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Falling for the Gap 

San Francisco gave away the store to help The Gap Inc. and its politically connected chairman build an upscale headquarters with a bay view. But more than $18 million in subsidies apparently won't bring the city anything it couldn't have had free.

Wednesday, May 28 1997
If you walk from the foot of Market Street south along the Embarcadero, you become part of one of the views that keep bringing the tourists back to San Francisco.

To your left is the blue of the bay and, behind the bay, the green trees and black rock of Treasure Island. In front of you, the Bay Bridge arcs dramatically over the water and jams itself into the side of Yerba Buena Island. To your right, office towers and restored warehouses, upscale restaurants and foo-foo bars stare down at you and beyond to the amazing vista whose foreground you inhabit.

Then, suddenly, you come to an empty, ugly hole. Near the intersection of Folsom and the Embarcadero, there is a block of land that contains nothing but paper bags and squashed aluminum cans and a gritty parking lot. These two-plus underused acres constitute the last great bayfront site available to anyone who might want to erect the kind of signature building that would befit the amazing blue and green and black rock vistas that are available only on San Francisco's Embarcadero, just south of Market Street's terminus.

Actually, though, that empty, ugly, highly desirable block of land is no longer available. The city of San Francisco has acquired the block and is in the process of transferring it to a company -- the casually hip clothing retailer known as The Gap Inc. -- and a man -- Gap founder and chairman Donald G. Fisher -- with uniquely attractive qualities.

The attraction The Gap and Fisher exude must be unique. The city's Redevelopment Agency all but gave away the store to make sure that The Gap built its corporate headquarters on the Embarcadero and kept its 2,400 jobs -- now divided between San Francisco and suburban San Bruno -- in the city.

Let's amend that last statement.
The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency went to truly extraordinary lengths, giving The Gap at least $18 million of preferential treatment, on the stated premise that such treatment was necessary to keep the firm's headquarters in the city.

But there does not seem to have been any real threat that The Gap would leave the city entirely. Even without such a threat, the Redevelopment Agency rigorously avoided any competition that might have maximized the value of its bayfront land -- and the number of jobs attached to any development of that land.

In fact, as it was throwing governmental land and largess The Gap's way, the city's Redevelopment Agency didn't bother to make the firm promise to bring jobs to, or even stay in, San Francisco.

That is not to say The Gap has no plans to expand its headquarters. Government documents filed by the firm itself report it is in the process of spending tens of millions of dollars to expand its headquarters in San Bruno.

A commercial developer turned clothing magnate, Don Fisher founded his company in 1969, supposedly after an unsatisfactory experience shopping for jeans in stores he found poorly stocked, haphazardly organized, and, worst of all, manned by unhelpful sales clerks.

Over the past three decades, The Gap Inc. has become a diversified, worldwide manufacturer, distributor, and retailer of casual apparel and accessories for adults and children. The Gap earned a record $453 million in 1996 -- up 22 percent from the year before. And, as The Gap's bottom line has grown, so has Fisher's civic profile.

In 1992, he joined a group of Bay Area business leaders in a partnership to buy the San Francisco Giants to keep the baseball team from leaving town. His contributions to the city's New Main Library paid for the Fisher Children's Room. Earlier this year, President Clinton appointed him to a seat on a board responsible for managing the transformation of the 1,480-acre Presidio from Army base to self-sustaining national park.

But Don Fisher is also well-versed in getting what he wants from government.
He accomplishes this, at least in part, the old-fashioned way -- with his checkbook. And he goes about getting what he wants with both profound vigor and enormous attention to detail. Although a Republican, Fisher makes political giving a truly bipartisan affair.

During the 1996 election cycle, Fisher and his wife, Doris, dumped $247,950 into Republican and Democratic congressional campaigns, Bob Dole's presidential bid, and GOP party coffers, according to page after page of Federal Election Commission records.

Closer to home, during 1996 the Fishers and The Gap contributed more than $220,000 to candidates for the California Assembly, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the city attorney's post, and the town council of Atherton, as well as to state and local initiatives and bond measures.

The giving seems to be as orchestrated as it is prolific. Though the vast majority of the Fishers' federal contributions go to Republicans, the couple appears to assiduously avoid politicians who might be considered extremists. In the North Carolina U.S. Senate race, for example, the Democratic challenger, Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte, was backed over the GOP incumbent, Jesse Helms, who has a documented propensity for playing the race card in his political campaigns.

In 1995, the Fishers contributed early on to the re-election drive of Mayor Frank Jordan, a conservative by San Francisco standards. But the couple gave late to his challenger, retired Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, the favorite in the contest and eventual victor.

It is always difficult to say whether or how political giving affects particular governmental policy decisions. There is simply no way for an outsider to know how hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions might or might not influence politicians who might or might not play significant roles in the transfer of public property to private hands.

But it's clear that Fisher and his minions went after the Embarcadero site with a singleness of purpose.

In 1989, Fisher hired William Coblentz, widely considered the city's best-connected Democratic lawyer, to craft a strategy to control the vacant waterfront land at Folsom and the Embarcadero.

About The Author

Chuck Finnie


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