Progressive Failure

Why San Francisco supervisors who call themselves progressives should get the boot in November

Photocopied fliers festoon Panhandle telephone poles, advertising politicians rather than lost cats. Cole Valley's coffee shops seem friendlier now, with more than the usual number of opinionated customers talking about themselves. On Haight Street, muttering vagabonds accost passers-by thrice as often as before, and the increased buttonholing does not involve the area's hippie-beggar count, but its new population of political aspirants. At last measure, 32 strivers will compete on the ballot this November to replace retiring Supervisor Matt Gonzalez in District 5.

I didn't mind the politically induced changes in my neighborhood until a troubling incident last month. It was dark. I was tired. I didn't get a really good look at the guy's face. And after I'd finished an encounter with one of the aforementioned wanderers, I was stumbling home down an empty street just off the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, having signed a form to place on the ballot a candidate who described himself as a ... progressive. Eccchhhh!

San Francisco's four-year experiment in progressive empowerment -- begun when anti-growth activists took over the Board of Supervisors after year-2000 protests against the development of high-tech office space across the city -- needs to end at the polls this November. We certainly shouldn't be signing forms getting more of them on the ballot.

Despite their self-applied name, San Francisco progressives aren't a philosophical or ideological movement in any meaningful sense. Rather, they're a political faction, allied around specific, self-centered financial interests, brought to office four years ago on an anti-growth mandate. Just like other politicians, they participate in backroom deals that have the potential to help their friends, to the detriment of the rest of us. The difference with this crowd is that they concentrate their ill dealings in the most important area of policy in the city -- housing. In four brief years, they've set the livability of the city back decades.


To get a clear view of why this November's election should be a day of judgment against San Francisco's failed progressive experiment, we leave my neighborhood for a while, heading east on Fell Street a half-mile or so, turning right on Divisadero and left on 14th Street, then coasting downhill across Market Street to Mission. There, we arrive at a towering red monument to inertia; it's called the State Armory and Arsenal. A block wide and resembling a brick hangar, it's sat empty for 35 years, in part because it's a seismically unstable building that requires imagination, and massive investment, to turn it into something useful. Four years ago its owner got the funds and approvals together to convert the massive structure into a computer server farm. "Progressive" activists beat that proposal down, claiming it represented the supposedly blue-collar-job-killing expansion of technology-related business, an expansion they called the "dot-comming" of the Mission. Now, the castlelike stone structure is slated to become 185 apartments. But last week progressives came within a hairsbreadth of halting the building's reuse yet again, and they've hardly given up their mindless anti-housing campaign.

Surrounding the armory is a blighted cluster of empty buildings, near-abandoned workshops, a half-dead car lot, and several vacant parcels that have received acute attention from progressives during the past month. The area is slated for an urban renaissance; builders have obtained or filed for permits, drawn up architectural plans, and lined up financing for a new neighborhood that would include 500 apartments (a large fraction of those subsidized for lower-income people), along with thousands of feet of street-front store space.

A delightful improvement to a depressing and dangerous area, you say?

Not so fast: This is turf eyed by a laundry list of nonprofit groups and allied activist organizations that gained national fame four years ago as the vanguard of the dot-com backlash.

The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition; its informal affiliate, the Mission Economic Development Association; its other informal affiliate, the Mission Housing Development Corp.; and these groups' allied, anti-development attorney, Sue Hestor, are no longer besieged by phone calls from curious Belgian journalists. The dot-com backlash that these groups became spokesmen for is no longer an international story, or even a local one. With the dot-com boom long gone, there isn't much, in reality, to backlash against.

But the rhetoric lives on, at least in some "progressive" minds: Development pressures threaten to "ruin" the working-class Mission District, this fantasy tale goes, displacing jobs in blue-collar workshops, gentrifying apartment districts, and driving up rents.

Over the last four years, the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition has pressed owners of both the armory and a printing-plant building across the street to modify plans to renovate their buildings as residential properties. (The printing plant is slated to become 194 new apartments.) The building owners did just that, cutting back on the amount of retail space in their proposals, adding additional "family" residential units, upping the amounts of subsidized housing -- in other words, trying to deal with the progressives' concerns.

