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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.

Atop all this, Agnos et al. would mandate a vote of the people on every significant project, a move akin to installing a kill switch on the development process: "Let the people protect the waterfront," is the exclamation point to his stump speech.

Audiences convinced waterfront development has devolved into an auction for connected political insiders tend to cheer. But development-by-referendum is hardly an ideal solution to any problem, let alone one of a planning process supposedly overtaken by favored builders.

And one man's protection is another's obstruction.

The proposed ballot measure affects not only the Warriors but two other potential waterfront high-rise megaprojects. In the first, the Giants envision a mixed-use development behind AT&T Park entailing 3.5 million square feet of retail, housing, and office space, along with an Anchor brewery — plus skyscrapers ranging from 320 to 380 feet tall. For the second project, veteran builder Forest City aims to remake Pier 70 with perhaps 1,000 units of housing, 2.2 million square feet of office space, and structures reaching 235 feet high.

If forced to win voter approval, all three developers pushing their own measures onto the ballot — as soon as November — would present a messy scenario for Mayor Ed Lee, described within City Hall as "a fucking nightmare."

Rough sailing, then, is in store. But, like the tides gently advancing and receding along the waterfront, it's all cyclical. This gathering development showdown is just the latest battle in a decadeslong war. The history of the waterfront recapitulates the city's own — as will its future.

The big cranes at the Port of San Francisco have been dormant for years. In large part, all that's being loaded and unloaded along this city's waterfront are cruise ship passengers. The city serving as a backdrop for their selfies has been utterly transformed by the decline of its port. Once a legitimate industrial center, San Francisco is now reliant upon the tourism and service industries — a place of production turned to one of consumption.

In 1966, an estimated one of every seven San Francisco workers held a job dependent upon the Port. When these jobs evaporated, an entire class of city residents ceased to exist. A diaspora of ethnically diverse, blue-collar laborers — and an influx of white-collar office workers — led to an explosion in the price of residential real estate. As hordes of tech workers today re-enact this cycle, real-estate and rental prices continue their ascent to parodic levels.

All of this stemmed from the demise of the Port — which, like Hemingway's description of bankruptcy, came gradually then suddenly.

In 1958, the Hawaiian Merchant was the first containerized cargo ship to depart San Francisco Bay. It sailed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into the open sea, a harbinger of change to come. The rise of containerization led to the advent of larger ships that San Francisco couldn't accommodate. It required an untenable investment in infrastructure and equipment, and sprawling plots of land nonexistent in this city. The Port faltered, and set off a domino effect of failure. Processing and storage facilities dependent on materials no longer delivered to the waterfront decamped for Oakland, Emeryville, and other warehouse-friendly East Bay locales. High-wage blue-collar jobs departed with them.

Across the bay, meanwhile, federal grants to the Port of Oakland fueled explosive growth. Between 1968 and '73 alone, at least five major shipping lines jilted San Francisco for its larger, better located, and more modern rival.

By the time Otis Redding sang "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" five decades ago, the waterfront was a realm in flux within a city in flux. For more than a century, the Port served as the engine room of San Francisco. Men and materials arrived and departed here, and the city sprung up around it. To a large extent, the Port dictated the composition of the city writ large.

Not anymore. Minus the screeching whistles, smoke-belching plants, acrid processing facilities, and caravans of trains, trucks, and stevedores, a new type of San Franciscan emerged, voicing new concerns regarding the waterfront. Notions of access, unobstructed sightlines, and environmental stewardship are recent; the San Franciscans toiling in and dependent upon the city's engine room weren't hung up on everyone's pristine views of the place.

That was their office. They were working. Today's San Franciscans are looking.

The polarity of the city has been reversed. While San Francisco once reflected the influence of the waterfront, the waterfront now reflects the influence of the city.

"It's a total inversion," says Jasper Rubin, a former city planner overseeing the waterfront and now an SF State professor of urban studies. "The city has transformed and a functional connection to the waterfront no longer exists. What molds the waterfront, then, reflects the needs and goals of a city reaching to be 'world-class.' It looks at the waterfront as a different kind of resource; as opposed to being an integral part of the economy, it's the new frontier."

The next big battle over that frontier is coming — and right soon. The skirmishes are being fought, nightly, over wine and cookies.

The posterboards Art Agnos schleps wherever he goes are emblazoned with chipper watercolor images of the waterfront arena he reviles. For easier portability, he's sliced oval-shaped holes atop them so they can be toted like suitcases, and reinforced these with duct tape. PowerPoint it ain't.

