New Views of the City

An interview with three new department heads

Urbanist Article March 1, 2008
Fred Blackwell is the
executive director of
the San Francisco
Redevelopment Agency.
Michael Cohen is the
director of the Mayor’s
Office of Economic and
Workforce Development.
John Rahaim is the
director of the San
Francisco Planning

In running a department, you’ve got thousands of things you’re supposed to do. You can’t do them all and you’ve got a limited window of time. What is the most important thing you each want to accomplish during your tenure?

There are probably three major things. One is related to our long history in the Western Addition, an area where our jurisdiction is going to be sun-setting in January of ‘09. We need to close out that work in a way that respects our relationship with that community.

Getting off on the right foot in the Western Addition will involve a bit of work. A lot of folks have looked at the Redevelopment Agency’s work there as something that’s actually been quite damaging to that community. We need to make the proper handoff to other key agencies that have not been as deeply involved with the neighborhood as we’ve been.

The major challenge in Bayview will be to take all of these things that are going in — the shipyard, the shorefront, the broader Bayview Hunter’s Point plan — and think about how we realize an unprecedented amount of investment in that community, and harness it toward a model that makes sure that the folks who’ve lived through decades of bad times since the departure of the shipyard remain there to experience the good times. If, in the future, we were able to look back at that as an accomplishment, it would be something I’d be very proud of.

There’s also the mayor’s Hope SF initiative, which focuses on looking at the city’s most distressed and isolated public housing, and figuring out a way to redevelop it without displacing folks. I think the main challenge with Hope SF is to figure out how physical revitalization can produce better social outcomes, not just a nicer looking neighborhood.

And I haven’t really seen that yet, to tell you the truth. Maybe the jury is still out on Hope SF and we don’t know yet what the social outcomes are. But I think that the mayor’s vision is for the neighborhood revitalization process to also revitalize lives. It’s an idea we need to focus on more.

I also have three. One is China. I think that from an economic development perspective, the City of San Francisco needs to take advantage of its inherent connections to China, and try to strategically capture this tsunami of maturing Chinese companies that is going to begin looking for North American headquarters.

I think this presents an incredible opportunity for San Francisco. The closest analogue I can think of is what happened to Los Angeles when the Japanese economy took off in the 1980s. I think we see this around the country: not many major cities are headquarters cities anymore. But we could claim a very important status as a world city [that serves as] the gateway to China.

My second goal is to push for a few very large, transformative projects. I’m talking about projects at the scale of Treasure Island, Hunter’s Point Shipyard, Candlestick as a combined project, and the Transbay Terminal. They are unwieldy, they’re difficult, and they take a long time. But the rewards at the end of the rainbow are spectacularly large.

Between these three projects we’re talking about 16,000 units of housing, 5,000 of them affordable. We’re talking about 700 acres of new parkland that could be delivered to San Francisco at 70 percent of the size of Golden Gate Park without a penny from the general fund, and without having to use any Prop A bond money.

And the third, I think, is to work with John and Mayor Newsom and others on trying to — I’m trying to think of the right word here — create greater certainty and rationality in the city’s planning and permitting process. I recognize that we’re going to meet a lot of resistance because it’s such a complicated issue that hits at the core of community empowerment.

But my biggest frustration with the level of land use discourse in San Francisco is that it is often dishonest, and that there’s been so much abuse of the system that people aren’t necessarily talking about the issues at hand, and instead we’re talking about things like CEQA appeals based on a flawed traffic study. The real issue is class. The real issue is gentrification. The real issue is what the future of San Francisco should look like.

I also think there is an enormous amount of mischief that occurs in the land use planning and entitlement process in San Francisco because of its relative dysfunction, which creates sort of a Petri dish for all kinds of inefficiencies.

