Sunday, January 22, 2006

Mayor Newsom: "We need to build dense housing along transit corridors"


Print journalists like Gavin Newsom, not just because he's young and photogenic, but because he talks to them---and talks, and talks, and talks. The long interview---four hours worth, apparently---in the January edition of San Francisco Magazine is a good example ("Why Isn't This Man Smiling?" Diana Kapp).

The mayor takes a proprietary, hands-on attitude toward the city he leads, which is welcome after Willie Brown's more detached, limousine liberal style of leadership. He takes graffiti in the city personally, and he doesn't like it. He sets the bar high; he's never satisfied and keeps pushing for more action on campaign promises and city problems. He's been criticized for doing too much PR, but that's surely a part of the job; there's no political gain in doing things if no one knows what you're doing. And if there's no political gain for your accomplishments, your political capital dissipates:

You've said that the narrative line for your administration is "Government is working on your behalf."
Yeah, I want people to know that we're thinking about the problems, that we're working on the problems, and that we have ideas to try to solve the problems.

This is an approach alien to the city's progressives, who failed to respond to constituent concern on the homeless issue and have yet to even formulate a sensible approach to graffiti/tagging in the city, though they have been very sensitive to the interests of the city's many marijuana clubs. This sends people a message: progressives don't care. Or, even worse, it sends an implausible ideological message: The homeless are just poor people who can't pay the rent, and graffiti is "unauthorized public art" that has to be tolerated.

Newsom is asked about his potential opponents if he runs for a second term in 2007:

Oh, I won't give names. But the ideological left in San Francisco undoubtedly will put candidates up. There's a very strong ideological left[in SF]. I've always considered myself pragmatic progressive. I've always maintained my progressive credentials, but in San Francisco, the definition of progressive is ideological left.

My interpretation: Newsom actually hopes that someone like Gonzalez or Mirkarimi---or, better yet, Chris Daly---will be his opponent in 2007. All are out on the fringe left on important issues. Newsom will then be able to portray himself as a sensible, mainstream leader, and his opponent will be plausibly described as out on the fringe.

Even though Gonzalez made a strong showing in 2003, what he's done and said since will leave him vulnerable to that strategy. Except in progressive circles, Gonzalez wasn't well-known in many city neighborhoods when he jumped into the race before the filing deadline in 2003. He's much better known now, which isn't necessarily going to be a plus if he runs again. Mirkarimi has similar political problems---on the quality of life issues, in particular---though he's photogenic and sincere. Unlike Gonzalez, however, the Murk is often painfully inarticulate.

Newsom claims that he likes to hear what his critics say:

I love contrarian perspectives. I always want to hear it. I think the most successful aspects of this administration come from when we acknowledge the opposition and don't act like we have exclusivity to the truth. I think the reason Care Not Cash has worked is because we've been open to argument---there were things we were doing where I was highly criticized and where I listened to the Coalition on Homelessness. So I like reading the little blogs of obsessed people that just think you're the most corrupt human being in the world. Otherwise you live in fantasy.

He must be referring here to H. Brown's blog. Who else tends to think those who disagree with him are corrupt? He's not referring to D5 Diary, since I've been generally supportive, especially on the homeless issue. But if the mayor really wants a "contrarian perspective," he should read on: "I've always said I'll never be a good mayor for the extremes in this town. I'm not the developers' best friend and I'm not the ideological antidevelopers best friend." This is meaningless flab-gab. In fact, Chris Daly said the same thing in the wake of his bogus Rincon Hill victory. Newsom surely knows you can't simply split the difference on issues this way; the devil---and the political difficulties---are always in the details. Besides, his housing policy is aggressively pro-development, as is his Planning Department. Like Willie Brown, Newsom is a Development Democrat: keep everyone---especially the unions---happy by building a lot of stuff, which produces jobs and keeps the money flowing.

Newsom confirms this when asked why he didn't veto the Rincon Hill projects:

I had to make the tough choice about putting at risk the entire development of thousands and thousands and thousands of units and up to $100 million that would have come to our affordable housing fund...It was a tough call. It would have felt really good[to veto Daly's deal]...And it would have shaken things up...But soon we're going to be ribbon-cutting and talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of construction, all the jobs, the community benefits, and as long as those dollars are spent right---and that's my job---then we'll have made the right decision...I ultimately said I cannot risk losing this amount of housing in San Francisco when we were in crisis.

Yes, he made the tough call on Rincon Hill, but it was the wrong one. His dissent on Rincon Hill was only on how Supervisor Daly shook down the developers for higher development fees. The mayor wants to have it both ways---as both a critic and a supporter of Rincon Hill. In fact Daly essentially agrees with Newsom and Planning on Rincon Hill, which should have given Newsom pause. ("If Chris Daly thinks this is a good thing...")

