Why You Should Really Hate San Francisco Politics

The saddest part about Pier 70, Prop B and who really runs the city.


The saddest thing about Prop B isn’t that it took just 15% of registered San Francisco voters to approve this city-changing referendum. Or that the Pier 70 development is now in danger of not getting built. Rather it’s that Pier 70 and other waterfront parcels will inevitably get developed, but they will take longer, cost more and not be as good — by any measure — because of this entire atrocious process.

All so a tiny fraction of San Francisco’s wealthiest and best connected can try to play god with a city they are too scared to see change.

Even if you support the legislation, the process stinks.

Unbeknownst to an astounding number of San Franciscans, the destiny of perhaps the city’s most iconic feature was up for vote this past Tuesday. At issue was real estate development along the waterfront, specifically involving land managed by the Port of San Francisco.

Prop B sought to force real estate developers to put their project up for voter approval if they wished build higher than zoning allowed. Along some parts of the waterfront height limits are zero — not unreasonable given the sensitivity of our bay-front land. But height exceptions for new construction are not uncommon, as they often make room for more dynamic projects and more space for affordable housing.

Opponents of the proposition argued that the inevitable delays, costs and unknown risks of having to get voter approval for a specific project would make development along the waterfront economically impractical.

In other words, Prop B’s well-heeled proponents got exactly what they wanted.

Prop B was advanced by some of the same folks who made history last year by quashing the 8 Washington development, the first ever city-wide referendum on a single real estate project. A whopping 27% of voters found their way to the polls last November to crush 8 Washington, emboldening the small group of San Francisco residents who believe their wealth entitles them to control some of the city’s most valuable resources.

And while I may be angry that Prop B passed, I’m angrier at how it all went down: Fewer than 60,000 people making such an important decision in a city of over 800,000 isn’t democracy.

It’s no accident that Prop B was sneaked onto the June ballot. Mid-year elections have notoriously low turnout, and those few who do vote have historically been whiter and wealthier than San Francisco as a whole.

Prop B supporters are a who’s who list of neighborhood groups that are firmly anti-growth. Veiled in a thin film of populism, entrenched interests in Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Potrero Hill and other affluent neighborhoods are constantly fighting to bolster their already high property values by blocking developments that would add housing stock to the city. These are people who see no inherent hypocrisy in fighting both the construction of new housing and the high cost of living in the city.

Meanwhile, San Francisco remains mired in an affordability crisis, one that could be alleviated if it were easier to build taller, denser buildings.

And it’s like not getting a development approved was easy before Prop B. San Francisco is notorious for having one of the most challenging development approval processes in the world. It takes years for even a compliant project to get the green light, let alone one looking for a variance. Neighborhood reviews and other bureaucratic morass run rampant across the city in the name of a noble goal that has been vastly perverted: maintaining the cultural and aesthetic quality that makes San Francisco the magnetic city it (still) is.

There’s blame to go around aplenty, but I keep coming back to the city itself. How can politicians sit idly by with such pathetic voter turnout — especially when we are one of the only places in the world where city-wide referendums even exist? If and when there is no city-sponsored “get the vote out” campaign this November, we’ll have all the proof we need that the city endorses a small affluent group mapping out San Francisco’s future.

Actual political engagement in this city is a joke. We are long lip service, protester-hooligans and fear-mongering NIMBYism. We are short courage and actual dedication to effecting positive change. I’ll be the first to admit I did nothing to stop Prop B from passing this week. I’ve never gotten involved in the political process, but after this abomination I’ll be damned if I sit around and let a privileged few keep screwing up our city.

(What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Port of San Francisco? For an education on the Port and the city’s long history of dysfunctional politics, check out A Negotiated Waterfront by Jasper Rubin. Fascinating read on the twisted web of real estate developers, neighborhood groups, environmentalists and the city’s politically powerful stretching back to the 1860's when the Port was so corrupt that the State had to step in and seize control … control it finally relinquished in 1968.)