The Unintended Effects of Direct Democracy: Say “no” to ballot box planning on Proposition B June 3rd.

“Let the voters decide” has a certain immediate appeal. It implies that the will of the people will guide public decisions and create a more just and fair city for all. That’s the idea at least. The reality usually ends up looking a lot messier. To say nothing of the huge structural issues direct democracy has caused for the state as a whole (ahem, Proposition 13).

This year, Proposition B purports to make the planning process more fair by letting the public vote on any project that exceeds existing waterfront height limits. Sounds good, right? No more shady backroom deals! Everyone wins, right? Not quite. First, let’s look at the existing height limits. One of the most popular buildings on the waterfront (and in San Francisco as a whole) currently exceeds the forty foot height limit that exists along most of the waterfront and would not be allowed under current planning regulations:

San Francisco Ferry Building

But wait, we can bring the Ferry Building into compliance without going to a vote:

Ferry Building, Tower Removed

Maybe this seems like a frivolous exercise, but it illustrates the reason why height limits are sometimes exceeded- it makes sense. 40’ is extremely low in an urban area, and most of the waterfront is not so precious that a few taller buildings would make it such a bad place. People often throw out Miami Beach as indicative of the horrible consequences of changing our current 40’ height limits. You know what? Miami Beach’s waterfront is in some ways a much more pleasant place to be than a lot of the Embarcadero, with public access and a surprising lack of huge storage buildings full of parking. Or in other cases, the waterfront is literally surface parking. Perhaps you have heard in campaign literature that the San Francisco Giants want to build high rise condos on land zoned for parks? That’s not quite the case. The Giants have some of the largest surface parking lots in San Francisco that currently take up prime waterfront land which has current height limit of zero. Meaning, without the height limit being exceeded, that “open space” is going to remain surface parking forever instead of turning into housing and a five and half acre park.

Ah, there’s nothing like a little stroll along the waterfront:

Embarcadero Stroll - Google Streetview

Planning at the ballot box doesn’t make sense because the typical voter doesn’t have the time or background to analyze urban design, land use planning, or the tradeoffs involved in various options. A lot of people walk into the voting booth, read the one line description on the ballot, and vote. The current process for exceeding the height limit on a parcel takes years of meetings (public meetings for anyone interested in attending), approval of the Planning Commission, and approval of the Board of Supervisors. Changing a height limit cannot simply be done with an exception to the planning code: it involves rezoning that piece of land at a taller height, and it is not a simple process.

Our current planning process also has a number of public benefits built in. Developers must comply with affordable housing laws (either through a fee or providing on-site units), fees to pay for infrastructure and they are held to public scrutiny at numerous meetings where public comment is collected.

What is Proposition B proposing? Proposition B would require proposed projects to skip the typical approvals process and instead go to a vote of the people. Why does the City’s Planning Department think this is a bad idea? “There is a potential for developers to circumvent required City review and craft subsequent ballot initiatives that combine height increases with other aspects of project approval.”

How often to voters read the full text of things they are voting on? Not very often, I can assure you. Developers could hypothetically skip many steps of project approval by spending enough money to get a project approved at the ballot box without having to comply with all of the other rules that have been put in place to ensure a good outcome for the City and the residents of the area.  The Port has $1.5 billion in unfunded infrastructure needs, and by their own economic analysis Prop B could result in $8.4 billion in “delayed, reduced or lost revenues to the Port Harbor Fund.” Perhaps the Warriors arena wasn’t the best use of Piers 30-32, but nobody else with enough money has stepped up to keep it from falling into the Bay (except for maybe George Lucas).

In more detail:

Depending on the nature of required ballot measures that would evolve from Proposition B, such measures could enable developers to bypass otherwise mandatory environmental review, professional analysis, public response, commission hearings, and legislative review in advance of the election on the project. The layered review and public processes that exist today evolved after decades of vigorous public discourse, planning, and action, some of which is highlighted in our attached letter, resulting in the Port Lands being the most regulated lands in San Francisco. The current review and public process likely would be altered and occur at different chronological periods in the various stages of project approval. (from the San Francisco Planning Department’s analysis of Measure B)

