There are distinct signs of the rebirth of a grassroots balanced-growth movement in San Francisco, and some small indication that it’s even beginning to shift, ever so slightly, the politics of the Board of Supervisors. This is very good news for the vast majority of San Franciscans.
First, a little history.
Land use and the approval of major development projects lie at the very heart of San Francisco politics. Developers and their allies (the building trades, contractors, bankers, architects, land-use lawyers, consultants, and permit expeditors) are the primary source of political money for candidates for local office. Since the freeway and urban renewal fights of the 1960s, the very definition of progressive politics in San Francisco has been the attempt to build a political base of residents to resist that money. So-called moderates are simply the political extension of the pro-development lobby using its money to consolidate developer control of the public approval process.
In most cities, land-use issues -- zoning, permits, urban design -- is left to elites. Not so in San Francisco. Here, land use is talked about at neighborhood meetings and on street corners. The heart the reason is our compact size: 46.7 square miles, and the prohibition of filling in any more of the Bay to create new land. There is no vacant land in San Francisco. Any new major development almost always displaces something already there. Development is a zero sum game, with winner and losers. And the losers leave town.
Land-use politics is about staying here -- and that creates real interest among San Francisco residents.
The funding for major development in San Francisco has dramatically changed in the 45 years since the freeway and anti-urban-renewal fights of the mid-1960s. Back then, it was public sector money that fueled development. Yet, with that money, due to the actions of progressive politicians like Phil and John Burton and George Moscone, came its own remedy: votes to not accept the public money for freeways (Moscone) and votes creating either laws that either prohibited displacement or funded legal assistance to the poor, empowering them to stop government agencies through litigation (the Burtons at both the state and federal level).
Since the money for freeways and urban renewal was from the government, the focus of the early balanced growth forces was on government itself, through massive lobbying campaigns to affect officials’ votes (the freeway fight), or the use of government-funded lawyers to protect poor people’s interests ( the WACO and TOOR lawsuits against redevelopment).
All of that changed starting in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan deregulated oversight of urban development by creating a system of block grants and ended funding for legal assistance for the poor. Large-scale development was effectively privatized, moving it from being designed, funded, and approved at public meetings by government officials following regulations to being designed and funded in private -- and having a Kabuki-play-like public approval process with little real oversight. With the passage of Prop 13 in 1978, which limited the main source of local government revenue -- property taxes -- local governments became even more reliant on private developer money to create new revenue.
The popular response to this change in the development process in San Francisco was the emergence of a politics that relied on the old progressive-era reforms of the initiative, referendum, and recall. Through a series of initiatives, the community sought to impose regulations on the development process, culminating in the 1986 Proposition M, which actually limited the amount of high-rise office space developers could build, completely imposing the popular will over a supine set of local officials and politicians. Indeed, ten years earlier, again through the initiative processes, the very nature of the Board of Supervisors was changed from a developer-friendly at-large system to a district-election system. Hotly opposed by real estate and development interests, district elections in its brief three years of existence (repealed in the wake of the Moscone-Milk assassinations, even though they were both strong supporters of the system and their assassin opposed it…ironies abound in San Francisco politics) saw limits placed on condo conversions and the passage of rent control.
In each of these multi-year efforts, a citywide coalition was formed, including an ever-expanding set of communities and neighborhoods. Common interests were defined that cut across race, class, and geography and issues of community (neighborhood) control and funding for essential services like Muni, affordable housing, childcare, and employment training were placed on the table – and developers had to address them if they wanted projects approved.
The point is that balanced growth came from community-based political forces, not elected officials. Broad movements were built -- in the end, encompassing elements of labor. These were victories won not by elected officials but by a popular movement.
In 2000, in the wake of the dot-com bust, another balanced-growth measure, Prop. L, aimed at cutting then-Mayor Willie Brown’s power over development, was paired with the new district election system -- and a broad coalition of forces including labor, community and neighborhood organizations won a major progressive victory.
Every candidate for supervisor who supported the balanced-growth measure won. Every candidate who opposed it and supported Brown lost. While Prop L narrowly lost, its policies and objectives were passed as ordinances by the new Board of Supervisors (banning live-work lofts, closing loopholes in the planning code, requiring neighborhood-based plans for the Mission, SOMA, and Potrero Hill).
