San Francisco politicians have been very accommodating these past few years of a boom in housing and commercial real estate markets that has increasingly comforted the comfortable and inconvenienced those squeezed by gentrification and high rents.
On Tuesday, voters made what progressives were hoping was a political statement that would go beyond a single act of defiance by overwhelmingly rejecting a luxury high-rise waterfront condominium development that the Board of Supervisors approved last year. Reporters for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, partying with the winners on election night, said “it felt like a blow against Mayor Ed Lee’s economic policies, the gentrification of the city, and the dominion that developers and power brokers have at City Hall.”
Former Mayor Art Agnos said “it feels like a movement.”
The 8 Washington project was approved by the city’s Board of Supervisors last year, and was immediately contested by neighbors. At 136 feet, it was 52 feet higher than zoning along that part of the Embarcadero permitted. But the 134 condominiums, expected to be priced in the $5 million range, were too good to pass up and the city granted developers the necessary waivers in June 2012.
The vote concluded, they thought, a years-long struggle by developers to get a project approved for the 3.2-acre site. The condo complex would replace a parking lot and a private swim and tennis club.
But opponents of the project almost immediately began a campaign to put a referendum on the project before the voters. They gathered 31,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot and organized a coalition of support that included those who lived in the immediate vicinity, disgruntled developers who missed out on the action, people concerned with overbuilding the waterfront and others who have grown increasingly alarmed at the city’s aggressive pro-development activities to the detriment of less fortunate residents.
The campaign also had a sugar daddy. Retired economist Richard Stewart and his wife, Barbara, reportedly paid for the lion’s share of the campaign’s $747,000 expense as of mid-October. The victors were outspent by more than 2-1 by supporters of Propositions B and C, the twin props that would have green-lighted the project. The developer, who was backed by Mayor Ed Lee and former Mayor and now Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, ponied up $1.8 million before the final three-week push.
Opponents put Measure C on the ballot and needed a “no” vote to kill the project. It got 66.5%. The developer put competing Measure B on the ballot seeking project approval, and was rejected by 62% of the voters.
Critics of the project expressed fears that it would be the first step toward erecting a “wall on the waterfront” of high-priced, Miami Beach-like edifices that would ultimately create an enclave for the wealthy. They didn’t think that the developer’s donation of $11 million to the city’s affordable-housing fund and prospects of millions in future municipal revenues were sufficient compensation.
The effect of the project’s defeat on other proposed developments, of course, remains to be seen. Mayor Ed Lee would like to leave a new arena for the Golden State Warriors basketball team on the waterfront as a lasting memorial to his tenure. Gentrification is moving apace, rents are ever-increasing and the city’s eviction rate is rocketing.
Lee’s critics would like to see more thought given to leaving a legacy of support for people struggling against growing economic inequality. “There's a middle class housing crisis and we’re building luxury high-rises,” Agnos told Reuters. “The message to teachers, the musicians, the carpenters, the shoemakers, the people who provide the backbone of this city is: ‘This place is not for you.’ ”