We have a very long and time consuming process for building on the waterfront, and we have a few very rich people who don’t want anything built because it might block a portion of their precious views, and hey, they already got theirs, so who cares about anyone else? While there has been a pretty valiant effort to paint this ballot measure and last year’s ballot measure to block a mid-rise condo building as a rise of progressive voting power in the city, but it’s really about progressives getting played by 1%ers who will do anything to preserve the status quo (and their views of the Ferry Building). Richard and Barbara Stewart, wealthy NIMBYs who live downtown near the Embarcadero, have been writing checks to support both waterfront campaigns, spending $143,750 in support of Proposition B to date (versus less than $50,000 spent by Prop B opponents). They spent nearly half a million dollars last year to defeat the 8 Washington condos that would have risen across the street from the high rise condo complex they already live in. If you’re interested in looking up campaign finance in general, the San Francisco Ethics Commission has a database that is searchable online. 

Back in the 1980s the San Francisco Bay Guardian (and others) waged a campaign to stop the Manhattanization of San Francisco. Ballot measures were passed that severely limited the amount of office space that could be built downtown (to less than the area in one building the size of the Transbay Tower per year). How did that work out? Great, if you like San Francisco turning into a bedroom community for suburban office parks, and you like the high-rise hotels that were built instead of commercial office buildings:

Mariott San Francisco

(San Francisco Mariott image by Flickr user FUMITOL)

There are a lot of unintended consequences of well-intentioned political efforts. The risks of passing Proposition B are too great, and the benefits are far too small (I personally fail to see any benefits to passing it). I’ve already voted NO and mailed my ballot this morning.

30 thoughts on “The Unintended Effects of Direct Democracy: Say “no” to ballot box planning on Proposition B June 3rd.”

  1. This is so helpful, thank you. Your explanation of the problems with the last ballot measure helped me to decide to vote against it as well. If there’s anyone I trust to make smart city-planning decisions, it’s definitely not the general population of SF!

  2. Great explanation. I’ve been telling everyone who asks to vote no on Prop B. Ballot box planning is a ridiculous way to design a city.

  3. Interesting article. I actually think it could be an interesting experiment to do zoning as a popular vote. I think it could be that in the current system, connections to a few people in the zoning department are the most valuable thing developers have, and this makes developers have an incentive to want to keep things as they are! Why does it seem like every building that gets built is built by the same close knit group of wealthy people? Something needs to change this, and perhaps a popular vote could help.

    If nothing changes, that parking lot will remain as it has been for year. and ugly old parking lot.

  4. if this city acted like the world class city it proports to be we’d have someone in the planning department – preferably the head of it – who has a “vision” for SF which would include an over arching design.
    since that’s not the case – i believe we the people should have a say in what happens to the landscape and not leave it up to those in the pocket of big money.
    we the people wind up making all kinds of decisions at the ballot you think we’re too stupid to decide so why not this?

  5. There is an overarching design, if you look at the materials from the SF Planning Department website there are many, many plans, designs and guidelines for the city. Most of them make sense. This ballot proposition throws all of them out the window and replaces that with a simple yes/no public vote with no room for negotiation,. I don’t think I said people were stupid, I said most people don’t have the time to do the amount of research needed to make a decision on complicated land use matters.

  6. The text of the measure does not support a claim that it will “bypass” the permit process. This would be an additional step, not the only step.

    You’re correct that a popular-vote approval would act as a rhetorical club to beat the planning board with, but it’s far more likely that this is the same idea as the PG&E-backed Proposition 16 from a couple years ago: kill projects by putting a huge time delay through requiring the issue to get on a ballot and go through an election, and add a big cost increase through requiring a city-wide public campaign.

  7. Voters are smarter than you think. Even the politicians who have sold us out to the developers won’t take a stand against Prop B. Advocates for a no vote say:
    -”Prop. B would stop or delay development projects, threatening up to 3,690 planned homes, many of which are rental units all to be built without evictions”
    -No -Prop B won’t stop or delay anything that is well designed and is deemed proper use of this precious and limited public land.

    -”Prop. B threatens almost $8.5 billion in port revenue.”
    - Not necessarily. Maybe the port will get more under Prop B. But a bigger problem is that the Port is a self-controlled, self-funded entity like SFMTA. The port has a big challenge with ageing infrastructure and rising sea level. The current system incentivizes the port to “sell out” to meet these needs. Protection from sea level rise is necessary for lands far beyond port property and those costs should be borne by a the broader city. The waterfront has a unique public value that the Port is charged to protect for people. It shouldn’t have to sell out to meet its budget needs.

