Friday, August 24, 2007

Matt Smith, Art Agnos, and the End of History

Matt Smith goes deep this week in the SF Weekly with some Big Thoughts about the End of History in San Francisco, with a nod to Francis Fukuymana in a lame attempt to give his banal, ill-informed ruminations a patina of intellectual respectability.

Smith pushes former mayor Art Agnos to the fore as an exemplar of the kind of leadership SF needs. Agnos supposedly won't run against Mayor Newsom this year because he thinks city politics and issues are trivial---Smith uses "twee" to describe our political struggles---and beneath the consideration of someone like Agnos, who Smith thinks has "gravitas." 

After all, Agnos just got back from Sierra Leone:

"Twenty-five percent of children in that country die before age 5. Seventy percent of the people are unemployed...I saw more pet clinics for dogs and cats than I did health clinics in that country for human beings. We have emergency pet clinics. Jesus Christ! Then I drove by 14th Street and Howard, and there's a billboard for the Wag Hotel for dogs and cats. Rooms are $80 per night with a la carte extras that include an evening stroll for $15, belly rubs for $20." So it was that San Francisco lost one of its last remaining progressive hopes to confront incumbent Gavin Newsom in November's mayoral election, because Agnos had determined San Francisco had become so twee a place that it wasn't worth his time and energy.

Bullshit. Agnos simply understands that he would have been buried by Newsom, since many city voters remember the homeless encampment at Civic Center during Agnos's tenure as mayor. Agnos commissioned a poll of city voters before he left for Sierra Leone, and I was among those called to answer questions he wanted answered before he ran against Newsom. As a Newsom supporter, my answers would have given little comfort to Agnos. One of the questions asked was whether I remembered the Civic Center homeless encampment when Agnos was mayor, but I had to tell the pollster that I wasn't living in the city at the time, but I bet enough city voters remember to give Agnos pause.

Dealing with homelessness the last several years has been one of Newsom's strengths, but it wasn't for Agnos when he was mayor. How would he have approached the homeless issue in a campaign against Newsom? By claiming that he could do it better than Newsom's Care Not Cash, Project Homeless Connect, Homeward Bound, and supportive housing? That would have been a hard sell, which is a likelier explanation for his decision not to run, not our alleged "preoccupation with trifles," as Smith would have it.

SF is struggling with homelessness, gun violence, affordable housing, traffic, unemployment among young black people, Muni, etc. These problems aren't serious enough for Art "Gravitas" Agnos to tackle?

Smith rarely does any real reporting and specializes in fact-free rants. He cites Fukuyama without naming the book that made him famous---or using any direct quotes---because the citation is pseudo-intellectual flim-flam to dress up a dumb argument. (His other citation is an article in The Economist, but he gets the date of publication wrong.)

Smith's argument:

We're becoming an American version of Monte Carlo or Venice. These are cities preserved as they were eons ago for the benefit of tourists, where the only locals are rich holdouts with a keen taste for stasis...The 2000 exodus of young people was permanent; the percentage of San Franciscans in their 20s has dropped by more than a third since the dotcom boom. The city has fewer young people, poor people, black people, Latino people, and fewer families of any race.

The city's ongoing gentrification isn't news to anyone who lives here, and the claim that there are fewer young people in the city doesn't ring true. Seems like there are a lot of young people everywhere I go in SF; it would have been nice if Smith gave us a citation for that claim. Yes, gentrification in SF is alarming, just as it was in what Smith sees as the glory days of the dotcom boom:

The city's potentially best, brightest, youngest, and most culturally and racially diverse---but, alas, not richest---are setting stakes instead in Oakland and Sacramento. To lure these people back would require an apartment-building boom the likes of which the city hasn't seen since early this century in order to solve a price-goosing apartment shortage of between 30,000 and 70,000 units. The city's dynamism-loathing majority population has indicated on countless occasions that it would never countenance such a project.

Where does Smith get the 30,000-70,000 number? From the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which is also cited by the Planning Dept. to justify its aggressive pro-development push for market-rate housing in SF (Rincon Hill, Market/Octavia Plan, the UC proposal for the old extension property, the Mid-Market Plan, the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, etc.) In short, the city is already doing exactly what Smith wants it to do---encouraging the construction of thousands of new market-rate housing units hoping that will bring housing costs down.

