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Precious Cargo 

S.F.'s planning cults foolishly believe the city's industrial past can be preserved.

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008

During World War II, U.S. soldiers were temporarily stationed on Vanuatu, an archipelago 1,000 miles north of Australia. The natives were amazed by the newcomers, who never seemed to make anything, but possessed clothes, vehicles, and stoves that descended in planes filled with crates called "cargo."

Just as mysteriously, the visitors seemed to perform no meaningful work. Instead, they put people in uniforms and made them stand in straight lines, or beside runways making motions with their arms.

The natives believed they had witnessed magic, and that the line-standing, uniform-wearing, and runway-monitoring constituted powerful rituals that, if performed properly, would cause the cargo-bearing aircraft to favor them with industrial goods of their own. So the tribesmen built life-size planes from trunks, sticks, and reeds; they raked dirt into runways; and they marched in formation, sometimes in makeshift uniforms. They believed that if they could harness the incomprehensible magic of cargo, they could repel white arrivals and return to enjoying their traditional island ways — albeit with radios and Jeeps. Of course, the radios and Jeeps never came.

In San Francisco, some locals have believed in their own version of an island cargo cult since the 1950s, when the city's eastern neighborhoods served as a manufacturing, distribution, and repair support district for the old industrial waterfront. The local cults think that by performing magical planning rituals, San Francisco will see the return of rail spurs, cargo nets, and well-paying manufacturing jobs.

City officials this month enshrined these beliefs in the so-called Eastern Neighborhoods Area Plan, a series of zoning ordinances designed to "preserve" industrial space while levying steep fees on apartment development. This hope, inflated by rigged economic feasibility studies, has been to resurrect San Francisco's economy of 60 years ago, when the Mission, Potrero, SOMA, and central waterfront neighborhoods were commercially linked to the piers. By stanching apartment and office growth, the thinking goes, the old industries will return, despite already-high vacancies in warehouse and light-industry-style buildings.

But let's return to the reality-based world for a moment. With the added burden of the current financial crisis, the Eastern Neighborhoods plan will create an economic dead zone in parts of town that might otherwise hold the city's greatest promise for new types of businesses and housing. The lack of available construction loans and the related paucity of tax-credit–based financing for nonprofit developers, combined with the difficulty of building in San Francisco compared with elsewhere, means construction will come to a halt.

But San Francisco's cargo cult has an answer for the doubters who fear the plan will hurt the city's economy: a messiah from the holy city of Washington, D.C. According to the newest mythology, a tall, thin man named Barack Obama will descend from the heavens, bearing billions of dollars' worth of housing subsidies cargo. Thanks to his magic, San Francisco will suffer no apartment shortage, despite having all but banned construction in the prime building sites in its dormant former industrial areas.

Local antidevelopment activist Calvin Welch was recently quoted as saying the city should buy up land whose value was destroyed by the new zoning laws. San Francisco can ask Barack Obama to give us money to build low-income housing instead. "I think the way housing is financed is going to be totally transformed, and the federal government is going to play a bigger role," he said.

Welch apparently failed to mention the part where he built an effigy airplane and began chanting, drumming, and dancing with his eyes strained heavenward, hoping for the earthly descent of federal housing dollars.

Last week, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, the departing high priest of an extreme strain of cargo cultism known as historical preservation, busied himself with a final-days spasm of what nonbelievers might call legislative devilry. One piece of legislation he proposed seemed mostly technical: He added a new section — 329 — to the planning code, especially for projects in the eastern neighborhoods.

Observers in the planning community say Peskin pulled a switcheroo that undermined a deal he negotiated to prevent developers from waging an expensive campaign against Proposition J, a historical preservation initiative he championed.

Backers favored a panel of pro-preservation ideologues with absolute power to protect buildings — and, in some cases, entire districts — from the wrecking ball.

Developers wanted the Planning Commission — which considers historic preservation as one of many factors in approving urban infill projects — to retain veto power, particularly when it came to proposals for new, large buildings proposed inside historic districts. Plans already exist for special preservation districts centered on the historic S.F. automobile repair shops and of gay leather bars, to name just two examples. Developers reasoned that these districts might contain insignificant buildings, such as cinderblock warehouses, that would be suitable sites for new offices, condominiums, boys' and girls' clubs, or other uses. The Planning Commission might be more likely to consider these new uses than would a panel of history zealots.

So Peskin made a deal: Developers would hold back on funding an expensive opposition campaign, as long as Peskin built in a check on the new preservation commission's authority.

The eventual compromise consisted of a single sentence in the 16-page ballot proposition. It said that when the historical preservation panel ruled on certain projects requiring a permit under Section 309 of the planning code, which refers to certain buildings in downtown commercial districts, the Planning Commission could override the ruling with a two-thirds vote. In many cases, this would mean that projects developers cared about would stand at least a fighting chance before the commission. Two weeks after Prop. J passed, however, Peskin introduced legislation that said Eastern Neighborhoods projects would be governed under the new Section 329, nullifying — with the change of a single digit — the political deal that enabled easy passage of his cherished initiative. Thanks to the change, the Prop. J–greasing compromise doesn't apply to a significant portion of the city's developable land.

Peskin suggested his opponents should have known all along that he meant to amend the planning code right after the election. He says he was merely further specifying the code's already clear intent. "If you're sticking something in a section of the code where it doesn't belong, it's in the wrong place," he said. "I created a more appropriate place to put it. The idea of my being less than forthright is totally false."

Peskin, who is departing for a sinecure as head of the local Democratic Party, is a man of great, if narrowly focused, intelligence. He's a master of parliamentary strategy who seems to have memorized thousands of pages of municipal code. But he has employed these skills to advance not a vision, but an antivision. He has told me and many others that he doesn't want to be remembered for what he's done, but for what he has prevented others from doing. In this spirit, Proposition J, which threatens to impose a broad freeze on city construction, is a fitting capstone to his supervisorial career.

Meanwhile, Peskin's opponents on the board are pushing to pass a new bill that would reverse his switcheroo after he is termed out in January. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd predicts the new Peskin-free board will find it easier to do the right thing: "I'm not convinced it's going to be a major fight," he said. "Frankly ... there will be no member of the board who can speak planning code as well as Peskin. [He] will be allowed to get his public comment in, but he will no longer have any particular influence on this issue."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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