    -Prop. B means no General Plan, or even Planning Code consistency, will be required.
    -Huh? Like the voters will let a project happen that hasn’t gone through planning or meets codes? I don’t think so!
    -”Prop. B threatens $124 million in anticipated affordable housing fees and up to 600 affordable housing units.”
    -No -It seems to me that better input to individual projects could result in even more help to the city for the affordability challenge. Developers will have to go beyond cookie cutter formulas and backroom deals. The waterfront deserves a little more sunshine.

    Supply will never meet demand and will never have truly affordable housing. It’s a red herring. The Bay Area Plan requires SF to plan for a fixed percentage of the area’s projected population increase – that’s how we get to the projection of 1,000,000 SF population. So our pro-growth policy will attract new people to fill every new unit built and most of those new residents will be able to afford market rate. For example, I like Salesforce but their occupancy of the transbay tower will bring 1000 new employees and their families.

    Another issue is that all the new grow is targeted to be “high density housing in transit rich areas”. Even with our existing poor transit service, we see housing cost skyrocket in “transit rich areas”. Even a little transit enrichment for some areas (google bus routes) triggers massive rent escalation and displacement of lower income residents.

    A big part of the problem is our transit system. While some consider us transit rich and plan housing as it is – we are not. Manhattan is transit rich – fast subways are the basis for a transit rich infrastructure. Until we spend billions on a decent transit system we will never complete the main piece necessary for “high density housing in a transit rich area”. Maybe it’s just timing. Let’s build (and complete) a new transit system before we seek and approve high growth and high density housing. We should not build on the promises of good transit that are never fulfilled.

    I also question the term “affordable” or “below market rate” – that’s 60K to 90k and mostly continues to exclude 30K to 40K and below residents. That’s why so many of my friends are being forced out of the city – why our teachers, taxi drivers, artists, admin assistants, etc. are leaving the city. I would love to see even one private developer build a high density project that is affordable to 25K to 40K people. We do have struggling safety net programs for below 25K. We are designing a city for the ultra-rich and ultra-poor with no true middle class.

    If we are going to accommodate this growth, we will have to encourage developers to add housing throughout San Francisco including the West side, Bayview etc. We can’t just let them cherry pick the “waterfront for the rich”
    I think a lot of us bought into the “New Urbanism” sustainable cities thing before we began to see the shortcomings of its effects. We are billions of dollars away from having a Muni system that is the “transit rich” basis of this theoretical experiment. There is much more to sustainable than greenhouse gases (and much better ways to deal with that issue). One of their euphemisms is “livable”. San Francisco is rapidly becoming less livable, some would say miserably so – high cost of living, a city without a true middle class, displacement of precious peoples, loss of our unique neighborhoods of distinct cultures, overcrowded streets filled with entitled zombies and anarchists, architecture that looks like boxes or “the projects for the rich”, a culture for the single, young and temporary that discriminates against the elderly, disabled, and poor. If this is what you want sustained, I hope you build it somewhere else. Let’s just get real rail or mass transit (not buses) to the suburbs that already exist so people can live in the environment and culture they want. San Francisco is full.

  8. I think we should put politicians in office this way. Politics are too complicated for people to understand, so we need people to make decisions for them… Great thinking.

  9. To “yes on B”, kindly identify yourself and who paid ,how much for that post. Thanks.

  10. Prop B opponents like Mr. Hogan skillfully leave the impression that Prop B will ban any building above current height limits on the waterfront and stifle much-needed residential development. Neither is even remotely close to being true.

    Prop B has very clear terms – it bans nothing and only applies to proposed development within a narrow strip of land along the waterfront. And even within that small area Prop B does not apply to any development that complies with the height limits that were fought over for years before being agreed upon by various city groups, including the supervisors, and enacted in the 1990′s.

    Prop B merely gives the voters the right to review any development located in one of San Francisco’s most scenic areas. Voter approval does not grant the final go-ahead for any development – it must still meet other city regulations and approvals. That doesn’t stop Prop B opponents like Mr. Hogan and city officials who have an interest in maintaining the status quo from claiming that Prop B somehow reduces regulatory oversight of new construction. Note that their statements are always qualified with wording like “could do this” or “might be interpreted to allow…” And, of course, the same opponents also take the contradictory position that developers will be hamstrung by Prop B’s onerous terms.

