On Tuesday San Franciscans voted— by a roughly 2-to-1 margin— to reject Propositions B and C, two measures which would have allowed developers to move forward with plans to build a tiered high-rise condominium building at 8 Washington Street along the Embarcadero. The crux of this issue was whether this one parcel of land should be granted an exemption from the height limit prescribed in the city code— the code permits 84 feet, and the developers wanted 136. Reasonable minds can differ about the impact this would have on the surrounding area, but then these campaigns weren’t propagated by reasonable minds. Despite all the heated rhetoric however, it’s hard to get too riled up for either side. Here’s why.
In theory, under the US and California Constitutions and the City Charter, the people elect representatives to make policy decisions on their behalf and to underpin those policies with sound law. Both the state and city, however, have carved out an exception in the form of the citizen initiative or referendum. I do believe there exists a rare need for these, when elected politicians are too craven or self-interested to act (for example, in setting electoral districts or switching to open primaries). However the bar to putting an initiative on the ballot is far too low and favors anyone with enough money to pay signature-gatherers. As a result, direct democracy has failed this state and city time and again. Whether you think Props B and C are another failure depends on your viewpoint, but they do exemplify what’s wrong with the system.
These propositions did not concern civil rights, government overreach, legislators’ salaries, political retribution or any other matter which we suspect our elected officials may not be able to handle fairly. They concerned building codes, specifically height variances. This is exactly the sort of issue that we elect representatives to deal with. In fact it’s so routine that it would normally only receive a hearing by an appointed commission, not the Board of Supervisors, although obviously exceptions are wisely granted in high profile, high stakes cases. One might think that with 11 Supervisors for only 800,000 people, San Franciscans would be well-represented. But in this city (and state) voters expect to have a say in just about anything, all the while complaining about how many things we are supposed to vote on. But when voters don’t stand back and let their representatives do their jobs, the constituency becomes ungovernable. (Just witness how many times Californians have voted to increase spending, cut taxes and allocate revenue to certain purposes— and then complained about politicians who can’t balance the budget.) Props B and C never should have been put to voters. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that voters were faced with TWO nearly identical propositions, one a referendum placed on the ballot by the project’s opponents and one an initiative placed by the supporters. Can you spot any difference?
Yet some would argue that the results justify the means. 8 Washington was approved by every the Planning Commission and the Port Commission as well as the Board (twice), yet voters overwhelmingly rejected it. If the Board is supposed to represent the people, they manifestly failed. But representatives cannot— and should not— hold all the same views and beliefs as their constituents. Presumably the Board (and the commissions) were much better informed about the project than the average voter. The only thing at stake here was one building with a fairly small footprint— it’s not as if this project would drastically alter the waterfront or change the character of the city (despite what opponents claimed). Perhaps the Supervisors deliberated and truly believed the benefits of this project to the city outweighed the drawbacks faced by the neighbors. And if the voters don’t agree with the Supervisors’ decisions, they can vote for new representatives at the next election. That’s how our democracy is supposed to work.
The real impact from Props B and C goes far beyond 8 Washington. In truth, whether that building is 136 or 84 feet, no one will notice the difference and it will not matter much to most of the city. But this battle will be fought more and more often in the future now that voters have been introduced to zoning from the ballot box. Whenever a (wealthy) developer doesn’t get his way, whenever a (wealthy) neighborhood association doesn’t like the new element, expect the normal adjudication processes to be increasingly side-stepped in favor of a direct, emotional appeal to the apparently unrepresented electorate. No doubt some of the supporters and opponents of Props B and C will find themselves on the opposite side next time— and will fail to note the irony.
What the city really needs is a development plan for the waterfront. Starting with the construction of Pacific Bell (now AT&T) Park some fifteen years ago, the waterfront has seen a boom in development from Fisherman’s Wharf to Mission Bay, mostly owing to the conversion of old piers and industrial space. To treat each project in isolation is foolish and sets up political battles like the one that just (maybe) ended. A comprehensive plan would answer questions like height variances before they end up in front of voters and would help ensure that this underutilized, historic, beautiful and extremely valuable space is put to good use in a manner that everyone in the city can enjoy.
Lies & Deception
To no one’s surprise, both sides used misleading and deceitful language to press their points. Proponents of the plan barely acknowledged the height limit increase, by far the plan’s most contentious element. Instead they pointed to the additional tax revenue, the new public open space, the eyesore currently in the lot and the fact that the plan has been approved by every government committee and board it has faced. Those are all good, fair points, but in failing to address the height limit increase, the “Yes” camp did not address voters’ primary concern about the project. The proponents acted as if there was nothing out-of-the-ordinary about this project and they could not understand why anyone would oppose it.
The plans opponents, however, were no more virtuous. They argued, with no evidence, that 8 Washington would only be the first of a series of high-rises that would eventually block off the entire northern waterfront and turn the area into Miami Beach. “Stop The Wall” was the rallying cry, despite the fact that no wall was imminent and that the parcel is currently surrounded by a chain-link fence. Opponents compared the project to the Fontana Towers off Aquatic Park which, when built in 1965, blocked the views of hundreds of Russian Hill residents and eventually spurred the city to impose the current height limits along the waterfront. This comparison, while emotionally effective, is disingenuous since the views from Telegraph Hill would not have been obscured, and only some would be slightly impeded. Absurdly then, the very crux of the issue was ignored by one side and blown out of proportion by the other.
