Wiener’s Preservation of Developer Profits Disrespects Neighbors and Neighborhoods

Written by Marc Salomon. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on January 31, 2011 with 12 Comments

BOS Swearing In

Newly elected Supervisors were sworn into office, January 8th, 2011. Are they swearing allegiance to San Francisco's residents and neighborhoods, or to the developers who dominate campaign finance? Photo by Luke Thomas.

By Marc Salomon

February 1, 2011

Supervisor Scott Weiner’s proposal to revisit how Historic Preservation (HP) slows down development reminds me of Board President David Chiu’s recent assertion that we, as a city, have matured and moved past ideological debates where elected officials took positions on issues instead of uniting to just “get things done.”

When Weiner claims that HP inhibits the production of affordable housing, Weiner is carrying water for the $66,000 minimum that was spent by speculative real estate interests to elect him.  It is not the one unit of affordable housing that concerns these operators, rather the eight units of luxury condominiums that generate the profit that catches their attention.

HP is an immensely complicated area of the law that layers on top of land use and environmental law.  The state requires that localities have an element in the general plan that addresses HP.  The Governor Reagan era California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) likewise places impacts on historical resources on the level of environmental impact.

The primary reason why residents leverage CEQA and HP law to the hilt is because land use planning in San Francisco is based on the premise that San Franciscans and the neighborhoods into which we breathe life and vitality are problems that need to be solved.  The solution, invariably, is to entitle more, denser, higher rising luxury condominiums that disrespect the existing built environment.

The technique used to frame this kind of land use planning and over development involves marginalizing all residents who do not buy into the notion of progress as measured by condominiums as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) neighbors, designating resident stakeholders who are compromised, and ensuring that deep-pocketed campaign contributors stand ready to oppose dissenters either at election time or with threat of recall.

When The San Francisco Planning Department rezoned neighborhoods over the past decade, it deployed precisely such a toolkit.  Not satisfied with marginalizing neighbors, Planning took care to draw planning area boundaries within 150 feet of former District Six supervisor Chris Daly’s home, conflicting him out of participating and disenfranchising residents, citizens, taxpayers and voters in District Six, ground zero of luxury condo development.

The stakeholders that Planning designates from the community are invariably nonprofits who are recipients of city funds.  That fiscal dependency ensures that when the City yanks the chain, the nonprofits know to go no farther.  And as a consequence, the self declared voices of the community negotiate poor deals for residents.

4th and King

San Francisco's newest hideous neighborhood that includes all of the trendiest elements, residential density, multimodal transit, wide sidewalks, but is nondescript, alienating and unlivable. Photo: LA Wad/Chris,

It is clear to all by their handiwork that contemporary planners are incapable of planning communities the likes of which make San Francisco a desirable place to live, work and play.  A quick glance at 4th and King demonstrates that even when every tool in the kit of urban livability, wide sidewalks, greater residential heights and densities, job producing uses, multimodal transit infrastructure, is used to craft a new neighborhood, it produces a nondescript alienating neighborhood that could be anywhere in the US.

Planners admit that new residential construction will not pay for the new infrastructure that those residents require.  It is also stipulated that new residential will not pay sufficient property taxes over time to cover the costs of providing additional city services that those residents require.  Where will that money come from?  You guessed it, your crumbling infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, the services we count on, Muni, street cleaning, parks, police amd fire protection will be further stretched beyond its limits.

Residential entitlements are a license to print money.  Some of the high rise luxury condos offered up 28% return on investment. That’s nice work if you can get it.  But the case has yet to be made why San Francisco taxpayers should be subsidizing this kind of profitable development that few of us can afford.

Real Estate and development are one of the few profitable sectors that cannot be outsourced and those profits have flowed back into campaign contributions at the state and local level.  Thus, even as California’s population growth is leveling off and more and more California homeowners are under water on their mortgages if not in or facing foreclosure, the laws are rigged to encourage the production of even more market rate housing.