    As for the stifling residential development argument, Prop B affects a very special area of the city that is less than 1% of the city’s area. Even if it banned development (it certainly doesn’t) Prop B would have exactly zero effect on the cost of housing and rents throughout the other 99% of the city.

    If a proposed development serves the community, voters will approve it. How can I make such a bold statement? Because we had the perfect test of voters’ sensibility in 1996. The Giants proposed a huge waterfront stadium that greatly exceeded existing height limits and other land use limitations. They put it on the ballot and it was approved by San Francisco voters. Prop B opponents never mention AT&T Park – instead they’d like you to believe that Prop B will “ban” all new development on the waterfront and some people are taken in by that story.

    Now the Giants want to put up 27 acres of large buildings very near the waterfront but those buildings will have offices and commercial space rather than a stadium everyone can enjoy. The buildings will also include some new residences but the cost, location and actual number of new apartments has not been specified. The Giants have not offered to put this on the ballot for good reason – they quietly got the final approval for the development from the SF Board of Supervisors last year. If Prop B passes, they’ll also need voter approval and will no doubt be forced to provide the details that have been lacking so far. As I said, if the Giants can make the case that a cluster of 8 new buildings on the waterfront, some 3 times taller than any other building within 2 miles, is a good idea, voters will approve it.

    No politician in San Francisco has spoken in favor of Prop B. I believe that’s because they’re anticipating the public reaction when the scope of the Giants’ massive and inappropriate development becomes known. If you’d like to see accurate renderings that put the scale of the buildings in context, please visit this page: http://www.drscience.com/propb.html.

    As for my identity, I’m happy to reveal that I’m merely a SF resident and homeowner with no monetary interest in Prop B’s passing one way or another and certainly no connection with any Prop B supporting organization. Contrast my background with the architect who pens this blog, the various real estate agents and brokers who have cut and pasted parts of this blog neighborhood discussion boards, and the myriad of development interests who have bankrolled the opposition to Prop B.

  11. I would argue that you have more of a vested interest than anyone: you are a homeowner trying to preserve your view.

    I think a lot of people would prefer buildings to parking lots along our waterfront.

  12. More of an interest than architects who might make thousands and developers who might make millions if development projects like Lot A can go ahead? Really?

    Yes, development of Lot A will affect a small portion of my view, but it’s also affects the vieww enjoyed by tens of thousands of people across the city. And for what? No one has made the case that the Lot A development would have any effect on our soaring housing costs or provide any other benefit except the enrichment of the owners, developers, architects, etc.

    I agree that a lot of people would prefer buildings to parking lots along the waterfront. And they’ll welcome such development after Prop B is enacted. Voters demonstrated their sensibility and interest in civic development when they overwhelmingly approved height limit exemptions for PacBell Park in 1996. This is a best example of what will take place at Proposition B passes, not the apocalyptic fantasy you try to paint, Mark.

    Your blog post is structured as informative but you failed to mention that PacBell Park vote in 1996. Did you forget that it happened or did you leave it out because it disproves your wacky theory that SF voters are anti-development luddites who prefer empty parking lots instead of Ferry Buildings? You owe it to your readers to explain this puzzling omission from your post..

  13. Mark, I also have to ask why you say, “without the height limit being exceeded, that “open space” is going to remain surface parking forever instead of turning into housing and a five and half acre park.”??

    You know that Prop B doesn’t lock down height limits – but you leave readers with the impression that parking lots and other areas can’t be developed if SF voters are brought into the decision making. The existence of PacBell Park on the waterfront illustrates the good judgment of SF voters when presented with a choice.

    I also have to ask why you describe the Giant’s plans for Lot A development as “housing and a five and half acre park.” I think you’ve seriously misread the plans published by the Giants and done a disservice to your readers. The plans call for 8 high-rise office buildings on the waterfront, about 3 times as high as any other buildings in the area. There are promises of housing included in the buildings but whether those condos, apartments or whatever will be low-cost or very pricey like every other high rise residential tower on the waterfront is not specified. How did you look at those plans and summarize the development as “housing and a park”?

