Two Decades of Change
Two Decades of Change
Among the hotter issues that wound their way into newsprint during the early years were those surrounding demolition of historic architecture or displacement of citizens.
By far the most memorable demolition issue surrounded a proposal to build on Union Square a Neiman- Marcus store which would require destruction of the old City of Paris department store.
The case involved Philip Johnson, then the nation’s most famous architect; Stanley Marcus, then the nation’s most prominent merchant prince; then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, a lobbyist for Neiman-Marcus; and Dianne Feinstein, dealing with her most explosive controversy since taking over the Mayor’s office following George Moscone’s November 1978 assassination.
Were the City of Paris project to be on a San Francisco Planning Commission agenda today, the outcome might well be different, and Union Square passersby would be spared the sight of the harlequin-like facade that Neiman-Marcus officials recently proposed to tone down.
But would the old department store building be saved if the hearings were held today? Two factors suggest yes. Today’s developers now make frequent use of preservation tax credits and a system of transferring development rights, the latter a feature bestowed by the Downtown Plan of 1985, which also provided for the preservation of some 266 highly-rated buildings in the downtown district— of which the City of Paris most certainly would be near the top of the preservation-essential list.
While the city’s Downtown Plan protects highly-rated architecture within that district, the old Jessie Street Hotel, which admirers fought for years to save, today is merely an outer wall precariously propped up in place by girders. Its empty space awaits development.
On an adjacent block, approvals have been granted for a project to redevelop the old Emporium department store, a top-rated structure on the rolls of historic architecture. Only its dome and a portion of the building along Market Street will be preserved, and the dome itself will be moved.
Such fractional preservation would not ordinarily pass muster, but in this case the political establishment agreed to attach the site to a Redevelopment Agency project area (the agency being a creature of the state rather than the city), thereby freeing the developer from more restrictive guidelines imposed by the Downtown Plan.
WHAT'S IN A LABEL?
What’s in a label? Freedom to escape fees and restrictions, that’s what, provided you can change one for another. When, in recent years following the last recession, office development has been revived, it has taken place largely in the South of Market District. But much of this development has swept through the bureaucratic processes as dot-com enterprises under the label “business services,” which has enabled it to escape a variety of requirements the city would otherwise impose on regular office projects.
Consider the traffic-transit issue. In keeping with the city’s Transit First policy, a principal effort of such past planning directors as Allan Jacobs, Rai Okamoto and Dean Macris has been to protect downtown from traffic gridlock by keeping commuter parking outside the downtown office district and by holding parking spaces in new office buildings to a minimum. A now historic example is the contemporary Citicorp tower situated at the congested intersection of Sansome and Montgomery Streets. Acceding to city policy, it contains no parking spaces whatsoever.
In the late 1990s, while continuing to espouse the Transit First policy, planners have been reversing that effort, allowing more commuter parking in new downtown developments. A recently approved office project at First and Howard Streets is projected to contain 1,233 valet-served parking spaces, according to its environmental impact report.
A portion of today’s housing crisis had its origins during the 1970s and 1980s when the Planning Commission was approving office buildings in which thousands of people would work. As for providing a comparable number of residential units to house the same workers, nothing was done until 1985. Then, in conjunction with passage of the Downtown Plan, the city invoked an ordinance to require builders of large office projects to pay fees into an affordable housing fund.
Ever since the 1980s boom, it has been tough for a typical office worker to find affordable housing within San Francisco. Most recently, it has been next to impossible.
GAGGING A HEALTHY DEBATE
To get a sense of the thinking of planning commissioners, one has to look back to the late 1970s, when there were lively debates among them during their planning commission sessions. Generated by the more outspoken among them, their arguments afforded the public insights into advantages and disadvantages of pending developments.
It was an unusual time, for the Planning Commission included three environmentalists—a minority of the seven-member commission. The three—Sue Bierman, Ina Dearman and Charles Starbuck—were appointed by the late Mayor Moscone, himself an outspoken liberal.
After she became Mayor, the more conservative, development-minded Dianne Feinstein had removed both Dearman and Starbuck by 1981, effectively reducing the nature of commission debate. At the same time, the Mayor’s action ended any possibility that there might be as many as three votes in opposition to a major building project.
In more recent times, no debate of the sort that Bierman, Dearman and Starbuck once raised has been heard among commissioners. If they argue, they do it backstage, for successive Mayors, including even the liberal Art Agnos, have tended to keep more aggressive dissenters off the planning and other boards.
The most recent example of gagging planning commissioners occurred during Mayor Willie Brown’s administration. After one commissioner, Esther Marks, failed to support Brown’s candidate for planning director, for that and various other reasons he fired her. In 2000, after attorney Dennis Antenore, a champion of neighborhood causes, refused to endorse a growth-limiting initiative favored by the Mayor, Brown discharged him as well. Needless to say, fewer arguments questioning building proposals have been heard during Planning Commission sessions since. In decades past, political contributions played a role in official decisions that led to a green light, whether for major development projects, for variances, or for choosing projects to be “grandfathered” immunity from new zoning restrictions.
