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Profits for Developers Initiative 

Take a closer look at this truly awful measure funded by Don Fisher before signing on

Wednesday, Jul 11 2007
Campaign cash, deceptive advertising and the machinations of professional political strategists long ago undermined the Progressive movement's 1900s dream that the ballot initiative process would empower and elevate citizens.

In 2007, the so-called "Parking for Neighborhoods Initiative" — more helpfully known as the Fisher Initiative — is a sublime case in point. For weeks, paid canvassers have been gathering signatures to qualify this loser for San Francisco's November ballot.

A truly awful ballot measure begins with repulsive financial backers. This one was launched with $30,000 from Gap founder Don Fisher, a Republican billionaire known for orchestrating his family's decision to buy and log 235,000 acres of endangered redwood forests; and another $30,000 from Webcor, a giant condo builder standing to benefit from the ballot proposition.

The worst voter propositions screw the poor while enriching the wealthy. The Fisher Initiative lets condo developers off the hook from having to pay millions of dollars in low-income housing subsidies currently enshrined in law. It would also slow and disrupt bus lines, in order to make it easier for rich homeowners to improve their property values by adding parking garages to pre-automobile Victorians.

At its most destructive, the California voter initiative process is used to disempower ordinary voters, tricking them into worsening their own lives.

The example in question forces neighbors along Octavia Boulevard and around Glen Park to scrap plans they crafted during years of community meetings to turn their streets into walkable, park-filled transit villages, complete with subsidized child-care centers, lower-income housing, libraries, and recreational facilities — amenities that were to be paid for by extracting subsidies from developers.

The most deplorable ballot initiatives mislead the electorate about their true effects, couching their bogusness in language that's all but impossible for ordinary people to understand.

Fisher's so-called "Parking for Neighborhoods Initiative," at 61 pages one of the longest local ballot measures on record, wouldn't do very much to make it easier to park in the city. But if successful, it would go a long way toward making it harder to get around by car, bus, on foot, or by bike. It would eliminate new affordable housing all over the city. And it would contribute significantly to congestion, to urban ugliness, and to smog.

Our mayor, who fancies himself an environmentalist, a housing innovator, and a champion of San Francisco's quality of life, should speak out against this ballot fiasco before it's too late. And voters, too often patsies to paid manipulators of the initiative process, should vote against this ballot turkey in order to say "Enough!"

On its face, The Fisher Initiative would seem benign: "What's wrong with more parking?" Fisher's political consultant asked, rhetorically, when I spoke with him a couple of weeks ago. But this measure's awfulness is in its details. It's being promoted as a way to make driving around the city a more attractive transport option. But its most notable effect will be to make housing more expensive so parking can be cheaper — that's backwards. And just as it will help drive more low- and middle-income people from San Francisco, the Fisher Initiative will make life less pleasant for people of all incomes who already live here.

For starters, the Fisher Initiative would nullify current downtown development rules, which limit apartment developers to building only one parking garage space per four apartments. As the law stands, developers are allowed to build additional parking spaces only if they kick in extra subsidies for lower-income housing.

The idea behind those rules is simple: San Francisco needs more apartments that are affordable for middle- and lower-income people. And it doesn't need more cars choking up downtown.

The condominium towers we're now seeing erected south of Market are next to BART, Caltrain, dozens of Muni lines, and bike-lane networks. They're also next to the financial district's forest of office towers, meaning walking to work can be a snap. If new condo residents all bring new cars so they can commute by freeway to Silicon Valley and elsewhere, their driving will clog streets, impede transit, make walking dangerous and unpleasant, and generally cause the new urban neighborhood south of downtown to feel like a traffic-clogged Los Angeles.

The idea behind the Webcor-backed Fisher Initiative's evisceration of those rules is also simple: Fewer affordable housing subsidies mean more profits for builders.

Another effect of the Fisher Initiative would be to ruin plans, developed during countless meetings between neighborhood groups and city planners, to turn the areas around Octavia Boulevard at Market Street and near the Glen Park BART station into Cole Valley-style urban neighborhoods pleasant for walking. A key component of the plan guides developers to build apartment buildings with fewer parking spaces than the one-space-per-unit that's de rigueur elsewhere in the city. With parking garages taking up less space, buildings will have room to add more apartments than they otherwise would have — this is particularly true on odd-sized and -shaped lots, where adding parking spaces eliminates bottom-floor storefronts, and reduces the number of apartments that will fit in a building.

