The case against 8 Washington

Why an enclave for the rich is a bad move for San Francisco's waterfront

Wow! Look at all the rich white people enjoying their gated community!

In city planning terms, it's a fairly modest project: 134 condos, no buildings more than 12 stories tall, on a 27,000-square-foot site. It's projected to meet the highest environmental building standards and offers new open space and pedestrian walkways. It's near Muni, BART, and ferry lines. And the city will collect millions of dollars in new taxes from it.

But the 8 Washington project, which will come before the Planning Commission March 8, has become a flashpoint in city politics, one of the defining battles of Mayor Ed Lee's administration — and a symbol of how the city's housing policy has failed to keep pace with the needs of the local workforce.

Put simply, it will create the most expensive condos in city history, housing for the richest of the 1 percent on the edge of the waterfront — and will further push San Francisco toward becoming a city that caters almost entirely to the very wealthy.

So in a city where the growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest of us has become a central issue and where the lack of affordable housing is one of the top civic concerns, 8 Washington is an important test. By any rational standard, this sort of development is the last thing San Francisco needs.

But some of the best-connected lobbyists in the city are pushing it. One of the mayor's closest allies, Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak, is a leading advocate — and the final outcome will say a lot about city politics in the Lee administration.

There are all sorts of half-truths and misleading statements by supporters of 8 Washington. Here are the five main reasons the project shouldn't be approved.

1. It fills no housing need. San Francisco has no shortage of housing for the very rich; the dramatic need, outlined in both regional planning documents and the city's own General Plan, is for low- and moderate-income housing for the people who actually work in this city (see "Dollars or sense?" 9/28/10). While San Francisco is getting richer by the day, the core workforce — public employees, workers in the hotel and restaurant industry, service workers, construction and trade workers, and a majority of the people in the lower levels of the finance and tech sector — are being priced out of the city. That means more people working here and living far out of town, often commuting by car, in what everyone agrees is an unsustainable situation. Meanwhile, more and more high-paid workers from Silicon Valley are living in San Francisco — again, commuting to distant jobs, either by car or by corporate bus.

The city's General Plan states that some 60 percent of all new housing built in the city should be below market rate. San Francisco desperately needs housing for its workforce. This type of project simply puts the city deeper in the hole and further from its housing goals.

2. It's a reward for bad actors. The main developer of this project is Simon Snellgrove, but one of his partners is, by necessity, Golden Gateway, which owns a significant part of the land — and which has been flouting at least the spirit if not the letter of city and state law and costing San Francisco tens of millions of dollars.

As project opponent Brad Paul has noted in written testimony, when Timothy Foo, the current owner, bought the complex from Perini Corp. about 20 years ago, he used a loophole in state law that allowed him to avoid a formal transfer of ownership. That means the property wasn't re-assessed, costing the city about $1.5 million a year. According to the Assessor's Office, the deal wasn't illegal (and these tricks to avoid reassessment are relatively common) but still: He's costing the city millions by using a loophole not available to most people.