It’s time for Gavin Newsom and the State Lands Commission, which Newsom chairs, to drop its lawsuit against the people of San Francisco, which seeks to silence our voice in development decisions about The City’s waterfront.
On Dec. 16, the City Attorney will be back in court defending the right of the people of San Francisco to have a say in major land use decisions that will determine the shape of our waterfront for generations. But now that San Francisco voters have approved not one but two different large, waterfront development projects in the past year, it’s clear voters having a say along the way leads to a more balanced, open and healthy process for major waterfront development decisions that result in better projects.
In June 2014, San Francisco voters from every neighborhood overwhelmingly approved Proposition B, the Waterfront Height Limit Right to Vote Act. This followed the voters’ resounding rejection of the proposed waterfront height limit increase for luxury condos at 8 Washington St., which showed the flaw in the existing process that resulted in backroom deals crafted to suit lobbyists and politically connected developers. Instead, Prop. B has made clear that exceptions to the existing height limits and waterfront plan in place to create a balanced San Francisco’s waterfront cannot simply be treated as “optional” but should be respected and abided by, unless an extraordinary need calls for an exception from voters.
We’ve seen this exact process play out twice over the last year, each time resulting in voters approving new waterfront development projects that are more balanced, include more affordable housing and have far more credibility as publicly vetted projects. In November 2014, voters approved Proposition F, allowing the construction of a large mixed use project at Pier 70 on the formerly industrial southern waterfront. The developers’ original proposal had far taller builders and less affordable housing than what voters approved — changes clearly made to earn the support of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which strongly supported the measure.
A similar scenario played out in this last election, where voters approved Proposition D, the Giants’ proposed waterfront development project at Seawall Lot 337 south of the ballpark. As with Pier 70, the Giants originally proposed far taller towers and less affordable housing, but made smart changes to earn the support of a broad coalition and ultimately the voters on Election Day. While some of us still did not think the project was modified enough, the voters heard the arguments and voted on election day to approve the project. That’s exactly how it should work.
However, if Lt. Gov. Newsom and the other members of the State Lands Commission don’t change course, a shadow of uncertainty will continue to hang over our waterfront for at least another year while their lawsuit against San Francisco plays out. This no longer makes sense, since the core rationale for the lawsuit was that voters would block everything.
Since Prop. B passed and the State Lands Commission’s lawsuit was filed, the evidence shows that waterfront planning and development has progressed in a healthy way. Two large projects were modified and approved. The Port of San Francisco has undertaken the first comprehensive review and update to the Waterfront Land Use Plan since it was first created nearly two decades ago. A new entertainment venue to bring the excitement of Teatro Zinzanni back to The Embarcadero is moving forward. And the 8 Washington Project — while still being kept on life support by the Port — has firmly become the symbol in almost everyone’s mind of exactly the wrong way to create something on San Francisco’s waterfront. The right way is to include the people of San Francisco in the process, and move forward for a waterfront that is shaped in an open, forward-thinking and balanced way. It’s time for Lt. Gov. Newsom and the State Lands Commission to stop suing the people of San Francisco and instead start working with us for a waterfront we can all be proud of and enjoy for decades to come.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.