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An Arthurian legend: in which the mayor espouses employment in modern high-tech industries while allowing a return to the industrial age

Wednesday, Nov 2 2005
Despite whatever criticisms one may level at Mayor Gavin Newsom, you have to admit he has balls.

Last Wednesday Newsom delivered a State of the City address full of bromides about making S.F. government more efficient.

"We have become more nimble, more flexible, providing better services more efficiently, and we are doing it in partnership with our residents," Newsom said, reading from twin translucent TelePrompTers perched above his lectern at S.F. State's McKenna Theatre.

Yet in order to make sure the "efficiency" address made a media splash, the mayor forced the city to become extraordinarily inefficient. To fill seats in front of the cameras for the mayor's speech, Newsom's office shut down much of city government for most of Oct. 26, compelling important department heads and members of their staff to truck the nine miles from City Hall to the campus of San Francisco State University and then wait for three hours. The event was at S.F. State, Newsom said, to symbolize his belief in education.

"Goddamned Ragone publicity stunt bullshit," groused one of many high-level bureaucrats who had to erase their entire Wednesday calendars to serve as extras in the event, referring to the head of Newsom's PR office, Peter Ragone. "When Willie Brown was mayor, it was at City Hall. It would take an hour. And you'd go back to work," the bureaucrat added, motioning toward the dais:

"Those TelePrompTers aren't free, either."

In San Francisco, "presidential glass"-style TelePrompTers such as the ones used by Newsom typically rent retail for $2,200 per day, with the requisite full audio service package needed to support them costing around $7,000.

Perched on either side of the podium like giant, see-through truck mirrors, they gave the event a slick, expensive, high-tech feel, as if it were the Democratic National Convention.

To burnish this effect, Newsom dragooned three dozen police officers, a half-dozen other public safety workers, and a hundred or so additional city employees to devote most of their day to padding the audience for the event. These city employees were ordered to sit immediately in front of the row of seats reserved for television and other media. Another group of police officers, drawn from the S.F. Police Department and the S.F. State University Police, cordoned off streets surrounding the theater. A corps of five black-suited private security guards manned three metal-detecting machines at the theater's front doors. In San Francisco, walk-through metal detectors rent at around $300 each for a day, with black-suited guards typically going for $40 per hour.

"With this kind of security I'd expect to see a professional show," noted one TV cameraman after passing through the pomp-and-circumstance security apparatus. "I mean, Jesus Christ -- I saw the mayor by himself in Starbucks just yesterday."

That must have been one of San Francisco government's "efficient" days. Wednesday was different.

Attendees were told to show up at 12 p.m. for the 1 p.m. address. At 12:10 a thin woman with frosted hair, stiletto heels, and large fashion sunglasses carried what looked like a 16-inch aluminum cosmetics "train"-style case frenetically up to the phalanx of rent-a-guards. They seemed to have been expecting someone like this and waved her through.

"That must be Newsom's makeup woman," a lobbyist allied with the mayor speculated.

As the hour of the speech came and went with no sign of Newsom, Chief Public Defender Jeff Adachi seemed to tire of smiling and greeting and took a seat. Willie Brown was on hand, looking dapper, relaxed. He held court for nearly an hour, flirting briefly with old flame District Attorney Kamala Harris. Eventually, however, he too seemed to weary of small talk. By 1:40 p.m., the assembled city-payroll glitterati -- professional schmoozers all -- had ceased kibitzing and either sat down or stood around awkwardly as if wondering what to do next.

Finally, at 1:48 p.m. the mayor bounded onstage with the fashionable lateness of a Hollywood-style celebrity who's also a busy leader. He nestled between the twin TelePrompTers and read them like a pro until 3 p.m., delivering a speech that came out in the next day's news exactly like he might have hoped.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle's front-page spread headline, our "Mayor Sees a Camelot by the Bay."

Mingling among the time-wasting serfs assembled at the McKenna Theatre, then watching the mayor deliver a chimeric speech on the state of San Francisco, I have to admit the Chron got it right. Newsom sees San Francisco as an aristocratic kingdom existing only in the realm of fantasy.

When the mayor wasn't reading lines about government efficiency last Wednesday, he was using stirring language to describe how his administration will be a steward for forward-looking economic growth.

