The devil's bargain at the Transbay Terminal

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By Tim Redmond

If you don't like the notion of a 1,200-foot tower scarring San Francisco's skyline -- and I don't -- then maybe you ought to read this fascinating piece on Calitics, and stop for a minute to think about what this city, and this state, is doing.

Why do we have to live with a giant highrise office tower near the Transbay Terminal? Because if we don't, there won't be any money to build what should be the central transit link for the Bay Area, a landmark bus and train station on the scale (we're told) of Grand Central in New York. It's an essential part of the city's future.

But the project costs a lot of money, almost a billion dollars -- and nobody wants to pay higher taxes to fund this sort of thing. In fact, nobody in California wants to pay higher taxes for anything. So the folks at City Hall have decided that the only way we can have a new transit terminal is if we hock a piece of our city and our skyline to fund it. So we take some of the land on the terminal site and let a developer build a monstrosity of a highrise on it -- and that will bring in the money that we can't get any other way.

It 's the same reason we have that god-awful RIncon Tower sticking its ugly head into the sky: The developer offered to pay for a fair amount of affordable housing and other community amenities that the taxayers won't fund because local government can't raise taxes in California without reaching extraordinary lengths that are almost politically impossible. So here's the deal: You want affordable housing? Give a big developer the rights to do something awful, and in exchange, we'll get a few dollops of cash for civic needs.

Imagine, for a moment, what the state might look like if we'd had to cut this kind of deal to build the University of California system. You want nice colleges? Okay -- sell off the coast and let it become a giant Miami Beach. You don't want to do that? Too bad -- no world-class university system for your kids.

This is the devil's bargain we have agreed to settle for in 2007, and it sucks.