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Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
Community Infestment
"I want to blow your mind a little," Sue Hestor said, a few seconds after I hopped into her car. That would turn out to be an understatement.

On a rare sunny day in January, I took a driving tour with the brainiac land-use attorney who has almost single-handedly fought the city's explosion of bogus live-work developments. Hestor was intent on showing me the fruits of the worst urban planning in recent San Francisco history. And Hestor, who fought high-rise-apalooza in the '70s and '80s, knows bad city planning.

She wanted me to see what happens when something as complex and delicate as land-use policy falls into the hands of a mayor whose only interests lie in raw, power politics. (That's a column unto itself, which I will soon provide.)

After one day with Hestor, my initial, primarily aesthetic, objections to the live-work monstrosities going up all over town expanded greatly. It's really quite shocking. The shortage of housing has spawned a speculative binge of epic proportions.

We are suffering through a feeding frenzy, as developers and investors cater to one discreet -- and affluent -- class of people at the expense of the rest of us. The biggest losers are staff-of-life businesses, small companies that employ thousands of low- to moderate-income workers to fix cars, sell flowers, process fish, and butcher meat. They are being threatened, bullied, and chased out of town, supplanted by "live-work" lofts and their owners. (I'll call them lofties instead of yuppies, since some have objected to my use of the latter term.)

The live-work phenomenon has been covered in the press since it began the year Willie Brown took office. But its stunning scope has been overlooked by most journalists, save an excellent piece by Chronicle reporter Edward W. Lempinen in March of last year.

Records of the city's Planning and Building Inspection departments show that 873 live-work projects were approved last year, and 1,115 more are in the pipeline. Most live-work proposals get a rubber stamp, approved without so much as a public hearing. Only three units have been turned down since the beginning of 1997.

In every nook and cranny of every industrially zoned district in the city, developers are buying property, demolishing buildings, evicting commercial tenants, or building intensely ugly loft developments -- sometimes all four at once.

The entire southeastern swatch of San Francisco, already the most dense area of the city, is under a literal onslaught. South of Market. The Mission. Potrero Hill. Dogpatch. And most recently, speculators have been purchasing parcels far south in Bayview-Hunters Point.

They will tuck these monstrosities in anywhere. Hestor saw the same strategy employed by downtown office developers in the '70s and '80s: Establish distant outposts -- in this case from Market Street south to Bayview-Hunters Point -- then slowly fill in everything in between.

As we drove from district to district, Hestor pointed out the battlefronts yet to emerge, places where homeowners are paying upward of $500,000 for swank lofts right next to commercial businesses with the predictable smells, sights, and sounds of light industrial commerce.

In one instance, she offered a $100 wager on how long an auto body shop at 1201 Minnesota St. is going to be allowed to stay in business, now that a developer is planning to build 178 units of live-work lofts across the street.

I didn't take the bet. Hestor was probably correct when she predicted that the mechanics will be gone three months after the first piece of furniture is moved into the loft development.After all, recent history supports her gloomy prognostications.

For several years now, lofties have been moving into their new homes, conveniently ignoring the obvious -- that they are setting themselves down in long-established industrial neighborhoods. Then they get mad about the noise, crowds, smells, hours, or clientele of the small businesses that were there first.

The lofties have arrogantly fought to have dance studios, nightclubs, print shops, and, in one case, a respected vocational and language school for immigrants curtail or cease their activities. All because the lofties were stupid enough to buy a home next to a nightclub, print shop, or dance studio.

To be fair, it's not always the loft-buyers' fault. Sometimes property owners take a more direct route, buying commercial land, evicting the tenants, and building live-work units on the site.

But the result is the same: vital commercial businesses wiped out in favor of high-end housing for professionals, who, in contravention of the law, do not actually work in their live-work units.

That means job loss, folks.
Carry the trend out, and the natural result will be a city devoted to housing highly paid professionals, while low- to mid-income residents lose their jobs, and their homes.

Imagine the fundamental changes this development binge could bring to San Francisco: fewer minorities, seniors, and working-class folk able to live and work in the city. A cultural life drastically altered. Writers, artists, laborers -- the people who give a city character but don't pull down anything close to the six figures it takes to cover one of these loft mortgages -- displaced in favor of a more wealthy professional class.

Is this our reward after suffering through nearly 10 years of recession? The economic cleansing of San Francisco?

This is not mere rhetoric. Consider a January 1998 study of the live-work phenomenon conducted by the South of Market Foundation.

As of July 1997, in SOMA alone, 400 jobs were lost because of loft developments. Of those jobs, 345 were wiped out because of evictions related to live-work developments. Two hundred of the jobs relocated to other cities.

And this is only the beginning. The study's findings end 18 months ago. At that time, 380 more jobs were teetering on the precipice in SOMA, because lofties were expressing their distaste for neighboring industrial activities.

If those 380 jobs were lost, that's close to 800 jobs gone, many leaving the city. And that's just from one city district.

About The Author

George Cothran


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