San Francisco had 1054 homes in foreclosure in January.  Now the figure is 1085 homes.  Rising foreclosures have even caught the eye of the San Francisco Chronicle. For each home in foreclosure, how many homeowning families are under water, 5, 10, 25?  Yet the Planning Department is fast tracking more residential approvals.  How many more San Francisco families will be ruined economically?  How many tenants will have their rental homes foreclosed under them and have to deal with irritated banks?

Housing Action Coalition (HAC) Chief Developer Lobbyist Tim Colen speaking at a Citigroup funded Housing Forum in 2008. Why would the bailed out mortgage loan serializer Citigroup be funding a housing forum if not to create more end points for junk mortgages that are now under water? And why is SFGTV broadcasting this?

The moment that the San Francisco Planning department abandons their partnership with developer lobbyists like The San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association (SPUR) and the Housing Action Coalition (HAC) and embraces the human threads that provide resilience, durability and sheen to their vaunted urban fabric, residents concerned about a corporate coup over our built environment will have to resort to leveraging HP provisions in CEQA and the entitlement approvals process to the hilt.

The best way to antagonize a community is to rezone it without the community represented at the table politically. Sure it is legal, but such a heavy handed anti-democratic approach is bound to produce a backlash.

There is an ideology at work here, and it is the anti democratic ideology of the cancer cell, that growth is an imperative even if it risks injuring or killing the host.  There are positions being taken here by elected officials which position developer interests superior to prone San Franciscans.  There is pragmatism here, one that devalues participatory democracy in favor of “getting things done,”  where San Franciscans pay for the things that disrespect us and our uniquely livable and vibrant communities.


Comments for Wiener’s Preservation of Developer Profits Disrespects Neighbors and Neighborhoods are now closed.

  1. And then there’s the Harding Theater on Divisadero Street that was “saved” by Supervisor Mirkarimi in 2005 so it could continue to blight the neighborhood.

  2. @Alai, I would rather see a planning process that was designed to produce complete, livable neighborhoods rather than one that was designed to expand the development envelope. As far as that photo goes, I was referring to the entirety of King Street west of 4th as worse than even the sterile hideousness east of 4th that has a Quiznos to brighten things up, which says “you could be anywhere” as opposed to “you are nowhere” to the west.

    If it is possible to produce complete, livable neighborhoods and expand the envelope, so be it. But whenever powerful interests express their goals and intent before a planning process begins and the products of that process grant their wishes and little else, 4th and King is what results. There is an economy between maximizing buildable envelopes for profitability and the planning for the elements that make a new neighborhood livable. But they don’t teach that in planning school.

    As we see with Parkmerced, bigger is not always better. If a larger project fails, then it requires a bail out of public entitlements under threat of blight or default. These buildings are not of that scale, granted, but they do loom over and dominate the outdoor environment. And the larger a bad building, the more harm it does where a bad small building is but one of many.

    Next to a train yard and freeway ramp, the neighborhood is not one where people want to be outdoors, to walk and keep eyes on the street. That is why the neighborhood is barren and dangerous at night. Perhaps it is so foreboding that even criminals don’t want to hang there.

    This neighborhood reminds me of Queens Boulevard in NYC where I grew up. See:

    There are 9 story brick apartment blocks adjacent to Queens Boulevard, a eight lane mainline with 2 lane service roads. Compared NYC’s numerous livable neighborhoods, the area around QB is pretty desolate, just like 4th and King. We should learn from these planning mistakes and avoid them in the future, but that crashes right into the singular and incessant demands of developers, their architects, attorneys and lobbyists to increase the development envelope.


  3. The one in the back I rather like. The one in the front is pretty meh, though I like it better from the other side. I haven’t been inside, so I don’t know how unlivable it is. On Google Maps the area is still under construction with not much in the way of life. I’ll reserve judgment until after people settle in, and someone’s occupying the vacant storefronts.