  14. I don’t think this is half as misleading as the BS the “Yes on B” campaign has been filling our mailboxes with. Louise Renne would like us to believe that the Giants are about to build high rises in the equivalent of Golden Gate Park. We have already seen how much money some of San Francisco’s elite has spent to spread fear about waterfront development, I am pretty convinced they will continue to do this if B passes. My wording is completely accurate: if the current height limit (which is zero) is not exceeded that area will stay as a parking lot indefinitely.

    Housing and a park is completely accurate description of the plans for the Giants’ parking lots. I don’t know what type of housing will be built, so saying “housing” seems like the best description. The park is in their plans. I don’t think I’ve done a disservice at all, in fact I provided a direct link to the Mission Rock website for anyone who wants to read it.

    You might be surprised but most younger residents of San Francisco are excited about high rises and don’t see having their views changed as the end of the world. In fact, many of us are excited about the possibility.

  15. I doubt that you’ll display this comment, but I had to point out the nonsense in your post.

    You begin by claiming that “One of the most popular buildings on the waterfront…currently exceeds the forty foot height limit that exists along most of the waterfront and would not be allowed under current planning regulations”, followed by a photo of the Ferry Building.

    Never mind the fact that the Ferry Bldg. was built by the City, built more than a century ago, and built for the public good — specifically for providing a terminus for the ferries that were the only way of getting across the Bay (thus in no way falling afoul of anything like Prop. B). Your parallel also fails because the only part of the building that exceeds the current height limits is the clock tower, which was specifically designed to be able to show the tens of thousands of daily ferry passengers the time, from a distance. No such public service would be provided by more luxury hi-rises, as you well know.

    You continue by saying that the Embarcadero has “huge storage buildings full of parking. Or in other cases, the waterfront is literally surface parking”. And this is a problem…how? What you call “parking” is largely just currently underutilized space. So, in your mind, underutilized space requires development — and specifically development that exceeds the 40-80 foot height limit? Brilliant.

    “Planning at the ballot box doesn’t make sense because the typical voter doesn’t have the time or background to analyze urban design, land use planning, or the tradeoffs involved in various options.”

    A voter doesn’t need to be a professional urban planner to know that they don’t want the public’s land built up and their views ruined, all for the sake of a few super-rich people getting richer, and more pied-à-terres for arrivistes. And the Planning Commission (who are appointed and have no public oversight) have demonstrated again and again that they’re not to be trusted with our cityscape. Witness Ventana Towers or One Rincon.

    “Developers could hypothetically skip many steps of project approval by spending enough money to get a project approved at the ballot box without having to comply with all of the other rules that have been put in place to ensure a good outcome for the City and the residents of the area.”

    Sorry, but I have to call that out as the bullshit it is. Nowhere does Prop B suggest that anyone can game the system to *get* projects approved, merely that it can *prevent* approval. And you know as well as I do that, if developers thought that Prop B would actually allow them to do an end-run around planning and permits, they’d be backing it with all they have.

    “The Port has $1.5 billion in unfunded infrastructure needs…nobody else with enough money has stepped up to keep it from falling into the Bay”.

    The Port *claims* that it needs that much money, but much of their claims are hypothetical and padded. And if Piers 30 & 32 “fall into the Bay”, so what? We’re not currently allowed to remove the piers, so it might make more sense to simply let them collapse and then remove the rubble. San Franciscans aren’t necessarily tied to all of the piers remaining forever.

    “…we have a few very rich people who don’t want anything built because it might block a portion of their precious views, and hey, they already got theirs, so who cares about anyone else?”

    This is nonsense on SO many levels. First, the Stewarts live behind where the 8 Washington project was going to be. Do you really expect us to believe that they somehow are willing to bankroll a proposition that will enforce height restrictions along the entire SF waterfront?! And how, pray tell, did those “few very rich people” manage to suborn the Sierra Club, the Greens Party and other environmental groups that support B? Finally, in politics as in most things, the key questions to ask are (1) “who has the most to gain or lose?” and (2) “who is putting their money where their mouth is?” The reality is that developers have FAR more to gain or lose here; hundreds of millions in profits are at stake. Not coincidentally, it is the developers and their lackey union construction workers who are bankrolling the opposition to B, under the rather fatuously named “San Francisco Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth”.

    “Great, if you like San Francisco turning into a bedroom community for suburban office parks”

    You have that exactly BACKWARDS. Far more people who work in SF live OUTSIDE of it.

