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Past Imperfect 

Herb Caen-inspired nostalgia is no substitute for dealing practically with the dot-com boom

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
-- William Shakespeare

If any legacy authenticates Mark Antony's warning in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, it is Herb Caen's.

Revered as he may have been for his journalistic abilities, Caen was above all a nostalgist. As the official voice of San Francisco for 60 years, his Reagan-esque idea that redemption is to be found in some earlier, imaginary era has contaminated the consciousness of all who live here. His columns, especially the memory-lane, Sunday Punch tone-poems, suggested that if only San Francisco lived up to an idealized 1940s Old World of upper-crust life -- Wilkes Bashford blazers, operas, expensive restaurants, and vacations to Marrakech -- it could somehow be saved.

Caen publicly struggled against this tendency in his later years. "There's a lot of resistance in the city to change," Caen told a reporter late in his life. "That's why the city is in trouble on almost every front ... and I contributed to that by waving the flag."

But Caen's regret came too late. His ethos had become the city's, and the delusory collective mental state he inspired had already harmed San Francisco in ways too numerous to count.

This nostalgia for what probably never was, and certainly can never be again, is important to note during this autumn of discontent over San Francisco's digital economic explosion. As rents escalate and cranes clutter the skyline, a large slice of San Francisco is seeking solace in the idea of freezing the city, and returning it to the 1970s, or the '60s, or even the '50s.

I just received a press release from a group calling itself the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition demanding an end to market-rate housing construction, a moratorium on office development, and an end to the conversion of commercial space to technology offices. An anti-growth ballot initiative that voters will consider this November seeks to give some of these desires the force of law. Called Proposition L, it would prohibit development in certain areas of the city, strengthen curbs on office construction, and add rules making it easier to obstruct builders wishing to erect office buildings or housing projects.

This measure has become a rallying cry for San Francisco's nostalgia-driven brand of progressive politics. By halting development, proponents of this measure maintain, the wave of dot-com yuppie scum ruining the Old City will be repelled. We will go back to a better time, before people erected buildings to house hard-to-comprehend Web-technology companies. In this imagined past, which sponsors of this measure promise to turn into the future, the new bad people would go away, and the old good people, the people who have been here for decades, would be able to stay.

By keeping developers from building new commercial space, this logic goes, the number of jobs in the city would be limited, and demand for San Francisco housing might ease, making it more affordable to live here.

Though this may be a pleasant dream, in practice it would be a nightmare.

Whether an office building is erected in San Francisco or in Walnut Creek makes almost no difference in the number of people seeking to live here. They'll take housing where they can get it. The fierce demand for housing here will not abate, merely because San Franciscans force office construction into Oakland.

And anybody with a serious understanding of economics, or cities, or real estate, or -- and I don't mind saying so -- reality itself knows that limiting the available supply of vacant office space is the surest possible way to inflate rents. And when commercial rents inflate, they price artists, arts groups, social service nonprofits, and other important but financially limited portions of the city mosaic out of San Francisco, or out of existence.

This is the legacy of Herb Caen's nostalgia: a city purged of economic diversity, and culture, and soul. And so I come to bury Herb Caen, not to praise him.

At its simplest, Proposition L is a reinforcement of a 1986 ballot measure spurred by Herb Caen's 1970s and '80s musings against the "Manhattanization" of San Francisco. During those decades, Caen would alternate cranky griping about construction in the Financial District with an occasional column mentioning how discontent he was on (mysteriously frequent) visits to New York City.

The 1986 measure, called Proposition M, was the most restrictive anti-growth legislation in the country. Soon after it was passed, Caen got his wish, sort of. Thanks to the savings and loan crisis and a resulting recession, the economies of California and San Francisco shrank dramatically, and the city was, indeed, reminiscent of decades past. High downtown vacancy rates made for clear streets. The skyline stopped changing. The city became a nostalgist's delight. And the odd, nativist, provincialist, deeply nostalgic "progressive" movement that had coalesced around this no-growth campaign emerged as the arbiter of correct political thinking in San Francisco.

Proposition M reappeared with a vengeance last October, though. For the first time during the 1990s, builders asked permission to erect more office space than the 1986 measure allows. At last check, there were proposals to build 2 million square feet more office space than allowed by law.

Builders were responding to the greatest escalation in demand for office space in American history, an escalation that has driven up downtown commercial rents by two-thirds during the past 12 months. As their inexpensive leases expire, artists, nonprofit groups, small businesses, and other commercial renters who can't afford the country's highest lease rates are being forced from San Francisco. Recently, even doctors -- the wealthy country-gentry of nostalgic lore -- are being forced out of their downtown offices by escalating rents.

Proposition L would permanently ban large-scale office construction in portions of the Mission and Potrero neighborhoods, and along the central waterfront. It would impose a moratorium on development in the Bayview and South of Market neighborhoods. It would effectively ban live-work lofts. It would ban the Planning Department's current practice of categorizing some digital businesses as "basic industries" not subject to Proposition M's office construction cap. And Prop. L would require special hearings to determine if any new commercial or residential project might, theoretically, cause rents to rise in its immediate surroundings.

The proposition's supporters claim it is an attempt to fight unwanted neighborhood gentrification, and to keep the working classes from being driven out of the city by rising rents.

But the measure's ultimate effect will be to tighten the supply of office space in San Francisco, raise its price, and drive all but the wealthiest enterprises from the city -- creating, at long last, Herb Caen's ideal of a city full of top-hatted dandies.

Mayor Willie Brown not long ago introduced an opposing ballot measure aimed at easing price pressure on the commercial real state market. His measure has its flaws; for one thing it creates a new, highly paid "growth czar" position that is sure to become a political plum dished to a political pal.

