Planning Commission power vacuum may endanger housing projects

Welcome, folks, to the newly hobbled San Francisco Planning Commission.

Housing proposals seeking approval in The City may see a challenging September, as will advocates seeking vital concessions from the deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars impacting the lives of thousands of San Franciscans.

That’s because the Planning Commission is down two members, from seven to five. And now the diminished board may vote to approve major projects in at least two meetings in September. (If new appointments to the commission stall, it could be shorthanded even longer.)

Tentatively, those major projects range from approvals of a residential tower at 950 Mission St. and a 13-story tower on First Street, to a possible vote on converting scofflaw Academy of Art University dorms into legal housing.

The two appointees to the commission would replace outgoing members Michael Antonini — rumor has it he will not be reappointed by the mayor — and Cindy Wu — appointed by the Board of Supervisors and who declined to seek reappointment.

That means Mayor Ed Lee and Board of Supervisors President London Breed need to figure out their new appointments, and fast.

With only five planning commissioners, it’s easier to muck up the process.

Sources warn a two-member bloc could team up to delay or kill project approvals — or, perhaps, steamroll through community advocates fighting for endangered tenants.

One of those advocates is Chirag Bhakta of the Mission SRO Collaborative, who speaks at the Planning Commission “more often than [he’d] like.”

Bhakta warned if the new appointees are both deferential to developers, “the community’s voice and pressure on the Planning Commission will diminish.”

The City Charter describes the Planning Commission as a body that makes “recommendations” to the board and the mayor. Ipso facto, it is independent.

Yet it’s a political truth that mayoral commissioners answer to the mustachioed man in the gilded dome.

That’s not a personal knock on mayoral appointees’ independence, but they are subject to political realities. Even more bedeviling, the mayor’s pick will need to be approved by the progressive-led Board of Supervisors.

Someone familiar with the appointment process told On Guard the Mayor’s Office is having difficulty finding someone who “meets their ideological needs” who can also pass muster with the progressives.

For her part, Breed said she’s looking at four possible appointees who are “pretty darn amazing,” two of whom she considers in the lead.

“I’m struggling with my decision now,” she said.

Importantly, Breed told me, “I hope they’re politically independent.”

Both the board and the Planning Commission are now in August recess. But even if Breed’s appointment moves through the traditional approvals process once the board reconvenes on Sept. 6, that appointee may still miss at least two Planning Commission meetings.

How the hobbled commission will fare is entirely up to those remaining members and if they can — or can’t — find consensus.

* * *

Speaking of mayoral power, yours truly sat on stage with comedian Will Durst and Da Mayor, Willie Brown last week at The Marsh.

The “Will and Willie Show” was a gas. The two Ws and I chopped it up on the state Senate race — no one in the audience had a clue what positions candidates Scott Wiener and Jane Kim held, for instance — and the public advocate, which got Willie so irritated you’d think someone accused him of wearing a raggedy suit.

The hour-long show is linked in this column online. A few standout moments:

First, I asked Willie if he could name the first three of San Francisco’s monstrously numerous (25) ballot propositions.

“No, not by a longshot!” he said.

Secondly, I asked Willie about the cool million he took to allegedly twist District Attorney George Gascon’s arm to drop a case against accused batterer Gurbaksh Chahal.

(The Silicon Valley darling allegedly kicked his girlfriend 117 times on video. Willie said repeatedly he represented Chahal as an attorney, but court representation is a far cry from back-room power plays.)

Willie suavely replied, “The gentleman was a client of mine, and when I could not provide him with the representation he needed, I returned his unused money.”

So I asked the natural next question: What happened to the used money?

Deafening silence from Willie, who was quickly saved by Durst.

“He gave it to me!” Durst exclaimed.

Lastly, and perhaps timely, considering the Planning Commission’s current predicament, Willie talked about appointments during his time as mayor.

Brown said he told his appointees, “You are free to vote any way you wish when you’re elected. But if I appoint you, you only have one constituent — and that’s me.”

So, any takers for serving on the Planning Commission?

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter.

If You’re in the Stands, Keep Your Eye on the Ball

California Supreme Court has ruled fans assume the risk of being struck by balls, bats

Caltrain seeks $260 million to complete electrification

State budget surplus eyed to finish transformative rail project

Future of the Castro Theatre? Depends where you sit

Historical preservation and cinephile experience up against live-event upgrades