The small army of political consultants amassed by the Warriors have portrayed Agnos as a vestige of the city's past. Yet that's not the worst thing to be when courting San Francisco's entrenched voting class — an aging group less than enthralled with the present, let alone the city's trajectory toward a discomfiting future.

Put bluntly, Agnos is an old-school politician making an old argument via old methods. To old people.

It's a rare attendee at one of these presentations who can't remember the day President Kennedy was assassinated. But, again, that's okay. More people than ever live in San Francisco these days. But the neighborhood activists who show up for Agnos' presentations have made lives here. They were here yesterday, they'll be here tomorrow; this isn't their "San Francisco phase." In short, they live here.

People who live here vote here.

So while it may be a bit grandiose to gauge the mood of the city based on the results of an off-year, low-turnout, unsexy election, it's fair game to gauge the mood of those who bother to vote in off-year, low-turnout, unsexy elections. Fewer than three in 10 San Franciscans deigned to participate in the November election that doomed 8 Washington. And that was actually a so-so turnout for a municipal affair; sans alluring state and federal issues, transitory San Franciscans blow off local elections. The issues affecting us the most are decided by the fewest, and most veteran, voters.

Older voters of the sort piling into rec centers and coffeehouses to observe Agnos brandishing a laser pointer — his one conceit to modernity — tend to skew disproportionately high in esoteric, municipal elections like last November's. Or the one pending in June.

Their younger and newer neighbors may not even know what "Manhattanization" means, let alone reflexively object to high-rise development. Manhattan is cool. High-rises are everywhere. Far-flung change is less threatening to an influx of newcomers who, themselves, represent far-flung change. Longtime San Franciscans concerned that their younger incarnations couldn't make it in this city today — or who are, perhaps, struggling in the present — have experienced a different San Francisco than those with the means to move to the city now. Absent context, the notion of change is meaningless.

Today's anti-gentrification activists protest tech buses, but yesterday's protested high-rises. Agnos' talking points are larded with stimuli just for them.

Ask an ascendent young San Franciscan to stop playing with his smartphone long enough to tell you what he thinks about Fontana Towers, and he'll likely get right back on the smartphone to Google it. But when Agnos broaches the subject to his stump-speech demographic, an outpouring of lamentations envelops the room. These people know from Fontana Towers.

The twin 17-story twin apartment complexes were erected in 1965 atop the former site of the Fontana Fruit Canning Company's brick warehouses, vestiges of a once-bustling port.

"There had been an unspoken rule that you didn't build tall on the waterfront before that," says Allan Jacobs, the city's planning director from 1968 to '75. A pair of Soviet-style blocks resembling freestanding radiators changed that rule to a spoken one, inspiring the 40-foot height limit blanketing much of the waterfront — and establishing the template for the next half century of development clashes along the water's edge.

In 1968, an irate Mayor Joseph Alioto growled that "40 people can't stop a $100 million project." He has been proven stunningly and repeatedly wrong in the decades since: The 30-story World Trade Center, Embarcadero City, and the 550-foot-tall U.S. Steel Building all contributed to the flotsam and jetsam of unrealized projects dashed along the waterfront.

Then as now, the populist charge against waterfront development was waged primarily by well-to-do, highly connected individuals heavily concerned with aesthetics — and groups composed in large part of such individuals. The arguments the Sierra Club, Telegraph Hill Dwellers, or San Francisco Tomorrow advanced against infill and towers 50 years ago are the same ones those very groups are making against the Warriors arena — and its accompanying towers — today. The oft-repeated refrain about a looming "wall on the waterfront" traces back more than half a century (though, in a less politically correct age, it was referred to as a "Chinese Wall.").

Agnos' seminar is a political dog whistle; a savvy crowd detects its stratified layers of messaging.

And for those without deep institutional memories of development battles past, Agnos makes sure to repeat his most current — and damning — rhetorical flourish early and often: likening the proposed arena (and its luxury condos) to the vanquished 8 Washington luxury condos. Beaming his laser pointer at a serene watercolor of a waterfront basketball Taj Mahal, Agnos' diction slows to a crawl. "You could fit three-and-a-half 8 Washingtons inside this arena!"

Befitting a discussion about a stadium, the crowd goes wild.

To use language the San Francisco Giants understand, this pitch was filthy.

When the Sierra Club's Becky Evans filed "The Waterfront Height Limit Right-to-Vote Act" with the city's Department of Elections in the waning days of 2013, the Major League Baseball franchise and aspiring waterfront developer was left feeling a bit like Miguel Cabrera. The Detroit slugger impotently took an unanticipated Sergio Romo fastball for a called strike three to close out the 2012 World Series.

