Editorial: S.F.’s troubled redevelopment scheme

So maybe the plan to redevelop Bayview-Hunters Point isn’t part of The City’s destiny after all. If a lawsuit filed last week by opponents succeeds, the scheme to make over 1,300 acres of the southeast sector will go on a citywide ballot.

Six months ago, Mayor Gavin Newsom, with strong backing throughout city government, approved the $188 million proposal, a classic urban redevelopment prescription for 3,700 housing units — both market-rate and “affordable” — along with parks, street upgrades and commercial parcels.

City officials could have felt emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court, which just last year ruled, in Kelo v. The City of New London, that local government may seize private property and turn it over to other private interests so long as this new interpretation of eminent domain improved the government’s larger economic picture.

What better place to test this legal boost than Bayview-Hunters Point, with its mixture of low-income residents and homeowners? Indeed, Bayview-Hunters Point enjoys the highest concentration of homeownership in The City. That means lots of property to seize.

It should be said that city officials have gone out of their way to allay such fears. But anxieties in the targeted area still mount. The community’s mostly African-American residents reason they might be forced to leave just ahead of the bulldozers. What Newsom’s signature possibly meant was that The City had taken the first step to declare their neighborhood “blighted,” a legal necessity in order to raze inconvenient dwellings.

Next, the alarmed residents organized, and in September The City’s Department of Elections ascertained that sufficient valid signatures had been collected to call for a redevelopment referendum. Alas for them, City Attorney Dennis Herrera ruled that Mayor Newsom’s signature was more equal than the 21,615 residents’ signatures required for a ballot.

Herrera’s rationale? Although the petition’s language included the ordinance pursuant to the redevelopment plan, it failed to attach the plan itself in all its descriptive glory. Could Herrera really have meant that a signature gatherer should schlep all those volumes and blueprints to each sacred point of sidewalk democracy, there to tutor the targeted residents in all the plan’s fine points?

The plan’s foes interpreted it that way. Hence the lawsuit.

We’re not excited about subjecting the fate of private property to an election, but neither do we like it when developers team with politicians to run roughshod over property rights. It appears The City should offer more assurances and rule out any Kelo fantasies. The mayor’s newly-formed citizen committee can make that a priority.

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