Polishing SPUR - Page 3

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

The 1999 commemoration of SPUR's 40th anniversary is a somewhat sanitized history that never presents the faces of the people who were displaced by the program; nor does the analysis nod significantly toward the neighborhood groups and activists who were able to mitigate the wholesale razing of the area.

That's still a soft spot for SPUR, some say. "They're uncomfortable with questions of class. Those questions tend to be glossed over," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and a SPUR board member from 2000 to 2004.

Metcalf doesn't duck the issue. "If you're a city planner, you've got to meditate deeply on urban renewal, even though you didn't do it. It's the only time in urban history that planners were given power, and that's what they did with it," he said.

Besides a long friendship with powerful businesses, SPUR has frequently enjoyed an intimate relationship with city hall. "They morphed in the '80s into a good-government, good-planning group, but in fact they were really tight with the [Dianne] Feinstein administration," Elberling said. "One of the ways you got to be a city commissioner was by being a member of SPUR. Feinstein's planning and development club was SPUR."

Mayor Feinstein's reign is often remembered as a boom in downtown development — at least until 1985, when San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth succeeded in passing Proposition M, a measure severely limiting annual high-rise development. SPUR opposed the measure and still supports increased height and density along transit corridors in the city.

"SPUR always goes with more," Radulovich said. "Sometimes there's a trade-off between sustainability and growth, and I don't have much confidence they won't go with growth."

A March SPUR report, "Framing the Future of Downtown San Francisco," is one example of a cognizance of other options, weighing the pros and cons of expanding the central business district or transforming it into a "central social district": "While office uses remain, the goal of a CSD is to create a mixed-use, livable, 24-hour downtown neighborhood." Another line in the report offers a telling look at how SPUR thinks: "Economic growth in the CSD model may be diminished as the remaining sites for office buildings become used for new residential, retail, or other non-office uses."

Retail means, in fact, economic growth. A 1985 Guardian-commissioned study of small businesses in San Francisco, "The End of the High-Rise Jobs Myth," found that most of the new jobs created in the city between 1980 and 1984 were not in the downtown office high-rises but around them. Businesses with fewer than 99 employees had generated twice as many jobs as those with more employees.

While the numbers may be different today, the concept that neighborhood-serving retail keeps a local economy healthy has only grown stronger, as has public sentiment against chain stores. Yet SPUR opposed a proposition calling for conditional-use permits for formula retail, which voters approved in 2006.

Over the years SPUR's political record has been checkered. Though the group talks the good-government talk, it opposed propositions establishing the city's Ethics Commission and reforming the city's Sunshine Ordinance. According to Charley Marsteller, a founder of Common Cause and a longtime good-government advocate in San Francisco, "Common Cause supported initiatives in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2005. SPUR opposed all of them."

This November, SPUR came out in favor of Proposition C, which calls for public hearings before measures can be placed on the ballot, but opposed Question Time for the mayor. The group gave a yes to the wi-fi policy statement and approved establishing a small-business assistance center — contrary to past stances.

SPUR isn't afraid to defend its positions.