Willie's Railroad Job
On Jan. 13, the day Leland Yee was sworn into office as a San Francisco supervisor, merchants from his neighborhood called with what was, to them, disturbing news: The Municipal Railway had begun cutting down trees along Church Street, in front of their stores, to make way for transit access ramps for the disabled.
The merchants were especially angry about the project because, they said, Mayor Willie Brown had promised during the 1995 election campaign that the ramps would be built elsewhere.
Sensing a possible headache for the mayor (and, of course, a certain new supervisor), Yee called Brown to warn him of the erupting ire in Noe Valley. Caught between the needs of the disabled community and the merchants who supported him in the election, Brown made a choice.
He chose the business folks.
Although Muni's handicapped access project -- which is mandated by federal law -- had gone through a lengthy public approval process that included hearings before the city's Transportation Commission, and even though the ramps were the last piece of a larger project that was 80 percent complete, the mayor halted construction late in January. The decision to stop work in midstream did purchase political peace from Church Street merchants, who feared the ramps would eliminate parking and otherwise hurt their businesses.
By caving to Noe Valley pressure, however, Brown has also cost San Francisco taxpayers at least $50,000. And if the Church Street merchants continue to have their way with the mayor, the taxpayer tab could run as high as $720,000.
Brown stopped construction on the problematic handicapped access ramps, located on Church Street between 29th and 30th streets, on Jan. 29. But it wasn't until last week that he acknowledged the ramps would be moved. The mayor said he would like to see the ramps shifted down the block from the contested site, to a location in front of St. Paul's Church and School, which is closed for seismic retrofitting. (The school will reopen in the fall of next year; then it would be the nearly 300 children attending the K-through-8 school who face the added street congestion caused by the ramps.)
But ultimately, Brown said, a decision on the ramps' location would largely be left up to the neighborhood. "We have to have a community expression, a vote," he said.
The mayor didn't say what type of vote, exactly, he was contemplating. And at a press briefing last week, Brown said he didn't know whether it would cost taxpayers money if the ramps were moved -- and, for the record, he didn't care. "You'd have to ask Muni [if there is an additional cost]," the mayor said. "But if there is, I don't think it could be enough to stop us from going through with this."
If Noe Valley merchants get their way, "community expression" could be expensive indeed.
The merchants, you see, want to move the handicapped ramps off Church Street altogether, and onto 30th Street. City sources say that ramp placement would more than triple the cost of the project, taking it from $340,000 to $1.06 million -- an increase of some $720,000.
The mayor's kowtowing to Noe Valley store owners has already been expensive.
According to contractors working on the Church Street project, labor costs are continuing to mount, even though the project is suspended.
Len Wigney, vice president of Golden Bay Construction Inc., estimates the current cost of the delay at about $20,000. Work already done (and made irrelevant by the decision to move the ramps) has cost taxpayers another $20,000, Wigney estimates. Wigney says if he is asked to undo work already performed on the ramps, it could add thousands of dollars more to the bill. And remember, the labor costs grow each day Mayor Brown and his staff don't come to a decision.
The situation boils down to this: Mayor Brown made a choice. It's already cost taxpayers $50,000. It could cost hundreds of thousands more. And the meter on this money-siphon is still running.
So why is Brown, a man who has told the most powerful interests in the state to take a powder when doing so suited him, reacting with such priestly attentiveness to one block of mighty Noe Valley?
The answer is simple: votes.
In the December 1995 runoff between Brown and then-Mayor Frank Jordan, Noe Valley gave Brown nearly 70 percent of its votes. But there's more: The neighborhood is the fourth most heavily Democratic area in the city, and it produces the fourth highest voter turnout.
Mayor Brown surely understands this. More important, so does Noe Valley.
"I'm not saying I have any major influence over voters," says Tom Maravilla, the owner of MikeyTom Market. "But if I go against Brown on the [49ers] stadium issue, for example, a lot of people are going to be swayed by that."
Maravilla erected a huge Willie Brown for Mayor billboard -- free of charge -- on his store during the mayoral campaign.
And when the trees came down on Church Street, Maravilla, other merchants, and their neighbors kicked into high political gear. Dave Monks, the president of the Noe Valley Democratic Club, and Eva Skoufis, the owner of a local laundromat, were the chief troop-ralliers. Monks drafted a letter asking the merchants to call the mayor. One of the merchants photocopied the letter, enlarged it, and posted it in all the store windows in the area.