San Francisco’s waterfront has become the epicenter of development battles as the prized land has become increasingly desirable for hotels, commercial space and luxury condos. However, a new proposal has raised the stakes and could dampen ambitious plans such as the Warriors arena or the Pier 70 housing and retail development.
A ballot measure proposed for the June election would require voter approval if developments exceed existing waterfront height limits, which generally range from 40 to 105 feet.
While critics may lambaste the effort as anti-development, proponents say the measure is necessary to protect the beloved waterfront.
Under the measure, the existing height limits on Port of San Francisco property would be enshrined. If a development were proposed that would exceed those height limits, voters would have to approve it. Currently, developments that seek to increase height limits can do so with approvals from the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.
Supporters of the proposal say the current practice isn’t working. They point to the recent 8 Washington St. luxury condominium waterfront development. The contentious project was approved by the Board of Supervisors and city commissions, but when opponents took the project to the ballot in November they won, overriding City Hall’s decision makers.
The official proponent of the measure is Rebecca Evans, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter, who’s long been at the forefront of waterfront issues. Evans said she was asked by Jon Golinger, who led the anti-8 Washington campaign, to take the lead. The new effort is an “outgrowth” of that campaign, said Jim Stearns, the measure’s political consultant.
Evans predicted that voters would support the measure.
“I think that they care about the waterfront,” she said, noting that “it’s not aimed at the Warriors” specifically. She deflected anti-development criticism by calling the measure “pro-livable, pro-clean air, pro-view.”
“It is in the interest of San Francisco to preserve a unique and vibrant vital waterfront with adequate public views of, and access to, the City and San Francisco Bay,” the measure says.
That echoes the waterfront plan adopted in response to the voter-approved Proposition H in 1990 requiring a land-use policy. Stearns said the measure ensures residents “regain their voice” on waterfront development.
How the measure would impact waterfront development projects in the planning stages remains unclear.
“I don’t think it kills anything,” Stearns said.
Backers are going after the June ballot in response to the rise in development projects. “The speed at which these developments are being proposed is alarming,” Stearns said.
It would take 9,702 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the urban policy think tank SPUR, was critical of the measure.
“The ballot box is the worst place to make complicated planning decisions,” he said.
Warriors spokesman PJ Johnston said it was too early to comment on the measure, but, “We’re prepared to make our case to the voters if need be.”
One thing is clear: Going to the ballot can be both costly and risky.
Developer Simon Snellgrove’s campaign for 8 Washington spent at least $1.8 million and lost, and that was after years of going through The City’s approval process.