Garcia: In deep at the port

Playing politics with the Port of San Francisco has resulted in some titanically bad ideas over the years, slowing the development of some of The City’s most valuable property.

But a new port director and a new Port Commission have helped navigate the agency through troubled waters in the last few years, as it worked to find ways to raise more than $1 billion in revenues for seismic retrofits and pier restorations.

Yet those plans ran into a seawall recently when a few neighborhood organizations managed to push through amendments to a state Senate bill without the sponsor’s knowledge. The sponsor of the legislation happened to be the Port of San Francisco, which now finds itself in the position of trying to stop a bill it created from being passed in its present form. And if that doesn’t show how politics can result in poor public policy, nothing will, since the bill — carried by state Sen. Carole Migden — would usurp local planning controls and take away flexibility for future development at some key sites along The Embarcadero.

And the main objection to the port’s plans will surprise no one — it would potentially infringe on the views of those fortunate enough to live on Telegraph Hill and adjoining neighborhoods.

“We thought it was our bill done at our request,’’ said Ann Lazarus, president of the Port Commission. “We thought we had met the neighborhood organizations’ concerns, but these are not amendments we do support then or now.’’

The storyline goes like this: Port officials have been negotiating with the state Lands Commission for two years to get the agency to relax some restrictions on “trust’’ lands — protected properties governed by arcane regulations dating back to Roman times. The port wants to be able to develop commercial, retail, residential and entertainment sites on waterfront properties.

Migden’s bill would allow the port to rent outa number of seawall properties that are used as parking lots, properties that serve as view corridors and public rights of way, and also transfer a 36-acre parcel on Treasure Island to local control. However, the last-minute amendments added when the bill was in committee a few weeks ago would place 40-foot height and some bulk limits on several key seawall parcels along the northeastern end of the Embarcadero and would have the effect of making those restrictions state law — completely excising local planning controls out of the process.

Similar height restrictions, added at the 11th hour by the Board of Supervisors, killed a long-planned hotel project on Broadway along The Embarcadero two years ago. Port officials believe that the mandatory limits would make it hard to attract developers, and if SB 815 were to pass, any project that included a plan for a 50-foot property would require the proponents to get the state legislature to change the law.

Taking local planning controls out of The City’s hands is about as smart as giving officials from Fresno the ability to determine what San Francisco’s skyline should look like. And limiting development options for a bunch of parking lots is just as likely going to keep the seawall properties as parking lots, which even most neighborhood organizations could agree is not an attractive option.

But the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, which spawned Supervisor Aaron Peskin, is not your average neighborhood group. And other groups like the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association and the Friends of the Golden Gate have their own interests — stopping a condominium project from being built at 8 Washington St.

Is this a case where the benefits of the few take precedence over the needs of the many? This is San Francisco — do you really have to ask?

For her part, Migden says port officials protest too much. (And apparently the mayor of San Francisco, who was beside himself when he learned about the last-minute changes to the bill, does as well.)

“We’re giving the port 75 or 80 percent of what they want and we’re just asking them to exercise a little restraint,” Migden told me. “We’re talking about a precious part of San Francisco and once you lose the views of that splendorous coast, it’s lost forever and you can’t get it back.”

As proof, she said, one of the lots, leased to the San Francisco Giants for parking, will have no height restrictions “and it’s by far the biggest.’’

Lazarus said port officials plan to sit down with the neighborhood groups and hope to reach some compromise. Of course, they already thought they had before the bill was introduced.

Maybe there is a reason why those parking lots have remained all these years.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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