Where and when has anything like a "dynamism-loathing majority" shown itself in San Francisco? Could we have a single example of this? Unfortunately, there's little dissent on the Board of Supervisors about the Planning Dept.'s aggressive pro-development policy. Even the board's lefties like Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi endorse this Free Market approach to housing in SF---build a whole lot of housing, with a certain percentage of the units allegedly "affordable"---a word that should always be in quotation marks in SF---and maybe prices will go down for everyone.

Smith laments the fact that "the city's greatest vitality is in its dramatically rebounded tourism industry." Again, this is old news. Tourism has been the city's leading industry for decades, long before the dotcom bust and 9/11.

Smith ties up his fact-free rant with what he thinks is an example of how some in the city are hindering "historic progress": Cynthia Servetnick takes him on a tour of the old UC Extension site on lower Haight St. that UC wants to turn into a massive housing project. 

Servetnick and some of us think that the UC project is way too large, that the property---zoned Public Use for 150 years---should be retained for public use, that the historic buildings should be preserved, that UC lied about why it stopped using the site and simply wants to cash in on property it has had tax-free for 50 years. Smith mentions none of this in his stupid, ugly hit on Servetnik.

Yes, gentrification is transforming the city alarmingly, but Cynthia Servetnick is not the problem. She's only trying to save what little public space there is in that part of town from a greedy UC. In fact, the UC development is typical of how the city is approaching housing development---recklessly approving large housing projects with no consideration for traffic, Muni or the quality of life of that part of town, which is further threatened by Planning's Market/Octavia Plan that will rezone thousands of parcels to encourage population density in that area, including 40-story highrises in the Market/Van Ness area.

The truth is that Smith, like the rest of us, doesn't really know what to do about gentrification in San Francisco. How can we preserve our neighborhoods and, in a market economy, still produce large quantities of affordable housing? If he had said that, Smith would at least have been intellectually honest, instead of producing an ugly, ill-informed hit-piece like this.

For the history and context of UC's attempted land-grab, click on "UC Extension" below.

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Servetnick replies to Matt Smith

Cynthia Servetnick ( wrote:

Matt Smith:

As mayor, Art Agnos made strong appointments to the Landmarks Board. We can also thank him for championing the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway which reunited the city with its waterfront and resulted in the creation of the country's largest National Register Historic District. Good preservation planning promotes adaptive reuse. Your story failed to mention that Art is a member of the Advisory Board of openhouse, a well-regarded nonprofit LGBT senior housing developer that has partnered with AF Evans Development to construct the proposed 55 Laguna Mixed Use Project at the UC Berkeley Extension Campus.

In fact, Roberta Achtenberg, who served as Assistant Secretary of Fair Housing at HUD, and Art Agnos, who served as HUD's Regional Director, are credited with bringing AF Evans and openhouse together after Mercy Housing dropped out. Roberta is the current Chair of the CSU Board of Trustees. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of San Francisco as is Arthur Evans, Chairman of the AF Evans Company.
(See this and this 2005 and 2006 Annual Reports Regarding 55 Laguna Street)

AF Evans project manager Ruthy Bennett said, "It's workforce housing. It's rental, it's market rate ($2,000-$4,000/mo.), it's 20 percent affordable. This is everything AF Evans believes in, wrapped up in one development." As a former City of Berkeley planner who worked on their affordable Rental Housing Acquisition Program, I'd be inclined to support the project as described if it were on private land and were not needlessly demolishing National Register-eligible structures. The 55 Laguna Street project has its merits, but they do not justify the rezoning of 5.8 acres of land in the heart of Hayes Valley that has been in public use for over 150 years. See this.