Agustin Rosas-Maxemin, the printing-plant project's developer, says the new building would suit the Hispanic theme of the Mission. "It's contextual, modern Mexican architecture, designed to be an elegant gateway to the Mission," he says. And negotiations with the Anti-Displacement Coalition, Rosas-Maxemin says, "appeared to be in good faith. We modified the projects for more two-bedroom units and some three-bedrooms. But they never really give you any feedback."

At least, not directly.

Last month, on the Friday before a Monday meeting, "progressive" Supervisor Chris Daly, who represents the part of the Mission that includes the armory and the printing plant, slipped an all-but-unnoticed item onto the agenda of the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee. The item would have rezoned a small area of San Francisco in a way that seemed specifically designed to kill the armory and printing-plant projects.

In theory at least, even in San Francisco it's unconstitutional to pass laws specifically designed to punish one's enemies. So anti-development lawyer Sue Hestor came to Daly's office with a bill that punished developers of projects she objected to, yet maintained the appearance of a more generalized reform of zoning laws, a person familiar with the matter says.

What we may as well call the Hestor bill would shrink allowed building heights in the area from about nine stories to around three or four stories. The bill would, therefore, kill the six-story printing-plant project and the 184 units planned for the armory. The measure would also have killed a 36-unit, lower-income apartment project to be managed by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, as well as a 110-unit apartment building planned for the same block at 14th and Mission streets.

In all, the Hestor measure would have killed some 1,000 apartments in the area it addressed, developers' representatives and planning experts I spoke to said.

Those few who knew about the Land Use Committee hearing on the Hestor-written, Daly-sponsored bill could see for themselves that the apartment-killing aspect seemed to be the whole point of the legislation.

Progressive activists should be personally allowed to run San Francisco's planning process, one speaker at the hearing seemed to say. And land use that's best for the city at large isn't necessarily the favorite of Mission activists.

"This legislation is very important because this is how we've had to do it, we've had to do the planning piecemeal, and we've had to do it ourselves. This is why we're coming to the supervisors. Unless you guys do it, this concept of highest and best use is going to continue," said Luis Granados, executive director of the Mission Economic Development Association, speaking on behalf of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition.

New housing projects, meanwhile, are an aberration that must be stopped, Hestor suggested.

"People in the Mission have been asking for this area to be rezoned for years. Now we've got live-work projects and all this market housing approved. That's screwy," added Hestor.

When they were done, progressive Supervisor Jake McGoldrick chimed in with his own analysis: "It appears no nonprofit development has been happening on these parcels, and as Sue Hestor was saying, the land, because of its zoning, is way too high-priced for nonprofits to go in and compete with the for-profits."

To translate into the type of English spoken by nonprogressives: The proper response to this spate of law-abiding proposals to improve a blighted area and create new housing is to order political hits that will delay and eventually dry up the financing for the for-profit housing projects, so duly anointed, progressive, nonprofit developers can pick up the spoils at a discount.

A couple of years ago, the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition successfully urged the Planning Commission to reject an early version of Rosas-Maxemin's housing plans for the printing-plant site. Back then, the Mission Housing Development Corp., through a broker, sent a letter to the building's owner, offering to buy the property.

"The only thing I gathered after this letter was that they were trying to create the kind of atmosphere where I gave up, and then they would make a deal with me," says Mike Davos, owner of the printing plant.

Rosas-Maxemin, the project manager for the printing-plant conversion, is more blunt: "They were trying to sabotage my approval so they could buy it behind my back."

Luis Granados did not return a call requesting comment.

At last month's Monday committee meeting, progressive Supervisors Daly, McGoldrick, and Aaron Peskin voted to send the legislation to the next day's Board of Supervisors meeting. Progressive Supervisor Matt Gonzalez asked that his name be added as a co-sponsor of the bill. That Tuesday, at Daly's urging, the board gave the bill preliminary approval by a vote of 7-to-4, sans debate.

And so went, it seemed, another chapter of How Things Work in Progressive San Francisco:

Progressive nonprofits and activist allies extort concessions from their economic rivals, obtaining land through political maneuvers and government funding through political relationships, all while guaranteeing that as little housing and business space as possible gets built in San Francisco.

This multilevel maneuvering drives up prices for housing and small business space, thus perpetuating the perceived need for "anti-displacement," "economic development," and nonprofit "housing development" groups.

