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

Wednesday, Feb 12 2014

Page 5 of 5

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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