This pattern of money buying favorable votes was documented in 1986 in a series of articles entitled “Inner Circles,” which the late reporter John Jacobs and this writer jointly wrote for the then Hearstowned San Francisco Examiner. In that series, we established more than coincidental connections between political donations and votes favoring big projects. Today, as more recent San Francisco Chronicle articles by reporters Susan Sward and Chuck Finnie have further demonstrated, such connections continue.
One pattern in the process has changed, however. To the credit of Mayor Willie Brown, there have been times when this Mayor has been candidly up-front about construction projects he has wanted his appointed commissioners to support. That was almost never the case with his more recent predecessors, who, through their press officers, habitually denied that the Mayor had ever so much as whispered orders to planning commissioners.
IS THERE EVEN A PARTIAL SOLUTION TO THE HOUSING CRISIS?
In the late 1970s, fire fighters and police officers had long been moving their households out of town, ever more distant from the place where they were needed but in communities where they could afford to buy a house. Now, the exodus has spread to such a degree that if you’re a Muni driver, an artist, a blue collar or white collar worker, a teacher, a barber or beautician, a salesperson or repair person— that is, one of the people who actually makes the city work—you’re less likely than ever to find affordable shelter in San Francisco.
Add these urban emigrants to the commuting public and you see a factor in ever increasing jams on transit system and highways, in near-capacity loads on BART, and in ever more sprawling suburbs as well as worsening air pollution.
A step in the right direction is the Planning Department’s current proposal to provide more, higher density housing, with emphasis on affordably priced units situated in transit village-like sites well served by the Municipal Railway and BART. So far, there are three proposed locations: along Third Street, in the Central Waterfront; Market- Octavia Street area and by Balboa Park. Just as the early 20th century saw streetcar lines being extended past empty sand dunes toward the Pacific Ocean in anticipation of growth, city officials should support efforts to prepare for increased population in areas served by transit.
At the same time, developments that bring more jobs should be required to contribute to Muni expansion and maintenance funds. From a civic standpoint, that makes more sense than the current practice of subsidizing employee parking as an employment perquisite.
Moreover, instead of parking perks, employers should be asked to supply their workers with Muni Fast Passes and BART cards as fringe benefits. To correct the growing jobs/ housing imbalance, expensive and complicated though it may be, developers of large projects should be required to design them for mixed use, meaning on-site housing. Which brings to mind a question: One wonders why the Planning Commission ever approved a largescale, single-story commercial use like that of the recently reconstructed Safeway store in the upper Market Street area without including housing on that property. Located adjacent to all Muni underground lines and the surface F streetcar line, no more logical place exists in the city for a mixed-use development including high density housing.
To protect the diminishing supply of housing and blue collar jobs, sterner enforcement of zoning restrictions is needed, if only to shield them from conflicting new developments. New office buildings ought not to be permitted to infiltrate residential conclaves such as Potrero Hill as has happened. For the sake of sidewalk vitality and security, retail and public services should be included at the ground floor level of larger developments, and tree planting should be required wherever possible. To reverse a trend of dot-com businesses replacing services and existing jobs, further attention is needed to address the downside of gentrification and to maintain more of a balance to the city’s economy. Should San Francisco become a community solely of white-collar workers? This question is worth an unbiased study.
EMPOWERING THE PLANNING COMMISSION
More attention should be paid to maintaining those aspects of San Francisco which feed its economy and its people. Planners ought to be figuring out how to protect existing affordable housing, health services, sources of employment, and, yes, those elements which make the city appealing to residents and visitors: views, light, hills, scenery, architecture, neighborhoods.
Much of this is spelled out in the urban design element of the city general plan. It must be heeded. Another idea is that citizens consider placing more land-use decision powers with the Planning Commission, giving it the ability to overrule other boards. Now that the current Board of Supervisors is studying a change that would give legislators power to oversee the Mayor’s appointments to that body, this would be a logical next step.
Unlike the more tax revenueminded Redevelopment and Port Commissions, the Planning Commission is the body most attuned to environmental impacts. It is the board most involved with the intricacies of drafting and certifying environmental impact reports. It is the board most concerned with a wide range of citizens’ concerns for existing housing, new housing, livability, traffic woes, transit needs, clean air, light, pollution, wind impacts and views.
Moreover, the Planning Commission should be able to overrule, if not raise hell with, other agencies whose projects saddle the city with buildings that line sidewalks with blank walls, close streets, bridge thoroughfares and exceed legislated limits for height and density. There are instances when agencies other than the Planning Commission ignore General Plan language that discourages building either in or over street spaces— intrusions that reduce precious light, air and sidewalk-level vitality.
As more buildings spring up, as recreation space is reduced and the city becomes more congested, logic suggests that when demand is greater than supply as it is on a 49-square-mile peninsula surrounded on three sides by water, then more regulation is needed. At the minimum, existing guidelines and codes ought to be enforced.