Arts and Entertainment
by calvin welch
Stop rigged planning
SAN FRANCISCO WAS created as a boomtown, and its politics remain, at heart, the politics of the boom. Essential to those politics is the control of the approval process for development projects a control, for the last 70 years or so, given almost exclusively to the executive branch through the power of appointments to various commissions and boards.
Booms are great for speculators and financial insiders. But, as the rubble of the recent dot-com bust has shown, boom time is hell on everyone else: viable jobs, businesses, services, and the arts are lost, neighborhoods are devastated, and the city's economy is laid low.
Voters this March will have a chance to change the local institutional imbalance, in which the devastation of the boom-and-bust cycle tends to get magnified, in time to limit the harm the next boom could do to our neighborhoods and to the city's economy.
Proposition D would give the San Francisco Board of Supervisors three appointments to the seven-member Planning Commission and two appointments to the five-member Board of Permit Appeals, which oversees decisions of the Planning Commission. Prop. D would also block the mayor or the supervisors from firing a member of those two key planning bodies for any reason other than official misconduct.
The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association and the Small Property Owners Association have attacked the measure as simply being a power grab by the Board of Supervisors, a continuation of the district-elected supervisors' desire to "get" Mayor Willie Brown. This assertion is false on its face: If this were a supervisorial power grab, why would the majority of each body remain appointments of the mayor?
The true genesis of Prop. D is a decades-old concern in San Francisco that the planning process is "rigged" in favor of well-heeled development interests concerned with specific project approvals and is not a process, as the Planning Code specifically states, "to guide, control and regulate future growth and development in accordance with the Master Plan [now called the General Plan] of the City and County of San Francisco." Most San Franciscans believe that, when faced with a choice between upholding established planning policies or approving a project favored by major contributors to the mayor (any mayor) that clearly violates that policy, the Planning Commission and the Board of Permit Appeals will simply do the developers' bidding.
History favors such a belief. From Sutro Tower to the proliferation of so-called live-work lofts, from neighborhood-busting chain stores to real estate development on the waterfront, time and again long-term needs of the city's small businesses and residents, formally protected in countless planning documents, are ignored.
What will the planning process offer for this city in the future? Will it be the "dialing-for-dollars" casino it has been in the last two booms, a process in which developers make contributions to the mayor's campaign to get their projects approved? Or will it be a process that is somewhat informed by a set of openly arrived at policies and plans, openly debated and amended by our local legislative body, which take into consideration the "social, economic and environmental factors" of future development as suggested by the charter?
At the barest and most cynical level, opening up the Planning Commission
and Board of Permit Appeals to board of supervisors appointments complicates
the dialing-for-dollars technique for developers by adding another set
of players to be "dialed." That may slow or even stop some
unneeded and harmful future project. At best, Prop. D will give all
San Franciscans a voice in setting policies that will guide future development
decisions and then assure that such policies are in the minds
of at least three Planning Commissioners when they vote on future development