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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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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.

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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