Profits for Developers Initiative

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

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.

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