Love in Times of Choler

Political animals on both sides of the development wars snarl all the way to the bank

Squinting one's eyes halfway closed last Thursday evening at the Arc, a SOMA center for the disabled, one might have perceived two shadowy sumo wrestlers squatting side by side. Their rain-making bulk might have seemed enough to crush any of the people in the room, but they would mostly have appeared concerned with each other. They'd have gnashed and puffed and murmured until their eyes bulged, as though pure, telepathic social aggression could shove the opponent out of the ring.

Squinting even further, right to the point where the most acute seeing is done with the mind, however, one might have seen these sumo silhouettes reach out and tenderly touch each other's index fingers. The fingers might have intertwined, separated, then traced paths up each other's arms until both bodies were entirely dedicated to smothering, loving embrace.

Unfortunately, if one were to have sat with one's eyes wide open, as I and around 100 bystanders did at the "Neighborhood Planning and the Future of SOMA" event held at the Arc Thursday night, one would have seen anti-development attorney Sue Hestor and builder representative Joe O'Donoghue sitting seven feet from each other in classroom chairs, blustering and hostile, as part of a panel on growth issues.

"I have so many boxes of files on the South of Market planning process that I couldn't possibly bring them all here," Hestor boasted, reminding her opponents that when it comes to boxes of paper, Hestor's bulk flattens all opponents.

"What we can do is develop programs to help SRO owners to upgrade their property with low-interest loans, zero property taxes ...," said O'Donoghue, giving renewed notice that when there's a possibility of wresting cash from flawed public policy, the president of the Residential Builders Association is a champion of lucha libre.

As the most outspoken opponent of live-work lofts, tech-firm offices, and other new structures in San Francisco, Sue Hestor epitomizes evil for O'Donoghue and his allies. As the representative of the Irish-American developers who construct live-work lofts and other buildings, O'Donoghue is Great Satan for Hestor and her anti-growth ilk. But it became clear, during Thursday evening's volley of claims, counterclaims, and other self-interested nonsense, that behind the rancor is love. I don't mean romantic love, though there's deliciousness in fantasies of Joe and Sue finally hooking up. Nor do I mean agape, the Greek word for spiritual love. I'm referring to ecophilia1, nature love: a deep, unspoken appreciation for all that gives us sustenance.

Ecophilia causes the heart of the most hardened city dweller to lift upon seeing weeds poke through cement; it's an emotion that accompanies realization of the connectedness of all life.

In a similar way, Hestor, O'Donoghue, and the rest of the pandering politicians, trembling civil servants, ill-informed neighborhood kibitzers, and self-aggrandized professional agitators present at Thursday night's event seemed to revel, to be overcome with emotion as they drew sustenance from their own life-giving ecosystem.

This politico-natural world has its own taxonomy. Some beings pose as "housing activists" and "anti-displacement activists" while helping to create and continue a "housing crisis" and a "work-space crisis" that, supposedly, cause waves of evictions of indigenous residential and commercial tenants. Examples of the activist species at Thursday's forum included Supervisor Chris Daly, who moderated the event, and housing activist Debra Walker.

Other beings, notably O'Donoghue and his cronies, pose as champions of free- market solutions to our housing shortage, while richly benefiting from a shortage that is driven by politics, rather than market considerations. O'Donoghue's phylum now has its sights set on the 15-year, $75 million to $95 million redevelopment district in the slums along Sixth Street, already a rich humus of political motives and financial rewards.

Outside the warped ecosystem of San Francisco land-use politics, none of these animals could exist. If an errant meteor were to suddenly destroy the canopy of bogus economic postulating, corrupt political cronyism, and cynical political mau-mauing that protects planning politics here, these people would become instantly irrelevant; their world would be cinders, and in their hearts, they know this. So while Hestor, the no-growth lawyer, and O'Donoghue, the builders' frontman, are enemies in name, their hearts are (or certainly should be) filled at bottom with pure, ecophiliac love.

Sue Hestor has cause to feel confident. She is, right now, at the top of the political food chain.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has just passed legislation that creates a development ban in the city's Mission District. The ban satisfies Hestor's decades-old fight to stanch construction in San Francisco. The Mission measure is drafted along the lines of last fall's failed Proposition L ballot initiative. It places a one-year moratorium on the construction of new lofts and tourist hotels, requires that large commercial projects receive special permissions, and bans all apartment construction unless one-quarter of the units in a building are rented at a subsidized rate. The measure effectively prohibits housing not built by politically connected nonprofit builders, or by private developers with the political juice to obtain government-subsidized financing.

This development ban makes sense if one understands that the careers of Hestor, many of the people within the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (which backed the measure), and scores of activist hangers-on depend on a "housing crisis." They are professional helpers of people in danger of losing their homes; their livelihoods disappear when San Francisco has available, cheap housing. So they pass development moratoriums such as this, which keep housing expensive and unavailable, and keep the crisis that only they can fight going. And going. And going.

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