This is Not Miami – The Fight over San Francisco’s Historic Waterfront

Written by Andrew "Ellard" Resignato. Posted in Environment, Housing, Land Use, Opinion, Politics

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Published on October 29, 2013 with 19 Comments

A proposed luxury condo development on San Francisco's historic waterfront would exceed the height of the now-demolished Embarcadero Freeway and block westward and eastward views if approved by voters in November.

A proposed luxury condo development on San Francisco’s historic waterfront would exceed the height of the now-demolished Embarcadero Freeway and block westward and eastward views if approved by voters in November.

By Andrew Resignato

October 29, 2013

There is a battle going on for the soul of San Francisco. This is not a new battle but one that has been transpiring in San Francisco for quite some time. Currently the battle is being waged between developers, who would like to turn San Francisco into a playground for the wealthy in return for large profits, versus people who live and work in San Francisco and wish to preserve the character that makes our city a welcomed change from the urban status quo.

At stake in this battle, are San Francisco’s skyline, its streets, and most recently its historic waterfront. Two prospective development projects have become the front lines of the waterfront fight, the 8 Washington Project and the proposed Warriors’ Stadium.

So what’s the big deal? Why is our waterfront so important? Wouldn’t it be great to have the Warriors in San Francisco? Don’t we need more housing?

How we utilize the land that meets the bay in San Francisco is vital to the direction of our city and, quite frankly, to our country.  It is especially important when we are talking about our historic waterfront – sections around the Ferry Building, Bay Bridge, and North to Aquatic Park.

San Francisco is a city that has, and can, continue to lead the way to more sustainable and livable urban planning. This battle on our waterfront is a defining moment for us and can be an important step in a better direction for our country and our planet.

8 Washington is a development project that is seven years in the making and would create 134 of the most expensive condominiums in the history of San Francisco, ranging in price from $2 million to $10 million along with restaurants and retail shops. One of the main concerns of opponents is that at 136 feet high, the development exceeds the height zoning in that area by over 50 feet. Exceeding height zoning restrictions on our waterfront sets a precedent and developers are keeping a close eye on how this turns out. No doubt a decision to disregard previous zoning requirements and move forward with 8 Washington will be a sign for developers that San Francisco is ready for many more projects that exceed height zoning in this area and there are projects in the cue right now that will do just that.

Unfortunately for developers, 8 Washington was approved by the Board of Supervisors, but soon after a group of concerned citizens, opposed to the current project proposal, was able gather enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot November.  A referendum is a process that can overturn a vote of the Board of Supervisors and, in this case, required the gathering of over 30,000 signatures. This referendum is one of only seven in our city’s history. That referendum is now Prop C on our ballot this November. A yes vote on Prop C would allow 8 Washington to proceed and a no vote would force the developers to go back to the drawing board. A similar ballot initiative, Prop B,is a developer sponsored piece of legislation which would do the same exact thing if SF voted yes on Prop C. It would allow the developer to move forward with the project and set a precedent for more building on our historic waterfront.

The proposed Warriors stadium is another important part of the future of our historic waterfront. The developer has released some preliminary designs.  Many of the same issues that have been raised regarding the Warriors stadium have come up with 8 Washington project. Do we need to clog up our waterfront with a large structure? Can the infrastructure in that area handle a stadium? Do we need a stadium there or is there a better place to put it? Unfortunately, developers have been framing the discussions about the stadium and what we build on our historic waterfront which, in my experience, is a recipe for problems.

I lived in Florida for 10 years before moving to San Francisco and while there are many naturally beautiful things in that State my time there taught me important lessons about out of control development. When developers have free reign to build with little thought about planning or input from citizens, what results is homogeneity, a lack of attention to design or aesthetics, and a loss of character and livability. Many places in Florida look exactly the same. When it comes to the waterfront in many Florida counties there are towering condominiums for people who reside there less than half of the year which block waterfront views and access for the rest of the residents who live there year round. Is that the direction we want for our waterfront? I doubt it. San Francisco is not Miami.

For the most part, San Francisco is a city that tries harder to preserve its character, to make land use decisions thoughtfully and with input from the citizens who live and work here. Our waterfront is a treasure and one we need to plan carefully in order to maximize its benefit for everyone.

San Francisco voters have a chance this year by voting no on both Props B & C to send a message that we want thoughtful inclusive development on our waterfront.

