San Francisco, where urban planning meets the ballot box
I spotted the following headline today on SF Gate: Supervisor wants S.F. to follow state on reforming initiatives and it immediately reminded me that I’d been working on a recap of a number of the planning-related issues that have come up on local ballots recently. Supervisor Wiener’s suggestions make a lot of sense: they both create a clearer process, and help voters make sense of who is funding the campaigns. I think the bar should be raised even higher, but this is a sensible place to start.
A Long History
The ballot in San Francisco is a very special thing. Usually printed on multiple oversized and double-sided sheets of paper, in some election cycles the alphabet has to be started over at AA to fit all of the measures voters are asked to weigh in on. Direct democracy was a result of Progressive-era politics in the late 1800s, lead in part by Governor Hiram Johnson. A special election of the state’s voters in 1911 adopted the initiative, referendum, and recall at both the state and local levels. San Francisco and Vallejo had already adopted the initiative in 1898.
Topics dealt with in these elections range from approval of large bonds to much smaller issues that elicit enough support from a handful of backers (who generally by employ paid signature-gatherers to qualify the measure). If you think an overflowing list of local ballot measures is a recent development, look back almost a century to November of 1907 when there were twenty-two measures before the voters (compared to only twelve this past Election Day) including five separate measures that dealt with land use and infrastructure development.
Issues that would often be better off dealt with legislatively often reach the ballot box first for a variety of reasons, as the pace of change has accelerated dramatically during the current boom. Many of the measures brought for voters’ consideration are in response to the huge amount of construction that has taken place since 2011 and the increase in housing costs that has pushed many people out of the City (and threatened to do so for many others).
November 2013: The Wall on the Waterfront
The battle over the 8 Washington condominium development on the west side of the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building was a high profile campaign funded in large part by Richard and Barbara Stewart, wealthy condo owners who live across the street from where the proposed project was to be built. Unhappy with the approval of the building, they sought to overturn the City’s decision to allow it to go forward.
The opponents of 8 Washington compared it to the demolished Embarcadero Freeway in their campaign materials, calling it the “Wall on the Waterfront.” They also enlisted the support of the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club, and former politicians like Aaron Peskin and Art Agnos also joined the fight.
The campaign consisted of Referendum C, placed on the ballot to overturn the project’s approval with a “no” vote. As has become common in San Francisco, supporters of the development put Proposition B on the same ballot which would have negated C. Both measures failed, meaning the development was halted. This helped set the stage for the 2014 elections.
June 2014: Proposition B
Opponents of 8 Washington saw the chance to channel anti-development sentiment into a larger effort. Rather than trying to overturn waterfront projects on a case by case basis, Proposition B took advantage of their momentum from the previous election combined with the extremely low turnout of a June election to pass a measure that requires voter approval of any project on Port land that exceeds existing height limits, usually forty feet. Specifically crafted in opposition to a planned arena on Piers 30/32, this measure covered development projects spanning the entire eastern side of the city.
Former Mayor Art Agnos made himself one of the main voices of this effort. He has routinely portrayed himself as a protector of the waterfront in recent years, owing to his resistance to rebuilding the Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake, an issue which most likely cost him re-election in 1991. Agnos himself had battled to get a cruise ship and luxury hotel development built at Piers 30 & 32 that was thrown out by voters with Proposition H in 1990 that created a moratorium on hotels along the Bay, he has a long history with ballot box planning decisions.
Agnos and company succeeded in getting Proposition B passed, but the City of San Francisco was quickly sued by the State Lands Commission. Because Port land is owned by the State of California, the Lands Commission is arguing that the City’s voters have no right to legislate development restrictions on this property. The case is still in the courts now.
Following voter approval of Proposition B, the developers of Pier 70 in the Dogpatch put the “Union Iron Works Historic Housing, Waterfront Parks, Jobs and Preservation Initiative” on the ballot as Measure F. This measure sought to approve a 90-foot height limit on the site.
The measure forwarded a plan that had already been in the works for years, and had substantial support in the neighborhood as it promised to create waterfront access for residents in an area that currently sits fenced off an vacant. Many urban planners were hoping for taller buildings in the area, seeing that there are working cranes on other parcels and docked cruise ships in adjacent ship maintenance facility that are well over 200’ tall. Because the measure had to go out to a public vote, the proposal was tailored to fit what its backers were confident would pass.
And pass it did. With 72% of the vote in the November election, Proposition F sailed to an easy victory. It had the backing of several groups that opposed 8 Washington, including the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club. It showed other developers a path forward to developing waterfront parcels on Port land elsewhere in the city if Proposition B holds up in court. It could provide a template for other long-planned projects on the waterfront.
To voters outside the Bay Area, two ballot measures about an artificial grass soccer field seems like a bizarre misuse of the electoral process. In San Francisco, it’s just another election season. Taking a cue from the “Wall on the Waterfront” battle, this was an attempt by activists to overturn the already-approved plan to install artificial turf and lighting at the western end of Golden Gate Park on what are currently underused grass soccer fields. Unhappy with the outcome of their dealings with the Recreation and Parks Commission, the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Board of Appeals,the California Coastal Commission, and the California Superior Court (who all were ready to let the project move forward), they decided to take the issue to the voters to override the public process in which they had lost. Thus was born Proposition H, “Requiring Certain Golden Gate Park Athletic Fields to Be Kept as Grass With No Artificial Lighting.”
Proposition I was also on the ballot, this measure was designed to invalidate Proposition H and would set new thresholds for future projects by mandating the City move forward with projects if an environmental impact report states that park use would be doubled with improvements. Proposition I passed with 55% of the vote, with a similar number of people voting no on H.
There were multiple transportation-related measures on the November ballot, and the outcome of the election showed a clear preference for improving public transportation. Proposition A was a $500 million bond measure that would pay for infrastructure improvements. Proposition B also sought to increase transportation funding by tying set-asides for Muni to San Francisco’s population growth. Both of these measures passed, Prop A with over 70% and B with over 60%.
Proposition L sought to do the opposite of A & B by reversing San Francisco’s “Transit First” policy through a policy statement. Placed on the ballot by a signature gathering effort, this measure struggled to find support and failed by approximately the same margin that Proposition B won.
While the battle over 8 Washington set the stage for citizens to challenge the outcome of decisions made through a public process at the ballot box, the message since then has been mixed. June 2014’s Proposition B showed that voters do want to weigh in on development projects, but Proposition F in November showed that some waterfront projects can prove quite popular.
The artificial turf measure sought to overturn a process that has dragged on for years, and the outcome showed voters felt the City was right to approve the project in the first place and Proposition L showed the vast majority of San Franciscans feel that our longstanding city policy of prioritizing transit, cycling and walking is on the right track.
Short of a reform of direct democracy in California, the lack of palatable legislative solutions to contentious issues combined with the availability of big money to back signature gathering efforts and elections will lead to more ballot box decision-making. Time will tell if the will of the people is really reflected in these land use election measures, or if sponsors with the biggest bank accounts will be able to overturn the outcomes of years-long public processes to block projects that they disagree with. While many of San Francisco’s far-left progressives saw the battle over 8 Washington as a way to send a message to large developers of market-rate housing, it is just as easy to imagine affordable housing projects being blocked by unenthusiastic neighbors in a future election.
It will be interesting to see how Supervisor Wiener’s legislative changes are received, there are a lot of people who like the status quo.