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Progressive Failure 

Why San Francisco supervisors who call themselves progressives should get the boot in November

Wednesday, Aug 4 2004
Photocopied fliers festoon Panhandle telephone poles, advertising politicians rather than lost cats. Cole Valley's coffee shops seem friendlier now, with more than the usual number of opinionated customers talking about themselves. On Haight Street, muttering vagabonds accost passers-by thrice as often as before, and the increased buttonholing does not involve the area's hippie-beggar count, but its new population of political aspirants. At last measure, 32 strivers will compete on the ballot this November to replace retiring Supervisor Matt Gonzalez in District 5.

I didn't mind the politically induced changes in my neighborhood until a troubling incident last month. It was dark. I was tired. I didn't get a really good look at the guy's face. And after I'd finished an encounter with one of the aforementioned wanderers, I was stumbling home down an empty street just off the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, having signed a form to place on the ballot a candidate who described himself as a ... progressive. Eccchhhh!

San Francisco's four-year experiment in progressive empowerment -- begun when anti-growth activists took over the Board of Supervisors after year-2000 protests against the development of high-tech office space across the city -- needs to end at the polls this November. We certainly shouldn't be signing forms getting more of them on the ballot.

Despite their self-applied name, San Francisco progressives aren't a philosophical or ideological movement in any meaningful sense. Rather, they're a political faction, allied around specific, self-centered financial interests, brought to office four years ago on an anti-growth mandate. Just like other politicians, they participate in backroom deals that have the potential to help their friends, to the detriment of the rest of us. The difference with this crowd is that they concentrate their ill dealings in the most important area of policy in the city -- housing. In four brief years, they've set the livability of the city back decades.

To get a clear view of why this November's election should be a day of judgment against San Francisco's failed progressive experiment, we leave my neighborhood for a while, heading east on Fell Street a half-mile or so, turning right on Divisadero and left on 14th Street, then coasting downhill across Market Street to Mission. There, we arrive at a towering red monument to inertia; it's called the State Armory and Arsenal. A block wide and resembling a brick hangar, it's sat empty for 35 years, in part because it's a seismically unstable building that requires imagination, and massive investment, to turn it into something useful. Four years ago its owner got the funds and approvals together to convert the massive structure into a computer server farm. "Progressive" activists beat that proposal down, claiming it represented the supposedly blue-collar-job-killing expansion of technology-related business, an expansion they called the "dot-comming" of the Mission. Now, the castlelike stone structure is slated to become 185 apartments. But last week progressives came within a hairsbreadth of halting the building's reuse yet again, and they've hardly given up their mindless anti-housing campaign.

Surrounding the armory is a blighted cluster of empty buildings, near-abandoned workshops, a half-dead car lot, and several vacant parcels that have received acute attention from progressives during the past month. The area is slated for an urban renaissance; builders have obtained or filed for permits, drawn up architectural plans, and lined up financing for a new neighborhood that would include 500 apartments (a large fraction of those subsidized for lower-income people), along with thousands of feet of street-front store space.

A delightful improvement to a depressing and dangerous area, you say?

Not so fast: This is turf eyed by a laundry list of nonprofit groups and allied activist organizations that gained national fame four years ago as the vanguard of the dot-com backlash.

The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition; its informal affiliate, the Mission Economic Development Association; its other informal affiliate, the Mission Housing Development Corp.; and these groups' allied, anti-development attorney, Sue Hestor, are no longer besieged by phone calls from curious Belgian journalists. The dot-com backlash that these groups became spokesmen for is no longer an international story, or even a local one. With the dot-com boom long gone, there isn't much, in reality, to backlash against.

But the rhetoric lives on, at least in some "progressive" minds: Development pressures threaten to "ruin" the working-class Mission District, this fantasy tale goes, displacing jobs in blue-collar workshops, gentrifying apartment districts, and driving up rents.

Over the last four years, the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition has pressed owners of both the armory and a printing-plant building across the street to modify plans to renovate their buildings as residential properties. (The printing plant is slated to become 194 new apartments.) The building owners did just that, cutting back on the amount of retail space in their proposals, adding additional "family" residential units, upping the amounts of subsidized housing -- in other words, trying to deal with the progressives' concerns.

Agustin Rosas-Maxemin, the printing-plant project's developer, says the new building would suit the Hispanic theme of the Mission. "It's contextual, modern Mexican architecture, designed to be an elegant gateway to the Mission," he says. And negotiations with the Anti-Displacement Coalition, Rosas-Maxemin says, "appeared to be in good faith. We modified the projects for more two-bedroom units and some three-bedrooms. But they never really give you any feedback."

At least, not directly.

Last month, on the Friday before a Monday meeting, "progressive" Supervisor Chris Daly, who represents the part of the Mission that includes the armory and the printing plant, slipped an all-but-unnoticed item onto the agenda of the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee. The item would have rezoned a small area of San Francisco in a way that seemed specifically designed to kill the armory and printing-plant projects.

In theory at least, even in San Francisco it's unconstitutional to pass laws specifically designed to punish one's enemies. So anti-development lawyer Sue Hestor came to Daly's office with a bill that punished developers of projects she objected to, yet maintained the appearance of a more generalized reform of zoning laws, a person familiar with the matter says.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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