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Political Relativity 

Stuck in a strange warp of the space-time fabric, our supervisors can't stop tilting against a dot-com development monster that's dead and buried

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
Just as X-rays can't pass through lead, time cannot penetrate a stasis field. And so it was on Tuesday, July 9, that City Hall departed from the spacio-temporal continuum.

For hours, the giant dome of City Hall seemed to echo with the mutterings of Arthur Brown Jr., the man who designed it in 1913. The central marble stairway tittered with the sweet nothings of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, who wed there in 1953. The voice of George Moscone could be heard, calling on Harvey Milk. And the Manchurian oak-paneled legislative chambers trembled with the cries of Luis Granados, head of the inappropriately named Mission Economic Development Association.

"We need to balance the economic benefits for developers with the needs of the rest of the city," Granados told the Board of Supervisors' Rules and Audits Committee as he decried the negative effects of office development on Mission District residential neighborhoods. "The period we experienced has been a dark, dark period for the Planning Commission."

During Tuesday's hearing, which focused on new appointments to the Planning Commission and the Board of Permit Appeals, time seemed frozen -- and not merely because the session dragged on a record 12 hours. Rather, most of the hundred or so people testifying -- neighborhood anti-growth activists; Irish apartment builders; developers' lawyers; NIMBY, anti-development lawyers -- spoke of issues the clock had long left behind. The Irish builders complained they were being unfairly criticized for constructing live-work lofts, which have been outlawed for nearly a year. Neighborhood activists railed against an office-building boom they said boosted apartment prices, though the boom is ancient history. Amid an enormous office space glut, anti-growth lawyer Sue Hestor warned of illegal conversions of warehouses into offices, while builder representative Joe O'Donoghue defended office builders.

In other words, citizens and supervisors spoke for 12 hours about the growth effects of a 1995-2000 Internet industry craze that no longer exists, or matters a whit.

It was as if San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, elected two years ago amid a popular backlash against dot-com-related growth, had a mandate to fight this battle eternally, as if the supes were soldiers in a Chinese emperor's tomb. When the meeting was over, they appeared determined to do just that.

Several of Mayor Willie Brown's appointments to the Planning Commission seemed likely to be rejected, supervisors told me, and at least one appointment by Board President Tom Ammiano also appeared doomed. Subsequently, the mayor rescinded his appointments, and a spokesman said Brown had no plans to make new ones.

The possibility therefore exists that the seven-member Planning Commission would be unable to raise a quorum, and therefore could not formally meet -- or vote on -- commission matters. Building permit decisions may be frozen in time indefinitely, thanks to the inexplicable stasis field that has engulfed San Francisco politics. "I'd hate to have $3 million sunk into a building project right now," urban planning gadfly Jim Chappel observed.

Outside City Hall, of course, time has marched on: San Francisco's dot-com troubles are long gone, and a very different series of problems has taken their place. The local economy has fallen further and faster than it has anywhere in the country -- with worse, apparently, to come. Commercial vacancies have gone from nearly zero during the dot-com days to an official level of more than 25 percent. (In reality, vacancies are much higher, as businesses that would vacate if they could are being forced to live out the last months of long-term leases.) In other cases, landlords don't even record vacancies in efforts to burnish what would otherwise be frightening real estate balance sheets. Thousands of workers have left the city. To top it off, there is still a housing shortage, and -- bizarrely -- residential rents remain at the extraordinarily high levels of 1998.

For an ordinary working Jose or Jane with mouths to feed, San Francisco has become a cruel, cruel place: no jobs, and no place to live within one's means. But inside San Francisco City Hall, people continue to argue and argue about how best to stanch runaway growth.

Tuesday's spectacle was the result of a ballot proposition approved in March, when memory of the anti-dot-com-office frenzy had yet to completely fade. Proposition D gave the president of the Board of Supervisors power to appoint three of seven members to the Planning Commission and two of five members to the Board of Appeals. The mayor had previously chosen these panels. The measure also increased the supervisors' ability to veto the mayoral appointees, changing the requirement for doing so from a two-thirds vote of the board to a simple majority.

The idea was to grant the current Board of Supervisors, who had been elected at the peak of San Francisco's anti-development sentiment, greater power to slow growth by giving them greater power to oppose the mayor.

But a funny thing happened this spring: Board President Tom Ammiano, who nearly won the 1999 mayoral contest thanks to the dot-com backlash, stuck his head outside City Hall and saw how the city had changed. Ammiano had become deadly serious about winning the 2003 mayor's race and wished to position himself as something more than the vessel for reactionary sentiment he was two years ago. He appointed a trio of planning commissioners with nary an anti-development ax to grind. The pro-development mayor, naturally, did the same.

The appointments infuriated the anti-development types, an odd alliance of property owners and landlords who had profited handsomely from the city's housing shortage and socialist-minded "community activists," some of whom openly admitted to believing apartments' scarcity wasn't what made them expensive.