I want to professionalize the planning process. I mean, this is something I can fight on John’s behalf in some respects, maybe harder than John can fight it himself. But we have a terrific new planning director. We have smart planners on the line. We have people who work really hard and who really care. And yet, after we spend, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years on a plan, we often find that at the end of the road, we’re left with no greater certainty than we had when we started, and a lot of last-minute undoing of what’s usually what amounted to a lot of thoughtful hard work. So, those are my three.

courtesy of Todd Lappin and Telstar Logistics

Nobody has taken a view from 5,000 feet away in a long time, as far as I can tell, to ask, “How should San Francisco grow? Where should it grow? And what form should the growth take?” I think we need to have that high-level discussion. Maybe it’s naive on my part to think this can happen now, but I think we need to do it.

Obviously, we need to get a better handle on the entitlement process. We have made some changes, but it needs true reform. We are partially dealing with CEQA, which is partially out of our control and very, very cumbersome and almost anti-environmental. In some ways, it is actually doing the exact opposite of what it’s intended to do.

Lastly, I think we really need to build up the long-range planning function of the department, and do exactly what Michael was just saying — so there’s a high level of certainty for neighborhoods and developers about what the results are. This certainty can help us be more efficient about the entitlement process.

As you look around the country and the world, are there cities that you think should inspire our work here in San Francisco?

Vancouver. What’s interesting isn’t so much the density itself, the number of towers that there are, but that when you go and look at these neighborhoods, the towers are filled with families.

There’s a notion in San Francisco that family housing has to be a detached single-family house — which I think is an outmoded view in an evolving modern world with fewer and fewer resources. What you see in Vancouver are thriving families and communities in what we would consider relative high-rise living. And the question, of course, is why?

I think the answer is twofold. They have a great public school system, and have put a lot of thought into planning the public realm around private development, so the quality of Vancouver’s open spaces and trails and streetscapes is fantastic. And I think this success allows you to shift your thinking about what makes a livable city for families — from unit size and bedroom count or building typology to issues that really matter, like the quality of schools, the public realm and other things that government can really control.

I agree. Vancouver’s done some great things. But I’m also struck by how much Chicago comes up since I’ve been in San Francisco. It’s one of these cities where it’s pretty easy to do almost anything without a major, lengthy process, and Daley has a great reputation of getting things done. Chicago has done some great things.

In terms of physical development, I think Boston has done some extraordinary things over the last 20 years. If you look at Boston’s history, in the ‘60s it was being written off after the textile industry went completely under. The growth over the last 40 years has been very interesting.

What’s curious about Boston — and here’s what may be somewhat similar to San Francisco — is there has not been any population growth, but there’s still been a tremendous amount of development that’s been very sensitive to neighborhoods, and that’s built up a great downtown and public realm. Not without any struggles, of course, but they’re doing a great job.

The other city is Melbourne. That city has done an extraordinary transformation of its public realm in a way that’s similar to Vancouver, but without the advantage of having those huge, large publicly-owned sites that Vancouver had. They’ve engaged in a sort of systematic redoing of their public realm over the last 20 years. That’s been a huge success story.

Well, San Diego doesn’t get mentioned much in planning circles, but there’s a project down there called Market Creek Plaza that I think is a good prototype for figuring out how to develop in a way that produces that mythical double bottom line — in terms of a return on monetary investment as well on social outcomes. It’s a project where members of a low-income community have been engaged in every aspect of design all the way down to the color and the types of stores that need to be there.

The extraordinary thing about it is that they — and when I say “they,” I mean a private foundation — made a public offer to the surrounding community members to actually invest in the development and participate in the return from a financial point of view. It’s an amazing model, and I think an example of the kind of outside-of-the-box thinking that we could employ here in San Francisco. We could actually help people who have lived through bad times reap some of the benefit from the good times when investment comes to their neighborhood.

I’d like to pick up on the thread you brought up, John, of growth management, and just talk for a minute about our regional context. The Bay Area’s going to grow by a million people between now and 2025. Because most of the communities in the region are so anti-development, the vast majority of the growth is being pushed beyond the bounds of the Bay Area. What role should San Francisco play in solving the regional growth problem?

