Political juggernaut

City officials and the community battle over Lennar's massive development plan
A complex plan to redevelop part of southeast San Francisco is moving forward on the fast track


City officials are scrambling to secure final approvals to allow Lennar Corp. to move forward with its 770-acre Candlestick/Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment of San Francisco's impoverished and polluted southeast sector. But the community remains divided on the project, raising concerns that wary residents will end up being steamrolled by this politically powerful juggernaut.

Some groups say the project needs major amendments, but fear it will be rushed to the finish for political reasons. Others say they are hungry to work and desperate to move into better housing units, so they don't want all the myriad project details to slow that progress. And Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration is arguing that approving the project's final environmental impact report by June 3 is crucial if San Francisco wants to keep the San Francisco 49ers in town.

But many observers fear Lennar wants its entitlements now before its project can be subjected to greater scrutiny that could come with the November elections. Newsom, who made Lennar's project the centerpiece of his housing policy, will be replaced as mayor if he wins the lieutenant governor's race. And a crowded field of candidates, many of them progressives concerned about the project's impacts on the poor and the environment, are vying to replace termed-out Sup. Sophie Maxwell, whose district includes Lennar's massive territory.

"It's 180 percent about the 49ers," land use attorney Sue Hestor told the Guardian, referring to the city's proposed rush job, as evidenced by a rapid entitlement schedule that the Newsom's administration wants city commissions and the board to follow.

Under that schedule, which Hestor procured from the Mayor's Office, Planning and Redevelopment commissioners are expected to certify the project's final 6,000-page EIR, adopt California Environmental Quality Act findings, approve amendments to the project's original disposition and development agreement, and authorize land trust and open space reconfigurations — all during a June 3 meeting where public comment will likely last for many hours.

Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, a community-based nonprofit that tracks the development, says this schedule stretches the credulity that this is a deliberative process. "There's no way anyone could make a functional reasoned assessment," Bloom told us. "How do you have any meaningful public conversation under those circumstances?"

Michael Cohen, Newsom's chief economic advisor, asserted in an April 29 article in The New York Times that Lennar's plan is a "really, really good project," echoing the glowing praise he's heaped on the project since its conception.

"But there's nothing new in their proposal," Bloom told us. "That's because they haven't been listening to the public's concerns. [Cohen] says, 'Haven't we talked enough? The community's been waiting all these years!' But waiting to get what done?"

Lennar's project — which had early backing from Newsom, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and other political power brokers — was sold as creating "jobs, housing, and parks" and "revitalizing the abandoned shipyard" when voters approved the Lennar-financed Proposition G in 2008.

"Proposition G is from the community and for the community," Lennar's campaign promised. "You can turn the abandoned Hunters Point Shipyard into a clean, healthy, sustainable, livable neighborhood — a place where people can raise their children."

The shipyard once employed thousands of workers, including African Americans who were recruited from the South in the 1940s and '50s. But the district's economic engine fell into disrepair when the military left in 1974. Today the neighboring Hunters Point and Bayview neighborhoods have the highest unemployment and crime rates and the largest concentration of African American families in the city.