But by exempting some already approved office construction projects from the 1986 growth cap, Brown's proposition would dramatically increase the amount of available new office space. This would ease some of the upward pressure on San Francisco commercial rents, slowing the flight of less-well-heeled commercial tenants, and help preserve some semblance of the economically diverse Old City of one year ago. Or, the city could return to Herb Caen's ethos of nostalgic fantasy.

While Herb Caen's genteel, tastefully moneyed Old City may be fantasy for most of us, there are those who do make their homes there. A walk past the $20 million houses of the fashionable Sea Cliff neighborhood quickly establishes this.

There you'll find the gorgeous home of Clinton Thomas Reilly. A real estate speculator, Reilly includes among his investments the 97-year-old Merchants Exchange Building. This structure is a true, Caen-esque monument; it's the site of the ship-reporting agency where important turn-of-the-century men would gather and discuss business.

I thought Reilly would be an ideal person with whom to discuss our newest monument to nostalgia, Proposition L.

Reilly was part of the no-growth campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. He says he "contributed an enormous amount of money and the services of my campaign consulting firm" to the passage of 1986's Prop. M. And in 1991, Reilly says, he put up money on a campaign to stop the original Mission Bay development. (A modified version of Mission Bay is now under construction in the China Basin area.)

Over time, Reilly also used money earned as a campaign consultant to buy millions of dollars of downtown San Francisco office space. This was a wonderfully prescient financial move; the benefits Reilly has reaped from San Francisco's recent office-space shortage are astounding, putting him in the category of our country's great financial speculators. The market value of just his Merchants Exchange Building, for instance, is currently about $82 million, up from $50 million just a year ago.

And now Reilly is the main financial backer of Proposition L. He paid to gather the signatures that put L on the ballot. And he says he will continue to put his mouth where his money is.

As a reporter, I expected my conversation with Reilly to be simple. Reilly owns millions of dollars' worth of downtown offices. He paid for Proposition L, which would, as sure as day, limit the available supply of office space, and inflate commercial real estate property values. So I figured I'd conduct one of those ordinary, let's-get-this-over-with-so-we-can-both-go-home questioning sessions that Herb Caen surely did all the time.

I asked standard-issue questions such as, "How big's your real estate portfolio, really?" ("I'd rather not say," Reilly demurred.) And, "How much do you think you'll make if Prop. L succeeds?"

This line of questioning would seem a cakewalk for Reilly, who earned his pre-real estate millions helping politicians beguile the press. So I was startled to hear the defensive, patronizing tone of his replies.

I wasn't around during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s like he was, he explained. I don't understand the city's unique political history like he does, he said. And I don't comprehend the unique set of social sensibilities forged during those years to cause people in this city to think the way they do, he insisted. And he called my suggestion that he was supporting a proposition that would wind up making him a lot of money if it passed "a very simplistic analysis.

"It's not at all accurate. It's an amateur's analysis of how this city works. I have been a longtime defender of neighborhood advocates. It's a neighborhood issue against downtown."

At first, this torrent of verbiage sounded like the self-interested dissembling of a political professional -- a professional's "analysis of how this city works," if you will.

But Reilly's voice seemed to contain more earnestness than necessary for an ordinary political consultant's con. And in what I admit may have been a moment of madness, I took the advice of a millionaire political consultant/real estate speculator at face value, and looked to the past for explanations of our present civic delusion.

I looked to yellowed copies of the San Francisco Chronicle. (Actually not-so-yellowed Lexis-Nexis news database files.)

I read columns in which Herb Caen reminds us, in many different ways, how wonderful it would be if we could all pop over to lunch at Bix's and then spend an evening at the opera. I read the column where he gravely laments the fact that our city didn't live up to the San Francisco self-image as described under "San Francisco" in Encyclopedia Brittanica.

And I found that column to be insipid, destructive, and wrong.

While Herb Caen was writing paeans to a disappearing life of top-hatted dandies, an immigrant population of gay militants was moving to the Castro. Asian people were settling in the Sunset. Russian immigrants were creating communities in the Richmond. By the time Caen was penning self-doubting examinations of his imploding Old City world, the Mission had transformed itself into a Hispanic immigrant neighborhood, and was on its way to becoming a Hispanic-Asian-bohemian artist neighborhood. Cambodian refugees were moving into the Tenderloin; South of Market was becoming home to a new type of technology company that would create, literally, a new world.

While Caen was writing lamentations about the disappearance of his beloved maritime and meatpacking industries -- brutal, back-breaking assemblages of jobs, in which human beings were used as beasts of burden -- a Bay Area-spawned technological revolution was creating the greatest jobs boom the region has ever seen.

All these changes created their own sets of problems. Most recently, the city's rapid job growth has created a seemingly uncontrollable real estate boom. With Caen's ghost hovering nearby, a significant portion of the city has decided that we can solve this by returning to a simpler, imaginary past.

That's a fantasy. There are better ways, real ways.

We could encourage the construction of great quantities of housing, so that new workers and old could afford a place to live. We could build sufficient office space to meet demand, so that exploding rents don't ruin entrepreneurs, altruists, and artists.

We could exhume the nostalgic intellectual legacy of Herb Caen. And having thus exposed it, we could re-examine it, then put it to rest forever.

In life, Herb Caen revealed in many of his missives that he was a man of generous spirit. And for more than half a century he made an entire city feel as though it shared a single soul. So in death I believe he would wish -- to reverse Mark Antony's lines -- that the good he did would live on after him, that the evil was interred with his bones, and that the San Francisco he loved would change, for the better, with the times.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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