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They Put Up a Parking Lot 

Chris Daly made his rep getting arrested at a garage protest that somehow ended up creating a coffee kiosk

Wednesday, Dec 20 2006
During a recent interview with local newscaster Barbara Taylor, a thinner, softer-voiced, more nattily besuited Supervisor Chris Daly than I'm used to displayed the sort of subtle paranoid schizophrenia and megalomania that separates the great politicians from the merely good.

Daly said he would be a contender to take down our seemingly unconquerable mayor in next year's elections, if only his opponents in last month's Board of Supervisors race hadn't tarred him as an irresponsible radical.

The District 6 supervisor doth protest too much; he, not his opponents, made his own bones as a wanton crusader, and the reputation's served him well. Although business associations, the cops' union, and others spent a fortune last month trying to tar Daly as an extremist brigand, like rock to scissors, Daly's reputation as a people's martyr smashed the attempted smear.

Rather than campaign smears, this Daly persona has its roots in events the city has long forgotten, but which remain very much with us.

The story began with Daly's arrest at a 2002 summertime protest demonstration, and ended this month with an agreement to put a coffee kiosk in the lobby of a law school. The saga's bang of a beginning and whimper of an ending provide a good primer on how things work in San Francisco, where the public seems to embrace symbolic gestures and lose track of policy details.

The yarn also suggests that when it comes to using hoopla to useful effect, the District 6 supervisor, if not in quite the same league as our publicity-hound mayor, certainly deserves to be a contender.

Brian Bassinger, the enthusiastic director of AIDS Housing Alliance/SF, is particularly bubbly the first Monday afternoon in December as he describes a new business venture that will bring his 3-year-old nonprofit group into a new dimension. It's the last chapter in a four-year saga that began with Daly's arrest at a sit-in protest.

"We want to be providing a coffee experience. Specialty coffees. And, especially because we're an AIDS organization, promoting good health or healthier alternatives is important. So we want to have fair-trade coffees, organic coffees, fresh juices, and organic snacks," Bassinger said.

Bassinger's describing a coffee kiosk he'll soon be running in the lobby of the classroom building at U.C. Hastings College of the Law located in the Tenderloin. It will allow him to earn money to fund his housing-aid programs, while employing AIDS patients receiving Social Security benefits who are allowed to earn up to $620 a month without losing their government stipends. He got in a bit of apparent tit for tat after his group ended its participation in four years of protests against a proposed Hastings parking garage.

A core value of the Housing Alliance "is creating appropriate employment for people with AIDS," Bassinger said, adding that the kiosk would help him do just that.

For David Seward, Hastings' CFO, the coffee kiosk ties the last loose string in a four-year tangle that began with a sit-in protest involving Daly at the school's McAllister Street campus.

Daly had joined a protest organized by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, an $8 million-per-year nonprofit run by political insider Randy Shaw that sought to prevent Hastings from replacing with a parking garage what had been 85 apartments on school property. The activists wanted Hastings to build new apartments — then and now a scarce commodity in the city — instead of the garage.

A police officer, who had arrested Daly during the protest, told a reporter that the supervisor had threatened his job. Daly denied it, saying he had merely been trying to cooperate with an arresting officer who had him in a painful hold. Despite the denial, the public parable had already been told. Daly was an advocate willing to risk jail, even be a victim of police brutality, if it meant fighting for the people of San Francisco's right to housing.

Though he received dozens of column inches of jeers from newspaper writers, Daly was on the right side of an important cause. The law school planned to build a money-making 885-space garage, Seward told me back in 2002, thanks to parking lease contracts the law school would sign with other State of California office buildings in the neighborhood. Because construction on state-owned property doesn't have to go through the normal S.F. permit process, the usual local anti-development protests didn't seem to present a problem.

Whether or not the protesters had legal standing, they had a good point. Making room for an additional town's worth of automobiles in the city's densest neighborhood, the neighborhood where more people get around on foot or wheelchair than anywhere else in the city, seemed like it would create more congestion, pedestrian deaths, and smog. Building apartments for students or faculty instead would have eliminated thousands of automobile trips through the Tenderloin, meanwhile, while incrementally helping to ease housing demand citywide.

John Burton, then the president pro tem of the state Senate, agreed, and threatened to slash funding for U.C. Hastings if they proceeded with the plan. And for a while, the garage was dead.

Hastings' CFO Seward was uncowed, however. The garage was conceived as an important moneymaker for the school, and if it took more politicking to build it, that's what Seward would do. He assembled a "blue-ribbon committee" of downtown swells headed by Jim Haas, who as chairman of a group calling itself "Civic Pride" had lobbied for increased parking in the mid-town area.

By early 2003, Seward told the Chronicle that his commission had come up with a plan with "greatest overall benefit to the community," which would include a smaller garage and a new YMCA building. Haas et al. had put forth the idea of building student housing on the site. But Hastings quietly abandoned this idea because of architectural engineering difficulties involved in wrapping apartments around a large parking structure, Seward said.

Seward and his commission have touted the YMCA's announced sale of its old Tenderloin hotel building to a developer with plans to create low-income apartments, suggesting it placates concerns that the garage will replace what used to be apartments. But that deal has no contractual connection to Hastings. In the end Hastings will replace apartments with parking spaces, despite years of protests.

There remained, however, the small problem of the AIDS activists.

Bassinger's boyfriend, along with a number of other HIV sufferers who had been referred by Bassinger's group, happened to live in an apartment building abutting the Hastings property, where the garage was built.

"We can reach out my boyfriend's window and touch that damned garage," Bassinger notes.

Bassinger joined with other groups opposed to the garage project, such as Transportation for a Livable City, the Bicycle Coalition, and the Housing Action Coalition, to renew the protests that began in 2002.

"I'm sympathetic to our allies' argument, that the additional cars will harm public safety. But our position was even less theoretical and more down-home," Bassinger said. "They're doing construction right next to us in a way that will cause substantial impacts."

Bassinger was protesting the potential jackhammer and cement truck noise associated with new construction.

This did not turn out not to be an insurmountable problem, said Seward, who during four years of San Francisco civic battling has evolved from a matter-of-fact explainer to a diplomatic raconteur.

Seward met with Bassinger, and they both realized they could settle their differences over coffee — a free one-year lease of a school-lobby coffee stand, to be precise.

"We had an opportunity to achieve some wonderful mutual benefits. We have a draft contract," Seward says, adding that he expects to pay somewhere between $5,000 and $12,000 for a coffee kiosk and espresso machine, then lease it free for a year to Bassinger's group.

Adds incoming Hastings Dean Nell Newton: "We think it's an exciting project. It's good for them, good for us."

The groups who Daly had joined four years ago aren't terribly happy about the garage project. Under the previous plan, the one Daly got arrested protesting, Hastings would have inked contracts with various California state agencies with office buildings in the Civic Center area, to provide long-term parking for employees in exchange for millions of dollars in fees. Hastings no longer has those contracts. And the size of the garage has been halved from 885 spaces to 430. Opponents were pleased with the reduction, but said 430 new spaces would still draw cars to the congested area.

"I still don't think there's a demand for parking there. But we can't stop it," said Randy Shaw, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic director.

"The project pretty much sucks. There's no housing part. That intersection is so well served by transit that there's no excuse for a state university to be building a parking garage there. We really need housing," says Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a nonprofit that advocates smart growth.

The plan "still sucked," said Dave Snyder, former executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, whose members had protested alongside Daly.

But the fact is it's a better project than it would have been had Daly and others not taken a stand against it four years ago.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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