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Dawn of a New Day 

People say the events of the past two weeks will change us. Here are a couple of places to start.

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001
America will never be the same. Never.

Quote of the Day for Sept. 17, 2001, from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, attributed to the Rev. Cecil Williams at a service of San Francisco's Glide Memorial United Methodist Church

We'll never be the same.

Barry Bonds, quoted last week in the Los Angeles Times

Our world will never be the same.

David Bowie in the News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C.

This is the last of the world as we knew it.

Pro golfer Jesper Parnevik in USA Today

Tinseltown won't be the same.

Announcer on WXRV's The River in Boston

Things are going to be different.

Alma DeBisschop of Walnut Creek, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle

If the chorus of media voices is correct, and a new earthly era is indeed upon us, then praise be, I say; we needed some good news after the ungodliness of the past two weeks. The arrival of a new, dynamic era, to be led by our most vigorous and progressive citizens, could serve as a wonderful tonic for San Francisco. Before The Change, the city had carved itself a political rut so deep and narrow it seemed we would never emerge.

The first moments of these new times have indeed felt different. Motorists during these past two weeks have seemed less rude. Perfect strangers have chatted each other up -- innocently, pleasantly, sans romantic intent. San Franciscans have seemed suddenly religious, too. In the newspapers "there was God on every page," notes Bethany United Methodist Church Rev. Karen Oliveto. Now, as never before, possibilities abound; the time has come to be better to one another. It's time to heed the thousands of voices heralding a new Age of Change. Here are a couple of suggestions -- fantasies really -- on how we might accomplish this.

In a San Francisco That Will Never Be the Same, residents will never again invoke the sanctity of sameness to justify making life worse for those close to them.

To explore this possibility, I decided to check in on the city's most recent battle between the forces of sameness and those willing to allow change.

I consulted Rachael Balyeat, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, which holds worship services at its church on Franklin Street at Geary, near Cathedral Hill. Balyeat and her fellow parishioners spent much time during previous months protesting an old-folks home planned for a lot owned by St. Mark's Lutheran Church next door. St. Mark's conceived the 22-story, 240-unit assisted-living senior housing project as a way to pay for repairing its 1896 church building, which had been damaged in the 1989 earthquake. The Unitarians -- ordinarily one of America's most progressive, altruistic, accepting religious organizations -- launched into the classic NIMBY hymn "Shadows and Traffic Mine Enemy Shalt Ever Be."

The Unitarians formed a church committee to oppose the building, headed up by Balyeat. They composed a letter to the press, characterizing their battle against homes for Alzheimer's patients and other elderly as a social justice struggle: citizens against developers, neighbors opposing afternoon shadows, parishioners worried about traffic. They filed a formal protest with the Planning Department. Most of the units would be "market rate," the Unitarians said (for seniors with an income of between $35,000 and $50,000 per year). Before The Change, housing that wasn't subsidized had come to be seen as "bad," even though the vast majority of S.F. residents, rich and poor alike, live in unsubsidized housing.

The Unitarians attempted to "negotiate" with the Lutherans (shrink your old-folks home and we'll give you nothing in return, was the essence of their proposal). They protested the project before the city Planning Commission. Shadows, they argued, were a social justice issue.

"Traffic and shadows were the main thing," Balyeat says. "At first, people in our congregation thought we were opposing low-income housing. But no, it's 22 floors of market-rate housing, when you include the floors for Alzheimer's patients."

Joan Jordan, a St. Mark's parishioner who heads the corporation set up by the church to direct the senior housing project, describes a building that would seem a godsend to all but the most virulent NIMBYs.

"It's central to our church's mission," says Jordan, adding that the new building will have the added benefit of allowing the church to hold onto its elderly parishioners by allowing them to live in the area. "On several occasions we've had to place people out of the city in places like Oakland. That's traumatic if you're 80-plus years old."

The Unitarian church's posture didn't merely divide the two Cathedral Hill congregations. It also pitted Unitarians against one another. Kate White, co-chair of the Housing Action Coalition, was appalled by the San Francisco Unitarians' posture.