    I don’t know the particulars of this project and who had input into the design. I would assume that city requirements and reviews played a pretty large role in the ultimate result– would more of them have solved whatever issue you have with the result? The only certainty would be that they’d drive up the cost of housing by another couple hundred thousand.

    If it were up to you, what would it look like, and what changes would you make?

  4. @Alai, how do you explain this boxy unlivable hideousness?


  5. One of the strongest arguments I’ve heard regarding the (true) characterlessness of new construction in the city is that due to the extent of public oversight, any new ideas or unusual features put it the project in danger of additional reviews and objections. Delays being as expensive as they are (every month you’re waiting on approval is a month people aren’t living or working in the building) there is a powerful incentive to make everything as bland and imitative as possible, because while anyone can object to a clock tower being too tall, or an unusual facade “not fitting the character of the neighborhood”, it’s very difficult to object to something being too bland, and so those are the designs that end up being built. “Design by committee.”

    As for the Richmond being ruined by inlaw units, I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Those inlaw units provide valuable housing for people who can’t afford to rent single-family homes, as well as valuable income for residents who would otherwise be priced out of the area (if you insist that every family occupy a whole building, you’re going to have fewer, richer people than if you allow families to share). If you give me the choice between housing people and housing cars, I’ll choose people every time. If parking’s a problem, tighten the standards on parking permits, don’t try to reduce the population!

    I dislike Richmond specials as much as anyone, but it’s bizarre to say that they removed covered parking. One of the defining features of specials is their massive garage doors, and one of the main reasons they were built was to replace the old Victorians which often had in-laws but lacked parking. I would have preferred to keep the old Vic’s as they were…

  6. What Marc said.

  7. At one time there were industrial warehouses in that area.

  8. “In fact, the 4th and King area is precisely the area where SF should focus new housing. There is virtually nothing there to be preserved.”

    Perhaps. But if that is the kind of characterless neighborhood Planning is going to encourage, then I’d prefer it stay as dilapidated, disused parcels.

    “Finally, yes, I do believe that North Beach is worse off due to the NIMBYs from Telegraph Hill.”

    How do you reckon that?


  9. 4th and King may not be where you and I would like to live, but that has nothing to do with Historical Preservation. In fact, the 4th and King area is precisely the area where SF should focus new housing. There is virtually nothing there to be preserved.

    The Richmond has almost been ruined by the proliferation of illegal in-law units, and single-family homes that have been converted to “Richmond specials”. That has increased the number of occupants (and cars), while removing covered parking throughout the neighborhood, thereby increasing congestion.

    Finally, yes, I do believe that North Beach is worse off due to the NIMBYs from Telegraph Hill.

  10. @Richmondman,

    Thank you for your reply.

    Preservation is the only tool left to slow down the projects entitled by illegitimate plans. Leveraging preservation would not be necessary if the Planning Department planned for new development in conjunction with communities instead of around us.

    4th and King was sold to us as “common sense” and it turns out that the new neighborhood is “nonsensical” from a livability perspective. It does not matter what was there beforehand, what is there now is terrible and should have been stopped by whatever means at our disposal. Now that it is built, it serves as a warning for what we can expect as the handiwork of the Planning Department.

    When Geary is rezoned for 4th and King style development, then Richmond residents will be clamoring for the kind of protections that those of us on the East Side have had to resort to in the face of developer friendly, neighborhood disrespectful plans.

    Is North Beach really that much worse off for a parcel or two not being redeveloped due to THD opposition using HP as a toehold?


  11. The Telegraph Hill dwellers have used Preservation to keep the Pagoda Palace from being developed as ANYTHING. They have done the same to prevent the improvement of library services to North Beach and Chinatown. And by the way, can anyone state what was torn down to create the new Safeway condo building shown above? Was a city treasure destroyed in the process? Weiner has not suggested eliminating Preservation, just using a little common sense.