I find it hard to eke out the time to write for UrbDeZine I am so busy with those pesky paying clients. As anyone who looks around or reads the trade press can tell you, the development economy is San Francisco is very good indeed. However, as we all know, capitalism is by its very nature boom and bust, and especially so in Francisco, ever since its founding in the 1849 Gold Rush. And as we also know, the San Francisco electorate is notoriously nervous about changes to the physical fabric of the city. It was this latter phenomena that gave us a serious jolt on November 5.
A miniscule development (134 condos) 136’ high, across the street from a 230’ existing apartment building, an $11m contribution to the affordable housing fund ($2m more than required, and enough to generate funds to build 50-55 affordable units by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and the excellent non-profits in the City.) It should have been a no-brainer. It was to the Planning Department, the Planning Commission, the Rec and Park Commission, the Port Commission (which owns a small piece of the site), the State Lands Commission, and the Board of Supervisors.
Through a contentious and very expensive eight year planning process, the development handily passed every vote, mostly unanimously. Why then did a disgruntled group of citizens put the development on the ballot to rescind the zoning, and why did they win with a landslide in this very small turn-out election?
Now ballot box zoning is always a bad idea, just as ballot box civil rights votes are a bad idea, but a group of wealthy well-funded opponents (a national developer who owns 450’ to 570’ buildings a long block away threw in $150k and an out-of-state resident who owns a nearby pied-à-terre threw in almost $500k) were able pay signature gatherers to collect a mere 31,000 signatures to vacate the height limit passed by the Supervisors. Knowing a good offense is better than a good defense, the developer put a competing initiative measure on the ballot validating all the design details passed by the City.
Now once the opponents’ referendum made it to the ballot, it was always going to be an uphill fight…greedy developers (despite the truth that the developer has a suburb track record of fine projects in the neighborhood), high rises on the waterfront (despite the fact that 134’ is barely a mid-rise in San Francisco and the opposing developer is currently building a 1000’ tower nearby, and that the site is across the Embarcadero from the Port and hardly on the waterfront), a deal by crooked politicians (simply not the case).
The crux of the referendum was that the existing zoning was 85’ and the development as entitled ranged from 136’ at the rear to 0’ at a new public park the developer would build and maintain in perpetuity, with an average height of 27’ across the site. Now you may ask, what developer would be so stupid to try and break the height limit along the waterfront? In fact, not this one. The developer initially proposed a fully-conforming 85’ project, by one of the Bay Area’s finest architects.
The neighborhood group who had been opposing every development that had ever been proposed for this site, and opposing this particular development for several years, got their district Supervisor to call for a 7-week community planning exercise. Dozens of meetings and 17 months later, the result of the that exercise was that the Planning Department recommended that that the development step up in the back to 136’ and down in the front, splitting the difference from the 85’ zoning. With some trepidation, but with the backing of the City, the developer redesigned the project doing just what the City requested.
This became the hook the opposition was looking for after none of their other objections held sway: breaking the sacred height limits along the waterfront. “No wall on the waterfront” became the battle cry.
While that was always going to be an uphill battle to counter, as the last couple of months unfolded, it became clear that to the majority of the electorate, the battle wasn’t over this frankly tiny development at all. It was about “the soul of San Francisco.”
On almost a daily basis there were news stories about buildings being “Ellised out” (the Ellis Act allows an apartment owner to go out of business as a rental; many then sell the units as Tenancies in Common.) Articles about the 6,500 housing units currently under construction in the city, articles about $5,000 a month rents for a 2-bedroom apartment. Our little blue-collar port town was being taken over by techies and other out of town yuppies and driving the “real San Franciscans” out of their city. High rises were destroying views. 8 Washington became the focus of a panoply of both real and imagined frustrations.
It is well known that in the US and around the world in general, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is getting squeezed. The world is becoming two worlds. It is also true that San Francisco has a long-standing imbalance of housing supply and demand, ever driving up prices. And the more economically successful the city becomes, the worse these problems get.
The developer of 8 Washington was accused of everything but beating his wife; he would have been accused of that too but it wasn’t necessary; every other possible distortion stuck. All the real frustrations of the electorate over the excesses of capitalism at this moment in time were tied to this one small development.
The other thing that became apparent was the complete distrust of government and politicians. San Francisco’s vaunted progressives are indistinguishable from the Tea Partiers when it comes to this. It was all one big conspiracy led by crooked politicians and bureaucrats. No matter that this was completely imagined. Off with their heads.
So what are the impacts now that the voters have spoken? First, perhaps the best design that will ever be proposed for this site is dead, and the site is likely to sit for years or decades in its current ugly and underutilized state. But that’s the least of it. Moribund careers of politicians who rode the wave of fury have been revived. It is certain the proposed Warriors arena will be the subject of a future ballot. The only question is who puts it on, the Warriors or their opponents? Or both? Other controversial development projects (and what San Francisco project isn’t?) will be put on the ballot if the opponents can find a deep pocket. And another cycle of relative peace in the development and class warfare wars in San Francisco is over.
We are back to the fighting over every project, which will decrease the rate of production of both affordable and market rate housing, increase the price of new and old housing units alike, increase the number of Ellis Act evictions, and generally do everything a majority of the electorate was really fighting against.
It would seem the alternative is simple: prepare general plans and follow them, increase the supply of housing to better match the demand, and fund more affordable housing. 8 Washington would have contributed to this, but that is not to be.