Developing on our waterfront requires a vision that includes consideration for the importance of open spaces, public access, environmental concerns and more creative concepts that bring people in contact with the Bay in thoughtful ways. This requires people – not developers – to decide how we develop it and it requires a step back to look at the entire picture of what we want our shared, historic waterfront to be.

Andrew "Ellard" Resignato

Andrew "Ellard" Resignato

Andrew “Ellard” Resignato was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey. A public health advocate, economist, musician, filmmaker, foodie, and part-time philosopher - he moved to San Francisco 10 years ago and currently resides in Japantown. He ran for Supervisor of District 5 in 2012.

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  • Tom

    Yes, let’s deprive the city of 11 million for affordable housing, and up to 350 million in potential tax revenues, just so that the couple of wealthy Telegraph Hill plutocrats who paid to get this on the ballot do not have a sliver of their view taken away from them.

    • AlecBash

      Tim Colen, get a life – your name is Tim not “Tom”.

      • Alec Bash

        I don’t know who is stealing my name and putting it in the reply to Tom, just above, but whoever did it is a lying scumbag. Alec Bash

  • Mike

    Frankly, I think this whole fight is pretty dumb.

    A 136′-tall building on that site is absolutely in character, when you consider that its next-door neighbors are the Golden Gateway complex, and Embarcadero Center!

    We can split hairs about whether the city “needs” more luxury housing. I don’t think it needs one iota. But it takes a certain degree of credulity to criticize this building for being too big.

    • Frankie Herron

      I agree. Towers will be big and ugly and hog the view. If the developers don’t think that’s a big deal, then why not move those towers out onto the peninsula? Easy, free access to nature increases quality of life and relieves the stresses of everyone. Big developers know this, hence the hefty price tags. I think anything developed on the shoreline should be of direct benefit, usefulness and access to people of all income levels. Put a nice native species park or public museum there with a maze in it or something fun for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

      • Frankie Herron

        oops I didn’t mean to post that in reply to you, Mike.

  • John Lumea

    My just-posted comment apparently has failed to clear moderation. Is there a problem with it, other than that it challenges the above commentary on the facts?

    • http://www.fogcityjournal.com/ fogcityjournal

      Not sure why your comment was held for moderation, but it was and has now been released.

  • LaughingATuRN

    I’m def. voting NO. Any development would have to benefit the citizens in the now and for future generations.

    • John Lumea

      It does, actually.

      For starters, the proposed project opens up new pedestrian connections from Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue to the Embarcadero. Currently, both of these streets dead-end at Drumm Street, the western border of the private tennis club on the project site.

      And: The project includes numerous cafes at the street level. These would bring actual life to the surrounding streets — unlike the tennis club’s 12- to 15-foot-tall perimeter fence, which turns its back on the neighborhood.

      To provide these benefits to current and future generations, one will need to vote YES on Props B and C.

      • danisf

        …or one would need to imagine another project that would be more inclusive of more income brackets. Then vote no on B+C.

  • Settia

    NO NO NO on Prop B & C. Prop B would repeal existing waterfront height limits meaning that we could have high-rises blocking access and views for everyone. NO NO NO.

    • John Lumea

      Not convincing. Only one building in the area is both (1) tall enough to have spaces with views of the Bay and (2) near enough to the tallest portions of the proposed 8 Washington project to have those views negatively affected in any significant way.

      That building is the 230-foot-tall Gateway Vista East (GVE) luxury apartment tower, directly east across Drumm Street from the 8 Washington site. But the standard zoning for the project site already provides for an 84-foot-tall building there, meaning: The zoning laws *already* allow for GVE’s Bay-facing apartments that occupy spaces below, say, the 100-foot mark — i.e, the apartments that would be below the sight line of an 84-foot-tall building — to have those views diminished.

      Given that Bay-facing apartments on the uppermost floors of GVE would be unaffected by a 136-foot roofline below, what we really are talking about is — at most — GVE’s 12 to 16 Bay-facing apartments in the 80-100 feet above the 84-foot mark.

      Just to be clear: Apartments in the Gateway Vista towers list, right now, at around $3,100/month for a studio and $4,600/month for a 2-bedroom. No doubt, the penthouse clears $5K/month. So it’s not accurate to say that it’s “everyone” whose views are being threatened.

      As to the argument that green-lighting 8 Washington portends a Miami-style “wall” of towers stretching from the Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf…

      The truth is, this area already is pretty well built out.

