There's a classic painting of Louis XVI, locks tumbling past his shoulders, hosed leg thrust outward. To the right is chesty Kaiser Wilhelm II, glaring, tin-hatted, not far from a somber and reassuring picture of Queen Elizabeth II. At the end of the portrait display, in the largest frame, hangs the photo of a woman with flowing gray hair, a royal blue suit and bone-white scarf. Her deep-set eyes, hawk's nose, and blood-red lips assemble into an image more regal than the rest: Antoinetta III, the queen of Sixth Street.
A 200-pound transsexual with a monarch's stride, Antoinetta Stadlman has long dreamed of ruling over her South of Market neighborhood from the Baldwin House room she's occupied for the past five years.
"If we played our cards right, we would be a force few could oppose," Antoinetta wrote last summer in a daily chronicle she has kept since 1991. "We could end up ruling South of Market, and end up directing the inevitable changes that are coming to the area."
She's played her cards well. Through a series of crafty alliances and well-planned crusades, during which she insinuated herself into a feud between city-funded charities, Antoinetta has managed to put herself in position to help direct a 15-year, $75-$95 million redevelopment of the slums along Sixth Street.
The blighted Sixth Street strip between Harrison and Stevenson streets was designated an earthquake recovery zone in 1990; the city now plans to sponsor 2,159 new housing units, 164,890 square feet of commercial space, and 182,820 square feet of industrial space there. The city will fund those improvements through a variety of means, including a special type of bond sale allowed in such redevelopment zones; the projected yearly spending is expected to be between $8 million and $10 million.
Antoinetta Stadlman and a group of fleabag hotel residents, slumlords, pawnbrokers, homeowners, and charity executives have just been elected to a citizens' committee that will wield veto power over this overhaul. Antoinetta, like several of her peers on the committee, climbed to office by joining into a battle between charities that compete for city funding; she has leveraged that competition into votes and power.
Four of these committees -- political entities that California law calls project area committees -- have sprouted in San Francisco just this year. State law requires cities to form such committees when conducting urban redevelopment projects; the law was adopted, at least in part, as atonement for past redevelopment projects that displaced poor people against their will.
People familiar with the law's history consider Willie Brown to be its patron saint. As a freshman assemblyman in 1967, Brown co-authored a bill with George Moscone that would have created such citizens' committees. The bill didn't pass until a year later, when Moscone carried the bill without Brown's co-authorship. Brown again pressed for legislation in 1992 that would have made it more difficult for city officials to manipulate the makeup of the committees. The legislation failed in 1992 but passed the following year under another assemblyman's aegis.
If the experience of cities in other parts of the state is any guide, Mayor Brown's legacy may extract an especially dear penance from the city over which he now presides. These obscure committees are elected by residents and business owners within the project area, and the numbers of actual voters often doesn't exceed the constituency of a grammar-school PTA. But the committees can wield power over multimillion-dollar budgets, and they have become infamous for wreaking havoc on California city planning.
In Southern California, project area committees thwarted, distorted, and, in some cases, canceled hundreds of millions of dollars of redevelopment projects from Anaheim to North Hollywood during the late 1980s.
In Anaheim a redevelopment project was canceled in 1987 after members of a project area committee threatened to show up at a meeting with the redevelopment agency wearing Mickey Mouse and Goofy costumes.
In Hollywood, City Councilman Michael Woo dissolved a project area committee in 1989 after enduring three years of what he called "wacky behavior" that included shouting matches and meeting walkouts. Though formally dissolved, the committee holds regular meetings to this day. Woo, who has abandoned government and is now a high-tech entrepreneur, remembers the experience with sadness: "There were fistfights that broke out after PAC meetings. There was name calling, and it all resulted in the committee becoming totally ineffective. The meetings themselves became a form of torture."
San Francisco's zeal for microdemocracy has produced ridiculously extended planning warfare in the past. But previous citizen groups weren't imbued with the formal authority project area committees are given by law.
State law not only gives these citizen committees veto power over redevelopment plans; the law also requires a two-thirds majority of the Board of Supervisors to override vetoes by a project area committee.
Earlier this month, a special election in the Sixth Street-South of Market area -- where city planners hope to turn what is now an extension of the Tenderloin skid row district into a community of spiffy low-income hotels, small businesses, and family housing -- appears to have set the stage for chaos. The project area committee chosen in that election -- in which 592 votes were cast -- is already riven by personal vendettas, petty feuds, and grandiose, even regal, visions.
Blame for the Byzantine political situation on Sixth Street can in part be laid at the feet of the redevelopment agency itself. In its zeal to atone for buy-it-and-bulldoze-it redevelopment projects of the 1970s, the agency has taken pains to paint itself as community friendly, even community driven. To this end, agency officials have given or sought to give hundreds of thousands of public dollars to Sixth Street area community groups that favor -- or at least are not hostile to -- plans drafted by the agency. This infuriates the unfunded opponents of official redevelopment plans because they see this distribution of funds as politically motivated largess.