This is the headline from a Washington Post blog yesterday: "Voters in one of America’s most expensive cities just came up with another way to block new housing."
As you may or may not be aware, local Proposition B passed on Tuesday with a nice majority of 59%, thanks to the coalition of activists led by former mayor Art Agnos who also succeeded in killing Props B and C back in November. And while the ideals behind Prop B preserving waterfront views for all and not allowing developers to easily circumvent existing height restrictions to create a "Gold Coast" of luxury high-rises like they have in Chicago and Miami might be sound, the effect may be stifling during boom times such as these. And from the perspective of outsiders and people like Scott Wiener, it's just another example of San Francisco being too anti-capitalist for its own good. We are, after all, in a bit of a housing crisis. Time magazine, in a piece preceding Tuesday's vote, quotes Michael Theriault of the SF Building Trades Council, which opposed Prop B, as saying that "literally thousands of units of housing [are] at stake" with the vote, and he's likely referring to the vast Pier 70 project from Forest City, which is now going to require voters to vote on its height-limit exemptions in November. The Giants' plan to build a neighborhood behind AT&T Park will also be impacted.
Now, Agnos had good points to make, and certainly most housing that would be built along Port properties on our 7.5 miles of bayside shoreline would be high-end and unaffordable. But still, the height limits haven't changed, developers would still have to go through a public planning process to get height limits changed, and that process would likely prevent any egregious or out-of-place architectural atrocities from soiling the waterfront. And many would argue that while the 8 Washington project that was killed in the November vote was not great architecture, it was hardly the "wall on the waterfront" that critics were calling it. It was 12 stories tall, and far shorter than the apartment towers that sit right behind it in the 40-year-old Gateway complex (many residents of which objected to the project because it was going to block their views). And it should be noted that a large portion of the funding behind November's No on B & C campaigns, and the recent Yes on B campaign, came from the same couple, Richard and Barbara Stewart, two "wealthy neighborhood NIMBYs" as C.W. Nevius has called them.
But, as many intelligent folks have pointed out, this creates a "planning at the ballot box" situation in which we need to take a vote every time someone wants to build anything denser and taller than what the existing code allows. From the Washington Post piece:
In theory, this takes power from generally unpopular developers and places it in the hands of the public instead. In reality, however, it yanks influence from a very different group: city professionals whose full-time job it is to weigh the insanely intricate implications of new development for affordable housing, property-tax coffers, economic development, public benefits, transportation infrastructure and more. It's the job of professional planners, in other words, to assess projects for the benefit of the entire city, from the perspective of many competing interests. It's hard to expect or even ask voters to do that.
The Yes on B victory was pretty predictable given the strategy of its proponents they had money to drum up support, and a very active base in a town where "developer" equals "evil", and almost no one going to the polls (about 57,000 voters voted Yes on B, or 7% of the population). Get ready to vote on each and every development that comes on the docket on the array of development parcels that exist along the waterfront. Wiener points out to Time that "parts of the waterfront are literally crumbling" and it's only private developers with big plans who will be able to foot the bill to fix that.
And George Lucas.