The only peer review is coming from the people who fund them."
Yet prominent local progressives like artist and planning activist Debra Walker, veteran development warrior Brad Paul, and architect and small-business owner Paul Okamoto have joined the SPUR board in recent years. "There's a bunch of us that have come in under the new regime of Gabriel Metcalf because there's a real aching need for a progressive dialogue about planning," said Walker, who thinks SPUR is making concerted efforts to inform its policies with the points of view of a broader constituency. "I think SPUR is engaged in those conversations more than anyone."
SPUR defines its mission as a commitment to "good planning and good government." Though a wide range of issues can and does fall under that rubric, the 71 board members and 14 staff tend to focus on housing, transportation, economics, sustainability, governmental reform, and local and regional planning, and their agenda has a dogged pro-growth tinge.
SPUR likes to trace its history to the post1906 earthquake era, when the literal collapse of housing left many people settling in squalid conditions. The San Francisco Housing Association was formed "to educate the public about the need for housing regulations and to lobby Sacramento for anti-tenement legislation." A 1999 SPUR history of itself places its genesis in the Housing Association, though other versions of the group's history suggest a slightly different taproot.
According to Chester Hartman's history of redevelopment in San Francisco, City for Sale (University of California Press, 2002), the 1950s were a time when corporate-backed regional planners were envisioning a new, international commercial hub in the Bay Area. They were looking for a place to put the high-rise office buildings, convention centers, and hotels that white-collar commerce would need. Urban renewal money and resources were coming to the city, and San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency identified the Embarcadero and South of Market areas as two of several appropriate places to raze and rebuild.
The agency, however, was dysfunctional and couldn't seem to get plans for the Yerba Buena Center a convention hall clustered with hotels and offices off the ground. The Blyth-Zellerbach Committee, "a group the Chamber of Commerce bluntly described as 'San Francisco's most powerful business leaders, whose purpose is to act in concert on projects deemed good for the city,'<0x2009>" as Hartman writes, commissioned a report in 1959 by Aaron Levine, a Philadelphia planner, which identified the Redevelopment Agency as one of the worst in the nation and recommended more leadership from the business community. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association was born, funded by Blyth-Zellerbach, whose leaders included some corporations that still pay dues to SPUR, like Bechtel, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
John Elberling, a leader of the Tenants and Owners Development Corp., a group representing the people who were trying to stay in the area, was one of many activists who litigated against the city's plan and managed to wedge some affordable housing into the developers' vision of South of Market. SPUR, he told us, was "explicitly formed to support redevelopment issues in the '60s and '70s."
By 1974, when Paul began fending off redevelopment efforts around the Tenderloin and directed the North of Market Planning Coalition, "all through that period SPUR was viewed by the community as a tool for the Chamber of Commerce," he said.
In 1976, "Urban Renewal" became "Urban Research," a move away from the tarnished term.
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