By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer
In sponsoring Proposition B, the “Voter Approval for Waterfront Development Height Increases” initiative on this June’s ballot, the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club has betrayed its mission and created new threats to the environment.
Prop B would require that any change in building height limits on Port of San Francisco land be approved by voters. The Port has sought long-term leases to developers on some of its lands to fund maintenance and repair of Port facilities. Present height limits on some are very low. On Seawall Lot 337, now Parking Lot A for the Giants’ ballpark, they are effectively zero. The Giants have plans to build eleven blocks of housing and office there, with light industry (including another Anchor Steam brewery) on adjacent Pier 48.
Prop B does not address any issue other than building height, and height is not itself an environmental issue. It might or might not be tied to other issues, such as traffic, shadow, and birdstrikes, or more vaguely to “quality of life,” but Prop B ignores these complexities entirely. Where they genuinely exist, they can usually be addressed through careful design and mitigation. In focusing instead on height the backers of Prop B reveal their real concern: The views from their own windows.
Jurisdiction over Port properties, all either former tidelands or obtained in exchange for former tidelands, belongs to the State Lands Commission, and to the Port and City government only through legal delegation from that commission. The State Lands Commission still retains authority over all projects proposed on Port lands. The Commission is one of several agencies with similar missions – for State Lands, to provide “stewardship of the lands, waterways, and resources entrusted to its care through economic development, protection, preservation, and restoration.” Some of these agencies operate in counties with electorates far more conservative than in San Francisco.
If local voters take authority over matters ordinarily under the jurisdiction of such agencies, voters in conservative counties might decide, say, to fill present tidelands for commercial development and an improved tax base. By asserting the authority of local voters over matters under the jurisdiction of the State Lands Commission, the Sierra Club and Prop B set a precedent that can gut environmental protections.
They do so in another way, as well. If a developer does go to the voters, it will not be simply on the question of heights. The developer will need voters to have a more complete understanding of a project than would come from just listing heights and so will undoubtedly seek their approval of a thorough formulation of it. If the developer has resorted to the initiative process to reach the ballot, and if the voters approve a thoroughly formulated version of the project, City agencies will have less authority to shape the project. The result of the vote could be to override environmental protections and mitigations normally available under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
A Planning Department analysis of Prop B makes this very point:
“… placing some or all of the elements of a development project on the ballot for approval may not be subject to CEQA review depending on how the measure reaches the ballot. Subsequently, should the voters approve any project elements that appear on the ballot - and depending on the language of the particular ballot measure - it is possible that few, if any further discretionary approvals relating to those elements could be required by the City.”
But CEQA is an indispensible tool in environmental protections, one both the California State Building and Construction Trades Council and the Sierra Club have defended vigorously at the Capitol. In effectively encouraging developers to seek ballot votes overriding CEQA and thereby setting a precedent replicable elsewhere in the state, the Sierra Club undercuts its own statewide efforts and ours.
So long as populations grow, if we are to protect the environment cities like San Francisco – dense, walkable, well-supplied with public transit, and more efficient in use of land, water, and energy – must accommodate a large share of that growth. For that matter, such cities are key to protecting humanity itself from climate change and its effects.
The Sierra Club knows these things. It declines to grapple, however, with the tough decisions that must be made if San Francisco is to play its necessary role. Some local Sierra Club staffers have expressed a willingness to consider backing particular projects, if we ask. True environmental leadership in this era, however, would not mean going thumbs up or down – and mostly down – on individual projects. It would mean being in the forefront of a push to decide in what neighborhoods and in what building types a growing population will live, and to make such decisions work economically for a full range of income levels.
But the local Sierra Club fails the environment also in this. It has concerned itself instead with the views from the windows (no doubt not birdproofed) of a privileged few. Far from defending the environment, the Sierra Club through Prop B has created threats to it in defense of privilege.