No, The SF Sierra Club is Not Being Threatened by Real Estate Interests

Leigha Beckman
Nov 25, 2015 · 7 min read
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Image for post
Sprawl in action. This is the real threat.

This is a response to a recent Medium piece entitled “Save Sierra Club from Hijacking by Real Estate Interests” — a piece which has since been deleted for violating Sierra Club campaigning policy. The author, Daren Garshelis, endorsed a committee slate in the upcoming local SF Sierra Club elections, which, as a Sierra Club employee, he is not allowed to do. After this was pointed out to him, the piece was quickly taken down.

The knee-jerk, dramatic rejection of a change in leadership is one thing, but violating the Sierra Club’s own policy regarding campaigning to do so shows just how resistant the SF Sierra Club has become to democratic process and change. What’s more, after the “hijackers” appeared — and by hijackers, I mean Sierra Club members running for leadership, as is well within their rights by the Sierra Club’s own policy — the local chapter extended its member registration deadline with no vote or notice to the public.

This is an alarming sequence of actions, none of which represents the “open” or “inclusive” nature the club is supposed to demonstrate. This is not a healthy attitude for a democratic organization, especially one with the national clout and reputation of the Sierra Club. The current leadership of the local chapter has been abusing that reputation to further its own NIMBY, anti-growth agenda, taking positions that often run counter to the national organization’s position. This slate, endorsed by SFBARF, wants to change that.

With the local chapter’s elections underway, this new slate is ready to get the SF Sierra Club back on track after decades of questionable positions toward compact, urban development. The purpose of this post is to address Mr. Garshelis’s dishonest attack on that slate, and explain where, from an agenda-standpoint, the candidates are coming from.

The author paints a frightening and dramatic picture of the slate’s intentions, based not so much on the individuals of the slate themselves, but on a perceived agenda of SFBARF. Specifically, he characterizes SFBARF as a luxury real estate promotion club, determined to overthrow the SF Sierra Club and corrupt its mission of protecting the environment.

While this is certainly an exciting narrative, it is also completely false.

The slate endorsed by SFBARF is not pro-real estate. It IS pro-smart growth, pro-responsible accommodation of a growing population, pro-infill development, and pro-protection of existing green space.

Calling the group “pro real estate” completely misses the point. While “real estate” is certainly one of the solutions that advances our goals, the purpose is not to cheerlead for high rise luxury buildings just for the sake of it. The vision our slate supports is the creation of new housing in a rapidly growing region in the most efficient, responsible, and environment-impact minimizing way possible, in a way that reduces sprawl and promotes walkable communities.

Why? As we’ve said time and time again: population growth in the Bay Area is inevitable. It’s happening. Job growth is happening; people are moving here in volumes we can’t ignore.

As Plan Bay Area tells us:

“Between 2010 and 2040, the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area is projected to add 1.1 million jobs, 2.1 million people and 660,000 homes, for a total of 4.5 million jobs, 9.3 million people and 3.4 million homes.”

We have to put these people somewhere. If the SF Sierra Club chapter, in its anti-development advocacy, knows of an environmentally friendly, green solution to housing 2 million new residents that is exclusive of any involvement by the real estate industry, we would love to hear it.

I’ll ask the author directly:

Daren Garshelis, how do you suggest we accommodate population growth in the Bay Area?

Since we all agree that displacement is not a desirable outcome, existing buildings aren’t the answer, right? If all the current housing is full, or is minimally turning over, where do new residents move into? If not existing development, what? Where?

While our smart-growth slate looks for solutions to this problem, such as infill development, increasing height limits, and a number of other solutions that concentrate development where it already exists rather than sprawling outward and into green spaces, the current leadership of the local Sierra Club chapter has categorically rejected them.

The problem is the false dichotomy being proposed by the SF Sierra Club. In their world, there are two options when it comes to housing in the Bay Area:

1. No Development in San Francisco

2. Bad Development in San Francisco

In the SF Sierra Club’s world, it’s pretty much one or the other. But in the real world, no new development (in San Francisco) leads to bad development elsewhere. If we block infill development in San Francisco, or other dense urban areas, the people that would live there don’t magically disappear. We just end up with more commuters who add to the region’s pollution, carbon emissions, and congestion. This not a new concept, and there is ample literature by environmental advocacy groups, including the National Sierra Club, supporting it.

