Guardian Voices: There's something happening here

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There are distinct signs of the rebirth of a grassroots  balanced-growth  movement in San Francisco, and some small indication that it’s even beginning to shift, ever so slightly,  the politics of the Board of Supervisors.  This is very good news for the vast majority of San Franciscans.

First, a little history.

Land use and the approval of major development projects lie at the very heart of San Francisco politics. Developers and their allies (the building trades, contractors, bankers, architects, land-use lawyers, consultants, and  permit expeditors) are the primary source of political money for candidates for local office. Since the freeway and urban renewal fights of the 1960s, the very definition of  progressive  politics in San Francisco has been the attempt to build a political base of  residents to resist that money.  So-called moderates are simply the political extension of the pro-development lobby using its money to consolidate developer control of the public approval process.

In most cities, land-use issues -- zoning, permits, urban design -- is left to elites. Not so in San Francisco. Here, land use is talked about at neighborhood meetings and on street corners. The heart the reason is our compact size: 46.7 square miles, and the prohibition of filling in any more of the Bay to create new land. There is no vacant land in San Francisco. Any new major development almost always displaces something already there.  Development is a zero sum game, with winner and losers.  And the losers  leave town.

Land-use politics is about staying here -- and that creates real interest among San Francisco residents.

The funding for major development in San Francisco has dramatically changed in the 45 years since the freeway and anti-urban-renewal fights of the mid-1960s. Back then, it was public sector money that fueled development. Yet, with that money, due to the actions of  progressive politicians like Phil and John Burton and George Moscone, came its own remedy: votes to not accept the public money for freeways (Moscone) and votes creating either laws that either prohibited displacement or funded legal assistance to the poor, empowering  them to stop government agencies through litigation (the Burtons at both the state and federal level).

Since the money for freeways and urban renewal was from the government, the focus of the early balanced growth  forces was on government itself, through massive lobbying campaigns to affect officials’ votes (the freeway fight), or the use of government-funded lawyers  to protect poor people’s  interests ( the WACO and TOOR lawsuits against redevelopment).

All of that changed starting in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan deregulated oversight of urban development by creating a system of  block grants and ended funding for legal assistance for the poor.  Large-scale development was effectively privatized, moving it from being designed, funded, and approved at public meetings by government officials following regulations to being designed and funded in private -- and having a Kabuki-play-like public approval process with little real oversight. With the passage of Prop 13 in 1978, which limited the main source of local government revenue -- property taxes -- local governments became even more reliant on private developer money to create new revenue.

The popular response to this change in the development process in San Francisco was the emergence of a politics that relied on the old progressive-era reforms of the initiative, referendum, and recall. Through a series of initiatives, the community sought to impose regulations on the development process, culminating in the 1986 Proposition M, which actually limited the amount of high-rise office space developers could build, completely imposing the popular will over a supine set of local officials and politicians. Indeed, ten years earlier, again through the initiative processes, the very nature of the Board of Supervisors was changed from a developer-friendly at-large system to a district-election system. Hotly opposed by real estate and development interests, district elections in its brief three years of existence (repealed in the wake of the Moscone-Milk assassinations, even though they were both strong supporters of the system and their assassin opposed it…ironies abound in San Francisco politics) saw limits placed on condo conversions and the passage of rent control.

In each of these multi-year efforts, a citywide coalition was formed, including an ever-expanding set of communities and neighborhoods.  Common interests were defined that cut across race, class, and geography and issues of community (neighborhood) control and funding for essential services like Muni, affordable housing, childcare, and employment training were placed on the table – and developers had to address them if they wanted projects approved.

The point is that balanced growth came from community-based political forces, not elected officials.  Broad movements were built -- in the end, encompassing elements of labor. These were victories won not by elected officials but by a popular movement.

In 2000, in the wake of  the dot-com bust, another balanced-growth measure, Prop. L, aimed at cutting then-Mayor Willie Brown’s power over development, was paired with the new district election system -- and a broad coalition of forces including labor, community and neighborhood organizations won a major progressive victory.

Every candidate for supervisor who supported the balanced-growth measure won. Every candidate who opposed it and supported Brown lost. While Prop L narrowly lost, its policies and objectives were passed as ordinances by the new Board of Supervisors (banning live-work lofts, closing loopholes in the planning code, requiring neighborhood-based plans for the Mission, SOMA, and Potrero Hill).

