The message of 555 Washington


The San Francisco supervisors not only rejected the environmental impact report for the condo tower next to the Transamerica building; they did it unanimously. And although the developer could still go back and write a new EIR -- one that takes into account all the many, many issues this one ignored -- that seems unlikely:

The developer, Andrew Segal, said he does not plan to go forward. "If we have to recirculate the EIR, I think we're done," Segal said.

There are a couple of important lessons here.

For starters, I hope the folks at the Planning Department who allowed this steaming turd of a project to go forward, and the commissioners who voted to certify the EIR, got the message: Just because a developer wants to do something, and the mayor thinks it's a dandy idea, doesn't mean that it's good planning policy. The 555 Washington project was more than twice the size that current zoning allows on the site, and internal emails from frontline planning staffers showed that the folks who did the actual analysis of the thing were pretty darn dubious. But Planning Director John Rahim pushed it for approval anyway.

I think the supervisors made clear that the days of developer-driven planning on this scale, with this magnitude of arrogance and absurdity, are over. Let's hope Planning Dept. management is paying attention.

Then there's the wonderful fact that, after insisting for years that this project would only work if the city allowed the developer to build a 430-foot tower in a slot with a 200-foot height limit, the project sponsor suddenly backed down at the last minute and said, hey, 200 feet would actually be fine. That's something that city officials too often forget: Developers lie, and demand concessions and say that they can't build anything unless we give them tax breaks, and waive fees, and allow spot zoning, and offer all sorts of other goodies. But when you tell them no, they often seem to have a sudden moment of clarity -- and announce that, hey, we didn't really need all that.

Back in the late 1980s, Southern Pacific Railroad's land development subsidiary insisted that nothing could be built at Mission Bay unless the city allowed multiple 50-story office towers and mandated only limited affordable housing. Then-mayor Art Agnos told the voters that he'd cut the best deal the city could ever get, and the future of the southeast neighborhoods was at stake. Then the proposal lost at the ballot -- and immediately, SP came back with a much better option.

How many times did the San Francisco Giants tell us they couldn't build a ballpark without public money? Guess what -- when the city said no, the team came back with a privately financed plan. 

As the lawyers say, so too here. If a 200-foot tower was a viable option, why didn't the developer offer that from the start? Here's why -- you get richer if you build taller. But that's not a particularly good reason for the city to make planning decisions.

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