Newsom reveals how conventional he is on the housing issue. Unlike on homelessness and gay marriage, he's not ready to challenge conventional wisdom---and his Planning Dept.---on housing in SF, which boils down to this: We Need Housing and must build more of it as quickly as we can, especially on "transit corridors." The 3000+ luxury highrise condos on Rincon Hill---which isn't even on a transit corridor, by the way---won't help alleviate the city's affordable housing crisis. Instead, that will only accelerate gentrification in SF, making housing more expensive for everyone, while selling off a big chunk of the city to developers and the wealthy, who, of course, are not facing a housing shortage. The "affordable" housing that's supposedly going to be built with the development fees isn't going to be built in that part of town. Instead, it will be out by Hunters Point or in the Mission where much of the city's peasantry already lives.

Newsom buys the whole Planning Dept. line:

If the city is ever going to fulfill its goal of providing housing at all income levels, and to have enough housing to stabilize the housing prices in this city, and to provide for our future in terms of our economic growth and development, we need to build dense housing along transit corridors. We cannot develop our neighborhoods.

But the mayor needs to understand this: a lot of people already live on these "transit corridors." A lot of people already live, for example, in the Market/Octavia neighborhood, where Planning wants to radically increase the population, after endorsing the disastrous new Octavia Blvd., which is bringing all the old freeway traffic---90,000 vehicles a day---right through the heart of Hayes Valley. The beginning of wisdom on housing for Newsom will only come after he comes to this realization: The Planning Dept. doesn't know anything!

Kapp asks the mayor about land use:

The one area where you really haven't laid out a sweeping vision is land use and development. I hear from a former staffer that this stuff just isn't your passion, and that you haven't had a visionary leader who walks you around the city.
I couldn't disagree with that statement more. The reason I brought Marshall Foster from the planning department to our senior staff was my obsession with land use, with streetscapes, with the visual aspects of the city.

Young Marshall Foster---at 30 he's even younger than Newsom---is only going to provide the mayor with the Planning Dept.'s current We Need Housing line. While at the Planning Dept., Foster authored an over-written, pro-development document on UC's greedy proposal to overdevelop the old Extension property on lower Haight St. Foster included the startling notion---startling, at least, from someone who supposedly works for us---that San Francisco is obligated to overdevelop its neighborhoods to satisfy a regional need for housing[Later: an update on Foster's career].

Kapp, to her credit, presses the mayor on the Rincon Hill catastrophe, and Newsom digs himself in deeper:

These are some of the biggest towers this city has ever seen, and it will change the skyline. And when people coming off the bridge start seeing them go up and up and up, it'll be difficult, I grant that. It's part of the nature of change...Skinnier towers, taller towers, tremendous community benefit, urban landscaping, tremendous livability on the ground...But the city needs to expand. It needs to renew itself. It think it's appropriate. But I would be absolutely misleading if I said, "Everyone's gonna tell you it's the best thing that's ever happened." They absolutely won't, particularly people who have been around the city for a long, long time. [Pause] It's going to be interesting.

Yes, these projects are going to change the city's skyline for the worse, while providing pie-in-the-sky benefits for some other part of town. A lot of money is going to change hands, and exactly how many "affordable" housing units are going to emerge on the other end? We'll see. Of course, Newsom will be well into his second term when the Rincon Hill projects are done, so he won't experience the political blow-back directly. And his potential opponents in 2007---Daly, Ammiano, and Mirkarimi---all support the Rincon Hill projects. The fact that the progressive political establishment supports Rincon Hill should have been a warning to someone who saw so clearly through their bullshit on homelessness.

Newsom's "skinnier towers" usage is a reference to the myth perpetrated by Planning and the Chronicle's John King, that these are going to be "elegant" and "slender" highrises---highrises with class, unlike those vulgar buildings in Miami Beach. That's already looking like more bullshit, even as the first tower is being built. In the very same issue of SF magazine, turn to page 42, where Martin Holden writes about the first tower being built at 300 Spear St:

Anyone hoping for a sophisticated new skyline will be disappointed by this attempt. Unlike One Rincon Hill, two even taller towers that recently broke ground up the hill, 300 Spear has strong horizontals that truncate whatever vertical energy was promised by the height. By adding some fluting to the columns, Arquitectonica has tried to restore lift, but the result is like that notorious fashion faux pas, the dress with horizontal stripes. It's a Miami Beach condo look, derivative and out of place, though the format has a track record in the real estate market.

So much for "elegance"! Let's tally up the scorecard on the Rincon Hill developments: They will trash a big chunk of the downtown area, along with the skyline; they will accelerate gentrification in the whole city, thus pushing housing prices up for everyone; the towers themselves are likely to be mediocre architecturally; and the luxury condos will do nothing to help alleviate the city's affordable housing shortage. And there's this: gentrification undermines Muni, since gentry don't ride the bus as much as the rest of us; and it undermines public schools, since the gentry tend to send their kids to private schools.

Otherwise, hey, a job well done by all.

