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Love in Times of Choler 

Political animals on both sides of the development wars snarl all the way to the bank

Wednesday, Jul 4 2001
Squinting one's eyes halfway closed last Thursday evening at the Arc, a SOMA center for the disabled, one might have perceived two shadowy sumo wrestlers squatting side by side. Their rain-making bulk might have seemed enough to crush any of the people in the room, but they would mostly have appeared concerned with each other. They'd have gnashed and puffed and murmured until their eyes bulged, as though pure, telepathic social aggression could shove the opponent out of the ring.

Squinting even further, right to the point where the most acute seeing is done with the mind, however, one might have seen these sumo silhouettes reach out and tenderly touch each other's index fingers. The fingers might have intertwined, separated, then traced paths up each other's arms until both bodies were entirely dedicated to smothering, loving embrace.

Unfortunately, if one were to have sat with one's eyes wide open, as I and around 100 bystanders did at the "Neighborhood Planning and the Future of SOMA" event held at the Arc Thursday night, one would have seen anti-development attorney Sue Hestor and builder representative Joe O'Donoghue sitting seven feet from each other in classroom chairs, blustering and hostile, as part of a panel on growth issues.

"I have so many boxes of files on the South of Market planning process that I couldn't possibly bring them all here," Hestor boasted, reminding her opponents that when it comes to boxes of paper, Hestor's bulk flattens all opponents.

"What we can do is develop programs to help SRO owners to upgrade their property with low-interest loans, zero property taxes ...," said O'Donoghue, giving renewed notice that when there's a possibility of wresting cash from flawed public policy, the president of the Residential Builders Association is a champion of lucha libre.

As the most outspoken opponent of live-work lofts, tech-firm offices, and other new structures in San Francisco, Sue Hestor epitomizes evil for O'Donoghue and his allies. As the representative of the Irish-American developers who construct live-work lofts and other buildings, O'Donoghue is Great Satan for Hestor and her anti-growth ilk. But it became clear, during Thursday evening's volley of claims, counterclaims, and other self-interested nonsense, that behind the rancor is love. I don't mean romantic love, though there's deliciousness in fantasies of Joe and Sue finally hooking up. Nor do I mean agape, the Greek word for spiritual love. I'm referring to ecophilia1, nature love: a deep, unspoken appreciation for all that gives us sustenance.

Ecophilia causes the heart of the most hardened city dweller to lift upon seeing weeds poke through cement; it's an emotion that accompanies realization of the connectedness of all life.

In a similar way, Hestor, O'Donoghue, and the rest of the pandering politicians, trembling civil servants, ill-informed neighborhood kibitzers, and self-aggrandized professional agitators present at Thursday night's event seemed to revel, to be overcome with emotion as they drew sustenance from their own life-giving ecosystem.

This politico-natural world has its own taxonomy. Some beings pose as "housing activists" and "anti-displacement activists" while helping to create and continue a "housing crisis" and a "work-space crisis" that, supposedly, cause waves of evictions of indigenous residential and commercial tenants. Examples of the activist species at Thursday's forum included Supervisor Chris Daly, who moderated the event, and housing activist Debra Walker.

Other beings, notably O'Donoghue and his cronies, pose as champions of free- market solutions to our housing shortage, while richly benefiting from a shortage that is driven by politics, rather than market considerations. O'Donoghue's phylum now has its sights set on the 15-year, $75 million to $95 million redevelopment district in the slums along Sixth Street, already a rich humus of political motives and financial rewards.

Outside the warped ecosystem of San Francisco land-use politics, none of these animals could exist. If an errant meteor were to suddenly destroy the canopy of bogus economic postulating, corrupt political cronyism, and cynical political mau-mauing that protects planning politics here, these people would become instantly irrelevant; their world would be cinders, and in their hearts, they know this. So while Hestor, the no-growth lawyer, and O'Donoghue, the builders' frontman, are enemies in name, their hearts are (or certainly should be) filled at bottom with pure, ecophiliac love.

Sue Hestor has cause to feel confident. She is, right now, at the top of the political food chain.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has just passed legislation that creates a development ban in the city's Mission District. The ban satisfies Hestor's decades-old fight to stanch construction in San Francisco. The Mission measure is drafted along the lines of last fall's failed Proposition L ballot initiative. It places a one-year moratorium on the construction of new lofts and tourist hotels, requires that large commercial projects receive special permissions, and bans all apartment construction unless one-quarter of the units in a building are rented at a subsidized rate. The measure effectively prohibits housing not built by politically connected nonprofit builders, or by private developers with the political juice to obtain government-subsidized financing.

This development ban makes sense if one understands that the careers of Hestor, many of the people within the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (which backed the measure), and scores of activist hangers-on depend on a "housing crisis." They are professional helpers of people in danger of losing their homes; their livelihoods disappear when San Francisco has available, cheap housing. So they pass development moratoriums such as this, which keep housing expensive and unavailable, and keep the crisis that only they can fight going. And going. And going.