Newsom added that he will chaperone growth in housing production to accommodate new workers in these jobs.

San Francisco is becoming a center for biotech, something called "Clean Tech," and digital media, Newsom said. "This is not by accident. We are San Franciscans. We are a city of dreamers and a city of doers. We are steadfast in our refusal to accept the status quo when it has outlived its usefulness. We are firm in our commitment to progress when others would be content to retreat," his speech said.

This, like Newsom's efficiency bromides, was hard to swallow. While Newsom spoke, government staffers under his control were at work on policies whose effect will be to sabotage such growth.

The most important business initiative coming out of the mayor's administration last week called for staking this city's future on 1950s industries such as the manufacture of leather goods and envelopes.

Named the "Eastern Neighborhoods Permanent Zoning Controls," its main effect will be to discourage technology businesses by making it impossible to hire employees who can afford to live here, while placating "progressive" Newsom political opponents strident in their opposition to progress.

The controls call for banning construction of apartments, commercial space, offices, or any mixture thereof on large swaths of land in the city's eastern sector. The idea, according to a staff report on the controls, is to attract blue-collar manufacturing and warehousing jobs to the city.

But these types of companies have been leaving the city for a while now. As of last week, industrial and warehouse buildings larger than 10,000 square feet were 30 percent vacant in San Francisco, according to the real estate listings service CoStar. That's not including the many acres of vacant industrial buildings on land owned by the Port of San Francisco and at the old Hunters Point Shipyard.

Nonetheless, the idea that San Francisco's best future lies in its shipping and manufacturing past is one that holds unusual credence in nostalgia-plagued S.F. According to this idea, if zoning controls can preserve empty warehouses and force down the value of land sufficiently, low-economic-intensity uses such as warehousing and manufacturing will return.

Newsom hasn't publicly agreed with this idea. But he has accommodated it, and thus avoided conflicts with preservationists that might harm his 86 percent approval rating. This is a good career strategy, perhaps.

But it's disastrous for the city.

San Francisco can't single-handedly beat back global trends such as offshore manufacturing; intermodal shipping; the growth of service, financial, and medical industries in America; and the densification of America's urban cores. All these phenomena are pushing factories and warehouses off valuable center-city land and into suburban industrial parks, or in some cases offshore.

Real-world observation of on-the-ground business trends, combined with a clear-eyed sense of San Francisco's competitive economic advantages, turns the industrial preservation idea into a joke.

Recently on Bryant Street, Interstate Brands closed its bakery complex of four-story, 1930s-era industrial buildings. No lease market exists for huge, midcity, multistory manufacturing facilities here. And if San Francisco doesn't allow the building's owner to convert it to apartments, retail, or a combination of these uses, those 5.5 acres will stand vacant for years, attracting squatters and vandals.

The same goes for the suitcase maker closing its 50,000-square-foot factory on Napoleon Street to move operations offshore, the envelope maker abandoning 25,000 square feet of space on Indiana Street for an East Bay facility, and the Mission Street roofing supply distributor leaving 27,000 square feet of space vacant as it moves to modern industrial facilities on the Peninsula.

By outlawing new apartments in our postindustrial areas best suited for them -- that's to say, close-to-downtown, close-to-light-rail, close-to-every-urban-amenity eastern San Francisco -- Newsom's bureaucrats will help drive away the very same "clean" industries our mayor claims he's trying to draw here.

San Francisco companies have a desperate time attracting job candidates because people can't afford to move to the Bay Area. A cursory calculation shows a housing shortage of between 15,000 and 30,000 units in the San Francisco commute area. It's this scarcity that drives housing prices up, which in turn discourages employers, "Clean Tech" and otherwise, from setting up shop here.

During Wednesday's speech, Newsom claimed, vaguely, that during coming years he plans to spur the construction of 15,000 new apartments. The actual staffers who would carry out such an effort, however, were at work last Wednesday moving in the opposite direction, banning tens of thousands of new apartments from being built.

For our mayor, I have to believe this is all beside the point. Terms such as "efficiency," "economic growth," and "housing" seem to be lines in an elaborate stage production called Camelot, in which San Franciscans, and the city we live in, serve as extras and props.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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