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Disaster Plans 

Face it -- Props K and L both stink as ways to manage growth. But we have another option.

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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I have a wonderful neighbor who has an immigrant-in-America background that is heartwarming, even in extreme summary: After landing in New York from Germany with very little money, this neighbor, whom I'll call Carol, made her way to New Orleans, where she learned to wait tables as she learned English, and then, late in the 1960s, came to San Francisco. Since then, Carol has worked a variety of jobs, each a bit better than the last, and raised kids, and taken care of grandkids. My wife met Carol while dog-walking at the park and introduced her to me. After a while, Carol was making me laugh, and her grandson was walking our dog when we were out of town.

Over time, my wife and I also got to know Carol's husband, Harold, who has a history that is less peripatetic than his wife's, but more germane to this column: Harold, you see, is a clothes person. He worked for a major Union Square retailer for something like 20 years, rising into midmanagement, where he supervised a department and made decent money -- until last year, when he was suddenly laid off. He couldn't find work for a solid six months, and unemployment created the kinds of financial and personal strains that those who have been out of work well understand.

Because they are a genuinely jovial, even rollicking couple, Harold and Carol were able to hide their worries better than most people. But for several months, things were obviously dicey. They'd lived in the Mission for decades, and wanted to stay, and knew that unless Harold found work, the high cost of living would drive them out of the city, and quickly.

Then, Harold got a job. The new job was also in retailing, but it paid more, to start, than he'd made after more than a decade in his previous position. This job included training that helped expand his skills and made him more attractive in the job market. Yes, this wonderful, decent neighbor of mine went to work for an e-commerce Web site. Well into his 50s, he became a dot-commer.

I'm not going to tell you Harold is a typical San Francisco high-tech worker, because I'm not sure there is a typical high-tech worker; I've met all sorts. But I believe that the Internet industry has given thousands of decent San Franciscans the best jobs of their lives, and I am quite certain that the ranting against dot-coms now au courant in our "progressive" political circles is as simple-minded as it is mean-spirited.

The dot-com boom has, of course, created serious negative side effects in San Francisco. There is absolutely no denying that, so far, our city government has utterly mismanaged the situation, allowing an explosion of office construction while paying little or no attention to the need for housing and transportation to serve the new workers who have filled those new offices. As a result, two major growth initiatives, Propositions K and L, were placed on Tuesday's ballot.

These measures offer voters two grand opportunities to lock in the aforementioned mismanagement for decades to come -- just as the dot-com boom that gave rise to the propositions begins to abate.


Both Prop. K and Prop. L would raise the annual cap on office construction dictated by Proposition M, a ballot initiative passed in 1986. The cap probably needs raising (although, as you will read later, by what amount is a matter for further study); a shortage of office space has driven commercial rents through the roof, and those increased rents are driving important arts and service organizations out of business or out of town. Besides the cap increases, however, there's not much to recommend either of these ballot measures, which attempt to micromanage the fine details of growth and zoning with the bluntest edge of a cast-iron ballot box.

Prop. K would greatly increase the office cap without significantly addressing the main problems of the dot-com boom: Office buildings are being constructed in the wrong places, and there is not enough housing for the people who work in the new offices. K also would create a kind of growth czar, to be filled by mayoral appointment. It's not all that clear exactly how much power the czar would have, but it's obvious that he or she would confuse a development planning process that already seems to be guided by unseen hands. K has other problems, including a grandfather clause that, it seems, benefits developers who just happened to know when Prop. K would be submitted, and what it would say.

K is a stinky Willie Brown deal all the way. It would enshrine, as official city policy, a full-speed-ahead disregard for the side effects of increased commercial construction. If you vote for it, don't bother complaining later; you'll deserve the overofficed, overcrowded, unplanned city you will have gotten.

I tried -- really, really tried -- to like Prop. L, mostly because I think the people responsible for drafting it have several million times more goodwill toward San Francisco than Willie Brown has. The measure's increase in the office construction cap is smaller than K's, but still sufficient to accommodate needed growth and therefore (all the anti-L Chamber of Commerce rhetoric notwithstanding) reasonable. And the measure at least recognizes that the problem with office construction is less the amount of it than its location.

But that recognition comes at what is, for me, a deal-killing price. If L passes, offices will be banned, permanently, from much of the Mission, Potrero Hill, the central waterfront, and western SOMA. This redlining of vast districts of the city vis-à-vis offices is not professional planning; it is a stupid and short-sighted knee jerk that could harm the city greatly.

As I have written before, San Francisco's most pressing problem is a lack of housing. It is difficult to build housing in much of the city because entrenched neighborhood groups have become extremely efficient at defeating proposals that would bring new residents to their neighborhoods. The areas of the city where thousands of apartments might be built without killing opposition from neighborhood groups are precisely the areas where Prop. L bans office construction. In an odd way, such a one-size-fits-all ban works against the affordable housing we need. Housing projects aimed at the low and middle class may not "pencil out" as financially doable unless some office space (which generally brings a higher return than residential construction) is allowed. And as it robs city planners of the case-by-case discretion necessary to foster intelligent development that includes increased housing, Prop. L also prescribes a host of complicated, unworkable fixes for every complaint the so-called progressive forces can compile against Willie Brown and his Planning Department.

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John Mecklin

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