During the next few weeks, the city Planning Department will be working up a neighborhood plan for the South of Market area. The plan was, in fact, the topic of Thursday's meeting. For most of its history SOMA has been a nasty, crime-ridden industrial zone riddled by a spattering of tiny alleyway housing districts. Despite a recent surge in live-work loft housing development, SOMA is still mostly a foul place -- four-lane, one-way streets, dilapidated sweatshop buildings, iron-barred apartment windows, row after row of slum hotels. Current zoning, you see, reserves much of the area exclusively for light-industrial use.

Given the city's continued massive demand for new housing, the district could become home to tens of thousands of new apartments, grocery stores, parks, shopping districts. A simple stroke of the pen eliminating the industrial distinction could create a beautiful San Francisco-style neighborhood in the warmest, flattest, nearest-to-downtown region of San Francisco. But "housing activist" types, including Hestor, have made preserving this squalid industrial zone a rallying cry. The reasons for this insistence on decay are difficult to fathom when considered on purely economic or social-justice terms.

By preventing developers from buying property in this district and making it into shops or housing, the industrial-zone distinction essentially creates a low-rent subsidy for auto repair shops, furniture factories, sewing sweatshops, metalworking shops. Without this subsidy, these businesses could not pay prevailing rents in the area; they would move, and the area would become a neighborhood, complete with housing that would lower rents citywide. The current cycle of housing scarcity, where the wealthy cannibalize middle-class housing, middle-class apartment seekers cannibalize working-class housing, working-class people cannibalize SRO hotels, and SRO dwellers are forced into the streets, might be broken, or at least interrupted. The resulting lower residential rents would make it easier for people of lesser means to live here, and in turn make it possible for businesses with lower-wage employees to locate here.

Historically, however, Hestor has adamantly opposed allowing a zoning change that would accommodate a rebirth of SOMA because, she maintains, such a move would drive out small light-industrial businesses, such as auto repair shops, that now populate the neighborhood.

Opening the Sixth Street area to real economic competition, however, is not necessarily at the top of the agenda for Hestor's nemesis, Residential Builders Association President Joe O'Donoghue, either.

A building boom that focused on SOMA housing, you see, wouldn't necessarily benefit the RBA, even though the group's members have built more than half the city's new housing during the past three years in the form of live-work lofts. RBA members' status as S.F. builders of choice has depended on the exploitation of a massively profitable loophole in the building code. The lofts that resulted from that exploitation -- squat, ticky-tacky quasi-workshops -- were marketed as luxury apartments, and for a while they sold, given the absolute scarcity of any other type of apartment in the city. This bizarre state of affairs -- where RBA builders were able to sell the city's worst apartments, in the city's worst neighborhoods, for crazily inflated prices -- was aided by the efforts of housing activists who claim to despise live-works. By campaigning to keep industrial zones in SOMA, Potrero, and the Mission, the activists allowed RBA builders to rake in tens of millions of zoning-loophole profits.

Without the industrial-zoning controls, this usuriously profitable situation would have disappeared; the potential for building significant amounts of housing here would have attracted builders of national repute, forcing RBA builders to compete on business, rather than political, terms. And the steel-framed, multistoried apartment buildings that would make SOMA a great neighborhood are generally beyond the capabilities of the RBA's small-time developers.

But if the industrial zoning stays, and Joe O'Donoghue is successful in winning contracts for his RBA members to construct a small amount of housing in the Sixth Street redevelopment area of SOMA, the builders will make a housing-market mint. If development moratoriums and outdated zoning classifications prevent new housing construction, the few units that do get built in protected enclaves of San Francisco's political ecosystem will command top dollar.

Still, San Francisco's "housing activists" have made preserving the industrial-zone distinction their life's work. Subsidizing light industry preserves the city's "economic diversity," they say. It prevents "economic monoculture." It bolster's San Francisco's "economic health." "What we need to do is protect the business in the area from displacement," Hestor said during her talk Thursday.

Never has so much ill-informed economic punditry been performed by so few: To say San Francisco needs subsidized auto body and auto repair shops inside the city limits -- just when the city desperately needs to discourage car use -- is the worst sort of hogwash. And to put forward the idea that San Francisco needs subsidized furniture factories or sewing shops in order to maintain its economic vitality would guarantee any student an "F" on a college Economics 1-A exam.

But like strip-club patrons who say they've come for the chicken wings, the ecophiles of San Francisco claim they wish to aid S.F.'s business climate and quality of life, when they're actually perpetuating a system that sustains them.

Lest one doubt this is all about love, it's useful to squint one's eyes at Joe O'Donoghue's Web page (then open one's eyes all the way to make sense of the site's awkwardly small font). There, an item from the Irish Herald lauds Chris Daly, the supervisor who never met a no-growth advocate he didn't like, Sue Hestor's pocket ally. The Herald also quotes Daly speaking thus: "I like Joe. I agree with Joe about some things and disagree with him about others. But it's important to work together."

No doubt.

1 This word isn't in the dictionary. It was coined in a pinch by an SF Weekly theater capsule contributor.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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