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Towering Inferno: The Transbay Deal That Wasn't Reveals How This City Works. And Doesn't 

Tuesday, Oct 7 2014
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Funny thing, this life. The richer you get, the more free stuff comes your way.

Complimentary meals, swag bags: That's just for starters. If a regular guy decides he's dissatisfied with the terms of a real estate deal he's signed his name to and opts not to pay, he'll soon become familiar with the soup schedule at the St. Vincent de Paul dining room. But the truly wealthy and powerful can deploy ace lawyers, influence-peddlers, and connected lobbyists; brandish the cudgel of potential litigation; and hammer out a "compromise."

That's how it goes here in San Francisco, a city with a way for comforting the comfortable.

It sure appeared that was how it was going to go in the saga of the Transbay Transit Center, a long-envisioned complex of skyscrapers and this city's answer to Grand Central Station. In exchange for being allowed to build to a height that, post-quake, may be described as "hubristic," developers submitted to a tax payment.

That tax rate — 0.55 percent of assessed value — isn't in question. What is in question was what value would actually be assessed. Rather than the high values of yesteryear, the city wanted its cut of the insanely high values of today — high values created in part by the lucrative allowances granted to the developers in return for the taxes they now didn't want to pay.

That's what lawyers, influence-peddlers, and lobbyists are for.

The city seemed poised to cave; an arrangement was in the works that would have given the developers seven extra years to pay. Of course, that would essentially have amounted to a multimillon-dollar yearly gift to the developers. "What's $100 million among friends?" muses one politico.

But this flawed deal imploded last month, leaving us to sift through the wreckage of a plane that did not crash. And our city's paper of record took notice, issued fire-and-brimstone editorials, and excoriated Mayor Willie Brown.

Brown, who — now overtly — runs a lobbying firm from the very pages of that newspaper, set in motion every element of the Transbay project, and cheer-led it even as its cost overruns exceeded $300 million. He is now, however, a paid lobbyist for the developers threatening to jilt the project and reduce San Francisco's Grand Central Station to a rebar-filled hole in the ground.

And that hole was hardly free.

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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