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SFBARF keeps the Sierra Club in check

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An artist’s rendering of the Mission Rock project is shown here. (Courtesy SF Giants)
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Winter is coming, or maybe it’s just election season. In the Game of Thrones that is San Francisco politics, House Progressive is poised to challenge new housing projects. But Sonja Trauss, founder of San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, is mounting a defense. Trauss has recruited 200 new members to the Sierra Club — a major progressive player — and hopes to conquer its leadership. Some worry, if she succeeds, The City will lose an advocate for smart development. But after looking at this year’s ballot, I worry the environmental group forgot what smart development means.

I’m a fan of the Sierra Club. I even interned for them in college. When the club and former Mayor Art Agnos, opposed 8 Washington in 2013, I agreed luxury condos don’t belong on The City’s waterfront. When the Sierra Club and progressive groups pushed Proposition B in 2014, I voted for more waterfront development oversight.

But this year, the Sierra Club is testing my loyalty. Proposition D allows buildings on part of the Mission Rock site near China Basin to exceed one story. If it passes, a vibrant San Francisco neighborhood with access to transit and approximately 600 affordable homes will begin environmental review. If it fails, the site will remain a parking lot.

Prop. D has the endorsement of Agnos and other progressive groups, but the Sierra Club wants it to fail. Last year, the club supported Pier 70, another big mixed-use development near the Dogpatch. The major difference between the two projects is Pier 70 will have shorter buildings. Is height the only reason the Sierra Club broke ties with Agnos? Or has some evil sorceress lured it away from House Progressive?

John Rizzo, the local Sierra Club’s political committee chair, explained building height was a major factor behind the club’s decision to oppose, but also said buildings would be too close to the waterfront and there would be too much office space. I think we were looking at different projects, though.

I saw a project with a major waterfront park and 40 percent of the proposed 1,500 rental homes designated affordable — the most ever for a private project in San Francisco history.

Jon Golinger, an environmental attorney, waterfront advocate and friend of the club, admitted the Mission Rock project has a lot of attractive features, and the Giants, the project proponent, are a good developer. But he worried supporting the project would lead waterfront development down a slippery slope.

This is a weak justification. The slippery slope argument is used by people afraid of change — people against gay marriage, marijuana legalization and, here, waterfront development. But adopting a narrow definition of smart development won’t prevent change in San Francisco — it will only devalue Sierra Club’s opposition.

That’s why I’m happy SFBARF has challenged the club — the fresh blood may wake up its leadership. Neither Rizzo nor Golinger could convince me to vote no on Prop. D because increasing height limits for affordable housing is not bad for the environment. The City needs more affordable housing, and locating it on the site of an existing parking lot makes environmental sense. The public can consider the details — water use, energy use and sea level rise — during the environmental review process.

A new Sierra Club leadership may help it avoid mistakes, like opposing Prop. D, in the future. Trauss assured me SFBARF only wants the environmental group to stop opposing projects simply because they exceed height limits. Plus, the Sierra Club has a system of checks to assure groups don’t go rogue. Instead of pursuing a development-at-all-costs agenda, SFBARF may remind the club what smart development actually means.

The Sierra Club’s positions on the ballot matters in a city that takes pride in being an environmental model for the world. Its positions matter to me. It’s time for the Sierra Club to banish the evil sorceress and at least return to House Progressive.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist, who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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