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Wednesday, May 5 1999
Meet the New Reform, Same as the Old Reform
Under Willie Brown, we have become a city of convenient virtues. Our highest acts of probity are limited to those that don't ruffle the powerful, especially if they are friends of the mayor. When it comes to the mayor's own policies, we have been starved of real virtue, settling for pseudo-integrity -- the mere appearance of good intent -- rather than requiring actual results.

And when one of the mayor's policies is unavoidably, incontrovertibly broken, we do not demand real change. We accept pseudo-reform.

Here's what I mean:
On April 22, the San Francisco Planning Commission chose to conduct further study on a set of zoning controls to address the harmful live-work development binge, instead of enacting real live-work reform.

This non-action came three years after the live-work boom began, and one year after the severe problems it has caused began to be conclusively documented. The decision to do nothing came at the Planning Commission's third opportunity in two years to end a speculative housing binge that has been making money for the mayor's friends, but harming the city's economy.

Instead of enacting real reform, the commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, took only languid steps in the direction of closing the sucking loophole in the city planning code that has allowed profit-blinded, slapdash developers with political juice to build ugly monster buildings for the nouveaux riches at the expense of the rest of the city.

If I know our mayor, this pseudo-reform will be presented to us come the re-election campaign as tangible and effective land-use policy. He's already fooled the press into saying it is so.

Don't buy it. The vote of the commission, which set into motion a lengthy process that might -- and only might -- lead to a ban on live-work developments in some parts of the city, was an act of politics, not policy.

The public approval ratings for the once-great Willie Brown have fallen below the 30 percent level, and he needs a cover story to feed angry voters on the campaign trail when they ask:

Hey, Willie -- why'd you turn over the landscape to your campaign contributors at the Residential Builders Association and allow them to eat up the city with ugly-as-hell upscale housing, when it's affordable housing we need? And why have you let these damn yuppie beehives eradicate thousands of industrial jobs that once employed the working class who gave this city its character?

Now, with the Planning Commission's pseudo-reform tucked under his arm, Willie has an answer:

Tut-tut. You've been listening to my enemies. Actually, we exhaustively studied the issue and passed a policy that prohibited live-work developments from being built in entire sections of the city, which we have called Industrial Protection Zones. We have done this, because I, too, care about the working class, and the critical role light industry plays in the San Francisco economy.

Willie's answer will be a lie, but it will be a comprehensive, plausible lie that contains just enough fact to satisfy the extremely limited curiosity of the mainstream hacks who "report" on Mayor Brown.

Here in San Francisco, we don't need very much in the way of excuses when we want to lie to ourselves about who we are and what we are doing. Our self-delusions are usually premised on laughably thin foundations.

And it will be no different when Willie Brown characterizes his cynical, dollar-based collusion with live-work developers as a complicated matter of public policy that he and his staff have carefully addressed. If we let him get away with this tissue-thin, undocumented lie, we will only have ourselves to blame.

For all four years of his tenure, Willie Brown has allowed members of the Residential Builders Association, a powerful developer lobby and major campaign contributor to Democratic lawmakers including the mayor, to build condos in industrial zones under the largely false pretense that they are "commercial" projects where people both live and work. Since early 1997, housing experts have complained that the developments are displacing blue-collar jobs, but the mayor has ignored their appeals because the RBA and its bullying leader, Joe O'Donoghue, command both campaign money and votes.

The Planning Commission voted last month on four options for limiting the viral spread of live-work development, each option prohibiting live-work housing in the city's industrial areas by a different amount. Before the vote, the commission was provided with a very coherent and extremely well-written report from the staff of the Department of City Planning.

The report contained a startling assertion, which should have immediately turned the debate on its head. According to the report, San Francisco doesn't need a single one of these live-work developments to answer its crying need for housing.

The city's Planning Department reported that San Francisco has plenty of residentially zoned land, enough to accommodate housing that would meet the needs of the city going out to 2020 -- even under liberal growth projections that assume continued and increasingly good times.

If one believes the report -- and I do believe it -- there is absolutely no need to construct one additional, ugly-ass live-work loft in an industrial zone, and endanger or displace a single industrial job in the process.

But if there is no need to build more live-work lofts, there is certainly a compelling reason: money.

Building "commercial" live-work developments in industrial zones allows the RBA to cover 100 percent of a lot, instead of 75 percent, the total footprint allowed in residentially zoned areas. Industrial zones also allow the construction of taller buildings. As you can easily imagine, the differences in lot coverage and height limits make live-work development much more attractive to developers than construction in residentially zoned areas. It is this simple: Developers get to build more units per acre with live-work, and more units mean more profit.

About The Author

George Cothran


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