Hardball tactics save Flower Mart

It must be admitted that there is something satisfying about seeing our elected representatives align with legitimate grass-roots priorities and use hardball tactics to fight and win for a good cause. That is what saved 30 small businesses and their 3,000 employees from being kicked out of the San Francisco Flower Mart. Wholesaler companies such as these are “critically important” for the economic health of San Francisco, according to Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development Deputy Director Jennifer Matz.

On Feb. 26, the Academy of Art University beat a full retreat from its determined push to purchase the Flower Mart complex at Sixth and Brannan streets for conversion to sculpture classrooms. The art university’s controversial president, Elise Stephens, issued a standard face-saving statement about being “extremely disappointed that we could not make this work” and blaming the breakdown on “lack of support among top city officials.”

That claimed “lack of support” hardly seems to accurately describe what City Hall came up with in order to make the academy walk away from takeover of the 52-year-old Flower Mart — which is one of only three U.S. wholesale/retail flower markets.

With full support of the Mayor’s Office and the entire Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved legislation enacting a temporary moratorium to prohibit new “institutional uses” in the SoMa district. This action would have immediately banned the university from holding classes in two of its nearby major buildings on Townsend and Brannan streets, and possibly from ever obtaining conditional permits to do so.

The Planning Department’s chief enforcement officer has labeled the for-profit, family-owned Academy of Art University as the single largest violator of The City’s planning codes. It is also likely the world’s biggest art school and a $100 million business. The art university is an inescapable presence in the San Francisco landscape, as its logos adorn some 30 buildings throughout The City plus 25 private buses shuttling almost 11,000 students through crowded streets.

As soon as the university announced it would give up on buying the Flower Mart, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin introduced legislation repealing the moratorium. He also said the board would consider starting a special permit process to open up SoMa institutional uses for all impacted university properties in the area.

Community pressure organized by the likes of flower vendor Patrick McCann and land use attorney Sue Hestor were instrumental in triggering City Hall to take strong action. And the net result is that the historic Bay Area flower industry dodged a bullet and will continue creating revenue and jobs for some time to come.

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