Board had to ask for Lennar's approval...

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Images by Luke Thomas

The Board of Supervisors found itself in the humiliating position July 27 of having to ask for the approval of Lennar and the city's Redevelopment Agency before it could amend Lennar's massive redevelopment plan for Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard.

If that's not an argument for reforming how this city approaches redevelopment, I don't know what is. Especially since the Board's meeting illustrated only too well how thoroughly Lennar's local executives, who used to work for the city under Mayor Willie Brown,  understand this game and how to outfoxed any resistance to their ongoing effort to eat San Francisco whole.

“This is a rare opportunity,” Sup. Sophie Maxwell said ahead of the Board's 10-1 vote (Sup. Chris Daly was the lone dissenting voice) to approve Lennar's entire plan. “It focuses public and private investment into an area that has lacked it in the past,"continued Maxwell, who represents the district that encompasses the shipyard and Candlestick Point. " It’s unmatched by any development project in San Francisco. This project is large and complicated, no doubt. But let us not be fearful of this project because of its scale, because how else can we transform a neglected landscape?”

But who wouldn’t be afraid of a deal that found Maxwell, Board President Chiu and Sups. Michela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu, Bevan Dufty and Sean Elsbernd joining forces to vote against Sup. Ross Mirkarimi’s proposal that Lennar be required to include a non-bridge alternative?

And who wouldn't be doubly afraid, given that these six supervisors took that vote after Michael Cohen, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s top economic advisor, was unable to point to a single document to support his claims that Lennar's $100 million bridge over an environmentally sensitive slough is actually needed?

Talk about scary.

To his credit, Mirkarimi did a good job of illustrating what’s wrong with a process that allows a private developer like Lennar to pitch plans and get mayoral appointees to approve them, but doesn’t allow San Francisco's elected officials to make any amendments unless the developer and Redevelopment agree.

At the root of this travesty is the fact that redevelopment law trumps municipal law, a power imbalance that creates a shadow government in those few municipalities in California where the city council or board of supervisors is not the same entity as the Redevelopment Commission.

San Francisco is one such municipality, and, as Mirkarimi explained, this is not the first time that Redevelopment’s plans have trumped the concerns of local residents.

“I’m the supervisor for the Fillmore, the first urban renewal laboratory took place in my district, and I vowed to never let it happen again, ”Mirkarimi said, referring to the massive displacement of African Americans and Japanese Americans that took place when Redevelopment decided to makeover the Fillmore in the 1960s.

“I’ve been told, "Don’t worry, Ross, this is not going to happen. We’re not going to use eminent domain,’” Mirkarimi continued. “Well, Jeez, that’s a consolation! Because even when we’ve exercised our legislative influence and given our blessing, [Redevelopment] unilaterally changed the plan after it left the Board. That suggests a condescending role in which the developer is able to go to the Redevelopment Commission and have a unilateral change."

Mirkarimi was referring to how proposed rental units on Parcel A, the first parcel of shipyard land released for redevelopment, became for-sale condos at Lennar's request, without the Board having any recourse, even though the area surrounding the redevelopment is ground zero for the city's last remaining African American community and home to other low-income communities of color.

Deputy City Attorney Charles Sullivan explained that the s supervisors would require the approval of the developer and Redevelopment to amend Lennar's latest plan, under Redevelopment law. Failing that, their only recourse would be to reject Lennar's plan in its entirety--a nuclear option that only Daly seemed prepared to carry through.

Sup. David Campos noted that the city's legal advice had been "somewhat of a moving target." His comment suggested the Board had  been misled in the critical weeks before this final vote, including ahead of the Board's July 14 vote to accept certification of the project's final environmental impact report.

"When a number of us raised questions about the EIR, we were told we couldn’t, but that we would probably be able to make changes to the substantive plan," Campos recalled. "But now we are getting a more complicated answer.”

Deputy City Attorney Sullivan said the situation was complicated, because some of the proposed amendments "don’t involve a simple stroke of the pen.”

But Campos pointed to the fact that Board President Chiu had introduced an amendment that only allows for a 41 ft. bridge across Yosemite Slough, thereby halving the width of the 82 ft. bridge that Lennar is proposing to build.

That amendment, which Chiu introduced July 12,  leaves the door open for the 82 ft. version of the bridge, if the 49ers indicate interest in a new stadium on Hunters Point Shipyard, a possibility the city claims is still alive, even though Santa Clara voters approved a new stadium for the 49ers this June.