      The most obvious sites for additional new development along the Embarcadero are three small triangular surface parking lots at Broadway, Green and Bay. All three of these sites could produce slender towers with small footprints.

      There are a couple of slightly larger surface parking lots in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood itself — along Beach Street, at Taylor and at Jones.

      But even if taller buildings were built on all *six* of these sites (including 8 Washington)…

      A half-dozen new 12-15-story buildings along two miles of the Embarcadero — three in a 6-block stretch at the south end; two in a 2-block stretch at the north end; and one in the middle — hardly would constitute a “wall.”

      Certainly, it wouldn’t constitute Miami. Even if the tallest of these buildings rose to 200 feet, that still would be *half* the height of the *60th-tallest* building in Miami.

      It’s helpful to put these things in perspective.

  • Alec Bash

    The Chronicle’s architectural critic, John King, delivers the real story on 8 Washington. “The reality of the proposed 8 Washington complex is that it is not a waterfront wall.”

    http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Cutting-through-the-rhetoric-about-8-Washington-4941002.php

    It’s amazing how a housing/retail/parks plan that would add activity and vitality to three pedestrian-unfriendly blocks along The Embarcadero came up against determined opposition from politically-savvy tennis & swim club members and their friends who then hype this as a struggle for the future of the City. Yes on B for a good waterfront project!

    • danisf

      No on B+C for taking a stand on inclusive housing—especially on public land—especially at a time like this when middle class people can’t find housing in this town! What about us? Give me a housing project that takes into account the needs of the people. 11 million in affordable housing allocation is a pittance and a fraction of what the developer will reap in profits. I say no, and hopefully so will those who have their eyes open. And don’t block my view of Coit Tower! and PS the multi-millionaires already have plenty of housing options. Whose town?

      • Alec Bash

        Hey, great arguments IF they were true. Get the facts for Yes 0n B+C.
        1) The site is 80% private land. The 28,000sf that is public, managed by the Port in trust for the people of the California, is traded for 30,000sf of public access & public parks that continue under Port oversight. Are you opposed to parks on the waterfront?
        2) That $11M goes into a City fund that with $48M from 2005-2012 made vital contributions to 10 homeless, low-income, low-income senior and affordable housing projects of 1,000 units. Do you really want to let that go?
        3) You still get your view of Coit Tower from the entire entry portico of the Ferry Building, and only lose it for a portion of the north wing and towards what used to be Pier 1/2.
        4) Why not let the millionaires buy condos on the most expensive land in San Francisco and instead of bidding up the homes in our neighborhoods? And extract $7M for the city and Port annually, instead of the $100K the site now generates?

        • danisf

          Truthfully, I’d like to see money extracted from the wealth of these millionaires–wherever they might live (in the form of taxes, thank you very much). *That* would go a long way to funding societal needs. Then, let the top floors of a project go to millionaires, and the lower floors go to the middle class, and so on (or something like that). And let us have open space, because open space is needed in our most dense cities….space isn’t “nothing” you know. “Space” is worth a lot….if you value well-being that comes in the form of being able to breathe.

          Let’s not Manhattanize. Manhattan is its own animal. It’s great for what it is–an urban jungle. But SF has a different vibe, what with the surrounding areas, the mountains, etc. It’s like China and other developing countries trying hard to become what we are, and in the process contributing evermore to greenhouse gasses. We’re realizing that we have to change course, but the memo hasn’t gotten to places like China, which is polluting our planet w/ abandon…so let’s not be like China and fall prey to Bigger-is-Better, Megamillionaire-mania…This is my vision, and I’m stickin’ with it.

  • sfsoma

    If not this project it will be another one with even more money and ability to buy the necessary permits. It is inevitable, the profit potential is just too high. The East side of SF is well on it’s way to being a lower bldg. version of midtown Manhattan Nothing is going to stop it this time except the bubble burst..

  • GreenUrbanist

    I don’t think this vote was ever about the actual project. This was the first time that San Franciscans had a tangible way to express anxiety and anger over current hypergentrification and increasing economic disparity in the City. This was not a rational vote – it was an emotional one. The No on B team understood this implicitly and there language (eg: ‘Wall on the waterfront’) spoke to the fears and concerns of voters. Yes on B failed to understand the symbolism behind this issue and kept trying to make rational arguments that never spoke to the concerns of the voters and came off as rather patronizing – as if those of us who voted No didn’t actually read the facts about the development..