How developers, corporations, and city contractors buy influence in San Francisco City Hall -- a 47th anniversary Guardian special investigation
When the department's zoning administrator ruled that Jack Spade, a high-end clothing chain that opened up in the old Adobe Books location on 16th Street, wasn't considered formula retail and therefore didn't need a conditional use permit, neither widespread community outrage nor a majority vote by the Board of Appeals could reverse that flawed decision. It was a similar story with the Planning Commission's Oct. 3 approval of the 555 Fulton mixed use project, where Planning Department support for exempting the grocery store for the area's formula retail ban made it happen, to the delight of that developer.
Even though the planning director makes specific funding requests each year to the Friends and pitches the projects in person at their meetings — and the Friends publishes a list of the grants it awards to the department online — the Planning Department is not reporting those gifts to the Board of Supervisors.
"I confirm that the Planning Department did not receive any gifts," Finance and IT Manager Keith DeMartini wrote in official gift reports submitted to the Board of Supervisors for the years 2011-12 and 2012-13. Those reports were sent to the board on Oct. 7 and Oct. 4, respectively, well after the July filing deadline and after the Guardian requested the missing reports.
The Friends typically funds two-thirds of the requests, said board member Alec Bash, totaling around $80,000 a year. In 2012, the Friends awarded a $25,000 grant to make the department's new online permit-tracking system more user-friendly, making life a lot easier for developers.
When asked what safeguards are in place to prevent undue influence when the director is soliciting funding from a nonprofit partially controlled by developers, Linsangan responded, "those are two very separate things. One does not influence the other."
She stated repeatedly that planners are not privy to information about individual contributors — but the fundraisers are organized by a board that includes identifiable developers, and anyone who attends can plainly see the donors in attendance. Nevertheless, Linsangan insisted that planners would not be swayed by this special relationship, saying, "That's simply not the way we do things around here. We do things according to the Planning Code."
But as the ruling on Jack Spade shows, as well as countless rulings by planners on whether a project is categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, interpreting the codes can involve considerable discretion.
The public can't review a list of who wrote checks to the Friends of San Francisco City Planning for the May fundraiser. Since the organization waits a year between collecting the money and disbursing grants, donors stay shielded from required annual disclosures in tax filings.
But Antenore says the system was established with the public interest in mind. "We don't reveal the contributors, because we don't want anybody to have increased influence by a donation," he insisted. Bash echoed this idea, saying the delay was to "allow for some breathing room."
Unlike some of his fellow board members from the high-end development sector, Antenore has a history of being aligned with neighborhood interests on planning issues, helping author a 1986 ballot measure limiting downtown high-rise development. He emphasized that the developers on the Friends board are balanced out by more civic-minded individuals.
Still, developers who regularly submit permit applications for major construction projects sit on the Friends board. Among them are Larry Nibbi, a partial owner of Nibbi Bros.; Clark Manus, CEO of Heller Manus Architects; and Oz Erikson, CEO of the Emerald Fund development firm.
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