“So, why can you amend the plan to include a scaled-down version of the bridge but not eliminate it altogether?” Campos asked.

“You can make that motion by voting not to approve the project,” Sullivan said.

“So, the change has to point to something already embedded in the project?” Campos asked.

“Or not be a rejection of everything that’s already been brought forward,” Sullivan replied.

After Mirkarimi proposed his no-bridge alternative, along with a slew of other amendments that Daly, Campos, and Sups. Eric Mar and John Avalos had been working on to strengthen the proposed development, Cohen, Mayor Gavin Newsom's top economic advisor, huddled somewhere in City Hall along with Kofi Bonner,  Lennar’s top local executive and Fred Blackwell, the head of SF's Redevelopment Agency to decide which of the Board’s amendments they would accept.

Cohen returned with the amendments organized into three categories: acceptable as written, modified, and completely unacceptable.

And predictably enough (to anyone  tracking Lennar's insistence on a bridge) Mirkarimi’s no-bridge amendment had been tossed into the "unacceptable" pile.

“With regards to your insistence on the economic reasons for the bridge, please point to which document says that,” Mirkarimi said, leafing through the project materials that were piled on his desk.

Cohen mentioned a number of factors, including an alleged "lessening of attractiveness," "a lower density product" and a reduction of property tax revenue that would be available through tax increment financing to pay for Lennar's proposed bridge.

“Yes, but I’m still trying to look for the information, and all I’m hearing is this pitch,” Mirkarimi replied. “The economic study is absent. There are no supporting documents here. This is why I feel it’s justified for use to have a review of this.”

Cohen talked some more about “rigorous public discussion over a number of years."

“But there is no economic study,” Mirkarimi repeated. At which point a deafening silence pervaded the Board's venerable chambers, much as if the emperor had shown up without his proverbial clothes.

Deputy City Attorney Sullivan broke the silence by indicating that the only way for the Board to move a no-bridge alternative forward would be to stop all project approvals and send the plan back to Redevelopment.

And Mirkarimi reminded the supervisors that at the Board’s July 13 hearing, Cohen had said that there was no conclusive evidence around the need for the bridge.

But then the Board voted 6-5 against Mirkarimi's proposal, a move insiders said was more about not pissing off Labor, which hopes to create jobs for iron workers, and not pissing off Lennar, whose control runs deep and wide, and less about being convinced of the actual need to build over the last unbridged waterway in the city's southeast sector.

And a couple of amendments later, the Board gave its blessing and it was all kisses and hugs and applause in the Board Chambers, even though the folks from Dwayne Jones Communities of Opportunities (COO) program, who usually show up to support the plan, strangely weren’t in attendance, rumoredly because their program has been cut off at the knees in the last few weeks, following Jones resignation as COO's director.

“I wish we had been able to eliminate the bridge,” Campos told me after the Board's final vote. “I think part of the challenge we have is to reexamine how Redevelopment works and explore the potential for taking it over.”

Mirkarimi was satisfied that he had dissected the arguments against the no-bridge alternative, but feared that institutional memory is lacking on the Board, and that without fundamental Redevelopment reform, the city is in danger of seeing this kind of travesty repeated, over and over.

“A lot of my colleagues have not been involved in the debacle,” Mirkarimo said, referring to how Redevelopment’s infamous role dates back five decades, and how Lennar has been working the local political scene for longer than most of the Board's current members.

But Maxwell was all smiles.
“I did my homework a long time ago, that’s why they couldn’t touch the core of the project,” she said. “They just added to and augmented it.”

With Maxwell’s days on the Board drawing to a close, I asked what she’s contemplating doing next.

“Sophie is looking into water policies and conservation,” Maxwell said. “Without blue there is no green.

It was about then that Mayor Gavin Newsom released a press statement that blabbed on in vaguely frothing terms about what would happen next.

"Now we can truly begin the work of transforming an environmental blight into a new center of thousands of permanent and construction jobs, green technology investment, affordable housing and parks for our City,” Newsom said

His words came shortly before Bonner said that Lennar would now start looking for investors, and shortly after Cohen admitted that it could be years before anything in Lennar's plan actually gets built. But none of them mentioned that the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are planning to sue the City over the bridge, an outcome that could have been averted, Sierra Club officials warned, if the No-bridge alternative had been  included in the final redevelopment plan.

Stay tuned….