    “…and you like the high-rise hotels that were built instead of commercial office buildings” (followed by a photo of the Marriott). Very few like the Marriott, and for good reasons. But you’re positing yet another false dilemma, since the alternative high-rises are either office buildings or condos or mixed-use. Those have *hardly* been architectural success stories. And the most hideous high-rise constructed in SF in the past decade is neither — it’s the new Fed Building that will be polluting SF’s skyline for another century.

    “I’ve already voted NO and mailed my ballot this morning.” And my wife and I have voted “yes”, canceling out your vote.

    I’ll close by quoting you: “You know what? Miami Beach’s waterfront is in some ways a much more pleasant place to be than a lot of the Embarcadero”. Miami Beach is 3,500 miles to the east. You’re welcome to leave any time, and leave San Francisco’s waterfront to the locals who appreciate it for what it is. Or you could just go back to New York, from whence you came, rather than thinking that carpetbaggers ought to tell San Franciscans what to do with their public lands.

  16. Of course I’ll post your comment, unless it’s outright offensive/racist etc.

    I’ll respond, (slightly out of order):
    1. Quick fact check for you: The Ferry Building was not built by the City. It was built via a bond passed at the state level.
    2. In my opinion, the federal building is the second best recent building in San Francisco, after the deYoung.
    3. So you’re a “real San Franciscan” and I’m not? That’s a really mature and original argument. It’s actually one that gets brought up at nearly every public meeting as people try to “out-San Franciscan” everyone else by telling the room how many generations his or her family has lived here. Do you ever travel outside of the county? Other places have good ideas, some of which we might want to think about implementing here. Removing the freeway was a great first step to improving the waterfront but San Francisco still has a ways to go.
    4. I suggest you read the Planning Department’s analysis of the possible legal ramifications of passing this legislation, I trust their analysis more than yours:

    In many instances, the potential developer likely would chose to craft a ballot measure that included detail specific aspects of a project in addition to height limits and those aspects of the project also would be approved by voters if the measure passes. Depending on the nature of required ballot measures that would evolve from Proposition B, such measures could enable developers to bypass otherwise mandatory environmental review, professional analysis, public response, commission hearings, and legislative review in advance of the election on the project.

    I also trust SPUR and the San Francisco Chronicle more than I trust your analysis. From the Chronicle’s column endorsing a NO vote on B:

    An analysis by the good-government group SPUR noted that a project approved by voters could not later be changed in the legislative process. For example, if voters unwittingly approved a project that “interferes with important maritime activities,” City Hall would be powerless to stop it. Also, a voter-approved project could still be analyzed under the California Environmental Quality Act, but “project sponsors would not be required by law to address those impacts, as they are today,”

    5. San Francisco has been losing it’s regional share of jobs in the Bay Area since the 1980s. You’re right that currently more people work in SF who live outside it, but more people are choosing to live here and commute outside of it than ever before. Witness the high ridership southbound on Caltrain in the morning and the influx of tech buses taking employees to the peninsula.

    Thanks for reading. You are obviously nearly as passionate about San Francisco as I am.

  17. Thanks for giving air to my views. A few responses:

    1. The Ferry Building was built on land owned by the City (technically administered by the Harbor Commission), for the *public* good, and paid for by state-issued bonds. In what way does that even remotely relate to your defense of the City selling land to private developers to build private spaces for a profit? After all, your point was to show that the Ferry Building “would not be allowed under current planning regulations”; an entirely specious argument. Again: such a building *would* be allowed, because it would remain public land, and developed for the public’s use.

    2. In my opinion, the new federal building is the second *worst* recent building in San Francisco, after the deYoung.

    I get it. You’re an architect (so was I, BTW). You like to see new work being built, especially bit, brash “statement” buildings. But they’re both rubbish buildings and bad neighbors and, within 20 years, both will look as dated as the godawful PoMo crap thrown up in the ’70s and ’80s. The Fed Bldg. manages to look aggressive and cartoonish at the same time. Thom Mayne has always been the master of the gimmick. The Fed Bldg. is, as many have pointed out, dysfunctional. What a surprise — given that he eliminated HVAC, insisted upon elevators that stop only on every 3 floors (“to promote walking”), etc. It’s bullshit “statement” architecture at its most pretentious.

