Polishing SPUR

A downtown ally is building a new home. It's also trying to create a new image


Wedged among the commerce, tourism, and white-collar businesses north of Market Street is the slim entry to 312 Sutter, easy to miss unless you happen to be searching for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. SPUR occupies the fourth and fifth floors of the building — and occupies them completely. Cubicles are close and overstuffed. Conversations compete. Space for meetings is a hot commodity. Four bicycles, ridden to work by staff members, are crammed in a side room where languish a half century's worth of policy papers, photographs, and planning documents generated by the active public interest think tank.

It looks more like a struggling nonprofit than one of the most influential policy organizations in town, one supported by the city's richest and most powerful interests.

"This is why we're building the Urban Center," said Gabriel Metcalf, the youthful executive director of the 48-year-old organization, clad in a dark suit and sipping from a Starbucks coffee cup while he roams the fourth floor office space searching for any available real estate to sit and talk.

He settles on an open-faced workroom with empty seats. They circle a table covered with a thick ledger of plans for SPUR's new Urban Center, a $16.5 million, 12,000-square-foot four-story building at 654 Mission that the group is building with more than $8 million in public money.

Plans for the center include a free exhibition space, a lending library, and an evolution of the group's current public education program, now consisting of noontime forums, to include evening lectures and accredited classes. Though the center will house meeting rooms for SPUR's committees and offices for its staff, the suggestion is that the new space will be a more public place.

And SPUR seems to be searching for a new public image.

For years the organization was synonymous with anything-goes development, ruinous urban renewal, and an economy policy that favored big business and growth at all costs. Today SPUR's staffers and some board members present a different face. The new SPUR features open debate and seeks consensus; phrases like sustainability and public interest are bandied about more than tax cuts and urban renewal.

But San Francisco progressives are a tough crowd, and SPUR's history — and, frankly, most of its current political stands — makes a lot of activists wonder: Has SPUR really changed its spurs? And can a group whose board is still overwhelmingly dominated by big business and whose biggest funders are some of the most powerful businesses in town ever be a voice of political reason?

As one observer wryly noted, "I've yet to see SPUR publicly denounce a development project."

SPUR considers itself a public policy think tank, a term that conjures an impression of lofty independence. But the group has, and has always had, a visible agenda. SPUR members regularly advocate positions at public meetings, and the group takes stands on ballot measures.

And it has a painful legacy. "We have a dark history," Metcalf admits, referring to the days when "UR" stood for "urban renewal," often called "urban removal" by the thousands of low-income, elderly, and disabled people, many African American and Asian, who were displaced by redevelopment in San Francisco.

That history — and the fact that SPUR's membership is largely a who's who of corporations, developers, and financiers — has caused some to raise questions about the public money the group has received for the new Urban Center.

"They're not an academic institution," said Marc Salomon, a member of the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force who's butted heads with the group. "There's no academic peer review going on here.