Profits for Developers Initiative

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

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.

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