Saturday, November 26, 2011

The intellectual failure of San Francisco progressives

Illustration: 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 affordable 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, 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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At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's all about cars to you isn't it? Even your complaints about housing pretty much all go back to cars.

Ignoring the success of Healthy SF is an insult.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I agree that Healthy SF can be listed as a success, but, since it was/is also supported by so-called city moderates, progs can't claim it as their achievement alone. Besides, the authors of the SF Weekly article don't even mention it.

They don't mention the Living Wage ordinance authored by Matt Gonzalez, either. Or the improvements that Chris Daly and Randy Shaw helped make in the living conditions for SRO residents. Issues like that may not qualify as Big Ideas, but they have positive and lasting effects for a lot of people.

The authors' grasp of city issues is clearly too tenuous to make the sweeping claims they make in the article. That they cite the appalling Market/Octavia Plan as a progresive success is way off base, as anyone who knows anything about a plan that's a developer's wet dream understands.

Development and traffic are intimately related, a reality that bike people and city progressives in general apparently deny (the Bicycle Coalition supports the M/O Plan only because it limits the parking developers can provide for the thousands of new housing units the Plan encourages). You and other bike people are quick to comment on my posts critical of the bike people and the city's anti-car policies, but you never comment on my many posts on the city's dumb "smart growth" policies typified by the M/O Plan and the UC project on lower Haight Street.

You can't okay massive development projects---the M/O Plan, UC's extension project, Treasure Island, Parkmerced---without a more serious consideration of the impact they will have on city traffic. Yet that's exactly what the city is doing, as if bicycles and a chronically underfunded Muni are somehow going to cure this reckless approach to development.

The City Hall politicians and the Planning Commissioners who approved these projects will be enjoying their generous retirement benefits by the time the impact of this kind of development on San Francisco becomes clear.

At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who said I was a bike person?

Regarding Healthy SF - currently many restaurants in SF charge a surcharge for Healthy SF. Instead of passing the costs on to customers as a price increase, they tack it on at the end, distorting the actual price paid and making sure that the customers know that "You are paying more because the City is making us provide Health Care".

The best part? If the employees don't use the money put into Healthy SF by the employer - the employer KEEPS THE LEFTOVER MONEY.

David Campos - as prog as it gets - is trying to close this loophole. Who is trying to keep it? The MODERATES. No wonder they supported it - it was an excellent way for businesses to raise prices in the guise of providing health care while putting it into their own pockets! Now that the loophole is under attack - the Elsbernd and Farrell are circling the wagons.

At 10:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The MO plan will tear about the existing residential areas in western SOMA that are directly (less than 35 feet) from 400 foot tall monster residential high rises. The Planning Commission could have cared less! No where else in San Francisco are 400 foot high rises placed next to 35 foot apartment buildings, what were the planners thinking? People living in those towers will STILL own cares and will cruise endlessly looking for parking spaces in the west SOMA residential enclaves.

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I don't necessarily disagree. Your assumption seems to be that I would naturally oppose whatever progressives propose and support whatever so-called moderates propose. My view, which I've stated for years on this blog, is that such ideological distinctions are of little use when analyzing local issues.

What's annoying about SF progressives is that they routinely assume their half-baked, class-struggle ideology gives them some special insight on local issues,when the opposite is often the case.

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

How is this relevant to the post? Something to do with Smart[sic]Growth, cars, and bicycles?


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