But as is so often the case, the victory of 2000 led to the slow dissolution of the coalition that created it. Folks had won. Our supervisors could handle all these issues; we no longer had to. By the end of the term of the supervisors elected as the class of 2000, very little of that citywide coalition existed any more.
With the Great Recession of 2008, advances were rolled back. Fees on local developers for affordable housing, childcare and transit were deferred in order to stimulate development. A new era of “moderation” was announced by elected officials, led by Mayor Gavin Newsom. Desires to “attract and retain” business saw new tax concessions in the name of “jobs” and a new willingness to use open space and public facilities for “private/public partnerships” was announced.
By 2012 any concept of balanced growth had been replaced with a new era of “cooperation” between city officials and developers.
Until recently, that is.
It should be clear to all that for the last four years, City Hall has been eager to approve any scheme presented by private developers -- from the America’s Cup nonsense to highrise luxury condos on the waterfront. The siren song of the developers -- more revenue if you approve our project -- has been proven false again and again, as the revenue never really matches the real costs of these projects. The city’s essential services continue to shrink. Transit fees are too low to pay for the actual new costs of Muni. The affordable housing fees are too little to actually meet the affordable housing needs of the new, poorly-paid workers employed in the retail and service industry that is always a part of these projects.
More and more of our parks and public open spaces are made available to private users, while few if any new public parks or open spaces are being created. Indeed, the Department of Parks and Recreation often opposes new public parks -- because it can’t maintain what it has.
So it is with fondness that these old eyes see the stirring of what appears to be the awakening political giant of a new controlled-growth movement.
Here’s how it’s happening: The formation of a multi-neighborhood coalition to oppose fee increases at the Arboretum leads to a bigger coalition to oppose artificial turf fields in western Golden Gate Park, which leads to an even-bigger coalition placing a policy statement against the privatization of Coit Tower on the ballot and winning.
These are important indications of a broad dissatisfaction with the endless private-public-partnership ( in which all the costs are public and all the profits are private) babble from Rec and Park.
The submission by a broad based coalition of more than 30,000 signatures to place the 8 Washington on the ballot -- the first land-use referendum in decades -- is an incredibly important achievement, and shows the popular sentiment against much of the City Hall happy talk about development on the waterfront.
But it was the unanimous ( yes, unanimous) vote by the Board of Supervisors last Tuesday to hold California Pacific Medical Center accountable for its constant shape shifting on its massive project at Geary and Van Ness that shows, perhaps, the outline of the potential future of the balanced-growth movement in San Francisco.
Six supervisors stated their willingness to turn down the environmental impact report on the project unless Sutter/CPMC committed to a project that addressed not only the promise to keep St. Luke’s open for at least 20 years but also hired more San Franciscans, corrected the traffic nightmare predicted for Geary and Van Ness, provided more affordable housing for its own low-income new workforce, and committed to cap the city’s health care costs as a result of CPMC’s market control the new project would create.
There is always the possibility that the two-week delay will go nowhere, but this kind of talk from this Board of Supervisors to a huge private developer simply has not occurred in the recent past. No one from Room 200 showed up to twist supervisors’ arms in favor of Sutter. Sutter was on its own and got rolled.
The coalition that fought Sutter to a standstill at the board, that defined the inadequacies of the project listed by the supervisors, was a multi-neighborhood, multi-issues organization composed of community, neighborhoods, and labor. Middle class “Baja” Pacific Heights residents and low income seniors from Bernal Heights, non-profit affordable housing advocates and trade unionists, tenant organizers from the Tenderloin and Sierra Club members from the Haight-Ashbury; single moms from the Bayview and Filipino youth from the South of Market.
It was a San Francisco coalition, one that has been working together for nearly three years, blending issues, making concessions to one another and staying together. A group like this with a set of demands such as these has not prevailed at City Hall for nearly a decade. It still may not, indeed the chances are slim that its full demands will be achieved.
But this group moved the Board of Supervisors in a way not seen in years. If the folks mobilized about our parks and the folks mobilized about our waterfront and the folks mobilized about CPMC get together, we have something very big happening. And it might be just in time to make a real difference.
It reminds me of an old saying: “ The people alone are the makers of world history.”