Millionaires vs. Multi-Millionaires
The “Yes” and “No” camps also diverged on whom would benefit most from the 8 Washington development, and both sides shamelessly played the class card. Proponents argued that the site was currently occupied by a private tennis and swim club (this is the property of the nearby Bay Club, a health/fitness center where membership is well over $200 per month). The project would open up some of this land to public park space. They also pointed out that the developers would pour tens-of-millions into the city’s affordable housing fund, not to mention the millions in additional property tax revenues raised by sale of the condominiums. Opponents countered that this high-rise would contain some of the most expensive condos ever to hit our property market and would serve only the super wealthy. For good measure they pointed out the the measures were supported by big corporate interests. This argument is likely what caught the attention of voters who are fed up with the increasing costs and gentrification in the city.
In this case, both sides were telling the truth while obscuring their own motives. Proponents, including the mayor and most of the Board of Supervisors, want the super wealthy there because they pay so much in property tax. Perhaps they are also spurred by a genuine desire to improve the site (it’s pretty ugly and off-putting in its current fenced-off state). But an 84 foot building would be an improvement too— it just wouldn’t bring in as much revenue. From the developer’s standpoint a smaller building may not justify the expense of building it.
The opponents allied themselves with noble (or noble-sounding) groups, like the Sierra Club, The Democratic Party of SF (not to mention the Republicans too) and various political and neighborhood alliances. But they were primarily bankrolled by a few wealthy neighbors in the Golden Gateway and Embarcadero Center towers who simply objected to losing part of their view (and possibly to the noveau riche as well). Their argument that the 8 Washington project would only benefit the super rich rang hollow since the neighborhood is already full of wealth. In addition, their opposition to high rises on the waterfront was shameless given that they the main backers were owners of high rises on the waterfront! And who else is going to live on the SF waterfront anyway? The fight these neighbors put up against luxury condos would pale compared to their reaction if the city ever tried to build subsidized housing or homeless shelters there.
Ultimately I voted for Props B and C despite my distaste for the “Yes” campaign and for being asked the question at all. Any variance in the zoned height limit is concerning, especially along the waterfront. But this city has to grow and our only option is up. Contrary to popular belief, we do have some vertical height to spare. The key is to plan properly and evaluate the best height limits for different areas. Nobody wants our city to turn into Manhattan, and our politicians are keenly aware of this. I trust that new development plans, drawn up in accordance with countless neighborhood associations, environmental groups and city planners, will be kept modest (too modest in some cases). From what I could tell, 8 Washington would not drastically have deviated from its surroundings. The building was tiered and the tallest portion (the 136 foot tall part) was set back from the Embaracdero along Drumm Street, near similarly tall existing buildings. In addition, the project would be a huge improvement on the current parking lot/tennis courts/swimming pool/chain link fence (anything would improve on that really). It would add tens of millions of dollars to the affordable housing fund, raise millions in new property tax each year, create public park space (admittedly not much) and extend Jackson Street through to the Embarcadero. And this would all be on a fairly small footprint of land and would not, I believe, lead to an imminent “wall” of high rises along the waterfront. The additional height is an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to make to get all this.
This entire episode reflects the city’s biggest obstacle to wise growth (and no, I’m not talking about geography). Most people in the city agree on at least one issue: we need to grow to accommodate more people while retaining our character and beauty. Housing, which has always been expensive here, has become shockingly out-of-reach in the past two years. One part of solving that problem has to be increasing the housing stock at all points along the socioeconomic spectrum. And even though we mostly all agree on this, whenever citizens are asked for their input, the answer is always Not In My Back Yard. “Rents are too high in my neighborhood. ‘Normal’ hard-working people like myself can no longer afford to live here. But don’t build that new apartment building. The neighborhood is too crowded already, and it will just be those Facebook types who move in.” (The unspoken coda to this oft-repeated refrain is, “Besides, my apartment is rent-controlled or I own my home, so it’s not my problem.”) The people of San Francisco need to face reality. We live in a very popular city, where demand far outstrips supply and always will. No matter how many laws we pass and how much control we try to exert, property will always go to the highest bidder. (Not to mention the fact that most of these anti-landlord laws only distort the market and raise prices further.) We need to allow the city to grow which means planning for new housing and spreading out the burden evenly.
For a city that views itself as being so progressive, we are stubbornly and stupidly allergic to change. Just as national politics has the Tea Party, we have the falsely-labeled “Progressives”, such as Aaron Peskin, Chris Daly, Art Agnos, etc. They resolutely cling to a flower-child version of San Francisco that never existed, and their sole purpose seems to be to thwart change. But change is inevitable, and the sooner we accept that, the better we can steer it in wise directions before it thrusts itself upon us.
So what happens next to 8 Washington? It is too early to tell but I imagine one of two outcomes is possible. One, nothing happens. The property remains an expensive private club cordoned off by an ugly chain-link fence. And I guess some people will consider that a victory. Or two, the developers proceed but adjust their plan and keep the building within the current height limit. Since they no longer need a variance, they will not have to make as many accommodations like building a public park. The smaller scope will result in less money going into the affordable housing fund and less property tax being collected each year. And the millionaires who would have lived there will buy some other property in the city, outbidding a less wealthy buyer and thus further raising home prices. I suppose some people will consider that a victory too. But no matter what happens, one thing is certain. The neighbors will continue to complain about the cost of living in the city and about the lack of available housing, all while continuing to pay the same below-market rents and property taxes they have been paying for years. And developers will be put off by the hassle and expense of building in the city so housing stock will remain low. That hardly seems fair. Maybe there’s some referendum I can put on the next ballot to fix that….