when we start to do the work we realize, for example, that the footing doesn't protrude the way we thought it would, or maybe it protruded four more feet than we expected. How do we address that? I think that the unforeseen conditions are one of the biggest challenges we deal with, but we have a seasoned team of architects and engineers who are up to the task.

Address how difficult it is for Public Works to consistently maintain the cleanliness of city streets given, among other issues, the decriminalization of state local health and safety policies.  

Obviously, we do street cleaning every day, and there are also parts of the city that we clean multiple times a day. We do a good job with street cleaning, but because of the behavior of people on the streets, they can get dirty again really quickly.

Our Pit Stop Program is an innovative program that we developed in response to, unfortunately, many, many calls we received about human waste on the sidewalks. This program is a series of fixed units and mobile toilet facilities that are staffed. In Europe, it's common to go to a public bathroom and for there to be a monitor, and to potentially even have to pay a Euro. These bathrooms are generally pretty clean and feel pretty welcoming. We brought this model to the streets of San Francisco, focusing on areas with the largest number of service requests for steam cleaning, but also with an eye toward geographic equity so they weren’t all concentrated in San Francisco’s most impacted neighborhood.

These facilities certainly serve the unhoused and others who don’t have easy access to bathrooms, but they’re meant for anybody who needs a bathroom – students on a field trip, ride-share drivers, farmers market vendors. The Pit Stop Program has been really successful, modeled by other cities, including Los Angeles. When COVID hit, and the shelters were shut down and more people were living in tents, we were able to expand the program and quickly scale up to address the needs of so many people who may have previously been reliant on businesses for bathroom facilities, but suddenly faced all the businesses being closed. We are proud of this program, and it's one of our signature programs to address the cleanliness issue. And these bathrooms are for anyone! For people who say they wouldn’t use them, they should know that they are clean and safe. I use them. That's the whole idea. We want it to be a place that a tourist, a department head, or someone who is unsheltered can use and take care of a very human need with dignity.

Elaborate on the Department’s services focused on assuring healthy and clean streets in San Francisco.

Our primary jurisdiction is cleaning, but we work in partnership with other departments. An example of this is the Healthy Streets Operations Center, which is a multi-agency team that addresses encampments around the city. In San Francisco, we pride ourselves on being “services first.” Our homeless outreach team and public health professionals are the ones who first address the population and get people into shelter and services and then we clean around or clean up after the population. They ask if the person wants shelter and explains what is currently available. The public health professionals ask if people would like access to services, for example drug treatment programs.

Let’s turn to SF’s Urban Forestry program from which you were enticed from and into leading, as interim director, SF Public Works Department.

This could take the duration of this interview because I love talking about this program!

As I previously mentioned, in 2016 there was a local ballot measure, which got almost 80% of the vote, to take over maintenance for all the 125,000-plus street trees in San Francisco. Our goal is to have a very, very healthy urban forest in San Francisco and maximize the benefits from all our trees. We want to have an average of a three-to-five-year pruning cycle for all the street trees. Some species will require pruning more often, but most species can go five years or even longer. We were on track, but COVID set both our crews and contractors back. The urban forest is not just street trees, it's also the understory. We maintain medians and other open spaces, and all of this is contributing to the urban forest. We are looking at opportunities for planting native species to increase biodiversity.

That ballot measure was limited to maintenance funding, which is the hardest funding to get for trees, but then we were left without a steady stream of planting funding. I'm proud to report that we just received a $12 million grant from the Inflation Reduction Act that is going to allow us to focus on planting in areas of the city that have the lowest canopy coverage. This is critical from a heat and air quality resiliency perspective as well. It’s part of the city's overall resiliency goals to increase tree canopy in underserved communities. We’re focused on improving equity of the urban forest around the city and then, once planted, caring for them as long as possible because larger trees provide the greatest benefits. Most assets start to depreciate in value the minute they're complete. Trees are one of the few assets that actually appreciate in value as they grow. The larger and healthier the trees, the more benefits they provide to a city.

Lastly, S.F. Public Works Department has a stain on it from your predecessor's tenure. How are you working on bringing transparency and credibility back to the department?

In 2000, our then-director was arrested on public corruption charges and we have been working hard ever since to rebuild public trust. In addition to cooperating with multiple investigations, we immediately enacted new safeguards in contracting and grants to ensure transparency and fairness. We bolstered ethics training for all of our staff, and we did it with our own employees. We have a video that features our street inspectors as actors in these ethics training. We go through scenarios that we think our employees might face on the job and explain how to say no if somebody wants to offer an employee a gift that isn't appropriate. We got kudos recently from the American Public Works Association for our ethics training. We also now have commission oversight.

This department was tarnished but it’s important to remember that after extensive investigations, including by the FBI, there is no evidence that the corruption went beyond one person. It was horrible, but it should not define us as a department. I've been in the department for almost 20 years, and I care deeply about it, as do so many of my colleagues. We love this department, we love this city, and having that negative image out there affects us personally. We want to remind the public that there are a lot of hard working people at Public Works doing the right thing, coming to the job every day cleaning the streets, filling potholes, designing streets, managing civic construction projects. While the fallout from the scandal has been difficult, it has not broken us and in many ways has made us stronger by doubling down on our mission to serve the people of San Francisco.


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