Joining the battle

Records show how Newsom opposed downtown parking limitations — and supported a developer-written alternative — at the urging of business community elites

By Steven T. Jones

Mayor Gavin Newsom has enjoyed record-high poll numbers during the past year partly by staying out of the bruising, high-stakes battles over land use policies. But now that the Board of Supervisors has finally coalesced around a livable-city and pro-renter agenda, downtown power brokers have pushed Newsom to enter the fray.

In fact, internal Mayor's Office documents show Newsom let big-business interests — led by Gap founder Don Fisher — write a piece of legislation that the mayor agreed to support.

The change in Room 200 kicked in last month when Newsom announced vetoes of a pair of measures designed to slow the pace of evictions by landlords looking to convert their apartments into condominiums, and threatened to veto a measure that would limit the number of parking spaces built downtown.

That parking measure, a package that also promotes open space and alternative modes of transportation, was expected to be approved by the Board of Supervisors Feb. 7, after the Guardian went to press. Supporters were confident they had seven votes and maybe even the eighth vote they would need to overcome a veto. The measure seeks to discourage car use by residents of the 10,000 housing units slated to go up in the downtown area over the next 20 years. The idea: Don't build very many parking spaces, and fewer residents will buy cars.

The bill has been modified slightly since Newsom's veto threat, capping allowed parking at 0.75 spaces per housing unit rather than 0.5 spaces and allowing one spot per unit for developers of multibedroom homes designed for families.

But the business community is still bitterly opposed to the measure, and Newsom has said he prefers a watered-down alternative sponsored by Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier.

It turns out Pier's legislation was actually written by downtown land use attorneys in the wake of a high-powered Dec. 19 meeting that Fisher — a Republican benefactor of Newsom and various conservative political campaigns in San Francisco — had demanded with the mayor.

Details of that meeting and downtown's lobbying on the issue were unearthed last month through a public-records request from Sup. Chris Daly, who sponsored the parking measure before recently handing it over to its new sponsor, board president Aaron Peskin. A series of e-mails show Fisher henchman Wade Randlett sought the strategy session on his boss's behalf to find ways to defeat the Daly-Peskin plan.

The list of at least 32 attendees were a who's who of downtown brokers, including Fisher, developer Oz Erickson, land use attorneys Bob McCarthy, Michael Yarne, and Steve Vettel, lobbyist Sam Lauter, and top representatives from the Hotel Council, the Committee on Jobs, the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), and Shorenstein Co. LLC. The only planning official present was Michael Antonini, the Republican whom Newsom reappointed to the Planning Commission (and who was that body's sole vote against the downtown parking measure).

One upshot of the meeting was that Yarne, McCarthy, Vettel, and attorneys Mary Murphy and Steve Atkinson wrote up the alternative measure that Alioto-Pier sponsored, which casts most of its new development standards as recommendations rather than as requirements.

(Yarne's role was described in an e-mail obtained by Daly, and Yarne confirmed to us that he had written the bill. Alioto-Pier did not return a call for comment.)

"There was a conversation about how could the mayor be proactive and work with the business community instead of against the business community," Yarne told us.

Three weeks later Newsom wrote a letter to the board threatening to veto Daly's measure and saying, "I fully support alternative legislation by Supervisor Alioto-Pier," which has yet to be approved by the Planning Commission. Newsom's stated reason was that the Daly measure's "unprecedented limitations on parking in new residential housing downtown threaten housing production and housing affordability — particularly much-needed family oriented housing."

Ironically, testimony to the Feb. 1 Land Use Committee meeting by planning experts indicates that the parking limitation will actually lower the cost of housing because homes with parking cost more, while the higher parking allowance for family homes is an incentive not just to build the small luxury condos that are most lucrative for developers. City surveys of families also list unsafe streets among their top three concerns — which the measure is designed to address — among their top three concerns.

In an e-mail response to the issues raised in this article, Newsom spokesperson Peter Ragone said that the mayor has not taken a position on the measure as it now stands and that its initial version "did not adequately address the issue of families with a vehicle.

"We are in contact with both sides of the issue and we feel strongly that hearing from both sides is the best way to develop policy," wrote Ragone. As to why Newsom supported the version written by developer attorneys, Ragone said, "We support legislation from a myriad of sources if we feel it is sound public policy. In fact, as we speak we are reviewing legislation from the Ethics Commission and we'll likely support some of it."

The Peskin measure is being supported by Newsom-appointed planning director Dean Macris and his department, which BOMA head Ken Cleaveland (who was in the Dec. 19 meeting) criticized during the Feb. 1 hearing as "doing social planning rather than good economic planning."

This measure is indeed an effort to have something other than just the free market guide how downtown develops. Rather than requiring a minimum number of parking spaces, as the city has been doing, the measure caps how much parking can be built to discourage people from driving cars.

"It pushes us to a downtown that is less auto-oriented and more people-oriented," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Transportation for a Livable City and a member of the BART Board of Directors. He and other advocates of the measure say it will result in a safer, more attractive downtown — which is good for families and the economy — even though developers fear it will cut into their profit margins.

This is one of a series of measures that has put the board in a more proactive position pushing an agenda popular with most San Franciscans, while the mayor and his downtown allies find themselves playing defense. As the Land Use Committee was unanimously approving the downtown measure Feb. 1, the Budget and Finance Committee was across the hall hearing Sup. Tom Ammiano's measure requiring businesses with 20 or more employees to provide them with health insurance — which galvanized the business community and forced Newsom to offer up a vague alternative (involving an expanded clinic system to serve the uninsured, with details to be furnished by an ad hoc committee within 100 days) the day before the hearing.

Also coming down the pipeline are a Daly measure to increase affordable housing requirements, legislation by Sup. Sophie Maxwell encouraging a good housing mix rather than making it easy for developers to export low-income housing, Sup. Jake McGoldrick's study of strategies to reduce traffic congestion, various Muni reform measures, and Peskin's plan to develop "progressive job growth strategies" by "revisiting the entire structure of the business tax."

"It's moderate stuff," Peskin said, opposed only by "greedy developers" and their allies, which now seem to include Newsom.

"It's on, fully, especially now that he's not ducking and his political base is demanding that he engage me," said Daly, who has taken the lead in setting higher development standards since at least last summer, when he cut a deal with Rincon Towers developers to greatly increase their payouts for low-income housing and community benefits. Newsom signed the deal but later criticized it.

Daly said Newsom's poll numbers have been so high because "he just does positive PR spin," while Daly is popular only with progressives and the poor because "I've been in the trenches fighting these battles and taking the hits." With Newsom apparently now feeling a need to fight back on high-stakes land use issues, Daly expects the public's honeymoon with the mayor will end and his poll numbers will drop.

"It's a chance to educate the public on what the real values of Newsom are. He's not a progressive," Daly said. "Land use is a political winner for progressives. There is so much money at stake and so much in terms of the city's future."

Those twin realities are why this fight is so important. Developers and their allies stand to lose or gain millions of dollars, maybe hundreds of millions. For everyone else, the fight is about whether the developers will be allowed to keep building only auto-focused luxury condo towers with few public amenities.

"This is a righteous battle. What we do now will determine what we want this town to look like in 10 years," said Peskin, adding that downtown power brokers have "worked themselves up into a frenzy that defies logic" over this issue, particularly the land use attorneys who wrote the ordinance Newsom is backing, saying, "Their job is to make their clients happy, and their clients' job is to get rich."

But the job of the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Department is to ensure that the city grows in a way that is consistent with its adopted policies and goals: a transit-first city with adequate public amenities and housing affordable for families and those in the middle class and lower. *