Everybody's taken care of -- except, that is, the people who need a job, or who wish their neighborhoods to become safer and more attractive, or, heaven forbid, who need a place to live in San Francisco.


All would have gone according to the above, oft-used progressive template but for an unusual turn of events. Hestor and her Mission nonprofit allies made an uncharacteristic miscalculation. Included in their downzoning proposal were as many as eight parcels of land owned by the pension fund of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 38. While trying to screw over the enemies of San Francisco progressivism, Hestor and her allies inadvertently took on the sleeping dragon of S.F. politics: organized labor.

"I don't care if the plumbers' pension trust property is in there or not in there. This is a piece of bad legislation where the Board of Supervisors is going around the Planning Commission," says Larry Mazzola, Local 38 business manager, and, as it happens, president of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council. "That little board ought to understand that there are other people that respect the Planning Commission, and they ought to respect the Planning Commission, too. You quote me on this: I think the Board of Supervisors is a bunch of jerks."

And so it came to pass that union members jingled the phone lines and visited the offices of San Francisco supervisors without really needing to mention that organized labor tips elections in this city whenever it sees the need. That Tuesday, what was supposed to be a slam-dunk vote on the Daly rezoning legislation didn't happen.

"Fellow supervisors, my brothers and sisters of the labor unions have been educating me during the last couple of days about the legislation I voted for last week. There is going to be continuing dialogue," McGoldrick said before moving to postpone the vote until September. Daly, seeing he didn't have sufficient votes to pass the bill, seconded. And for a moment, all was quiet in Progressiville, as extortionist-activists, supervisors, developers, and their representatives all prepared for the battle's next round.


I can't say the San Francisco progressive experiment hasn't had fun moments. Aaron Peskin's successful fight against filling in the bay to expand airport runways was inspiring. Chris Daly's renegade installment of former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach on the city's Public Utilities Commission was delicious. And it was hard not to be uplifted by Matt Gonzalez's shoestring bid for mayor.

But fulfillment of the no-growth imperative that brought some of them to office is the greatest legacy of the current, progressive Board of Supervisors. And it's the greatest delight of real estate speculators and other property owners who see their equity increasing in response to a building shortage, and of anti-development lawyers, turf-hungry public-welfare charities, and nonprofit developers adept at gaming the building-approval process.

In helping their friends, the progressives have ruined things for the rest of us. They've greatly exacerbated the city's housing shortage, discouraged employers from locating here, made impossible in San Francisco the middle-class dream of owning a home, and spurred the environment-destroying sprawl that's degrading once-beautiful Northern California. To listen to supervisors describe it at meetings, you'd think development pressure just went away once housing projects were killed. But the fact is, every person must, and most people do, find places to live, even if they aren't in this city. People move against their better wishes into housing tracts built at the edges of the Bay Area, in what had been open space. Then, by dint of artificially created necessity, they must commute huge distances by car. (You're not going to believe this, but I've heard S.F. progressives claim they favor preserving the environment.)

In the Mission, the progressives are trying to block 1,000 desperately needed apartments from being built exactly where they should be -- in a blighted neighborhood that's near transit lines and downtown.

There are unremarked monuments to the failure of San Francisco progressivism across the city. Vacant buildings and weedy, crime-infested blocks -- once slated to be new residential and apartment districts -- pockmark San Francisco. Homeless residents live on the streets, and middle-income families pack into tiny apartments, because neither can afford a better place to live, because progressive policies ultimately work to keep the supply of housing low and rents, therefore, exorbitant. Because housing isn't built here, ugly sprawl development pops up where it can -- across the Central Valley and into the Sacramento River Delta and the Sierra Nevada foothills.

"There is only one sure-fire solution" to our housing shortage, said a recent misguided guest editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Chop down the trees, say goodbye to unused open spaces, and put up more homes."

There is a far better solution. As this fall's campaign season heats up, and you happen to be accosted by erudite, charming, energetic, and idealistic-sounding people who wish to represent your neighborhood on the Board of Supervisors, don't commit to anything until you've asked this question: Are you a progressive? If the answer is yes, remain calm. Politely excuse yourself and walk away -- as I should have done.

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