More importantly, advocating for infill development is the not the end of our goal, it is the means. The point is to advocate for the creation of more homes in walkable neighborhoods, increased height limits, zoning changes that increase density, reduced parking spaces, in order to:

1) Keep humans in cities and already-developed areas and out of sprawling, car-dependent suburbs, and

2) Reshape low density, spread-out suburbs into more dense, walkable communities.

In fact, the National Sierra Club agrees with us. It understands the benefits of compact, transit-oriented development too. It is the local SF chapter that has “hijacked” these goals in favor of exclusionary zoning, low height limits, and a head-in-the-sand attitude toward population growth.

Additionally, while Mr. Garsehlis’s piece talks about the local chapter’s support of CleanPower SF, reducing coal consumption, and other positions we absolutely agree with, it never talks about why our position on infill development is wrong.

Moving people out of suburbs, away from cars, and into transit-oriented, urban development is good for the environment, and good for humans. Part of achieving this type of outcome is advocating for new urban development, or at the very least, not obstructing it.

And yet the SF Sierra Club actively advocates against new urban development.

See its position on Prop D, for example. Prop D was a recent ballot initiative created to turn a parking lot behind AT&T Park into a thriving mixed-use space for residents and visitors. The proposal, which passed, called for a huge mixed-use development that includes 1500 residential units, eight acres of park and open space, commercial/retail space for urban happenings, AND required 33% of units to be affordable to low and middle-income residents.

The SF Sierra Club said no to all of it so that “San Francisco’s beautiful waterfront remains a vibrant place open to all.” But the site in question is a surface parking lot. Who exactly is enjoying this “vibrant place”? Is there seriously some public, or environmental, benefit to having a giant, unused parking lot “protected” in a dense city?

Another reason the current leadership of SF Sierra Club rejects new development, besides apparent disregard for all the clear benefits of urban infill, is because it characterizes all new urban development as “luxury”. This is both distracting and hypocritical. The economic reality of new construction and land costs means any new housing will be expensive. But, for the purposes of the Sierra Club, why does that matter? “Luxury” does not mean harmful to the environment. The two have nothing to do with each other.

Case in point: If the Sierra Club considers anything “luxury” inherently antithetical to its pro-environment mission, why did it write to U.S. legislators in support of Tesla? The average Tesla Model S is priced around $80,000 — hardly affordable to the middle class.

Electric vehicles are much better for the environment than combustion-engine vehicles, just as urban homes are much better for the environment than their high energy-consuming suburban counterparts.

If the “luxury” classification is irrelevant for electric vehicles, why is it relevant to city apartments?

But, finally, I want to come back to our “means” vs. “ends” discussion. The SF Sierra Club’s means — blocking new development, opposing higher building limits, opposing upzoning — are leading to ends that don’t help the environment. The environment does not stop at San Francisco’s borders. What we do on our 7x7 peninsula impacts the entire region and our approach to urban planning and land use needs to reflect that.

We are not trying to turn the local chapter into an organization that aims to cover every inch of the Bay Area with condos. We want to protect our green spaces too; we want clean air; we want a beautiful Bay Area to call home. That is why the urban obstructionism has to stop.

We encourage anyone and everyone interested in smart land use to research this for themselves, and look into our slate:

Across our slate, you’ll find our nominees’ involvement in organizations like SF Parks Alliance, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, SF Public Utilities Commission Citizens Advisory Committee, California Wolf Center, Bay Area Women’s Environmental Network, Sierra Club Energy Committee, Quesada Gardens Initiative, and the Sierra Club San Francisco Chapter itself.

In fact, slate candidate Jacquelyn Omotalade is now the San Francisco Environment Commissioner.

We’re proud and excited to vote for Howard Strassner, Leah Pimentel, Donald Dewsnup, Jacquelyn Omotalade, and Rebecca Lee.

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