Steven J. Moss
Last fall citizen uprisings against City Hall-backed development projects won a series of skirmishes. Eight Washington, a waterfront luxury condominium project that was loudly supported by current and past San Francisco mayors, though opposed by another former one, was stopped at the ballot box, at least in its proposed form. In Palo Alto, a dense—by that city’s standards—affordable housing complex for seniors, which had unanimous support from the City Council, was felled by a referendum pushed by a coalition of residents, including my father. And earlier in the year, in the face of unrelenting opposition from hundreds of Potrero Hillians, Kaiser Permanente withdrew its proposal to develop medical offices at the northern base of the Hill, pivoting to a Mission Bay location.
Wrangles over land use are nothing new in California. Previous citizen-led efforts created the California Coastal Commission, Yosemite National Park, and limits on building heights in San Francisco. The intensity of civic dialogue tends to rise and fall with economic times. In the late-1990s heavy development pressure emerging from the initial “Dot.Com” era led to an overabundance of poorly constructed “live-work” spaces in Dogpatch and Potrero Hill, which took advantage of a municipal loophole to escape paying development fees. A decade later the Great Recession—combined with various planning efforts in part fueled by a live-work backlash—stalled new construction throughout the Southside neighborhoods, prompting grumbles about decaying and under utilized industrial space fronting the Bay. Today, a thriving technology sector, along with increasing concentrations of regional wealth, has triggered a quickly rising development tide, which will likely continue for the next couple of years.
The speed, characteristics, and location of development are determined by a chaotic mix of economics, public policy, and politics. Greed, or “free market economics,” is typically the catalyst. A developer sees an opportunity to profit from building something, though it can be acknowledged that the impetus isn’t only money, but also a certain pride of accomplishment and contribution to the City’s built environment. And though greed is one of the “seven deadly sins,” it’s the essential creative—and destructive—force that makes our world go ‘round, providing similar activating momentum as love does for marriage, except instead of producing children greed creates stuff. San Francisco thrives off at least three others of the “sins”—pride, envy, and gluttony—with lust in the wings as well, but that’s a different story.
Once capitalism starts the ball rolling, public policy and politics channel it along a series of tracks. In the normal course of events, existing laws determine the basic shape of what can be constructed and where, mandating certain safety features, amenities, and social contributions, such as open space. In San Francisco, a community shakedown is often added into the mix; advocates threaten to stall or stop a project unless there’s some level of civic benefit payola. Such activity is so common that it’s likely that developers bake ad hoc contributions into their financial models, and keep community smoothers on their payroll.
More profound political conflict occasionally emerges over a development, whether it’s a proposal to build a few condominiums on a favored vacant lot, or construct a basketball arena surrounded by high-end housing. Setting aside attacks against the greed driving the entire enterprise, such debates are typically framed as “NIMBYs”—not in my backyard—versus progress attached to an alleged social benefit; the “greater economic good” and lower cost housing, mostly, though sometimes, if a grocery store or homeless shelter is associated with the project, food access or social welfare.
NIMBY is an overused epithet that doesn’t capture the legitimate emotions and values typically expressed by those opposed to specific projects. At the neighborhood level, it’d be challenging to find any block that would want a homeless shelter or drug rehabilitation center next door, regardless of the social benefits of these fine services. Likewise, increased density can threaten a quality of life that’s been purchased through a lifetime of hard work paying rent or a mortgage—not to mention volunteerism planting community gardens and scrubbing off graffiti—through more traffic and pressure on parks and libraries, as well as degradation in a place’s special look and feel. In neighborhoods like Dogpatch and Potrero Hill, where crime and blight were prominent features just ten years ago, the sentiment may fall along the lines of, “just when things were getting good, they got worse.”
A quick stroll through Mission Bay tells us what happens when there are no NIMBYs around to police planning. Medium-rise, sterile work boxes, with minimal human features, that are dependent on San Francisco’s surrounding architectural, commercial, and environmental amenities to attract workers. If Mission Bay was constructed in isolation from the City it would be Roseville, a tepid economic success and failure of human imagination; a harbinger of a future we don’t want.
Similarly, assertions that a development, or even many developments, will notably increase affordable housing supplies are not well-founded, at least in wealthy enclaves like Palo Alto or San Francisco. Roughly 1,200 low- or moderate-income units have been built under the City’s inclusionary housing policy, in which big building developers are required to finance such homes. That’s great for the families who get access to them, but less than a half-percent drop in the bucket in comparison to San Francisco’s more than 375,000 housing units. As the song says, low-income City families have as good a chance at changing their lives by praying to Jesus or playing the lottery as waiting for an affordable home to drop into their laps.
And while Economics 101 tells us that increasing housing supply will lower unit prices, it would take far more housing starts in San Francisco than currently programmed to broadly enhance affordability. Even ten thousand new 800-square-foot condominiums, renting for $3,500 a month, will mostly serve as a stepping stone for rising urban professionals, who, if being paid a teacher’s salary, will ultimately have to move to Daly City or elsewhere, or, if on a more lucrative career ladder, will join the sea of salmon fighting to purchase a multi-million dollar home somewhere in the Bay Area. Unless the City dedicates itself to building tens of thousands of new homes—six-story, family-friendly stock packed along Geary Boulevard and elsewhere—the current supply dribble will mostly serve as perches for people on their way somewhere else.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in building. Development creates wealth, for the developers, purchasers, and occupants. It spins out jobs, from the moment a financier signs a check to a permit expeditor all the way to when a worker commuting from American Canyon cuts the hair of a high-tech office worker housed in Dogpatch. It creates demand for new restaurants, cultural activities, and sporting events that are open to everyone else to enjoy. It arguably defines a city, in which if there’s not constant motion, is in danger of becoming a Detroit. And, if what’s being constructed is a children’s health clinic, shelter for rehabilitated sex offenders, or facilities for the elderly, it creates essential space for the needy.
In the end, the “d” in development is for democracy. Building has to be influenced by the push and pull of a chaotic set of forces that’s ultimately made rational by political leadership. The 8 Washington and Palo Alto senior housing complex fiascos were, in the end, political failures, signposts that municipal legislators and mayors aren’t spending enough time in their neighborhoods to know what honest stories need to be told; and essential public amenities added, to seed the ground for attractive development; or when a construction proposal needs be changed or stopped entirely. This is nothing new. Politicians always get distracted by the sweet smell of economic interests, until they’re flattened by a passing parade of angry citizens. It’s time for ours to either get up, brush themselves off, and focus on creating a visionary future, or for us to usher them out the electoral doors.
This Month's Stories