"I'm a lifelong Unitarian Universalist; my parents raised me with important values: social justice, tolerance, and social change. So it's just disheartening to me that, with this opportunity to support an excellent project, at a time when the city desperately needs to promote senior housing, the Unitarians would be opposing it," she says.

But then a new era dawned. Two days after Sept. 11, 2001, the Planning Commission rejected the Unitarians' campaign to block the senior housing project. The project must now pass muster with the Board of Supervisors. But I don't expect that to be a problem; they've surely heard the good news: Everything is different now.

In a San Francisco That Will Never Be the Same, small, narrow-minded interest groups will no longer shanghai city governance for their own selfish ends. In this new era, San Franciscans will care about one another too much to allow this to happen.

In the old, unchanging San Francisco, for instance, we had the Potrero Interim Zoning Controls, proposed legislation aimed at prohibiting housing and commercial development in an area of the city that once offered the hope of easing the city's housing crisis. Carried by Supervisors Sophie Maxwell and Chris Daly, the bill was the handiwork of anti-growth lawyer Sue Hestor and of the Potrero Boosters, the most stasis-obsessed of the city's anti-change neighborhood groups. A draft copy I obtained is scrawled with handwritten notations such as "WAITING FOR SUE HESTOR'S REWRITE" and "[SH]" -- indicating places where Hestor would add text. The measure effectively prohibits all housing not built by an insider cabal of nonprofit developers allied with Hestor. It bans most commercial development. It singles out biotech (described as "experimental laboratories" in the bill's text) as an industry to be restricted, but doesn't say why.

That's too bad, because the Central Waterfront area east of Potrero Hill has, for the past half-decade, been envisioned by housing advocates and academics as the last great hope for San Francisco housing. Now containing abandoned shipyards and warehouses, it will soon be served by the new Third Street light rail project. It will border the China Basin biotechnology development, site of thousands of future jobs. The area could potentially become a San Francisco Riviera, providing thousands of citizens with a short, car-free commute. The thousands of units of new housing, as envisioned by a theoretical area plan created by UC Berkeley graduate students in urban planning a couple of years ago, could be sufficient to force down apartment prices citywide. That would transform the Central Waterfront area, which now consists of hostile auto throughways, abandoned buildings, and dangerous empty lots, into a San Francisco-style neighborhood, where people walk from multistory apartment buildings to corner stores, to parks, to trolleys. Dick Millet, the current secretary and past president of the Potrero Boosters who many consider to be the organization's soul, loathes this idea. He once told me that if housing is to be built in the Central Waterfront area, it should consist of Concord-style suburbs. Why? I asked. "Because everybody prefers suburbs," he explained.

Hestor, meanwhile, sees her role in life as preserving auto body shops in the city's southern area. Her brother worked in an auto body shop, she once told me.

As it happens, preserving the suburban lifestyle is not the primary concern of all San Franciscans. And I suspect they'd travel to Daly City for auto body work if it meant holding onto their jobs. San Franciscans I know are worried about the city becoming so expensive that it banishes the poor and middle class. They're worried about an economic recession that promises to worsen. They're worried about jobs -- for themselves and for their friends and families. They're certainly not concerned about banning new housing and commercial development in the Central Waterfront area.

In the world of politics, it's ordinary for lobbyists to write legislation and then hand it to their water-carrier politicians. Energy companies, munitions manufacturers, airlines, etc., are no doubt partaking of the Bush administration in this way. As banal as this phenomenon may be, the fact remains that it subverts democracy. When a Dick Millet or a Sue Hestor creates measures such as the Potrero Interim Planning Controls in order to end-run the city Planning Department -- a body appointed as a result of democratic process -- he transcends ordinary interest-group politics and enters the realm of autocracy.

Or at least this was the risk we used to run before the world changed. San Francisco is now a kinder place. According to Sophie Maxwell's office, the Potrero, Dogpatch, and Showplace Square interim controls will be considered by the city's Housing, Land Use, and Transportation Committee on Oct. 25, and will then go before the Board of Supervisors the following Monday. But I'm not worried; the world as we once knew it no longer exists.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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