A 20-foot high controversy

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By Rebecca Bowe

At the Feb. 3 Board of Supervisors meeting, District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly expressed disgust at what he called “pay-to-play politics” and charged that Mayor Gavin Newsom had insisted upon a 20-foot height extension for the proposed redevelopment of the New Mission Theater as a favor to a developer who’d given him a political boost.

“At the very least, there is a massive and unprecedented appearance of impropriety and I think ethical malfeasance,” Daly told his colleagues. Before the meeting, he handed out photocopies of a blog post he’d written to back up his argument.

Nathan Ballard, Mayor Newsom’s press secretary, refuted Daly’s claim. “If the legislation had gone forward, the project would have been killed,” Ballard wrote in an email to the Guardian. “We reject Supervisor Daly's false allegations. The Mayor made his decision, as he always does, on the merits alone.”

The task at hand was a decision whether or not to override Newsom’s veto of legislation, passed by the Board in January, which would have corrected a clerical error and capped the height of the proposed New Mission Theater project at 65 feet rather than the 85 feet initially requested by the developer and originally recommended by the Planning Commission. The board had voted in a 65-foot height restriction back in December, but it was only after the legislation had been passed that a typographical error was discovered. The mistake wound up setting the height limit at 85 feet instead.

“It was simply a typo,” Ken Rich, the planning department staff member who owned up to the mistake, told the Board. But the city attorney’s office advised that there was no administrative fix to the problem, making it necessary for the Board to revisit the issue and pass new legislation amending out the error. On Jan. 6, the corrected legislation passed, and the building was officially restricted to a 65-foot height limit.

On Jan. 16, however, Mayor Newsom vetoed that decision. “The proposed development would, among other benefits rehabilitate, restore and reactivate the long dormant New Mission Theater, San Francisco Landmark No. 245, provide neighborhood-serving childcare services, reactivate the theater use, and increase the city’s housing supply,” Newsom wrote in a veto letter to explain his decision. “The height reduction proposed by this ordinance is inconsistent with the Planning Department’s and Commission’s original recommendation for the site, the General Plan policy of encouraging preservation of historically significant buildings, encouraging housing along major transit corridors and revitalizing underutilized properties along key neighborhood commercial corridors.”

Merits of the project aside, however, Daly pointed to Mayor Newsom’s connection to the New Mission Theater project developer Gus Murad and proclaimed, “The politics of this item are ugly."

“Obviously, we all know Commissioner Murad. But what we may not know about him is how significant of a political booster he is for Gavin Christopher Newsom,” Daly began. “In fact hosting Gavin Newsom’s [2007] New Year’s Eve fundraiser kickoff at his Mission District club, Medjool. Newsom’s campaign took in $76,416 on that day.” Daly outlined a list of contributions that Murad -- a mayoral appointee to the Small Business Commission -- had made to Newsom, his campaigns, and a handful of individuals whom he called “Newsom protégés.”

“This is disgusting,” Daly concluded, infuriated. “This is Willie Brown style pay-to-play politics, it should be rejected and I’m embarrassed to be a part of a panel that’s not going to reject it.” The veto was sustained by a 7-4 vote, with Supervisor Bevan Dufty casting the swing vote that prevented a supermajority from overriding it. The San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story, as did the Examiner.

The Guardian’s attempts to contact developer Gus Murad for comment were unsuccessful.

There are some differences in opinion as to whether the New Mission Theater redevelopment would benefit the neighborhood. Nick Pagoulatos of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition told the Guardian he believes it would have a negative impact on the surrounding area. Rather than return an historic landmark theater to the neighborhood, he contends, the project would “take a jewel and turn it into yet another destination nightclub.” As for the mayor’s veto and the vote to sustain it, Pagoulatos says, “They have given [Murad] a wonderful Christmas present a month late, and I'm sure he appreciates it."

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