Matt Smith

In a Galaxy Far Too Close to Home

But as George Lucas dreamed a score ago, The Force is, at its most elemental, neither dark nor light. It is available to all of us. And whether we stumble or prevail depends on how well we harness it, and on how cunningly we yield to its power. In Lucas' fantasy, rebel seers holed up on the fourth moon of the planet Yavin managed to detect a critical weakness in Darth Vader's Death Star. Similarly, Knights of San Francisco Progressivism would do well to press their ears to the downtown Financial District, seeking out chinks in enemy armor.

As I write, business-friendly nonprofit groups such as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, the San Francisco Partnership, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and other commerce and real estate groups are drafting proposals for a possible ballot measure that would derail Proposition M.

Schemes -- all devised in one way or another to partly appease progressive groups -- include "borrowing" approved space from future years, based on the notion that the permits won't be needed during the next economic downturn. One plan would exclude from Proposition M jurisdiction the Presidio and government office buildings. Another idea would raise the M limits in exchange for tight zoning restrictions eliminating commercial development from areas such as the Mission. Some have suggested requiring developers to set aside 10 percent of buildings for nonprofit groups, who would pay 50 percent of market rate. Other proposals would increase the $15 per square foot "exaction" large-scale developers are required to contribute under Proposition M to a low-income housing fund. The figure $25 per square foot has been bandied about.

These groups have "included progressive voices" in these discussions, but this has largely involved letting the cynical Calvin Welch, and the more cynical Sue Hestor, blow air.

A familiar process, to be sure.

But the Dark Side has a fatal weakness. There's an open secret downtown that hasn't been mentioned in public much, and it's this: Big-time office developers seem to be willing to consider $25 per square foot exactions as a starting point. Rents are so high right now, profit margins so wide, that they could cough up more than that. In ordinary galaxies encountering ordinary negotiating situations, this $25 figure would be thus known as the "starting point" for future negotiations.

Ergo: Like no other time in history, progressives in San Francisco have corporate America by the balls. As any fighter -- Jedi or otherwise -- knows, there are two ways to go when you have your enemy by the balls. One is to keep tightening your grip. The other is to demand your enemy's wallet, watch, and shoes.

Progressives now find themselves in the position to exact more than $25 per square foot from developers. They can probably get their half-price nonprofit space and a few other sundry concessions thrown in for good measure. Why not bluff high and see what happens? While we're at it, why don't San Francisco's real progressives, the artists, the altruists devoting their lives to nonprofit causes, the Eric Quesadas and Geri Almanzas of the world, unseat the cynical blowhards, the Randy Shaws, the Sue Hestors, the Calvin Welches?

Rather than entering battle with the cry "Proposition M" on their lips, how about "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize"? How about allowing developers to build the space businesses need, thus taking the pressure off commercial rents for everybody? But at the same time, use this unique opportunity to make them finance a low-income housing boom, a nonprofit renaissance, a recultivation of San Francisco's soul.

A low-ball $30 per square foot in exactions, multiplied by the current 4 million square feet in excess commercial-space demand, is $120 million. A high-ball $40 -- that's $160 million.

As seed money for low-interest housing loans, apartment development, or any other market-savvy approach the city wishes to consider, that's a lot of places for San Franciscans to live.

Sure, these residents, some of whom will likely be artists, or employees of nonprofits, will still spot Lucas' Death Star now and then if they happen to venture into the Presidio. But with its rent-goosing capacity neutralized, it'll be a fairly pleasant place, really. As planned it will surround a Great Meadow cloven by a creek, which will pour into a lagoon, which will be bordered by a tastefully appointed coffee bar. Banal, sure. But harmless, if drained of its destructive Force.

Matt Smith can be reached atSF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

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