Saturday, November 26, 2011

The intellectual failure of San Francisco progressives

Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen

The lengthy, critical analysis of San Francisco progressives in the current SF Weekly is itself more evidence of the intellectual failure of the city's political community. The article rewrites the history of the last ten years while arguing that progressives allegedly failed to capitalize on their early successes after they took control of the Board of Supervisors in 2000:

Ten years is a long time to hold a coalition together. Progressives' decade dominating the board was a hell of a run. While it's easy to focus on their foibles, progressives pushed through major changes that altered many aspects of city life. Even their opponents concede they could be effective legislators with big ideas.

Wachs and Eskenazi are sketchy when it comes to discussing those "major changes" or the "big ideas."

Later they repeat the claim: "But when the progressives came into power in 2000, they weren't casting about for ideas. They had ideas. Big ones." This is followed up with a mention of progressive opposition to the rash of live-work lofts built during the Brown administration, the supervisors' ability to make appointments to the Planning Commission and the Police Commission, restricting chain stores, building affordable housing, and Ranked Choice Voting.

Do these qualify as Big Ideas? Maybe, but progressives replaced the boom in live-work lofts south of Market with the idea of residential highrises, Smart Growth, and dense development. And if affordabale housing was so important to the city's left, why did it take progressives until 2008 to put a serious housing bond on the ballot? Only to be rejected by city voters, by the way. Big chain stores haven't been allowed in the neighborhoods, but that was never a serious threat to the neighborhoods, since the space for big parking lots is mostly lacking. But there are a number of Starbucks, Trader Joes, and Walgreens in SF, which I don't think is a bad thing. But I guess some chains are better than others. You can argue that the Police Commission has been improved, but the Planning Commission essentially operates as a rubber stamp for an aggressively pro-development Planning Department. 

Which leads to what Wachs/Eskenazi claim is a progressive achievement: "Now, the Market-Octavia and Eastern Neighborhoods plans have helped rationalize development."

In fact the Market/Octavia Plan is a developer's dream, the opposite of prudent planning and development. The plan epitomizes how the Planning Department is implementing a crude version of the trendy "smart growth" ideas that threaten every city neighborhood anywhere near a busy traffic corridor. Fortunately for San Francisco, the Great Recession made it difficult for developers to get building loans, which at least delayed a lot of destructive development.

The Market/Octavia Plan---originally called the Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan, though no such neighborhood exists. The 376-acre plan was explicitly conceived by the Planning Department to encourage much denser population---including 20-30-and 40-story residential highrises at Market and Van Ness---in the heart of San Francisco. The M/O Plan  was cobbled together from parts of other neighborhoods. It extends north to Turk Street, Scott Street on the west, 16th Street on the south, and South Van Ness on the east. To encourage population growth, the Plan relaxes zoning on building height and bulk, eliminates building setbacks and back yards, and waives the requirement of a parking space for every new housing unit and instead limits parking in line with the city's anti-car policies. All of this is done under the guise of creating affordable housing, though, except on the freeway parcels the state gave the city after the Central Freeway was torn down, the huge Plan requires no affordable housing. Both the M/O Plan and UC's massive housing development in the heart of Hayes Valley were justified by Supervisor Mirkarimi and progressives with the false promise that they were about affordable housing.

Wachs and Eskinazi don't mention the Bicycle Plan, unanimously---and illegally---passed by both the prog Board of Supervisors and their appointees to the Planning Commission. This Plan is the foundation of the city's anti-car policies, whose purpose is to deliberately make it as difficult and expensive as possible to drive in the city on the unsupported assumption that people will start riding bicycles instead of driving those wicked automobiles.

The anti-car and the dense development policies complement each other, since the Transit Corridors theory assumes that the thousands of people jammed into the residential highrises along city traffic corridors won't have cars and will instead take public transit, or, less plausibly, ride bikes. Unfortunately, the Market/Octavia Plan provides no money for more buses or streetcars for the 10,000 new residents that the plan encourages in the heart of San Francisco, which is already the second most densely-populated city in the country, behind only New York City.

And I haven't mentioned another progressive housing "achievement": The Rincon Hill highrise condos for the wealthy championed by Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin, and Ross Mirkarimi. Or the Central Subway and the grotesque terminal project that is based on the unlikely assumption that high-speed rail trains will someday arrive and depart in downtown San Francisco.

Wachs and Eskenazi don't mention those dubious prog triumphs. Or the crucial, early prog failure on the homeless issue, which Gavin Newsom rode into the mayor's office in 2003.

The likely legacy of the progressive class of 2000: a lot of destructive, neighborhood-destroying development and increasing traffic gridlock, as the Bicycle Plan and other anti-car "improvements" are implemented on busy city streets.

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