No one saw that pitch coming, either.

Giants officials did not return SF Weekly's calls. But multiple ballot proponents and city politicos on the receiving end of invective-laced tirades attest that Evans' filing was not a pleasant surprise for the city's sole remaining professional sports team.

"Oh, they were so blindsided," says a government source. "They thought they were special."

While the Warriors long ago conceded their high-profile arena-retail-hotel-parking-condo moonshot should receive the imprimatur of the electorate, the Giants apparently hoped they could slip their development — and its 380-foot towers — under the radar. But the hubbub inspired by the former project has ensnared the latter. As such, SF Weekly is told it's difficult to understate the franchises' mutual enmity.

The height initiative was forged in this city's well-stoked and long-burning anti-development furnace. It is just the latest flashpoint of a larger, decades-long struggle. And yet, specifically and in the moment, it sets in motion a number of potentially conflicting scenarios that could compromise billions of dollars worth of potential waterfront developments yearned for by the city's powers-that-be.

How much happier everything seemed on a serene May morning in 2012, when the city and Warriors held a joint press conference on Piers 30-32. No expense was spared. Delicious coffee was dispensed from shiny tureens (with real cream!) and a platoon of laborers was deployed to place shrubberies at strategically desirable locations. Warriors co-owner Peter Guber assured the gathered luminaries, "We will play here in 2017. Take that as a promise we're going to fulfill. We're all-in."

Earlier this month, it was revealed that a peer-reviewed analysis of the substructure costs for Piers 30-32 pegged the bill at $180 million — at least $60 million higher than the figure being bandied about over coffee and shrubberies two years ago. The cost floated in 2011, when the city and Port endeavored to gift Piers 30-32 to yachting billionaire Larry Ellison prior to the America's Cup, was $91.5 million.

This, again, is the amount of money that would have to be spent before money could start being spent on an arena. Of this, the city would be on the hook for $120 million to revitalize a derelict pier whose mere removal would require an estimated $45 million. An earlier proposal for this sum to be saddled with a 13 percent interest rate will be nixed, per a city player, because "we couldn't find any way to explain it that didn't make it incendiary."

Warriors brass this month revealed a 2017 tip-off was, in actuality, a promise that they would not fulfill. That's an unpleasant development for Mayor Ed Lee, who also opted to go all-in. Referring to a waterfront megadevelopment that existed only in the mind of a watercolorist as "my legacy project" was, to put it mildly, regrettable. Lashing oneself, Ahab-like, to a waterfront proposal will, more than likely, get you drowned; there is no shortage of failed San Francisco waterfront projects and disappointed mayors. Lee also ruptured even the veneer of city oversight and impartiality. (The Giants, SF Weekly is again told, are displeased.)

Somewhat ironically considering the organizations involved, major developers aren't often team players. This, too, bodes poorly for Lee. Barring a lawsuit against the city — which certified the measure — or other unforeseen craziness, even fervent arena backers within the mayor's camp predict the June height-limit initiative "is absolutely gonna pass." This could trigger a mad dash for the Warriors, Giants, and Forest City to win voter approval of their individual projects by rushing their own measures into the following election, while clambering over one another like crabs in a barrel.

Lee's beaming visage was emblazoned on the campaign mailers flogging the 8 Washington project, a proposed tower of multimillion-dollar condos he jarringly referred to as "neighborhood housing." The mayor's whiskers were singed when 67 percent of the electorate spurned his entreaties and, in the months since, he's been singing a different tune. Lee has railed against Ellis Act evictions, pushed for construction of thousands of affordable housing units, and urged a healthy spike in the minimum wage. The mayor's office insists this was his existing agenda. But not everyone buys that: "They're running scared," says SF State professor emeritus Rich DeLeon, the dean of Bay Area political scientists.

So, being forced to weigh in on not one, not two, but potentially three simultaneous megadevelopment ballot measures in a city where voters are, evidently, growing wary of the specter of overdevelopment hardly fits Lee's preferred narrative. He, too, has a pending return date with the electorate.

With a slim, three-page ballot measure and a $75,000 stake from donors Richard and Barbara Stewart, waterfront height-limit advocates have managed to make plenty of trouble. And the fun appears to just be starting: City sources now say it might be advisable to bifurcate the Warriors' project, holding off on the condos, hotel, and retail center planned across the Embarcadero on Seawall Lot 330.

