Matt Smith

In a Galaxy Far Too Close to Home

Now, demand for space is so acute that dozens of developers have proposals in the works. As of this writing there are seven large ones hoping for approval, including an addition to China Basin Landing in the South of Market, a rehab of the old Armory building in the Mission, and Ron Kaufman's Macromedia building on Rhode Island Street in Potrero Hill.

According to some estimates, there now exists demand for around 4 million feet more space than what has already been approved.

But it is possible that none of these projects -- nor any others developers may conceive -- will see the light of day for the next half-decade.

The Death Star won't let them.

There's a staggering problem with Proposition M: New buildings over which the city has no control still count toward the growth limit.

Therefore, Lucas can build his digital media complex in the Presidio -- without city permission -- because it's on federal property. But the square footage counts toward the Prop. M cap because it's inside city limits, meaning Lucas jumps to the front of the line and the city, by law, must put the brakes on other proposed development.

There are other examples. State and federal office buildings -- 1,100,000 square feet of which are planned for downtown San Francisco -- also count toward the cap, even though the city has no right to control their construction. Because of the way Proposition M is written, these projects become like a black hole, sucking all the allowable building permits from other projects, driving up rents citywide, forcing nonprofits and other less endowed tenants to flee.

For organizations devoted to the arts, and the city's hundreds of nonprofit groups, the situation is dire.

The San Francisco Arts Commission, for its part, is now conducting a study of arts groups displaced by escalating rents. The results have yet to be tallied, but the writing's on the wall. The commission recently invited representatives of displaced arts groups to a Friday meeting to share horror stories. It expected a few dozen. It got hundreds, says Arts Commission Director Rich Newirth.

Beleaguered in the best of times, modern dance has been among the groups hardest hit. Local luminaries such as Alonzo King and Joe Goode have found their muse snuffed by something as banal as a distorted real estate market.

"These are very, very important organizations in the ecosystem of San Francisco's arts," Newirth told me. "They are the larger, midsized organizations that have national reputations, that tour nationally. The whole threat to losing them to another city would be really significant, very substantial, and impact the artistic reputation of the city."

Dance is only the beginning. In the past couple of months artists have banded together into interest groups hoping to stave off the city's real estate meltdown.

The Bayview Bank building at 22nd and Mission, for example, until now a veritable warren of nonprofit and arts groups, has seen residents scatter as new, higher-paying tenants have moved in.

Others have formed a group called the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition. "With real estate going up you're seeing the eviction of small businesses and nonprofits," says Geri Almanza, with the Latino community organization group Poder.

Eric Quesada, of the nonprofit Mission Housing Development Corp., has also been working with the Anti-Displacement Coalition. "From a gut level, there's a human cost to the change that's happening to the city," he says.


In a different galaxy, far, far -- far -- away, all these groups might be banding together to vanquish Proposition M. They might be holding brainstorming parties on how to draft a ballot measure that would provide for enough new S.F. commercial space to relieve pressure on all tenants, including nonprofit groups, arts organizations, and others.

But in this star system, they seem to be doing just the opposite.

In San Francisco, anti-growth sentiment is cherished more as a religion than as a practical approach to civic problems. And reverence to the legacy of Proposition M is the most powerful spiritual gesture a San Francisco progressive can perform.

The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, for one, is focusing efforts on fighting the development of digital-technology office buildings in the Mission District. The logic goes something like this: New office buildings drive up prices, causing neighborhoods to "gentrify." So the best way to battle spiraling rents is to battle new buildings.

"The new businesses are increasing the property values," is how Geri Almanza puts it.

The construction of more commercial space is driving up prices?

"Yeah."

So an increase in supply is driving up prices?

"Yeah .... Well, maybe you should talk to somebody else."

Which is pretty much how all such conversations end.

There exists a bedrock belief -- ill examined, perhaps, but bedrock just the same -- that it's not scarcity that drives up prices in San Francisco, it's "The Market." And "The Market" is "The Corporations," and "The Corporations" are the Dark Side of The Force.

In this universe, San Francisco can be saved by creating narrowly defined industrial zones, thereby shutting the big-money businesses out of large areas of the city. Proposition M caps will shut out the rest. Neighborhood groups will prevent housing from being built, so dot-com yuppies are kept at bay. San Francisco can be saved by telling people where they can live, where they can work, and, most important, where they can't do either.

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