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The Next Big Thing: Should the People Control the Fate of the Waterfront? 

Wednesday, Feb 12 2014

Red wine, cookies, and a former mayor were the featured spread for a recent gathering of the Upper Noe Neighbors Association. The two dozen attendees shifted uncomfortably in folding chairs arranged awkwardly in a circle. They managed to drain only about a quarter of a single bottle of Chilean red and down barely half the homemade cookies. Clearly, nobody was here to eat.

When Art Agnos wandered through the front door, he was the only man in the room wearing a suit, let alone a tucked-in shirt. It was the sort of outfit one dons when sitting down for a summit with powerful developers, as he did earlier that day, rather than teetering on a child-sized seat while a kindly woman in a fleece vest recites the minutes from the previous meeting. And it's hardly the typical attire worn when hauling a junkie convulsing atop the double yellow line at Market and Guerrero out of the street. That, too, took place earlier.

It was a hell of a day.

In front of a gaggle of registered San Francisco voters, however, the erstwhile mayor finds his way. He launches into a well-versed stump speech, the distillation of a years-long jeremiad against the proposed Warriors arena project on Piers 30-32 in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. This is an oration he has delivered to similar groups of cookie- and wine-neglecting neighborhood activists nearly 100 times in the past several months.

Audiences change, but the message does not: Agnos' cadences rapidly assume the mesmerizing pitter-patter of a revivalist preacher; attendees squirm, gasp, and blurt out "Jesus Christ!" on cue as Agnos spins a tale of a bloated waterfront arena enthroned atop gargantuan concrete pilings and bracketed by a swanky hotel, noxious retail, and towering luxury condos erected on public land. The misbegotten vanity project, he says darkly, will drain city coffers, snarl Embarcadero traffic during ballgames, concerts, and "tractor-pulls" — and, most unforgivably, wall off the common citizen from "our waterfront."

Art Agnos warms his hands with cup of coffee on a brisk Monday morning at a waterfront cafe: "This is my hangout," he boasts. It's not a bad place to be. Unobstructed by the Embarcadero Freeway that Agnos made the politically fateful decision to raze in 1991, the dilapidated cargo depots and seedy flophouses serving as a backdrop for real and cinematic police chases have given way to greenspace, crisp bay views, and earbudded joggers.

Dirty Harry isn't shooting people here anymore.

In 2006, the Port of San Francisco unveiled a waterfront monument on Pier 14, declaring that "this pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city better and stronger than he found it." The same can't be said for his political career: Demolishing the quake-damaged Chinatown artery required spurning a petition of more than 22,000 signatures, sowing enmity within that neighborhood so toxic it has a half-life. This was, arguably, the driving factor in ensuring Agnos' detractors will be forever able to preface his name with the adjective "one-term mayor."

"When you lose, the coterie of public officials, the press, the lobbyists, the citizens, they all move on to the next person. And all you're left with is a question," reflects Agnos. "'What did I do in the time I had to make a difference?'" He grins. Hell yeah, he'd raze that freeway again. "I know I made a difference. That's what sticks to you like a good breakfast in the morning."

This is a speech the 75-year-old Agnos has delivered before. To others — and himself.

He glances out the cafe window toward the proposed site of the Warriors' gambit — a gleaming ivory 18,000-seat stadium and 500-space parking garage on the ramshackle pier; a towering hotel and condominium across the Embarcadero; and 130,000 square feet of retail space between both sites. "We don't need a basketball team to be a great city!" he exclaims. "Oklahoma City does! Oakland does! We already are a great city!"

Agnos is prone to venture into his rehearsed arena sermon in interpersonal conversations. He'll feed the neighborhood groups the same line, essentially verbatim. But now he goes further: "We always have been a great city and always will be — unless we fuck it up!"

In Agnos' view, the Warriors' waterfront beachhead would be the straw that fucked up the camel's back.

Well, there's a remedy for all that. It's the same one San Francisco development critics have successfully wheeled out for decades: ballot-box city planning via an alphabet's worth of propositions.

Somewhat uniquely, San Francisco is a place in which progress is often marked by what we haven't accomplished rather than what we have. Citizen activism has spared this city its share of neighborhood-annihilating freeways and high-rise monoliths. Through the years, opposition to rampant growth grew more organized; policies crafted by development critics and enshrined by voters have shaped city policy.

And when this process — partially of their own making — still produces undesirable results, development critics may go to voters once more, targeting specific projects.

Along with "The Waterfront Alliance" — the amalgamation of environmental groups, slow-growth activists, antsy neighbors, and well-heeled "concerned San Franciscans" that crushed the proposed waterfront 8 Washington luxury condo tower in November's election — Agnos is pushing a waterfront height-limit ballot initiative.

Backers last week turned in 21,067 signatures to place the matter on the ballot in June — far exceeding a goal of 15,000 to secure 9,702 valid ones. The Department of Elections quickly certified the initiative, presenting voters with the opportunity to ensure they determine the fate of every future waterfront development exceeding existing height limits. These range from zero feet in open space to 40 feet along much of the strip, topping out at just 105 feet.

Luxury condos towers and major arenas tend to be a shade taller than that.

Describing land-use and development matters in San Francisco as onerous and contentious is a bit like describing Warriors center Andrew Bogut as tall. On the waterfront, everything grows more arcane still: State land is held in trust by the Port; usage is severely proscribed; and a litany of state and local approvals is necessary before any nails get hammered.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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