Friday, February 09, 2007

Aaron Peskin and the Jaws of Life

It must have taken the jaws of life to pry Chris Smith's lips off Aaron Peskin's hairy ass before he could write his fawning article in the current issue of San Francisco magazine ("Captain of the Skyline," Feb., 2007).

Peskin is a triple-threat guy: a "combination of neighborhood activist and master planner, an environmentalist willing to break bread with the city's biggest developers."

"In the post-Brown years, the Board of Supervisors has become a de facto planning commission, with Peskin its most knowledgeable and forceful member."

Peskin is an intellectual, who once actually read a book:

In fact, Peskin's roots are in New Urbanism: in college, he read a lot of Jane Jacobs, author of the movement's ur-text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and he preaches the New Urbanist gospel of density and transit-first community-nurturing solutions to city life...You get the sense that in Peskin's ideal world, there would be no need for skyscrapers or big new developments. But given our perpetual housing crunch and the Bay Area's ever-increasing population, it's a moot point. So Peskin tries to mold each new project into a shape he can live with.

A developer of course likes Peskin: "Aaron has a keen interest in seeing that the process is honest and fair."

Peskin is Super Planner: "...Peskin has demonstrated a grasp of detail unrivaled among city politicians. Talk to him for any length of time and he's likely to cite, chapter and verse, from the 1200-page city planning code."

Dean Macris likes Peskin: "In all my years, I've never seen a supervisor more informed about the code or how the department functions."

The architect of Rincon Towers, not surprisingly, likes Peskin: "Aaron gets it---he gets how big projects fit into the landscape, physically and politically. He's got the feel for the whole picture."

During public comment at the BOS, Peskin loves the Little People: "Peskin, as far as I can tell, is all rapt attention, absorbed in the concerns of his esteemed, if highly eccentric, constituents."

Peskin is both Godfather and regular guy:

Peskin, in shorts, flip-flops, and a madras shirt, sits outside Caffe Trieste. One after another, people stop by to pay their respects. Peskin receives each graciously, teasing and gossiping, sprinkling his comments with snippets of Cantonese, Hebrew, and Bahasa Indonesia. He's their guy, a local hero.

Peskin is a pretty tough hombre: "Also, it has to be said, Peskin isn't afraid to mix it up, stopping just short of actual fisticuffs. The city's famously fratricidal politics has always bred tough guys."

Peskin---and Chris Daly---are likened to Harry Bridges!

It was along the Embarcadero's concrete piers that union leader 'Red' Harry Bridges organized the longshoremen in the 1930s, standing up to the shipping companies, the police, and the invective of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Peskin and Chris Daly, the city's modern-day liberals, carry on that tradition.

HANC's Calvin Welch likes Peskin: "You get the most flak when you are over the target."

Peskin is fighting for the soul of San Francisco:

It's easy to see why Peskin's supporters love him: he speaks of the city as sacred ground, of the skyline as a sacrament, along with the neighborhood park, the corner market...At bottom it's a fight for the soul of the city, a struggle over who gets to chart our future.

Peskin doesn't really like highrises, in spite of his support for Rincon Towers: "No matter how many dramatic projects come across his desk, Peskin is at heart a low-rise guy."

Peskin lives on Telegraph Hill in North Beach, very much a low-rise neighborhood, but "he knows better than anyone that what works for North Beach doesn't necessarily play south of Market." What apparently does play south of Market are 4,000 condos for the rich in residential highrises on Rincon Hill. 

I've blamed Supervisor Daly for this atrocity, but of course it couldn't have happened without the support of the rest of the Board of Supervisors, especially Peskin. True, there wasn't much of architectural significance in that area before, but why not let a neighborhood evolve over time within the city's lowrise zoning regulations?

Instead, we have the 4,000 highrise condos on Rincon Hill, and 4,000 more in the nearby Transbay area, along with another 6,000 new housing units at Mission Bay, though the latter has a height limit of a mere 17 stories, unlike Rincon Hill and Transbay, which will have highrises up to 100 stories high. 

And there are 15-20 more highrises planned for the Transbay area. Add up the population gain for all these developments and you get a total of more than 30,000 new city residents by 2020. How anyone can call these reckless changes good planning is a mystery to me, not to mention the city's skyline, which Peskin allegedly sees as a "sacrament."

Peskin on all these highrises south of Market:

I have mixed feelings. Part of me is proud that we've made some ground-breaking decisions. Part of me worries about what San Francisco will become...Cities evolve, and we have to grow. We're not scared of building highrises. Density is a good thing...But let's be smart about it. We have to ask why.

But "why" is just the question that is never answered by Peskin, Daly, or any of the other short-sighted boosters for this kind of development. Why is all this density good and "smart"? How much density can the city's infrastructure really handle? I guess we're going to find out.

Sounds to me like Peskin's political vanity is flattered that he is now such a big political player in SF, but to him the actual future of the city he's creating seems to be a secondary issue. When all this reckless development is done, Peskin and the other "progressive" supervisors will be long gone, and he will be retired to his beloved lowrise North Beach:

To me this is urban paradise...Three stories of housing above ground-floor retail, building-to-building, historic fabric, sense of community, weird people---this is it. When I think about dying and going to heaven, if I could be reincarnated in North Beach I'd be quite happy.

He's helping to create a very different kind of city on Rincon Hill, in the Transbay area, and at Mission Bay. 

It's ironic that the present Board of Supervisors, allegedly so progressive, is proudly facilitating the gentrification of San Francisco, which will make it much more difficult for anyone but the well-off to live in the livable, low-rise city neighborhoods that manage to survive the tsunami of development Peskin is encouraging.

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At 4:30 PM, Anonymous Bixwell Dobson said...

So.. do you agree or disagree with Peskin? I'm not fond of the high rises everywhere nor they fact that they sell to mostly rich second homeowners, but what's the dang solution to demand?

Frankly, I think Treasure Island should have upwards of 10,000 homes on it, and more still on the Alameda Naval Air station. THey could become very cool places to live, take preasure off the city, and not be massive skyscraper jungles.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

My dear Bix, of course I disagree with Peskin. We have an affordable housing shortage, not a shortage of housing for rich people, who, oddly, never seem to be short of housing.

10,000 homes is a big project. San Francisco is not obligated to overdevelop to satisfy ABAG. Anyhow, I distruct all large projects. Keep it small, keep it low, provide a parking space for every unit. Avoid big projects with Orwellian names, like Better Neighborhoods.

At 12:10 AM, Anonymous Bixwell Dobson said...

Right... but dont' you reckon if we build nothing everyone gets priced out?

10,000 on Treasure island isn't a lot for something that big. If one chump did it all at once it would probably degrade, but if it were many, many developers then it might retain some character, no?

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...


At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we're going to build these developments, why don't we build them with ZERO parking spots per unit.

All the bike people can then go move in.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Good idea. Since they also seem to fit in a similar demographic profile---white, well-off, and young---they would probably be happier if they all lived together, where they would be safer from all the wicked motor vehicles in SF. Eventually, that part of town might achieve a critical mass, so to speak, against global warming and the oil companies.

At 12:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Keep it small, keep it low, provide a parking space for every unit." You do realize, right, that if you tried to do this, prices would skyrocket, just as they have? Or do you not? You can have that. It is the rest of America, and you only have to go as far as the Sunset to get it. Get a life.


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