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7 Comments:

At 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you be more reflexively knee jerk anti high rise?
Seriously - are you bruce brugman?
Get a grip. You cant shellac the city so that it forever reflects your personal idea of "san francisco" Things change. Developers are not going to spend 25 million on a parcel downtown and erect a 4 story structure. Have you ever travelled outside of your little trademark san francisco bubble? Cities across the country have caught on to the idea that high rise housing is appropriate development in urban areas - but still you beat the same drum. Why are you personally offended by highrises?

 
At 9:39 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

A generation ago, the city fought a battle to control office highrise buildings in the downtown area and to prevent their spread into the neighborhoods, which is why there aren't highrises in North Beach. Now that battle evidently has to be fought all over again on residential highrises both in the downtown area south of Market and, if the Planning Dept. gets its way, in other parts of town, especially in the Market/Octavia area. What's wrong with highrises? Chester Hartman, in "City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco," UC Press, has a good account of the earlier battle over highrises. He also notes the effects highrises have on their immediate surroundings: "Economic impacts aside, unrestrained high-rise development has disturbing environmental effects. Box-shaped, poorly angled skyscrapers create powerful street-level winds that can become gales---up to sixty-five miles per hour---overturning newspaper racks, potted trees, and other objects, and even breaking store windows. Less extreme wind currents can make walking or merely being downtown highly uncomfortable. Relatedly, tall, bulky buildings can reduce or completely block out sunshine." Highrises also have a significant impact on traffic and transit. I admit I'm not overly concerned about poor developers getting a good return on their investments. I think highrises---office or residential---are a bad idea aesthetically and economically---we need affordable housing, not luxury highrise condos---and environmentally. The charge that I'm a stick-in-the-mud for these opinions is unconvincing. Advocates for every dumb change in our physical/social environment always make that argument, but we still have to deal with the specifics of the proposals before us. I may be pissing against the wind on the issue, but that's not really an argument on the merits of highrises, is it? Just because other cities are acting like lemmings doesn't mean we should, too.

 
At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give me a break. Boxey highrises cause gale force winds that can break store windows?
Do you know the definition of a luddite?
The effects a highrise has on its environment can almost be entirely mitigated by good design.
Its laughable that you refer to San Francisco as having experienced "unrestrained high rise development." You may want to get out more, because San Francisco is the most restrained city development-ise in the entire US.
I hear that if you travel faster than 65 miles an hour, your face falls off.

 
At 1:32 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You need to brush up on your reading skills, Anon. I didn't refer to "unrestrained highrise development"; that was in the block quote from the Hartman book, wherein he talks about the possible consequences of such development. "Development-ise"? You probably mean "development-wise," a clunky usage, Anon. You believe in good design but not in good prose? It may be possible to mitigate the effects of highrises with good design, but the point of the cite from SF Magazine is that it isn't happening even with the first highrise being built. This is the great fallacy of the new urbanism bullshit: that any development/project---or excessive population density---can just be "mitigated," either with design gimmicks or by spreading the loot around a little. Don't like Rincon Hill? Okay, here's millions you can spend on "community" stuff and "mitigation." Too much traffic on city streets? Muni overcrowded? Hey, get a bike, pal! I don't believe you can really mitigate the Rincon Hill projects, which will take up 12 sqare blocks and bring 8,000 more people into that part of town. I also don't understand why we should want to make SF more like other cities in the country.

 
At 11:13 AM, Anonymous rob b said...

FYI:Octavia Boulevard is not a "Transit Corridor". Geary is a Transit Corridor. Market is a Transit Corridor.
Since this city has a transit-pedestrian-bicycle first policy, planning is charged with developing more dense projects in areas that will minimize the need to own a car. Rincon fits this profile because of its proximity to downtown, it is very close to the Embarcadero transportation, the future 3rd Street light rail, the CalTrain station, and the Trans Bay terminal. Consult a map if this isn't obviouis to you, and I already have a bike, thanks.
rob b

 
At 10:05 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

My reference was to the Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan, which, as the name implies, advocates accelerated development in the whole area around that intersection. Market St. is the transit corridor referred to. This city has a "transit first" policy. Bicycles are not on an equal footing with buses, though the bike people hope to change that, since they tend to be anti-bus in addition to being anti-car. How likely is it that the people who buy the million dollar condos at Rincon Hill are going to ride bikes?

 
At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So far I'm with Rob on this one. I don't think more highrises is what SF needs.

I think there are already enough yuppie lofts to go around. I would be interested in building something to get homeless people off the streets and under some shelter, though, but I doubt that's what developers have in mind.

The idea of density around transit corridors is a very good one, but you don't necessarily need highrises to accomplish that; you merely need to create mixed-use areas.

Sf has loads of highrise apartments going up anyway; I wouldn't even begin to think about building more until we see what happens with these.

I lived in a highrise for a while in "south beach". It was lame. I don't understand who would want to live in places like that for any length of time (it was nice having a hot tub, though-- the only redeeming factor). Those places are just for people to hide from the world in, or hide from people not like them. Yes, that's an opinion.

 

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