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Peskin has exerted most of his muscle on the Embarcadero, a stretch of waterfront that extends from Fisherman's Wharf to AT&T Park. He has been the driving force behind some development projects such as the $54 million development of Piers 1 1/2, 3, and 5, which includes cafes, shops, and offices; at the grand opening, the developer, Simon Snellgrove, thanked a long list of supporters. Peskin was first on the list, long before Newsom.
But Peskin is better known for stopping development on the waterfront, for which he is both heralded as a savior and excoriated as an obstructionist.
In one controversial project, the Mills Corporation proposed a $218 million office park and mall on Piers 27, 29, and 31. The plan called for 20,000 square feet of office, retail, and restaurants, as well as an 110,000-square-foot YMCA. Peskin, alongside environmentalists like David Lewis from Save the Bay and businesses at Pier 39, criticized the proposed design, claiming it had too many buildings and insufficient public access.
Newsom campaign manager Eric Jaye represented Mills Corporation as a lobbyist. He says Peskin blocked the plan simply to please the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, whose bay views would be obstructed by the new development.
Jaye also claims Peskin has misused his position by attacking his opponents, and says that he has experienced firsthand Peskin's wrath: "I have been punished, but I have not been silenced." (Jaye stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the mayor for this story.)
According to Jaye, a group of Pier 39 stores, worried about losing business, contributed $10,000 to Peskin's board ally Supervisor Geraldo Sandoval, allegedly for his vote against the Mills pro-ject. When the project was facing tough opposition from the Board of Supervisors, Jaye says he advised Mills to fight by taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times suggesting that the board was corrupt. The ad ran with a picture of a rat trap baited with cash.
"Peskin was outraged," Jaye says. "He told me he was going to have my job, and shortly afterward Mills let me go, saying privately that Peskin had insisted."
Sitting in Caffe Trieste, Peskin shakes his head and laughs at Jaye's account. He says this is the first he's heard about any contribution from Pier 39 businesses to Sandoval. (Sandoval had no recollection of any such contributions, either. "At any rate, contributions don't influence votes, because that's what puts you in jail," he says. "I don't know anyone around here who would do that, because it's stupid.") Peskin points out that Mills had been spanked in the press for contributing $53,000 to two members of the State Lands Commission, which oversees waterfront development, and to then–state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who advised the commission.
Peskin also says Jaye's full-page ad in The New York Times backfired. "I already had six votes to reject the Mills plan, but the ad was so offensive that I picked up three more, and the Mills project went down by a nine-to-one vote," says Peskin, who keeps a copy of the Times ad signed by Jaye. "They probably realized Jaye had given them bad advice and canned him. I wish I could take credit for Eric losing a job, but I can't."
After Mills left town, Shorenstein Properties LLC — a partnership led by multimillionaire real estate magnate Walter Shorenstein — came in with another proposal to build a scaled-down project. But there have been design squabbles, many with Peskin, who has additional authority over the project with his vote on the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Board. The project is in trouble owing to a controversial four-story office building that doesn't confirm to state height limits. The three piers' underpinnings have rotted more than was expected, which will add millions to the project's cost. Shorenstein is expected to make another design proposal later this year; it's uncertain how it will be received.
Jaye says the board president's role in undoing or stalling projects on the waterfront is just one example of Peskin's inordinate power over development — and developers — in San Francisco. Jaye points to Proposition A as an example of Peskin's political juice. In November, voters approved the transit and parking reform legislation, which, among other things, restricted the number of parking spaces for new developments. That provision put it at odds with powerful Newsom backer Donald Fisher, the billionaire owner of The Gap, who sponsored and paid for Proposition H, which proposed to greatly increase the allowed parking in new downtown developments. That runs counter to current trends in urban design that emphasize reduced parking.
Peskin was able to raise more than $500,000 for Proposition A, much of which came from real estate interests. Jaye claims that Peskin called developers, land owners, and real estate agents and asked them to contribute, with the tacit understanding that their projects might be delayed or scuttled if they chose not to. "When you get a bunch of real estate people putting up a half-million dollars to an antiparking measure, something they normally would support, that's power," Jaye says.
Peskin scoffs at the suggestion that he shook down developers for contributions. Peskin and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a Newsom appointee, were the chief architects of the proposition, and both helped raise money for the campaign. The proposition had long-term benefits for the city, Peskin says, so real estate interests, unions, and environmental and urban design groups contributed to the campaign because they wanted to be on the right side of the legislation.