But as is so often the case, the victory of 2000 led to the slow dissolution of the coalition that created it. Folks had won. Our supervisors could handle all these issues; we no longer had to. By the end of the term of the supervisors elected as the class of 2000, very little of that citywide coalition existed any more.

With the Great Recession of 2008, advances were rolled back.  Fees on local developers for affordable housing, childcare and transit were deferred in order to stimulate development.  A new era of “moderation” was announced by elected officials, led by Mayor Gavin Newsom. Desires to “attract and retain”  business saw new tax concessions in the name of “jobs” and a new willingness to use open space and public facilities for “private/public partnerships” was announced.

By 2012 any concept of balanced growth had been replaced with a new era of “cooperation” between city officials and developers.

Until recently, that is.

It should be clear to all that for the last four years, City Hall has been eager to approve any scheme presented by private developers -- from the America’s Cup nonsense to highrise luxury condos on the waterfront. The siren song of the developers -- more revenue if you approve our project -- has been proven false again and again, as the revenue never really matches the real costs of these projects. The city’s essential services continue to shrink. Transit fees are too low to pay for the actual new costs of Muni. The affordable housing  fees are too little to actually meet the affordable housing needs of the new, poorly-paid workers employed in the retail and service industry that is always a part of these projects.

More and more of our parks and public open spaces are made available to private users, while few if any new public parks or open spaces are being created.  Indeed, the Department of Parks and Recreation often opposes new public parks -- because it can’t maintain what it has.

So it is with fondness that these old eyes see the stirring of what appears to be the awakening political  giant of a new controlled-growth movement.

Here’s how it’s happening: The formation of a multi-neighborhood coalition to oppose fee increases at the Arboretum leads to a bigger coalition to oppose artificial turf  fields in western Golden Gate Park, which leads to an even-bigger coalition placing a policy statement against the privatization of Coit Tower on the ballot and winning.

These are important indications of a broad dissatisfaction with the endless private-public-partnership ( in which all the costs are public and all the profits are private) babble from Rec and Park.

The submission by a broad based coalition of more than 30,000 signatures to place the 8 Washington on the ballot -- the first land-use referendum in decades -- is an incredibly important achievement, and shows the popular sentiment against much of the City Hall happy talk about development on the waterfront.

But it was the unanimous ( yes, unanimous) vote by the Board of Supervisors last Tuesday to hold California Pacific Medical Center accountable for its constant shape shifting  on its massive project at Geary and Van Ness that shows, perhaps, the outline of the potential future of the balanced-growth movement in San Francisco.

Six supervisors stated their willingness to turn down the environmental impact report on the project unless Sutter/CPMC committed to a project that addressed not only the promise to keep St. Luke’s open for at least 20 years but also hired more San Franciscans, corrected the traffic nightmare predicted for Geary and Van Ness, provided more affordable housing for its own low-income new workforce, and committed  to cap the city’s health care costs as a result of CPMC’s market control the new project would create.

There is always the possibility that the two-week delay will go nowhere, but this kind of talk from this Board of Supervisors to a huge private developer simply has not occurred in the recent past.  No one from Room 200 showed up to twist supervisors’ arms in favor of Sutter.  Sutter was on its own and got rolled.

The coalition that fought Sutter to a standstill at the board, that defined the inadequacies of  the project listed by the supervisors, was a multi-neighborhood, multi-issues organization composed of community, neighborhoods, and labor. Middle class “Baja” Pacific Heights residents and low income seniors from Bernal Heights, non-profit affordable housing advocates and trade unionists, tenant organizers from the Tenderloin and Sierra Club members from the Haight-Ashbury; single moms from the Bayview and Filipino youth from the South of Market.

It was a San Francisco coalition, one that has been working together for nearly three years, blending issues, making concessions to one another and staying together.  A group like this with a set of demands such as these has not prevailed at City Hall for nearly a decade.  It still may not, indeed the chances are slim that its full demands will be achieved.

But this group moved the Board of Supervisors in a way not seen in years.  If the folks mobilized about our parks and the folks mobilized about our waterfront and the folks mobilized about CPMC get together, we have something very big happening. And it might be just in time to make a real difference.
It reminds me of an old saying: “ The people alone are the makers of world history.”

Comments

Our side is finally rearing up on its hind legs after seven years of lying in a pool of protoplasm in Civic Center Plaza.

This will only be sustainable and meaningful if petition and ballot campaigns are translated into organizing opportunities.

Would that the same concern was shown about developer-friendly upzoning in the Mission District that we saw for the northern waterfront...

