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.
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?
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.