"If somebody is going to build a tax-draining subsidized housing structure next to my house, nobody on that Planning Commission is going to say no," said Barbara Meskunas, vice president of the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods, a group of property owner associations. "They used us, and now they're abusing us. Prop. D was, 'Protect our neighborhoods.' It doesn't stand for dirty tricks. We're angry."

Supervisors Gerardo Sandoval, Aaron Peskin, and Matt Gonzalez, who all spoke with me last week, suggested the board would feel the neighborhoods' pain and reject at least one of Ammiano's nominees and, perhaps, two of Brown's.

"I think the board, first of all, has to take control of the Planning Department, and has to look at the neighborhoods and figure out where greater density is appropriate, and protect neighborhood character everywhere else," said Sandoval, offering a variation on the property owners' anti-growth theme.

Added Gonzalez: "The point being made by the coalition of neighborhoods is extremely valid. There should be a consideration on the commission for them."

If this column were actually about the citizen volunteers appointed to the commission, I might throw in my own two cents on the nominees. I photocopied their résumés. I listened as they defended themselves before the board, and talked briefly to one of them.

But I'm not writing about the fitness of the nominees to the Planning Commission and the Board of Permit Appeals, or the conflict that waged during the marathon hearing on Tuesday. This column deals with politicians who try to score points by creating the appearance of fulfilling a mandate -- even when the mandate is utterly irrelevant to facts on the ground.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick is not a member of the Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors, but he lurked in and out of chambers for 11 of the 12 hours the committee was in session last Tuesday. At around 8 p.m., as the meeting was drawing to a close, McGoldrick insisted on giving an individual speech -- on each candidate -- before the committee voted.

Committee Chairman Tony Hall objected. A deputy city attorney was called in. The verdict: McGoldrick could speak only once before all the votes were cast. When he was done, McGoldrick gathered his papers in a huff and stalked out of the room -- apparently outraged that he was allowed to posture for political gain just once, rather than multiple times.

I expect debate among the board, Ammiano, and Brown to continue -- and to continue in the same idiotic fashion -- so long as the so-called board progressives see political value in playing to the anti-dot-com crowd. Interim zoning controls in the Mission -- another dot-com-heyday holdover that now serves no function but to make it difficult for restaurants to expand and for warehouse owners to rent their buildings -- are up for debate and demagoguing. The progressives are sure to insist that development moratoriums continue in the Mission, even though there is nothing the low-income, job-poor Mission needs more right now than a little development.

San Francisco is acting like a middle-aged couple that has memorized a single argument and can't help repeating it.

While the Board of Supervisors and some of its constituents remain stuck in the past, most of San Francisco suffers an excruciating real-time problem: a housing shortage. Though "For Rent" signs have appeared all over town, prices aren't plummeting to affordable levels, as one might expect. Landlords know about the city's time-warp, anti-housing politics. They understand that the Planning Commission typically makes it extremely hard to build apartments in San Francisco.

So the landlords are holding rents high, despite the "For Rent" signs.

In the real-time, post-dot-com world, the Planning Department remains a dysfunctional mess that delays apartment construction even under a supposedly pro-development mayor. A recent audit by the board's budget analyst says that processing delays are rampant, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to apartment and other buildings. The Planning Commission takes 80 days on average to process approvals, 20 days longer than the maximum time allowed under state law.

Ideally, a city's General Plan, drafted to serve the needs of the entire metropolis, should provide a template that makes Planning Commission decisions simple, objective, and predictable.

In San Francisco, the General Plan serves only as rough (and often sidestepped) guidance for adjudicating neighborhood disputes. Two-thirds of all cases heard by the Planning Commission last year were subjective "conditional use" and "discretionary review" cases -- a greater percentage than in any other California city. The planning process has become an arbitrary game, in which commissioners sway to and fro, usually sympathizing with homeowners and landlords, who wish to halt new construction and keep home prices high, and sometimes siding with developers' lawyers, who want to build units to satisfy demand and, not coincidentally, make their clients money.

Regardless of which way the commissioners sway, the process takes a long time, is unpredictable, and discourages residential construction.

As a result, our city suffers a housing shortage of between 25,000 and 70,000 units, depending on who does the math, which keeps apartment prices sky high. This shortage will persist if our city continues to ignore Planning Department problems, and instead conducts irrelevant historical debates.

For the first time in a decade, we really have the opportunity to address San Francisco's housing crisis. In today's real estate market, developers, investors, and landowners have no interest in developing commercial property, because of the glut of commercial space, and every interest in building housing, for which there is continuing demand.

If San Francisco were to permit, say, 5,000 extra apartments to be built each year, the landlords who are currently holding out for $2,000-per-month rents on their measly two-bedroom apartments might begin to yield. Just a few thousand more apartments might be enough to force demand, and prices, to slide. If that happened, real, present-day, low- and middle-income San Franciscans could once again afford to live here.

But to get to that point, we'll all have to start living, once again, in the present.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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