"In District 6, it's the defining issue because it's the most explosive district in terms of growth," Hestor said. "Land use is about who gets to live in the city."
While most of the discussion about the Johns nomination focused on his qualifications as a historian — indeed, that was the basis of most of the opposition to his nomination, by both activists and progressive supervisors — there was some telling subtext focused on Hestor's point that land use is the most fundamental progressive issue.
At the Jan. 20 Rules Committee meeting, Kim even asked Johns about his "vision for affordable housing as it related to preservation." But the answer she received wasn't terribly reassuring to those who see the lack of affordable housing for low-income city residents as a serious problem that the city is failing to address (see "Dollars or sense?" 9/29/10).
"San Francisco is made up of lots of different groups of people with lots of different backgrounds," Johns said at the hearing, noting that it is important to "preserve the culture and the past that have brought us to where we are. But part of that past is the ability to grow."
In an interview with the Guardian, Johns expanded on the point, sounding a more pro-growth point-of-view than many of his colleagues on the commission are likely to share. "Development and preservation can go hand-in-hand," Johns said. "Maybe it's the development that allows what might be a slowly deteriorating building to be fixed up properly."
As an example, he cited his 20 years of work on preserving the Old Mint Building — his main claim to expertise as a historian — which was ultimately accomplished as part of the development project that included office and commercial development and the Mint Plaza public space.
"People of all income levels have a right to live in San Francisco," Johns said, adding, "The real need some people would say is the need for middle class housing." When we noted that it's often the low-income residents who are ousted when old buildings get modernized, he said, "You have to think about the desirability of people to live in crummy housing."
Chiu and Kim both downplayed the importance of the Johns vote. "People are trying to read too much into this," Chiu said, explaining that he opposed the nomination because he simply felt Johns didn't meet the criteria as a historian. "What was relevant is what city law says."
Kim told us that it wasn't until the full board meeting that she learned how her progressive colleagues felt about the matter, and that she didn't want to change how she voted in committee. "It was not important enough for me to change my vote based on my verbal commitments," Kim said later.
Yet on the evening of the vote, Kim told the Guardian that she felt "pressure" to support Johns, although she wouldn't say from whom. "I was put in a bad position on this issue," she said. Many progressives have speculated that pressure came from Brown, which Kim denies. "We didn't talk about this, not once," she said.
But in his Jan. 30 column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Brown crowed about the victory by "my friend Richard Johns" and called Chiu's opposition to him "a mistake that could haunt him for some time," saying Chiu has set up Sups. Malia Cohen and Kim "to be the swing votes on every issue where moderates and progressives split."
Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.