No waterfront highrises

The kind of decision that will affect the city for a century or more

EDITORIAL We've been concerned for decades about development along San Francisco's waterfront, and with good reason: the Port of San Francisco has done a generally miserable job of managing one of the city's most significant resources. In the 1960s and 1970s, the port effectively gave up on the shipping industry, losing container freight (and plenty of good blue-collar jobs) to Oakland. Development proposals for port property, particularly under then-mayor Willie Brown's administration, were largely horrible.

And now the port wants the state to turn over development rights for some key seawall-protected properties, which could be turned into very-high-end housing with ground-floor retail. The port needs the money for historic preservation and is promising to build some waterfront parks, which is all well and good. But when it comes to building expensive housing along the waterfront, we're dubious right off the bat — and even more dubious now that Port Director Monique Moyer is howling about the prospect of a 40-foot height limit.

Sen. Carole Migden has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 815, that would authorize the port to lease out for development lots that are now part of a state trust. But at the request of neighborhood groups, she wants height limits included in the deal as part of state law.

The port argues that 40 feet is too low for, say, three stories of housing above a storefront. Besides, port staffers say, zoning issues should be a local decision, and the state should hand over the lots and let the city decide on height, bulk, density, and appropriate use. In principle, we'd tend to agree with that — but the City Planning Department today is a disaster, with every key decision driven by developers, and the last thing this city needs is a string of high-rise condos on the waterfront.

If the port's land is going to be developed, it has to be done with tremendous sensitivity, clear public benefits — and inflexible, mandated height limits. And if the money is going to go to parks, we'd like to see specifics, in advance: which projects will pay for which parks, and where — and what guarantees do we have that they'll ever be completed?

This is the kind of decision that will affect the city for a century or more. Migden's right: we should take it slowly and carefully. *