Early indicators

Supervisors reject preservationist position, raising concerns about development -- and revealing a little of their political philosophies

Sup. Jane Kim is shaping up to be a swing vote between moderates and progressives

Land use politics and the way development decisions are made at City Hall fed San Francisco's ascendant progressive movement over the last decade. So in the wake of a still-unfolding political realignment, an early key vote is making some preservationists and developer foes nervous.

At the center of that concern is Sup. Jane Kim, who broke with her progressive colleagues Jan. 25 to be the swing vote in the board's 6-5 approval of attorney Richard Johns to the historian's seat on the Historic Preservation Commission. Progressives and preservationists opposed the nomination on the grounds that Johns isn't a historian and that he has close ties to former Mayor Willie Brown, a friend of developers whose longtime chief of staff was Johns' wife, Eleanor.

And they're suspicious of Brown's support – both overt and stealthy – for Kim's supervisorial campaign (see "Willie Brown and the accusations of machine politics in D6," 10/16/10, Guardian Politics blog).

Kim didn't explain her vote at the full board meeting, and her comments at the Rules Committee (which she chairs) and to the Guardian that Johns "was qualified" and she could "see no reason not to support his nomination" irked many of her progressive supporters who consider development the big issue.

Feeding concerns about the potential blunting of historic preservation and other tools used to scrutinize development projects was the Jan. 25 announcement by Sup. Scott Wiener that he is calling for hearings into whether the commission is improperly hindering development and other policy priorities.

"The Historic Preservation Commission — and I supported the creation of the Historic Preservation Commission — has become an increasingly powerful commission reaching into a lot of different areas of policy in the city," Wiener said during the discussion of Johns' nomination, citing housing, parks, and libraries as areas the commission has affected. "It's important to have a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints on this commission, and if we're going to have a committee made up exclusively of advocates for historic preservation, only advocates, that is a problem."

Former board President Aaron Peskin, who led the effort to create the commission through the voter-approved Proposition J in 2008, disputes the allegation that the commission has become too powerful, as well as the claim that Johns is qualified to serve in the historian's seat, one of six seats on the commission that now requires professional qualifications.

"The facts do not support Sup. Wiener's allegations," Peskin told us, noting that the Board of Supervisors and the mayor retain the authority to decide what is and isn't historically significant. Yet Wiener said that even commission- and staff-level actions affect other city goals. "The conducting of a survey does have legal impact," Wiener told us.

But Peskin said San Francisco has very few protected buildings compared with other major U.S. cities, something voters sought to change through Prop. J, and Peskin said he was disappointed that Kim didn't support the law's dictates. "This is the second time in 2011 when the slim alleged progressive majority has not stayed together," he said, referring also to the election of David Chiu as board president.

Peskin and others who fight land-use battles say they don't yet want to jump to the conclusion that developers might have an easier time with this board. "It's my profound hope is that this is a learning experience," Peskin said of Kim's vote.

Veteran land use attorney Sue Hestor noted that neither Kim nor Wiener has a record on land use issues by which to judge them and she didn't want to make a big deal of their Jan. 25 actions. Yet she said that development is a huge issue in the Tenderloin, SoMa, and Rincon Hill areas that Kim represents, so there are major tests of her progressive values coming soon.