I also served as a UC Berkeley campus planner, and I can assure you the citizens of Berkeley would not stand for the University's making a unilateral decision to virtually dispose of two city blocks in the center of town without conducting a focused community planning process involving residents and other stakeholders to determine the best use of the site. In this case, the City Attorney has opined that title to Waller Street between Buchanan and Laguna, about 15% of the campus, would revert to the City upon rezoning. San Franciscans should demand a public planning process rather than the Community Needs Inventory that is being prepared by SFSU's Recreation and Leisure Studies Department to assist AF Evans in programming the proposed community center.

Finally, I am proud to have assisted New College pro bono in developing a proposal that would retain all five historic buildings, as well as the historic educational use and public zoning, for analysis in the UC/AF Evans/openhouse 55 Laguna Mixed Use Project EIR. When Fort Mason was decommissioned, we explored options that best served the community; there's no reason we can't do it again. I think SF Weekly readers would appreciate your spending more time researching your stories than contemplating the end of San Francisco's history.

The SF Bay Guardian got this story right in their 4/17/07 editorial, "UC Extension project a bad deal. Exactly 13 out of the 85 units of LGBT housing would be available to anyone who isn't wealthy."

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"Progress" in Hayes Valley and the SF Weekly

From: Michael Mullin
Date: Aug 23, 2007
Subject: Matt Smith "The End of Our Progress," August 22, 2007[below in italics]

Dear Tom Walsh, Editor of SF Weekly

This article shamefully misrepresented the context of the proposed rezoning and redevelopment of the UC Berkeley Extension Campus. Recent zoning for Hayes Valley in the Octavia/Market Plan will double the population there. This zoning was developed in a community process which assumed the existence of the open space and public use of the Laguna Street Campus. The proposed rezoning and redevelopment of the campus marks the failure of one of the City's rare attempts at pro-active community-based city planning. 

This neighborhood already suffers the negative effects of high density, poor planning and limited open space, including violent crime. The City has no planning process for future public uses like social services. Without the campus, quality of life in the neighborhood deteriorates. Surely the City should apply standards for the development of planned open space and public services in areas of intense housing development. 

When this City was founded, that land was set aside for public use, demonstrating remarkable foresight that should not be forgotten. UC Berkeley was given this land in 1957 in order that they provide higher education there. If this land is now rezoned and redeveloped, then the lost potential for public services and open space will be felt most strongly by the residents of the many neighboring affordable family housing apartments, not to mention those soon to be developed.

Michael Mullin,
CEO Michael Mullin 
Architect, LTD

Ironically, to the extent local social struggle happens at all here, it's often aimed at making San Francisco even more staid and rich. One such effort happened to take place right next to the gay-homeland Castro neighborhood.

I spent a lunch hour last month with Cynthia Servetnick, a Public Utilities Commission employee who has used her off time during the past year or so struggling to stop UC Berkeley from leasing its abandoned extension campus in S.F. at 55 Laguna St. to a housing developer.

Servetnick led me around the site, consisting of several large parking lots surrounded by a mix of Spanish-colonial-style and 1970s California-government-bureaucracy-style buildings. She bemoaned the idea that the site would be occupied by "market rate" apartments, something she stated San Francisco doesn't need more of. She praised the success of activists in Berkeley, another Venice-like city whose residents have shunned growth.

"San Francisco could learn a lot from them," Servetnick said as we strolled through the abandoned buildings.

Servetnick had teamed with the president of the small, private New College of California to try to halt a proposal to build 440 apartments, 66 of which were to be builder-subsidized for lower-income people; a half-acre park; and 80 apartments for elderly gay and transgender people. Servetnick's plan was to have the property zoned as a historic landmark, making the UC development plan economically impossible, thus driving down the lease rate to a point where New College would be able to afford to occupy the building.

Despite countless months of lobbying by New College President Martin Hamilton and Servetnick, the plan fell apart this month. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin — usually sympathetic to those who would halt change — likened Servetnick's scheme to a City Hall version of tortuous interference, where a person seeks to gain by damaging someone else's business dealings. So Peskin brokered a deal last week allowing the development project to go forward largely as planned. New College, which came under new leadership Aug. 3 for unrelated reasons, is no longer interested in Servetnick's plan, interim New College President Luis Molina told me earlier this month.

This is hardly a return to historic progress in the Monaco of California. But it's a start.

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