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

Wednesday, Feb 12 2014
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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.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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