Well, I think we’re doing a lot already — in making San Francisco a very attractive place to build and grow, and the center of regional transportation infrastructure. In spite of the opposition to growth in many quarters of the city, we have a regional responsibility to accept growth.

Beyond that, I think there’s a need for a level of regional dialogue that I have not seen yet. I’m comparing us to Washington, of course, where the thing that forced the region to start talking to each other was the State Growth Management Act back from 1990 – which literally said to every county in the region, “You have to accept a certain amount of growth and here’s your number. Work it out.”

There was not a question anymore about whether to accept growth; it became a matter of how. And I think there’s a lesson there. It would be interesting to see how something like that would play out here in California, even if on a more informal basis.

Yeah, I agree. I think we have a clear obligation to think regionally. But we shouldn’t think of it only as an obligation; it’s also an opportunity. We talked to people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked them why they love to live here, and they overwhelmingly say it’s because you have this wonderful urban center, San Francisco, and so much spectacular green space around us. It’s that ability to get in your car, get on a ferry, and go 30 minutes and be in some of the most beautiful places in the world. If we don’t accept a responsibility for managing growth, we’re going to lose that quality.

Growth in the city, in my opinion, is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. The most thriving artist communities in the world are in cities that have robust economies and incredible densities. Cities with the greatest diversity in the world have the same characteristics.

From a regional perspective, I think most of the failures have been around transportation. San Francisco is the natural center for much of the region’s growth, but there is not a commensurate allocation of regional transportation dollars to San Francisco. We spend too much money on freeways in the rest of the counties, and not enough money on building a true transit network to connect major employment centers with residential areas. It’s the greatest test for regionalism, and it has failed.

At the end of the day, transportation dollars are divvied up based on parochial self-interest and whoever has the political juice to get a bigger slice of the pie. They are not based on a rational vision of what growth should be in the Bay area.

I grew up in Oakland, and have lived in other metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Washington D.C. And I have to say that in my experience, the Bay Area is probably one of the most parochial regions I’ve ever lived in.

I mean, people are very clear about the fact that they live in San Francisco or in Oakland or Emeryville or San Leandro or Daly City. And even within those cities, there’s a tremendous amount of kind of neighborhood pride and parochialism. I think that on the one hand, that creates a tremendous amount of local spirit, but on the other hand it contributes to the fragmented approach to regional thinking and growth.

If there’s going to be a regional perspective around growth, land use and housing, the leadership actually has to come from San Francisco. As Michael said, it’s the natural transportation hub, but it’s also the economic center of the Bay Area. And if we don’t provide the leadership on this, who will?

courtesy of Todd Lappin and Telstar Logistics

Actually, if I could, I think the other issue that doesn’t get talked about often in a regional context is the cost of housing. Affordable housing is not just an urban city issue, yet there’s a strong tendency — I think this happens in every region of the country — to think of it as a city problem. You know, where the general attitude is, “That’s the city’s problem to provide affordable housing. That’s the city’s problem to house a diversity of people. We can do our thing, but let the city take care of that.”

So it’s not only about San Francisco stepping up to accept its regional responsibilities, but clearly we have the right to ask other communities to step up to their regional responsibilities as well. The two go together.


We have more of a right to ask other communities to do their part if we’re doing ours. Along these lines, I heard an interview with Ken Livingston recently, the Lord Mayor of London, where he was talking about climate change and city planning. And he said, “The fact that climate change is the issue of our time” -- which clearly, in Western Europe, it is -- “this has got to change everything about how we do city planning, what we decide is important to do.” I’d be interested in what you think the implications of climate change are for our planning efforts here in San Francisco.

My take is that a lot of what we’re doing is exactly right – that is, in terms of creating dense, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods. To me, land use is a good part of the battle for climate change, and I think what San Francisco’s doing is exactly correct.