Posted by marcos on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 9:55 am

Change nothing anywhere ever! Carmel by the sea or die!

Posted by Greg on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 10:24 am

We changed the Embarcadero by tearing down the freeway.

Boosters like you whined that people never wanted to change things when they erected that monstrosity in the 1950s.

I bet you supported retaining the Embarcadero Freeway.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 11:28 am

So now you're in cahoots with mother earth?
"we" ?? The loma prieta earthquake was the death knell for the embarcadero freeway which should never have been built in the form that It was. 8 Washington is nothing like the EF despite the hysteric hyperbole of the change nothing anywhere ever set.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

WE San Franciscans voted to tear down the Embarcadero, WE tore down the freeway, WE changed things, YOU lie.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

Mother nature started the plan to take down the freeway. If the structure hadn't been severely damaged, then having it come down would have been a non starter. I'm grateful it came down, but Its never fun to watch Marcos shiny head gloating and patting himself on the back for something.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

Yes. It should have never been built. That said it is obvious that every time public funds are spent to build something -- or public funds are spent to tear something that at great public expense has been built -- that private interests manage to profit quite hansomely based on their political connectedness.

I don't like that at all.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

That's not progress in the minds of most people. But I guess if you want to live in a theme park, it's OK.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 10:24 am

Xactly.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 11:57 am

One thing you forgot to mention is the phenomenal, obscene, insulting amount of money these developers make, beyond the imagination of nearly anyone who doesn't see it with their own eyes.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 11:59 am

Bitter that you're not getting any of it?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

There is a kind of money that you look at and go WOW thats a lot, thats amazing. There is a kind of money where you look at it and just kind of surrender and follow around like a puppy. Then there is the kind of money where the smile instantly vanishes from your face and that dazzled sparkle leaves your eye, and you become angry and insulted.

When you see just one, or a small handful of people make 200 million dollars on one condo project...I mean when you see it up close with your own eyes so it becomes a reality....you freeze up. You become angry. You realize you have just been insulted.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

And the two donors who dropped almost all of the funding for the anti 8 washington people? They're mom and pop artisanal thimble makers ? I guess immense wealth is a negative until you need to leverage it for your own interests.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

Yeah, old school successful white people who are still of the old fashioned mindset that government should not be bought and sold to the highest bidder who then gets free run of the waterfront.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 12:33 pm
Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

Here is the story with your old school successful white people:

http://www.socketsite.com/archives/2012/07/the_money_and_motivation_behi...

In essence: They own a 2.5 million dollar condo with views that would be blocked by the 8 washington development. This is as pay to play as it gets. These people bought themselves potentially a special election just so they dont lose a view.

That you support this process is beyond Eff'd. Democracy indeed.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 10:02 am

It's always amazing to me that so many cranks that clearly hate the left wing slant of the bay guardian put the effort into scanning the articles just so they can spew in the comment section. Wouldn't it be more comforting to go cheerlead the Chronicle or something?

You are clearly outnumbered here and we see you for what you are. Ignorant, ahistorical transplants who moved into SF sometime after 2001, once the tsunami that was the dot.com boom had done it's damage. Are you actually trying to convince anyone of the soundness of your argument or do you just love your own voice when you spew your contrarianism?

Not all of us are driven by profits above human cooperation. Some of us realize a house is just some building materials that keeps the rain off your head and spending a million dollars for the privilege of renting it from the bank (ie a mortgage) makes you kind of dumb. After the collapse of the financial ponzi scheme and the shady housing market, some of us have very little faith or love of the markets you so worship, so your arguments don't really stand up. But the comment section isn't about real communication so rage on, cranks, if it makes you feel less impotent.

Posted by Sigmarlin on Jul. 21, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

It's always amazing to me that so many cranks that clearly hate the left wing slant of the bay guardian put the effort into scanning the articles just so they can spew in the comment section. Wouldn't it be more comforting to go cheerlead the Chronicle or something?

You are clearly outnumbered here and we see you for what you are. Ignorant, ahistorical transplants who moved into SF sometime after 2001, once the tsunami that was the dot.com boom had done it's damage. Are you actually trying to convince anyone of the soundness of your argument or do you just love your own voice when you spew your contrarianism?

Not all of us are driven by profits above human cooperation. Some of us realize a house is just some building materials that keeps the rain off your head and spending a million dollars for the privilege of renting it from the bank (ie a mortgage) makes you kind of dumb. After the collapse of the financial ponzi scheme and the shady housing market, some of us have very little faith or love of the markets you so worship, so your arguments don't really stand up. But the comment section isn't about real communication so rage on, cranks, if it makes you feel less impotent.