Or, perhaps, it's time for the city to abandon plans to erect a stadium atop a crumbling pier — a scheme even onetime stalwarts now refer to as "precarious at best" — and seriously explore the possibility of shoehorning a less magnificent but far cheaper and more feasible arena onto Lot A behind AT&T Park.

Either of these scenarios would be a capitulation to development foes. Waterfront Alliance shot-caller Jon Golinger assures that having voters weigh in on every significant waterfront development will guarantee "better projects." This, again, resonates with those who feel the process has been corrupted. But it also depends upon your definition of "better."

Turning over control of development to the voters means that obscenely complex and involved deals will be distilled into a simple up-or-down vote based solely on one criteria — height — and subject to political sloganeering. Additional time and uncertainty would be baked into a process already featuring plenty of both. Politicians, neighborhood groups, kingmakers, and power-brokers hoping to extract every last drop of juice from developers would wield that much more leverage.

As would those hoping to stave off development altogether. Golinger has proposed the Port issue bonds to preserve waterfront open space — a novel idea, but one that would put the cash-strapped agency deeper into debt in order to not build anything and not generate revenue.

In the meantime, broad swaths of the waterfront continue to decay. Hard-won public access to the area ensures everyone an unimpeded view of this.

Art Agnos didn't think twice when he leaped from a friend's car and half-walked, half-dragged that drug addict out of the street. Once out of harm's way, the man threatened to take a swing at Agnos and demanded $100. (He got $5.)

The one-term mayor smiles. Perhaps it was a fitting denouement for a man whose proudest legacy got him voted out of office. No good deed goes unpunished.

Agnos insists he's not running for mayor in the strongest possible terms. Instead, he explains his anti-arena barnstorming tour by neatly dovetailing his personal narrative with his chosen city's: He's a first-generation American and second-generation shoeshine boy who supported his family from age 15 after his father died, and showed up in San Francisco in 1966 in a Greyhound bus. It was a city of possibilities then. Agnos made the most of them.

The Warriors arena, however, would be "the tipping point," the death knell of a place where "everyone can have the opportunity to get off the goddamn bus and, 10 years later, represent half the city in the goddamn state assembly." But that's difficult to quantify in a city increasingly resembling Manhattan in terms of income inequality, if not skyline.

It seems a shade arbitrary to designate this particular development — and not so many others — as The Big One. It seems rather optimistic to claim "the tipping point" hasn't come and gone already.

Regardless, Agnos isn't ready to leave his city, convulsing, in the gutter. His grand solution: Publicly owned land, such as that under consideration to accommodate portions of the Warriors' development, should instead be converted, en masse, into middle-class housing. To those who'd argue waterfront property is too valuable for subsidized housing, he offers a succinct counter: "Bullshit!"

Agnos isn't finished: You can't put a price on stemming the tide of vital San Franciscans — teachers, social workers, nurses — fleeing San Francisco, he says; preventing this city from irrevocably transforming into a winner-take-all enclave for the rich is worth something, too.

So, that's one man's vision of the waterfront: a place for everyone in a city less and less apt to be described that way. A populist pitch to keep San Francisco looking like San Francisco — both physically and metaphysically. And yet, this city is changing. High-rises, condo towers, splashy retail: This is the way San Francisco looks now.

For more than half a century, battles have been waged over whether the waterfront should look as this city did, or as this city does. Whether it should serve as a public resource — or be exploited as the gold mine it is. This long-running struggle has ensured a baroque level of waterfront oversight: Development critics' arguments haven't changed a lot in 50 years, but their 50 years of arguing changed a lot.

In the realm of waterfront development, then, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The result is often inaction. But that suits many San Franciscans just fine. They'd be happy to allow the rotting piers to continue to degrade and gently sink into the bay — as long as traffic and sightlines are unaffected.

Following yet another neighborhood meeting, Agnos hauls his primordial visual aids out of a steamy North Beach tavern and down a hill where he's greeted by a mercurial parking attendant. It's unclear if the valet knows whom he's talking to when he assures Agnos it's obvious he's a Democrat. The former mayor left his gas cap open, you see? "Just like a Democrat. Always asking for more."

Agnos laughs, graciously. But he can't help but point out this is no gas cap. It's where you plug in your electric Ford C-Max.

The Democrat bids adieu and motors off, electrically, in the direction of the waterfront.

Many of the historical references in this article were gleaned from Jasper Rubin's book A Negotiated Landscape: The Transformation of San Francisco's Waterfront Since 1950.

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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