    The deYoung is a nightmare inside with abysmal traffic flow and an utterly static and pointless “grand court” (that oversized Gerhard Richter also sucks any life out of the space). The “torqued” tower is a triumph of expensive engineering sleight-of-hand over necessity. And the embossed copper cladding — while theoretically appealing — was wildly expensive and is nearly impossible to repair when it gets tagged or whatever (its patina will be impossible to match).

    Oh, and before you accuse me of being a philistine, consider this: back in ’99, I wrote an empassioned letter to the editor of the Chronicle in defense of H&dM, based upon their Goetz Collection building I’d admired in PA. I was wrong, of course, and in retrospect, I wish the commission had been given to Ando Tadao. And I’m a huge fan of architects like Peter Zumthor, Ban Shigeru, et al. — coincidentally, architects who eschew gimmicks and towers.

    3. You don’t like what you characterize as my trying to “out San Francisco you”. It’s ironic how even reasonably sophisticated Americans are aware of the “ugly American” stereotype of American cultural imperialism, and wouldn’t presume to say, advocate for Starbucks going into Bhutan or McDonalds onto Maupiti. But for whatever reason, many of the same people have no compunction against cultural imposition against other cities on the opposite side of the country. Well, just as the Bhutanese native should have more say about what changes are wrought from the outside, the SF native should have more say than the recently arrived. It may not be in the spirit of Kum-ba-ya, but it’s sensible.

    4. The Planning Dept’s analysis is a worst-case scenario. Frankly, the idea of a developer being able to bring a project to the ballot box to be able to bypass EIRs, etc., is laughably remote in this city. Do you know how hard it is to get a measure on the ballot? Do you know how much resistance building projects get from SF’s voters? You certainly should! A developer has a slightly lower chance of getting a project “unwittingly approved” by the voters than Westboro Baptist Church as of setting up a successful mission here.

    Ultimately, this entire controversy boils down to one simple fact: private developers are trying to override the will of the people, so they can make huge profits. That’s all this is. That may fly on Miami Beach or in NYC, but it doesn’t fit SF’s aesthetic nor its philosophy. They’re free to build shorter buildings, or to build taller buildings away from the waterfront. Feel free to address those points.

  18. 1. The legislation does not specify that public buildings can exceed the height limit. It reads “any development” in the legal text.

    2. There are some shortcomings to the federal building but many of them are perceived shortcomings. Is it really so much work to walk up a flight of stairs? I would have killed to have an operable window when I was working in a commercial office building. The quality of light in the office spaces is fantastic (yes I’ve toured the building) and nearly all of the office space is near a window. It is more functional than nearly anywhere I have ever worked.

    As far as the deYoung goes, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I go there a few times a month and disagree on every one of your points. I could stare at the Richter painting all afternoon.

    On a side note, you should go see the piece of crap Peter Zumthor proposed for LACMA. We are probably lucky he didn’t get the deYOung job. That LA proposal is gimmicky to the 10th degree.

    I agree with you that Tadao Ando probably would have been a good pick but I’m not sure he would have come up with a more cost-effective solution. His museum in Fort Worth is phenomenal.

    3. Unless you are of Ohlone ancestry (and maybe you are?), don’t tell me about cultural imperialism. I arrived here over a decade ago and I am certainly entitled to have an opinion about local politics and development policy. Your ideas about who should have the “most say” are xenophobic and un-democratic. I would love to buy a home here someday, and I have no intention of leaving unless I’m forced out by the continually rising cost of living caused by our housing shortage.

    4. It’s not that hard to get things on the ballot if someone is willing to pay for the signatures. Exhibit A: Proposition B.

  19. From the Giants description of their own project on 2/25/13:

    Office Space: 1,300,000–1,700,000 square feet in 5-7 buildings
    Residential Space: 650-1,000 units in 3-5 buildings
    Retail 125,000 square feet throughout the project

    Your summary of the same project:

    “housing and a five and half acre park”

    That kind of says it all Markasaurus.

  20. The staff report from the Port shows:
    1,283,000 SF of commercial space
    920,000 SF of residential
    161,400 SF of retail
    6.3 acres of parkland split into two sites.
    Pier 48 upgraded to house an expansion of Anchor Brewing’s operations.
    All affordable housing requirements will be met on-site with inclusionary units.