Posted by Sigmarlin on Jul. 21, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

It's always amazing to me that so many cranks that clearly hate the left wing slant of the bay guardian put the effort into scanning the articles just so they can spew in the comment section. Wouldn't it be more comforting to go cheerlead the Chronicle or something?

You are clearly outnumbered here and we see you for what you are. Ignorant, ahistorical transplants who moved into SF sometime after 2001, once the tsunami that was the dot.com boom had done it's damage. Are you actually trying to convince anyone of the soundness of your argument or do you just love your own voice when you spew your contrarianism?

Not all of us are driven by profits above human cooperation. Some of us realize a house is just some building materials that keeps the rain off your head and spending a million dollars for the privilege of renting it from the bank (ie a mortgage) makes you kind of dumb. After the collapse of the financial ponzi scheme and the shady housing market, some of us have very little faith or love of the markets you so worship, so your arguments don't really stand up. But the comment section isn't about real communication so rage on, cranks, if it makes you feel less impotent.

Posted by Sigmarlin on Jul. 21, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

Its always amazing to me that people who devote so much time and effort into attempting to write an intelligent response on here are then not smart enough to realize that comments don't show up immediately after hitting save. Three times it takes this person to figure that out!
No wonder it hurts their ears to hear anything contrary to doctrine.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 21, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

Sigmarlin, there are many of us who consider ourselves left-wing who still have lots of problems with the Guardian's slant. Is there supposed to be no dissent in the comments at all? Just a lot of "Yes, Bruce, Yes, Tim, Yes, Steven, Yes Calvin, let's go wave torches and pitchforks at City Hall and smoke a lot of weed doing it" 24-7?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

Four or five articles in row by Calvin. Must being getting desperate now that the pendulum is swinging back to the middle on the "Board of Stupidvisors" to come out of his shell like this. Bottom-line, the game you play isn't any cleaner than the one the folks you throw the mud at play, you just don't have as much money. Left, right, you both try to use the people, grassroots to play your game. Nobody is buying this anymore, accept for well maybe the flavor of of the month crew.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 21, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

This Calvin Welch essay is much better done that his previous work on behalf of Mirkarimi or RCV. In both of those efforts he got basic facts wrong.

This is not "gotcha" snark which sums up 98% of SFBG commentary. It would also be interesting to see Welch engage with his own realpolitik during this period. Probably for good reasons related to affordable housing financing and development, Welch has supported pro-development politicians, not the least of which was Willie L. Brown. Without Brown's development policies it's unlikely there could have been a class of 2000.

Welch's presence at the CCDC press conference in 2011 was critical to Ed Lee's early street cred. This was the "availability" where Gordon Chin and Rose Pak announced Ed Lee would "accept" an invitation to become acting-Mayor. The alleged reason Lee could not speak for himself was the dubious claim that cell phone coverage wasn't good in the part of Asia he was traveling in. Welch was present to vouch for the current Mayor's progressive bona fides.

In short, access to power is seductive. Welch is a smart political player. His style is a little ministerial and not terribly open to the idea that he could possibly be mistaken, but he writes well. It would be refreshing since he's becoming a SFBG regular, if he would open up a bit and teach other progressive activists the arts of dealmaking, the significance of making tradeoffs and how to engage a money driven and often toxic power structure to support specific policy goals. Welch may be silent on these topics because there is this Puritanical streak among San Francisco progressive activists and historically the SFBG. Progressive morality is nuance free, a strictly either/or affair. That may well explain the silence on one of the more interesting aspects of San Francisco land use history and Mr. Welch's own genuine contributions to our politics.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

Very uplifting piece, Calvin. Thank you. I think you are on to something and now that election time is drawing near, perhaps our elected decision makers are actually taking note that there has been some dissatisfaction in all the districts with past decision making. It is very difficult for citizens to try to run government from home offices, coffee houses, and lawyers offices but if that is what it takes to encourage the electeds - so be it. Next!

Posted by Guest observer on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

Exactly! Who cares about health of the city longterm! It's more important that my personal views aren't blocked. In 150 years San Franciscan children will learn about the important stand which we wealthy 1%ers took. 8 Washington is without a doubt this generations Alamo/civil war/general strike. Take heed electeds! If you don't vote our narrow interests, we will take you out.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 23, 2012 @ 7:08 pm