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It's an Ugly Day in the Neighborhood 

The self-serving attempts by some activists to block new development are making life harder for the rest of us

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
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Panama Street, an unpaved dogleg off Niantic Avenue just east of the San Francisco Country Club, officially belongs to the city of San Francisco. But it's really Tom Ginella's domain.

The shaded "J" bend where Niantic turns into Panama has long served as the parking area for Ginella's collection of antique Chevrolet pickup trucks -- two 1949s, two 1950s, and two 1951s.

Then there's his recreational vehicle fleet -- a Coachman, a Dodge Sportsman, and a Vacationeer travel trailer. And, of course, there are all the other trucks, vans, sedans, and SUVs that make up the 25-vehicle collection Ginella has accumulated over the last 15 years.

"I've got motorcycles in the basement, which you can't see," notes the burly North Beach restaurateur in that gently booming voice of his.

A warm, gracious mountain of a man, Ginella belongs to a certain rural/suburban San Francisco you hear people reminiscing about a lot during these days of technology booms, housing crunches, and traffic jams. Ginella and his wife awake to the sound of a neighbor's rooster. His sprawling, single-story house and side cottage are the closest thing this city's got to a country compound. He is no fan of public transit, having made the one-block walk to the nearby Daly City BART station only six times during the past decade and a half. And, as you've seen, he's got two dozen decomposing vehicles parked on a public street in a city where parking spaces make hen's teeth look common.

It's easy to feel the romance -- and resonance -- of Ginella's country-city life, more evocative of 1930s San Francisco than of today. And it's just as easy to understand Ginella's desire to preserve it at all costs.

But pleasant, good-hearted Tom Ginella -- and everyone like him, and everything he represents -- must be put to pasture if San Francisco is to remain an affordable, equitable, eclectic, livable city. As idyllic as life may be for Ginella, the nostalgic dream that he lives on Panama Street represents a nightmare for the rest of us.

Ginella, his Matlock-on-a-budget neighbor Frank Bacon, and his pushy, schoolteacher neighbor Marc Christensen -- along with a handful of hangers-on impressed by the trio's ability to milk the bureaucratic process -- have spent the last year proving that they threaten the type of change that is necessary if San Francisco is to remain affordable to those without their own country estates.

They've drafted petitions, demanded hearings, and filed spurious lawsuits in an effort to sabotage a transit-oriented apartment complex -- a project developed with the support of the local neighborhood association -- over the hill from their cluster of suburban-style homes. The trio ultimately failed in their quest. San Francisco will soon have the kind of transit-friendly urban village the city is famous for -- 371 high-quality apartment units, a grocery store, a drugstore, and a handful of neighborhood shops on a once-blighted block.

But in important ways, Ginella and his neighbors won.

By speciously pushing their cynical, anti-housing agenda at public meetings, in front of news cameras, and in a lengthy front-page article in the Examiner, they perpetuated a misleading way of thinking about city problems.

By installing the fear of God into anyone who would build apartment buildings in San Francisco, they ensured a continuing spiral in S.F. rents and an ongoing escalation in the prices of their own homes. By falsely portraying themselves as heroes in this struggle, they fortified San Francisco's emerging status as a selfish, mean-spirited, NIMBY kind of town.


Tom Ginella's neighbors regard him as a decent, misguided man. They are less angry than saddened by his recent behavior. Their neighborhood needs the new shopping center; San Francisco desperately needs the transit-friendly housing; and nobody needs this kind of strife.

"My initial interest was seeing that this project be well designed," says Dan Weaver, the thin, retiring transit and housing activist for the Excelsior District Improvement Association. "But when I saw that they would rather kill the project, I decided that it's not in any of our interests to see a boarded-up shopping center. At that point, I said, "OK, that's it: I'm going to fight them.'"

Weaver's interest in the lot that spawned all the controversy -- an irregular pentagon bordered by Panama Street, St. Charles Avenue, and Alemany Boulevard -- emerged in 1998, when he began to notice that his Excelsior neighborhood was losing shopping facilities like trees lose dry leaves in late autumn. A nearby Bank of America closed, and then a local Safeway was slated to be taken over by the post office as a distribution center. As it stood, more and more of the neighborhood's elderly were having to do their shopping at corner bodegas, where food is expensive. When Weaver saw that the Lucky's store on Alemany Boulevard was going to close, too, he decided it was time for the larger neighborhood to take action.

"We asked a mayor's representative to ask the mayor to ask Lucky's to stay open," he says. "They did stay open, but they couldn't stay open forever. The neighborhood was beat up, the parking lot was dangerous. They would invite people from BART to park there to make it look like they had customers."

Meanwhile, the Emerald Fund, the developer that has bought the property, was investigating ways to develop the lot. As it happened, the city's general plan had already designated the site, one block from the Daly City BART station, for San Francisco-style dense apartment housing. San Francisco's general plan urges city planners to direct dense housing around transit infrastructure such as BART. That way, taxpayers get the best ridership bang for their buck out of their public transportation investment, and, in this case, about 500 San Franciscans would get a place to live.

Fostering this sort of transit-related urban village is a more difficult financial proposition than one might imagine. It is an odd quirk of San Francisco's burning housing market that apartment buildings are difficult to finance and build. In the case of the Alemany-Panama project, the land alone cost $16 million, thanks to a hot real estate market. Condominiums and commercial space sell for more money than apartment buildings and are therefore easier to obtain loans for. So on purely bookkeeping terms, it usually makes the most sense to turn expensive San Francisco land into commercial buildings or condominiums. But as it happened, the project's developer lined up financing from the AFL-CIO pension fund, which has dedicated itself to the progressive idea of promoting midlevel rental housing in neighborhoods around America.

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Matt Smith

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