Can the ballot box replace a municipal planning department? Recent events in San Francisco reveal that voter initiatives may, in fact, trump the decisions of planning officials. The last two municipal elections in San Francisco pitted pro- and anti-development factions against one another. A June 2014 ballot measure, Proposition B, crafted to limit heights of new developments on Port of San Francisco-owned property, won handily. This came on the heels of a similar measure that killed the multistory 8 Washington along the Embarcadero.
Proposition B is intended to limit height exemptions along the waterfront. The impetus for that measure was the proposed arena for the Golden State Warriors NBA team at Piers 30-32. Although Prop B included only Port-controlled property, its impact could be much greater as anti-development forces are emboldened with their electoral successes.
In the case of 8 Washington, SOM’s multi-use project of varying heights had been approved by both the planning department and the city’s Board of Supervisors. The project, by law, included an $11 million developer contribution toward affordable housing. Opposition to the project was led by former Mayor Art Agnos and former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who adopted the campaign slogan, “No Wall on the Waterfront.”
Courtesy Snøhetta; SOM
Opposition to these projects and to development in general has coalesced around apprehension to increased height limits in San Francisco. Capitalizing on that apprehension, Agnos and Peskin were able to formulate ballot measures that framed the issue in the simplest of terms. Respected voices, such as Sierra Club spokesman John Rizzo, chimed in with support of the measure: “This is a case of protecting special places,” said Rizzo. Former Mayor Agnos added, “The law of the city is that heights are limited. And I respect the right of citizens to vote.”
Others, largely from the development, design, and construction community, begged to differ. Speaking prior to the passage of Prop B, Tim Colen, Executive Director for the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, said, “Proposition B is de facto downzoning.”
Representatives of the construction trades expressed concern that Prop B would adversely affect future development. “This [Prop B] does not stop at the waterfront,” said Michael Theriault of the Building Trades Construction Council.
Ultimately, the passage of Prop B did impact the redevelopment of Piers 30-32 by the Warriors. Just prior to the June election in which Prop B passed, the Warriors organization announced that they had purchased a Mission Bay property from Salesforce.com and that the new arena would be planned for that site. The Mission Bay site, since it was not Port property, was unaffected by Prop B. Clearly, the Warriors organization felt that the political battle to locate on Piers 30-32 was more onerous than it was worth.
“Do we really want to vote on each project and risk that the issues will be reduced to campaign slogans?” said Rene Bihan, principal at planning firm SWA Group. Speculating on the future effect of ballot box planning, Bihan said, “These propositions will likely result in confusion [and] less creativity.”
That prediction may be borne out in the proposed mixed-use development at Pier 70, which is anticipated to require a waiver on height restrictions. Developer Forest City, in light of this recent political scrimmaging, has jumped into the political fray by formulating its own ballot proposition, Prop F, solely for Pier 70, which would specifically permit heights greater than would be allowed under Prop B. Prop F will be on the city’s November 4 ballot. The uncertainty and expense involved in mounting such a measure may mean a significant redesign or even the cancellation of the project. Commenting on Pier 70, Bihan said, “The worst outcome would be a middle ground where something that could have been built anywhere gets built, rather than a truly unique San Francisco place.”
The tug of war in San Francisco will continue past Prop B and Pier 70. A proposed redevelopment scheme near AT&T Park, spearheaded by the San Francisco Giants baseball club, has apparently been thrown into disarray. Anti-growth proponent Peskin recently challenged the relatively small private purchase of the San Francisco Flower Mart by Kilroy Realty, claiming that the “small town” charm of San Francisco would be degraded. How these trends and forces will play out and the resulting imprint on the city remains to be seen as developers, architects, and contractors face increased opposition from a political faction claiming to speak for the “real San Francisco.”