In our democratic system, we commonly accept that a fair disposition of certain complex issues is not the province of voters. We entrust justice, for example, to jurors who hear detailed evidence presented under strict rules and arguments for and against a position, who are obliged to sit and listen with no option to switch off the evidence or arguments, and who must then compare their conclusions with those of other jurors until they either reach a joint decision or declare that they are unable to decide. We who are not serving on a jury might have a strong opinion about a very public trial, but none of us would ever entrust justice to our fellow voters in an open election.
And we in unions would never want the results of our collective bargaining with public agencies to be subjected to the approval of voters who are unacquainted with the complexities either of our relationships with our employers or of the give-and-take of our negotiations.
Development decisions are undeniably complex. Not just heights, but design, transportation, parking, open space, light and shadow, residential unit size, wind speed, neighborhood-serving retail, historical appropriateness, neighborhood context, potential for gentrification and displacement, pedestrian safety, supply of affordable housing – among a host of other factors – must be considered.
To meet our need for housing, we must build. To build, we must grapple publicly with the complexities of development. We have no perfect ways of doing this, but a process of open hearings before boards and commissions both elected and appointed by elected officials, with full opportunity for public testimony, allows for more informed judgment on these complexities than their condensation into an already crowded ballot pamphlet – or into a five-word campaign slogan.
It is nonetheless understandable that City residents would be suspicious of politicians and their appointees on development issues. Those old enough will recall the unsuccessful effort to eliminate the cable cars, the half-successful effort to build cross-town freeways that had the side effect of carving the City apart, and the all-too-successful effort to “renew” the Western Addition that “renewed” away much of its African American population.
But it was in part to counter misconceived efforts like these that we moved from citywide to district elections for the Board of Supervisors and made their positions paid and full-time. A fine tailoring of representation better fits the principle of representative democracy than does a shrinkage of complex issues into ballot measures.
Early this month signatures were filed with the City’s Department of Elections to qualify a ballot measure that would put directly before the voters all projects on the waterfront that proposed any change in height limits. In other words, not is this just a ballot measure on development, but a ballot measure that spawns more ballot measures on development.
Worse, it does this in a way that bars the voters from considering many of the complexities of a development proposal. First, it deals only with the question of heights. Second, it bars any City work on shaping a proposal before a vote, so that voters would see only a developer’s concept, without the changes and improvements that come from the work of the Port and Planning Department staffs or from the public hearings they administer.
And this last provision probably kills developments in advance of any vote. Any developer wanting to build on the waterfront would first have to fund an expensive ballot campaign, with uncertain outcome. Only after winning could the developer begin the already arduous and costly ordinary approval process, which in the case of 8 Washington lasted seven years.
This is a ballot measure designed to make it harder to build housing, and so harder for your children and mine to stay in San Francisco.
The three main proposals to build on the waterfront are for the Warriors arena and a related development across the Embarcadero, for a new neighborhood on what is now Parking Lot A for the Giants’ ballpark, and for another new neighborhood by Forest City in the Pier 70 area. Unlike the misbegotten proposals of the past, these do not threaten landmarks; the Pier 70 project actually preserves them. They do not carve through existing neighborhoods, but create new ones. They displace no one, but provide homes for new residents, or new homes for existing residents.
The proponents of the waterfront ballot measure may claim that they are just plucky citizens fighting the power of wealthy developers, but the drive to gather signatures to qualify it was funded by the same wealthy couple that financed much of the campaign against 8 Washington. As with 8 Washington, if this is a fight against the power of wealth, it is to preserve the power of old wealth against new wealth.
And it is a fight for the views of a few against the needs of the many.
Nor should we trust for an instant that this stops at the waterfront. This fight is about our work and our homes all across San Francisco.