CityPlace, USA -- and why Newsom wants developers involved in district elections

Newsom warned a crowd of real-estate developers that the city will face a "dramatic shift" if their candidates lose.
Rebecca Bowe

Speaking at the San Francisco Mariott Hotel today, Sept. 14, to a room packed full of developers, land-use attorneys, building owners and managers, members of the San Francisco Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, and others who had gathered for a San Francisco Business Times event, Mayor Gavin Newsom championed a retail development project proposed for San Francisco’s mid-Market area that is being opposed by Livable Cities and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. The project will come under consideration at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

“CityPlace will be an anchor of revitalization” in mid-Market between Fifth and Sixth streets, Newsom said. Members of the Board of Supervisors may try to block it, he added, but “we can’t afford to let that happen. It’s a quarter of a million square feet, and it connects right up from Nordstrom’s.”
“CityPlace is critical,” he added. Marcia Smolens of public relations firm HMS Associates is representing Urban Realty, the developer of CityPlace, according to a file included in the Board of Supervisors meeting packet. Smolens contributed $2,500 to Newsom’s run for Lieutenant Governor. An architect with a partnering firm on the project, Gensler, plunked down $1,000 for Newsom’s campaign.

The mid-Market area has long faced issues of blight and crime. Newsom put forth a vision for its revitalized future that would include “more cops” (the development would connect with a police officers’ substation planned near Sixth and Market streets, Newsom noted), a creative bent thanks to partnerships with artists, and an area “a little less crowded with folks panhandling.”

The proposed development is essentially a large glass box with a shopping mall inside. According to the project website, Urban Realty has not yet engaged potential tenants, but appears geared toward attracting low-end retail chains. “We intend to bring affordable, value-based retail tenants to the area and expand the shopping choices available to make this section of Market Street a shopping destination that truly caters to San Francisco's diverse demographic,” the website notes. Our guess is that they aren’t talking about unique, independently owned thrift stores that offer affordable used items and encourage shoppers to support small business, but something more along the lines of TJ Maxx.

The project would also include 188 parking spaces in an underground garage. In contrast, the Westfield mall near Fourth and Market streets was built with no new parking.

Livable Cities has filed an appeal of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for CityPlace on the grounds that transportation issues weren’t adequately dealt with, and the board will vote on the appeal today after opening the item up for public comment. Livable Cities executive director Tom Radulovich noted that the project would demolish the St. Francis Theater, a 1910 building that some had envisioned as a structure that could be rehabbed as part of a revived theater district in that area. He also felt the development was out of character for the neighborhood. “They’ve been given a lot of bonuses, like surplus parking and an excess floor,” Radulovich noted. “We feel like the Planning Department gave them a lot more value -- millions of dollars worth. The public should get something out of it.” Partly out of a desire to improve the area, he said, mid-Market amounted to a sort of “Wild West in terms of planning. That’s been the story is that the only way to move forward is to throw away our rules.”

The developer estimates that the project would create up to 250 union jobs during construction, and 760 new permanent retail positions (that is, non-union, low-wage jobs with high rates of turnover -- but at least it’s something). This could present a quandary for supervisors who might otherwise hold their nose at the idea of approving a big-box mall in the heart of San Francisco. Construction workers are in dire straits right now, and unemployment in the city is nearing 10 percent -- and even higher in communities of color such as the Bayview.

Meanwhile, Newsom urged the crowd of downtown real-estate big shots to get involved in disctrict elections for the Board of Supervisors, lest “you wake up and things get worse quickly.”

The mayor issued a strong warning that “ideology is too strong in this town,” and then referenced the Guardian, speaking to some dangerous influence wielded by “these people who write these blogs."

“You are the only thing standing between a dramatic shift off course in this town,” he told the crowd. “But our opportunities are limitless as long as we have stable leadership. Please take the time to learn about these candidates. Get involved – even in the districts you don’t reside in.”

At the end of Newsom’s speech, everyone applauded and then turned their attention to a short, flashy video about America’s Cup.