The Failed Experiment

The Class of 2000 made San Francisco its political petri dish.

Imagine having a father like Emmett Brown, the crazy tinkerer from Back To The Future. Among friends, one could brag about genetic proximity to DeLorean-based time travel. At home, however, one would live in a shed because Dad burned the house down.

If you're reading this from outside San Francisco, you've just learned what it's been like living under Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin, Matt Gonzalez, Jake McGoldrick, Sophie Maxwell, and Gerardo Sandoval, the city father-figures ushered in by 2000's Progressive Revolution. That was the name given to that year's local elections, in which political backlash against an economic boom propelled a handful of anti-development critics of then-Mayor Willie Brown onto the Board of Supervisors.

Like the troubled pioneer "Doc'" Brown, these politicians backed noble innovations — quasi-universal health care, paid sick leave for all, nutrition labeling for restaurants, a ban on plastic grocery bags — while proving themselves incapable of governing at home. They've failed to help, and in many cases have worsened, problems such as housing, jobs, public safety, education, transportation, health care, homelessness, infrastructure, and the city's ability to provide services efficiently.

Next week's ballot won't include any of them, as all but Daly and Maxwell have either been termed out or, as in Gonzalez' case, have left the board already. (Gonzalez, however, was replaced by like-minded Green Party member Ross Mirkarimi.) Instead, the ballot is filled with propositions emblematic of this board's penchant for making a disaster of the home front while looking brilliant to the outside world. One proposition represents the fourth attempt in the last seven years to municipalize PG&E. Another would create a proclamation criticizing the Iraq war.

Another would, in the name of historical preservation, make it nearly impossible to build housing in San Francisco. Another proposition would attempt to cure this manufactured apartment shortage by setting aside from the city budget tens of millions of dollars per year in housing subsidies. As a result, the already-strapped city would have to cut unspecified programs to make ends meet.

It's as if a tyrannical drunken father decided to make things better by taking his children's lunch money.

Whomever San Francisco elects to replace the Board of Supervisors' Class of 2000, I can only hope we don't choose another band of myopic visionaries.

This group never developed an understanding of how various policy components work together, nor a clear sense of the city's real priorities. Instead, they developed policy as a series of leftist experiments. When it came to pressing matters such as job creation, transportation, education, homelessness, and creating more housing, the Progressive Revolution was mostly out to lunch.

The left-leaning members of the Class of 2000 received significant support from public sector unions, making it difficult to reform the city's sclerotic transportation and public safety bureaucracies. Mayor Gavin Newsom attempted to solve homelessness by handing over much of the responsibility for housing street people to Randy Shaw, a Progressive Revolution ally who runs a charity called the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. The policy's been a disaster, yet hasn't been challenged by leftist supervisors loath to criticize a fellow traveler.

And since the dot-com protests of 1999, these supervisors have been sympathetic to a point of view that says new housing construction is apt to ruin the quality of the city's neighborhoods. In this spirit, the Board passed measures giving itself more authority to appoint planning commissioners, while making it easier for anti-development neighborhood groups to protest permit decisions to the Board of Supervisors.

The resulting impediments to housing construction have created a shortage so severe as to make San Francisco's cost of living the highest in the country. And despite a dramatic real estate downturn nationwide, the housing shortage in this city has been so acute that San Francisco prices have been relatively unaffected. Ironically, board members have boasted of pushing for more government-subsidized housing, just as their own no-growth policies drove housing costs up.

But that's nothing compared with the backward-looking Class of 2000's swan song: Proposition J. Placed on the ballot by Board President Aaron Peskin, Prop. J would, in the name of historical preservation, freeze construction in much of San Francisco. That will exacerbate the local housing shortage and push more of the poor and the middle class from the city. During the past eight years, Progressive Revolutionaries on the board have never come to terms with the fact that, when housing's scarce, home prices go up; when housing's expensive, the poor and the middle class leave.

As it now stands, a Landmark Preservation Advisory Board considers suggestions as to whether to preserve a certain building or area of the city as historically valuable. The landmarks board currently is purely advisory; it passes recommendations on to the Planning Commission, which must consider factors such as the need for transit-oriented commercial development and the city's housing shortage. Prop. J's Historic Preservation Commission, on the other hand, would be an independent decision-making body devoted solely to protecting old buildings from the wrecking ball; six of the seven members of the new commission would be historical preservation specialists.

When one notes activists' plans to overlay San Francisco with "historical preservation districts," the measure begins looking like an effort to pickle San Francisco in brine. There exist proposals for an auto-services historic district, a gay leather historic district, and a Filipino immigrant historic district, just to name a few. This creates the prospect of block after block of nondescript cinderblock buildings being declared untouchable.

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