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Chronicle recommends: No on S.F. Prop. B
Updated 4:40 pm, Friday, April 18, 2014
There is no denying the populist appeal of Proposition B, which would automatically provide San Francisco voters the last word on any proposed development that would exceed existing limits on port-owned property. Residents cherish their waterfront, and they are anxious about the danger of the city becoming a playground of the rich. We share each sentiment. But the best of intentions do not always lead to wise policy, especially when it comes to making major planning judgments at the ballot box. An initiative designed to preserve the open feel of the waterfront and temper the escalation of high-priced housing could end up doing just the opposite.
Proposition B, which enshrines ballot-box planning as the essential arbiter of one of San Francisco's most precious spaces, is loaded with potential for unintended consequences.
It's easy politics and lousy public policy.
Proponents of Prop. B like to characterize it as a straightforward way to protect against assaults on the aesthetics and access to a waterfront that has been wondrously transformed after the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Last fall's voter rejection of the waterfront-area project known as 8 Washington, which included a 136-foot-tall building, gave flight to the campaign to require a public vote on any exceptions to the height limits, which range from zero to 105 feet.
But the folly of a simplistic height-is-inherently-evil approach to waterfront development is that it ignores the reality that bulkier, uglier or just plain ill-conceived projects can be every bit as detrimental to the graceful gateway to the city. Sometimes a modest height exception can be worth the trade-off of a multifaceted project, especially if it expands open space and funding for affordable housing.
Also, the problem with ballot-box planning is that its absolutist prescriptions often work against its intended purpose. Proposition B has such shortcomings. An analysis by the good-government group SPUR noted that a project approved by voters could not later be changed in the legislative process. For example, if voters unwittingly approved a project that "interferes with important maritime activities," City Hall would be powerless to stop it. Also, a voter-approved project could still be analyzed under the California Environmental Quality Act, but "project sponsors would not be required by law to address those impacts, as they are today," SPUR noted.
It's more than a little distressing that San Francisco is not engaging in the level of scrutiny and substantive debate that this major change in planning policy deserves. Too many San Francisco politicians who are well aware of the perils of ballot-box planning generally - and the flaws of Prop. B specifically - are sitting on the sidelines, concluding that standing up for sound policy is a losing battle at this point in city history. Shame on them. This city deserves bolder, more thoughtful leadership as it confronts the divisions and side effects of a stunning surge of prosperity.
Credit Supervisor Scott Wiener for emerging as one of the few leaders willing to ask the right questions. The Port of San Francisco has projected that the measure could threaten 3,690 housing units and $124 million in affordable housing fees.
Some people may fantasize that San Francisco is exempt from the law of supply and demand, but a housing shortage that veers from significant in the best of times to severe today suggests otherwise. There is a dearth of housing at all income levels, and the result is that many San Franciscans are paying too much for units that might otherwise be available to families of lesser means. Rejection of higher-end housing does not magically advance affordability.
The last thing a city that desperately needs more housing should be doing is adding another layer of uncertainty, delay and expense to processes that already stack years and six-figure costs onto each new residence. Developers are going to do almost anything to avoid campaigns that will cost them millions, and subject their projects to further shakedowns by interest groups, while leaving themselves vulnerable to the whims of a clever slogan.
Voters need to take a close look at Proposition B. They may just find that it works against the goals it espouses. Vote no on Proposition B.
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