Right time to give us a break

Filmmaker Woody Allen once famously said the only cultural advantage of living in California is the ability to make a right turn on a red light.

For a lot of state drivers, it didn’t turn out to be much of an advantage — more like a costly mistake.

This week, Sacramento lawmakers debated the merits of a bill to reduce the fines for rolling through a turn on a red light by nearly one-third. The measure, authored by Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would lower the base fine from $100 to $35 and reduce the ticket amount from $450 to $219.

How refreshing — a legislator actually attempting to lower fines in these tough economic times.

But Hill said the ticket reduction is more a matter of fairness. He wants to roll the fines back to 1997 levels, when the Legislature passed increased penalties for running red lights, but inadvertently amended the state vehicle code to include infractions for right turns as well.
And in the intervening years, the costs of those fines doubled, averaging $450 to $500.

Red-light camera companies that get money from the fines lobbied against the bill, which the Assembly approved and sent it to the governor’s desk Wednesday. It’s unclear whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign it.

Still, given his driving record, I think that might be a good idea — one of the very few times Sacramento has a chance to actually give something back to its constituents.

Newsom staffer was the man behind the man

The first real sign that Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration is easing to an end — lieutenant governor’s job or not — came last week when the mayor’s top development director resigned. For someone who specialized in big deals, Michael Cohen’s departure is a big deal — he was arguably the most important staffer in Newsom’s entire administration.

Newsom wouldn’t argue it. I can’t tell you how many times over the years the mayor said to me: “Thank God for Michael Cohen.”

It was Cohen who negotiated the development agreements at the Hunters Point shipyard and Treasure Island, the two largest housing and retail projects to come to San Francisco in decades. Despite constant offers to leave for lucrative positions in the private sector, Cohen stayed on because he was determined to complete those plans. He called it unfinished business.

And he did it all while navigating San Francisco’s explosive political landscape — the equivalent of running through a minefield while blindfolded.

“One of great paradoxes about big cities is that they have to grow or they wither and die,” he said. “And San Francisco has a limited footprint, but all these incredible urban villages. So, the question always was how do you grow and not compromise these villages?”

The answer was to take advantage of the largely abandoned southern waterfront and try to transform it into The City’s newest village.
Also, Cohen took hold of San Francisco’s natural cultural ties with China to forge future development deals in a private partnership that should bear fruit for generations.

“The economic future of San Francisco is very bright if we don’t screw it up,” he said.

That’s a big if.

Cohen’s brilliance as a negotiator and an innovator will be felt for decades. His absence from city government probably will, too.

No budget deal, but cats are safe

Despite California’s deepening fiscal woes, we still don’t have a budget and it’s two months past due. But don’t think our pet guardians in the state capital aren’t working hard to protect our true interests.

In fact, they’ve been very busy in the last days of this legislative session.

This week, lawmakers approved a bill that would prohibit landlords from requiring tenants to declaw their cats. The measure’s author called it “unconscionable” that any landlord would even include such a thing in a lease.

Personally, I find the state’s $20 billion deficit unconscionable. But then I don’t own a cat.

Slow pace key to mid-Market revitalization

The reason that all the grand plans for developing mid-Market Street in San Francisco have failed, readers tell me, is that the hoped-for revitalization of the area doesn’t rest on some grand plan.

It will happen one building and one addict-removal at a time.

I received more than two dozen responses to my column this week on the persistent problems plaguing the long stretch of Market Street that has bedeviled developers, merchants and city officials for decades, and the general consensus came down to two themes.

Deal with the chronic inebriates and homeless people that call the place home. And then, start selling the place for the attractive bargain that it is.

Longtime leasing broker David Klein, who brought to the area the Blick Art Materials store that officially opened last week amid much fanfare, said the national group that owns it balked at the idea of moving to mid-Market when the idea was first broached.

They weren’t alone. Even Starbucks — Starbucks! — balked at opening an outlet there years ago.

“There was a lot of resistance initially; they said they didn’t think it would be a good idea,” Klein told me. “I just tried to get them to approach it with an open mind because the perception of mid-Market doesn’t really have a strong factual foundation.”

They were ultimately sold on the details: A large space in a classic building with abundant parking. The cost per square foot is about half what Blick’s was paying at their previous store on Van Ness Avenue.

Reader Irving Waldorf said it’s because of the people who congregate there. “The problems of mid-Market Street involve not only the rundown building but the people who inhabit the area,” he wrote. “If they get rid of the criminals and the bums, it could be on the road to recovery.”

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