    That sounds like a huge win for the city to me.

  21. Markasaurus says:

    It’s not that hard to get things on the ballot if someone is willing to pay for the signatures. Exhibit A: Proposition B.

    Looks like the Prop B supporters seriously overpaid:

    From the 2/4/14 SF Chronicle:

    While 9,702 valid signatures were required, proponents submitted 21,067, which were gathered in the past three weeks by 400 paid or volunteer workers.

    Perhaps those Prop B proponents seriously underestimated the popularity of their initiative.

  22. That sounds like a huge win for the city to me

    And it might be – let’s let SF residents decide if your opinion is correct.

    Look, my snarky post about your description of the project was to point out that more than 60% of this project is slated to be office or retail commercial space. When your only reference to this project in your original, much-cited, post is as “housing and a five and half acre park”, then you’re being misleading. At best.

    When one also considers that your original post ridiculed voters’ ability to identify worthy, civic-minded developments like the Ferry Building and then you entirely ignore the largest and most relevant vote on waterfront development to occur in the past 20 years (SF voters broad approval of PacBell Park in 1996) well then it starts to look like you’re intentionally deceiving your readers.

    Would you like to address this criticism or do you just want to repeat your “That sounds like a huge win for the city to me” statement?

  23. “You’re welcome to leave any time, and leave San Francisco’s waterfront to the locals who appreciate it for what it is.”

    Wow, Robert, are you serious? You might be a long time local, but you are definitely NOT a native San Franciscan. An educated and cultured San Franciscan would never resort to this kind of talk.

    If you happen to be a native San Franciscan, Robert, you certainly don’t deserve to be one.

    Sincerely,
    Native San Franciscan born in ’77

  24. I indicated in the post, very clearly, the the ferry building was included as an example of why height limits don’t always make sense when applied arbitrarily. I didn’t get in to the legality of how a new ferry building would be built and I think most people go that (especially when I followed it up with “maybe this seems like a frivolous exercise, but it illustrates the reason why height limits are sometimes exceeded- it makes sense”).

    Yes, the Giants’ ballpark got approved and they were asking for more than just a height increase, they also needed to get permission for a non-maritime use and to get out of the parking requirements. The ballot is online at the SFPL site for anyone who wants to read it. I don’t think I am deceiving anyone, I’m not sure how you reached that conclusion. There is already a robust process for exceeding height limits in San Francisco that requires the sign off of the Board of Supervisors, and I personally think this is enough oversight. You apparently think otherwise and I know I’m not going to convince you.

    I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was ridiculing people’s ability to make decisions. I pointed out that most people don’t read all the fine print when they vote, and many of these issues are FAR to complex for a yes-no public vote. Anyone who has lived here for more than six months can see how issues get reduced to one-line slogans (the Wall on the Waterfront etc.). I don’t think that is a good way to make planning decisions, or any decision. I think ballot measures have been a destructive force in California politics and would love to see them reigned in.

  25. Thank you, Mark! Great post. Asking voters to decide each building on a case-by-case basis is grossly inefficient and ripe for political maneuvering. A truly world-class city should not be afraid of tall buildings. I voted No on B today.

  26. I don’t think I am deceiving anyone, I’m not sure how you reached that conclusion…I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was ridiculing people’s ability to make decisions.

    I reached those conclusion by reading your blog post where you describe a project that is 60% commercial as “housing and a five and half acre park”, then write, “A lot of people walk into the voting booth, read the one line description on the ballot, and vote….How often to voters read the full text of things they are voting on? Not very often, I can assure you”

    Perhaps you should re-read your blog post to get a better understanding of why so many readers take issue with what you have written. If you dashed off your original post without thinking about it, then own up to it, though it appears your were careful in what you wrote and what you left out. If you still don’t see how it misleads readers who know far less about this topic than you do, well then one has conclude that your inaccuracy was intentional.

  27. I’m not sure you realize that I have received far, far more messages of support from all over San Francisco, and particularly from younger voters, than I have found people that are upset from what I’ve written. I have lost count of how many times people have re-tweeted this post on Twitter. There seems to be a handful of people, many of whom probably read the same message boards in Potrero Hill from what I’ve heard, that take issue with what I’ve written (and believe me, I have heard from many others on the Hill who support increased development wholeheartedly).

    San Francisco is changing.

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