Buzzkill at the Ballot Box

The Case Against Prop B

Left: The Ferry Building, as it stands now. Right: The Ferry Building, if it were built under Prop. B’s rules.

The fight over Proposition B, which goes to a vote on Tuesday, June 3rd, has been fairly one-sided thus far.  After crushing the 8 Washington development, which would have allegedly erected a “Wall on the Waterfront,” the unlikely alliance between mega-rich property owners and progressives have enjoyed popular support against waterfront development.  And because of that support, the opposition has been relatively silent regarding the ballot initiative which would require all development over 40 feet on Port property to be approved by voters—so quiet that ordinarily pro-development Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Scott Wiener aren’t fighting it.

But what makes the situation weird is so many progressives will privately admit that it’s terrible legislation, even if their clubs, employers, or candidates support it.  So why is this a done deal?  Are progressives really concerned about the Giants turning their sprawling parking lot into a public park and housing development?

For a different take on the matter, Mark Hogan recently put out this great case against Prop B.  The whole thing is worth a read, but here’s the meat:

Planning at the ballot box doesn’t make sense because the typical voter doesn’t have the time or background to analyze urban design, land use planning, or the tradeoffs involved in various options. A lot of people walk into the voting booth, read the one line description on the ballot, and vote. The current process for exceeding the height limit on a parcel takes years of meetings (public meetings for anyone interested in attending), approval of the Planning Commission, and approval of the Board of Supervisors. Changing a height limit cannot simply be done with an exception to the planning code: it involves rezoning that piece of land at a taller height, and it is not a simple process.

Our current planning process also has a number of public benefits built in. Developers must comply with affordable housing laws (either through a fee or providing on-site units), fees to pay for infrastructure and they are held to public scrutiny at numerous meetings where public comment is collected.

What is Proposition B proposing? Proposition B would require proposed projects to skip the typical approvals process and instead go to a vote of the people. Why does the City’s Planning Department think this is a bad idea? “There is a potential for developers to circumvent required City review and craft subsequent ballot initiatives that combine height increases with other aspects of project approval.”

How often to voters read the full text of things they are voting on? Not very often, I can assure you. Developers could hypothetically skip many steps of project approval by spending enough money to get a project approved at the ballot box without having to comply with all of the other rules that have been put in place to ensure a good outcome for the City and the residents of the area.

Read on.

Comments (16)

Thank you for covering this - although I had to laugh a little at “the unlikely alliance between mega-rich property owners and progressives”, since more recently both groups are quite clearly held together by the common desire to kill the building of new housing in SF, even if they want it for different reasons.

Yes, this is madness.  That said this is SF, and anything with the appearance of giving ‘power to the people’ is always going to pass.  It’s kind of funny how weak the citizens of this city have become when compared to its early 20th century / late 19th century roots.  Need more housing?  Sure put it up.  Thats why we have a nice 7 or so story building next to Alamo square park, none of this whining that todays older generation engages in.  Hell people in Potrero Hill have formed a save Potrero Hill alliance to stop a building thats 4 stories tall.  You know who ruined San Francisco (not that i think its ruined)?  Not the young people that are moving here, it’s the old people that block development for 50 years.

Another awful political tactic at work here is that this is being put to the public during an off election… This is done specifically becasuse young people and moderately-minded people are less likely to take the time to vote, and like what happened with 8 Washington, only the fired up “activist” groups will turn out. I really hope this doesn’t pass. 

Earth. Quakes. Read a little about the geology of the Waterfront. Note the lack of bedrock. There’s a reason city planners made height limits.

Half the financial district is on landfill. We know how to make buildings that stay up.

Direct democracy is awful. I always vote against propositions, because I don’t want to encourage anything - even if I agree with it - to go “straight to the voters.” There’s a reason we have elected officials - to provide actual policy analysis and deliberation. Now, that doesn’t mean they always act in our best interests, but at least it’s not soundbite democracy.

In theory elected officials with a term period (AKA no recall) can make policy decisions that are unpopular at first, that with time show to be the right course of action.  Too bad too many of these elected officials lack the foresight  to practice this behavior.

I’m glad you’re back, UA.

I’ve never bought the old demoncracy-is-too-important-to-be left-to-the-people argument. And the scenario above envisions developers exploiting a loophole under Prop. B–versus the floodgates open to them without it. I don’t regret my vote for Proposition B!

Everything that is insane and broken about SF politics is very nicely on view here.  In the middle of the worst housing availability crisis in the city’s history, in which we are allegedly very very concerned about the dislocation of poor families from traditionally working-class neighborhoods, we are going to make it <i>harder to build downtown,</i> for no other apparent reason than to preserve the waterfront views of a bunch of condo owners up the hill. 

Fuck everyone associated with this monstrosity.  And especially fuck the Sierra Club for greenwashing an objectively pro-sprawl policy by putting their name on this idiocy.

Although it’s not like there would be high-rise housing projects for low-income single mothers built on these sites.  They’d be the same twelve floors of corporate whores as are already building everywhere, at Palo Alto mansion prices.

Newsflash… those “corporate whores” will come to SF, and they WILL find a place because they can afford it, and thanks to our limited supply this WILL actually displace people - especiallly low income single mothers.

I have always been a very liberal voter, but arguments like yours are aligning me closer to the political right. Try to start thinking critically about how we got in this mess to begin with.

The case against “planning at the ballot” has been made a good amount of times already–not a new perspective. That’s what most people’s issue with the leg is, even if they support it. Thing is–it’s just at the Waterfront, not city wide. And at that parcel, you have to dig really really deep to get to bedrock. Scientists agree that the next big quake will involve at least 100x the ground shakeage of 89, meaning liquefaction at the waterfront. The ground will fall away, resulting in ground many many feet lower than it had originally been. Building skyscrapers there is irresponsible (because they will eventually be teetering on still stilts), which is why we have height restrictions there in the first place (many of our height resitrictions are the result of earthquakes–until recently you couldn’t safely build more than 5 stories easily in a lot of the city, and it’s still really expensive to do. That’s why skyscrapers are a bad solution for affordable housing). Anyway, in the event of liquefaction, those developments would be a city problem to deal with, and also unliveable.

If your argument is that the current planning process is so inept or corrupt that it disregards the structural engineering reality along the waterfront, I want to know why you’ve come to that conclusion.

Two words: Scott Weiner…

Criticism of Prop B asserts it will destroy neighborhood protection,  circumvent the planning and environmental review process,  rob money from transit, etc. None of this is true. Read the ordinance;  it’s not long.  It doesn’t eliminate any of the existing planning process.  It only says that plans that are inconsistent with the height limits can’t be approved without voter approval. There’s not a word about altering or waiving any other element of the process.