City rules currently require new apartment projects to provide 15 percent of their units at a subsidized rate affordable to moderate-income buyers or low-income renters. So for every additional six or seven apartments builders can fit on a lot thanks to parking spaces they didn't build, San Francisco gets another builder-subsidized apartment.

This isn't a builder-friendly equation. Apartments without parking garages attached to them tend to sell for less, meaning developers must target a relatively downscale segment of the condominium market. That's a bonus for those who'd like see middle-income people able to live in San Francisco. But it's a drain on developers' profit margins.

The Fisher Initiative's "primary benefit is to business, to big companies, and well-heeled residential developers," notes S.F. architect Howard Wong.

Further accommodating the comfortable at the expense of the afflicted, Fisher's proposed law would give homeowners the automatic right to add new parking garages, even if the garage entrance displaces a bus stop. Now such a move requires special permit approval. This change seems subtle until one considers that the San Francisco bus system employs analysts and other staffers whose job involves carefully situating bus stops so that routes moves as swiftly as possible while still letting people off a short distance from their destination. Eliminating a single stop along a line — as a garage entrance can do — might mean completely relocating bus stops along a route at great expense to the city and possible inconvenience to bus riders.

Another downside: this same automatic right to build garage entryways across sidewalks would nix existing rules that protect certain sidewalks around the city so they're easier and safer to use for pedestrians.

The upside: An upsurge in home garage permits would, again, create a boon for builders.

It's easy enough to understand why Webcor would put up half the $60,000 used to hire a top-drawer political consultant, pollster, canvassers, and other professionals to give legs to this ballot initiative. But the man who contributed the other half is a more complicated read. Don Fisher doesn't stand to gain any obvious financial benefit from his own Fisher Initiative. Ten years ago he got Willie Brown to override downtown zoning rules so that his new headquarters near the Embarcadero would be allowed two stories of parking, rather than one floor. So parking isn't a business issue for him.

Last week I asked Jim Ross, the political consultant Fisher hired, if I might be able to speak with the Gap founder about his parking advocacy. No chance.

Despite myriad ways he spends money and effort on local political issues, Fisher rarely makes his motivations public.

So in trying to figure out why Fisher would take on as a pet project a ballot initiative designed to make it easier for wealthy people to park, I'm left parsing "Falling Into the Gap," the 724-page 2002 vanity press hagiography Fisher wrote with his longtime ad man, whose name is, seriously, Art Twain.

Fisher describes his 1940s and '50s halcyon college-age days as filled with memories of parking automobiles.

"We lived in a time of innocence that seems bizarre by today's standards. A typical date could mean parking in a dark, secluded spot," Fisher and Twain write.

A few pages later, Fisher continues this age-of-innocence-in-an-automobile theme with a drive he and his buddies took to San Francisco from the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego.

"We drove to Balboa, a popular tourist spot eighty-five miles up the coast, where we picked up a couple of girls on the boardwalk," Fisher and Twain write. We "parked the car, and started passing a bottle around. Every time I got the bottle, I faked drinking, then passed it to the girls, hoping to get them drunk. My intentions were less than honorable."

The "girls" turned out to be just that: 15 years old. Fisher was 19. He and his friends were eventually jailed, jovially, he suggests, accused of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A few pages later, Fisher describes how he and his friends used to always get together and drive drunk, recalling one time he drove his car through the doors of a Lake Tahoe casino, and was arrested a couple of hours later when he and a "girl" were found necking nearby inside Fisher's parked car.

One idea implicit in these tales is that San Francisco might again be more pleasant if it were possible to effortlessly park one's car.

This happens to be the misleading tenet behind the urban planning that now makes it impossible to get anywhere in Los Angeles. That's because more residential parking spaces invite more cars. And on its daily rounds, each additional car requires seven or so additional parking spaces at stores, offices, government buildings, parks, and anywhere else an automobile might go. The more parking spaces there are, the less room there is for anything else. So additional condominium parking spaces mean it very quickly becomes more and more difficult to park, or drive, or walk, or ride the bus anywhere else.

With the Fisher Initiative "the main thing is the message that gets sent. That is: 'Expect to drive.' The social norm becomes people driving, even when it's perfectly realistic to think of alternatives," says Gordon Price, director of the city program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and one of the advocates behind that city's world-famous effort to build an environmentally sensitive, densely populated, walkable downtown. "When the message is, 'There will always be a place to use your car,' the reaction is, 'OK, I'll use my car.' So you get this constant congestion."

And thanks to the fine print of the Fisher Initiative, you get more people priced out of San Francisco apartments, more hassle for pedestrians and bus riders, and an ugly, congested cityscape for everyone who lives here.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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