Political Relativity

Stuck in a strange warp of the space-time fabric, our supervisors can't stop tilting against a dot-com development monster that's dead and buried

Just as X-rays can't pass through lead, time cannot penetrate a stasis field. And so it was on Tuesday, July 9, that City Hall departed from the spacio-temporal continuum.

For hours, the giant dome of City Hall seemed to echo with the mutterings of Arthur Brown Jr., the man who designed it in 1913. The central marble stairway tittered with the sweet nothings of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, who wed there in 1953. The voice of George Moscone could be heard, calling on Harvey Milk. And the Manchurian oak-paneled legislative chambers trembled with the cries of Luis Granados, head of the inappropriately named Mission Economic Development Association.

"We need to balance the economic benefits for developers with the needs of the rest of the city," Granados told the Board of Supervisors' Rules and Audits Committee as he decried the negative effects of office development on Mission District residential neighborhoods. "The period we experienced has been a dark, dark period for the Planning Commission."

During Tuesday's hearing, which focused on new appointments to the Planning Commission and the Board of Permit Appeals, time seemed frozen -- and not merely because the session dragged on a record 12 hours. Rather, most of the hundred or so people testifying -- neighborhood anti-growth activists; Irish apartment builders; developers' lawyers; NIMBY, anti-development lawyers -- spoke of issues the clock had long left behind. The Irish builders complained they were being unfairly criticized for constructing live-work lofts, which have been outlawed for nearly a year. Neighborhood activists railed against an office-building boom they said boosted apartment prices, though the boom is ancient history. Amid an enormous office space glut, anti-growth lawyer Sue Hestor warned of illegal conversions of warehouses into offices, while builder representative Joe O'Donoghue defended office builders.

In other words, citizens and supervisors spoke for 12 hours about the growth effects of a 1995-2000 Internet industry craze that no longer exists, or matters a whit.

It was as if San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, elected two years ago amid a popular backlash against dot-com-related growth, had a mandate to fight this battle eternally, as if the supes were soldiers in a Chinese emperor's tomb. When the meeting was over, they appeared determined to do just that.

Several of Mayor Willie Brown's appointments to the Planning Commission seemed likely to be rejected, supervisors told me, and at least one appointment by Board President Tom Ammiano also appeared doomed. Subsequently, the mayor rescinded his appointments, and a spokesman said Brown had no plans to make new ones.

The possibility therefore exists that the seven-member Planning Commission would be unable to raise a quorum, and therefore could not formally meet -- or vote on -- commission matters. Building permit decisions may be frozen in time indefinitely, thanks to the inexplicable stasis field that has engulfed San Francisco politics. "I'd hate to have $3 million sunk into a building project right now," urban planning gadfly Jim Chappel observed.

Outside City Hall, of course, time has marched on: San Francisco's dot-com troubles are long gone, and a very different series of problems has taken their place. The local economy has fallen further and faster than it has anywhere in the country -- with worse, apparently, to come. Commercial vacancies have gone from nearly zero during the dot-com days to an official level of more than 25 percent. (In reality, vacancies are much higher, as businesses that would vacate if they could are being forced to live out the last months of long-term leases.) In other cases, landlords don't even record vacancies in efforts to burnish what would otherwise be frightening real estate balance sheets. Thousands of workers have left the city. To top it off, there is still a housing shortage, and -- bizarrely -- residential rents remain at the extraordinarily high levels of 1998.

For an ordinary working Jose or Jane with mouths to feed, San Francisco has become a cruel, cruel place: no jobs, and no place to live within one's means. But inside San Francisco City Hall, people continue to argue and argue about how best to stanch runaway growth.

Tuesday's spectacle was the result of a ballot proposition approved in March, when memory of the anti-dot-com-office frenzy had yet to completely fade. Proposition D gave the president of the Board of Supervisors power to appoint three of seven members to the Planning Commission and two of five members to the Board of Appeals. The mayor had previously chosen these panels. The measure also increased the supervisors' ability to veto the mayoral appointees, changing the requirement for doing so from a two-thirds vote of the board to a simple majority.

The idea was to grant the current Board of Supervisors, who had been elected at the peak of San Francisco's anti-development sentiment, greater power to slow growth by giving them greater power to oppose the mayor.

But a funny thing happened this spring: Board President Tom Ammiano, who nearly won the 1999 mayoral contest thanks to the dot-com backlash, stuck his head outside City Hall and saw how the city had changed. Ammiano had become deadly serious about winning the 2003 mayor's race and wished to position himself as something more than the vessel for reactionary sentiment he was two years ago. He appointed a trio of planning commissioners with nary an anti-development ax to grind. The pro-development mayor, naturally, did the same.

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