I put it high on the list, this whole issue of how to take what we’re doing now to the next level of sustainability, if you will. I’m personally very interested in this notion of creating sustainable neighborhoods and districts, and thinking about things like energy and water use and all those issues on a neighborhood scale.

There’s growing evidence that suggests that a green building strategy, when applied to the scale of a neighborhood, has tremendous benefit because that’s you get sharing of energy and water.

It’s funny. I think we answer all these questions according to type, because the first thing that jumped to my mind was San Francisco’s opportunity to become the clean tech center of the world, right? And this will involve more than just creating jobs around clean technology.

San Francisco is one of few cities that has that spirit of entrepreneurship that research institutions [are looking for], plus we are also the birthplace of environmentalism in America — a perfect breeding ground for solving the world’s problems around climate change. And I think that’s a fantastic opportunity for the city.

Again, I’m constantly struggling with the question of how do we make San Francisco relevant from an economic perspective, because the difference between real cities and cities that are put under glass like Venice or Carmel. Those become beautiful places, but they’re not real cities because people don’t really work there. What makes a city real is and the presence of people who are living and working and struggling, and going through the whole gamut of life’s experiences. And the key to making that experience real in San Francisco is to have industries that are going to grow in the future. Our manufacturing past is way behind us.

So if we can be strategic about trying to lead the way on clean and green technologies, it can help establish San Francisco’s economic relevance going forward.

Yes, I think the opportunity here is to think about how San Francisco’s positioning from an economic point of view needs to be linked to a workforce and community development strategy. And if we are going to be at the forefront of thinking about clean technology and green building, we have to have a workforce that’s prepared to engage in that industry. If we’ve got people who at the forefront of holding the skills to actually implement a clean economic engine for the city, we’ll be well ahead of the curve.

If you were to think about reforms — legislative reforms, charter reforms, laws, process reforms, changes to our process that would help you do your jobs and allow your agencies to be effective, what would be most important?

I think there needs to be reform about who — in the planning and entitlement process — gets involved. There are too many players, and it becomes an issue — not of good development or planning, but [about] who’s the last to have their say in the shape of a project or plan. [The process] just becomes political rather than about good planning.

I agree with John. I think the single biggest factor that affects San Francisco’s social economic health is our land use policies. Land is the most valuable resource we have, and how we use it is the most important decision that government can make on a proactive basis.

I also think that professionalizing the planning process can create an opportunity for community participation that goes beyond the normal gatekeepers. There are people who purportedly speak for entire communities, and the reality is we have a huge majority of San Franciscans who — because they’re struggling with daily needs — are not participating in the process, but probably have a pretty different idea about what their community, city and region should look like.

I also find it really interesting that San Francisco is viewed as a place where the level of engagement in civic life and democracy is viewed as something that goes well beyond what happens in other cities.

And while that’s the perception, when you walk around City Hall and see who’s influencing policies and decisions, it’s actually a small number of people. We need to manage the community participation process, but at the same time broaden the circle of participation.

courtesy of Todd Lappin and Telstar Logistics

Yeah. Not only do we not have regional planning; we don’t really even have city-wide planning. We essentially have devolved to planning at the neighborhood level. And yet our problems — the big problems like housing costs, climate change and economic development — are regional in nature. I think this is what we’re all struggling to solve somehow – to make a truly democratic process that is capable of grappling with the bigger problems.

I know our experience has been that when people engage, there’s a really thoughtful level of engagement that occurs in San Francisco. But we also have to accept the fact that after we go through this process and come to a consensus — not everyone’s going to agree — we’re going to come up with a plan that makes sense, with the goal of implementing it in mind. We’re not going to come back at it 150 times because you didn’t get the result you want. That isn’t, in fact, the essence of democracy. END

About the Authors: Fred Blackwell is the executive director of San Francisco

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