The Next Big Thing: Should the People Control the Fate of the Waterfront?

The Next Big Thing: Should the People Control the Fate of the Waterfront?

Red wine, cookies, and a former mayor were the featured spread for a recent gathering of the Upper Noe Neighbors Association. The two dozen attendees shifted uncomfortably in folding chairs arranged awkwardly in a circle. They managed to drain only about a quarter of a single bottle of Chilean red and down barely half the homemade cookies. Clearly, nobody was here to eat.

When Art Agnos wandered through the front door, he was the only man in the room wearing a suit, let alone a tucked-in shirt. It was the sort of outfit one dons when sitting down for a summit with powerful developers, as he did earlier that day, rather than teetering on a child-sized seat while a kindly woman in a fleece vest recites the minutes from the previous meeting. And it's hardly the typical attire worn when hauling a junkie convulsing atop the double yellow line at Market and Guerrero out of the street. That, too, took place earlier.

It was a hell of a day.

San Francisco, says former Mayor Art Agnos, will always be a great city — "unless we fuck it up!"
Mike Koozmin
San Francisco, says former Mayor Art Agnos, will always be a great city — "unless we fuck it up!"
The Embarcadero Freeway, seen here in its virgin year of 1959, blockaded the waterfront and helped to inspire this city's "Freeway Revolt."
San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
The Embarcadero Freeway, seen here in its virgin year of 1959, blockaded the waterfront and helped to inspire this city's "Freeway Revolt."

In front of a gaggle of registered San Francisco voters, however, the erstwhile mayor finds his way. He launches into a well-versed stump speech, the distillation of a years-long jeremiad against the proposed Warriors arena project on Piers 30-32 in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. This is an oration he has delivered to similar groups of cookie- and wine-neglecting neighborhood activists nearly 100 times in the past several months.

Audiences change, but the message does not: Agnos' cadences rapidly assume the mesmerizing pitter-patter of a revivalist preacher; attendees squirm, gasp, and blurt out "Jesus Christ!" on cue as Agnos spins a tale of a bloated waterfront arena enthroned atop gargantuan concrete pilings and bracketed by a swanky hotel, noxious retail, and towering luxury condos erected on public land. The misbegotten vanity project, he says darkly, will drain city coffers, snarl Embarcadero traffic during ballgames, concerts, and "tractor-pulls" — and, most unforgivably, wall off the common citizen from "our waterfront."


Art Agnos warms his hands with cup of coffee on a brisk Monday morning at a waterfront cafe: "This is my hangout," he boasts. It's not a bad place to be. Unobstructed by the Embarcadero Freeway that Agnos made the politically fateful decision to raze in 1991, the dilapidated cargo depots and seedy flophouses serving as a backdrop for real and cinematic police chases have given way to greenspace, crisp bay views, and earbudded joggers.

Dirty Harry isn't shooting people here anymore.

In 2006, the Port of San Francisco unveiled a waterfront monument on Pier 14, declaring that "this pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city better and stronger than he found it." The same can't be said for his political career: Demolishing the quake-damaged Chinatown artery required spurning a petition of more than 22,000 signatures, sowing enmity within that neighborhood so toxic it has a half-life. This was, arguably, the driving factor in ensuring Agnos' detractors will be forever able to preface his name with the adjective "one-term mayor."

"When you lose, the coterie of public officials, the press, the lobbyists, the citizens, they all move on to the next person. And all you're left with is a question," reflects Agnos. "'What did I do in the time I had to make a difference?'" He grins. Hell yeah, he'd raze that freeway again. "I know I made a difference. That's what sticks to you like a good breakfast in the morning."

This is a speech the 75-year-old Agnos has delivered before. To others — and himself.

He glances out the cafe window toward the proposed site of the Warriors' gambit — a gleaming ivory 18,000-seat stadium and 500-space parking garage on the ramshackle pier; a towering hotel and condominium across the Embarcadero; and 130,000 square feet of retail space between both sites. "We don't need a basketball team to be a great city!" he exclaims. "Oklahoma City does! Oakland does! We already are a great city!"

Agnos is prone to venture into his rehearsed arena sermon in interpersonal conversations. He'll feed the neighborhood groups the same line, essentially verbatim. But now he goes further: "We always have been a great city and always will be — unless we fuck it up!"

In Agnos' view, the Warriors' waterfront beachhead would be the straw that fucked up the camel's back.

Well, there's a remedy for all that. It's the same one San Francisco development critics have successfully wheeled out for decades: ballot-box city planning via an alphabet's worth of propositions.

Somewhat uniquely, San Francisco is a place in which progress is often marked by what we haven't accomplished rather than what we have. Citizen activism has spared this city its share of neighborhood-annihilating freeways and high-rise monoliths. Through the years, opposition to rampant growth grew more organized; policies crafted by development critics and enshrined by voters have shaped city policy.

And when this process — partially of their own making — still produces undesirable results, development critics may go to voters once more, targeting specific projects.

Along with "The Waterfront Alliance" — the amalgamation of environmental groups, slow-growth activists, antsy neighbors, and well-heeled "concerned San Franciscans" that crushed the proposed waterfront 8 Washington luxury condo tower in November's election — Agnos is pushing a waterfront height-limit ballot initiative.

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12 comments
Kairi Willow
Kairi Willow

Uh... Yeah... What kind of question is that?

Nancy Queenofsheba Endy
Nancy Queenofsheba Endy

I read the article and yes the waterfront belongs to the citizenry of SF. It should not be allowed to be blighted by crass commercial development.

Jeremy Baker
Jeremy Baker

This is the logical failure of "the customer is always right"....protip: they aren't.

norchris
norchris

If Agnos is serious about requiring affordable housing to be built on port property, why isn't he pushing an initiative to do exactly that?  Instead he's pushing an initiative that's solely about height limits and won't necessarily do a thing to promote more affordable housing in this town.  Of course the rich people who already live within eyesight of the shoreline and who are financing the initiative might not be so enthusiastic about funding an initiative that would require affordable housing to be built right next door.  So who's corrupt now?

SFDave4U
SFDave4U

Should the people control the waterfront and or should the people control the frontlines for social and economic justice. Tom Perkins said today the rich should get more votes proportionate to the amount of taxes they pay. Hey maybe it would be better if there were no privacy and every time someone like him stopped at Perry's they would be charged x time's more than the average worker. If Joe Shmo earns $30,000 a year he pays $9 bucks for a burger, but someone like Perkins should be soaked and pay at the point of sale $3,000,000 for a burger. Don't you think the country was founded to promote the general Welfare (preamble Constitution) and that's only fair .... .

SFDave4U

sebraleaves
sebraleaves topcommenter

Thankfully the citizens still get to decide the fate of their city, but, it is getting harder with edicts coming down from Washington and Sacramento to build, build, build for the future some don't want. We will hear about the need to green the streets and replace the single family homes with dense new housing for the thousands of new folks who are ready to invade. We will hear about the billions of dollars the SFMTA needs to build a new transit system or two. They will even promise to fix the potholes, but few people will fall for that again. In the end, this is a fight between the preservationists who love the city the way it is and those who don't.

CommonSense
CommonSense

The Mannhatanization of the city has got to stop.  Basically anyone who is not a millionaire or living in a housing project will be evicted.  It's a war about the future, from gentrification to Google buses to dozens of new 40-story towers.  What kind of city do you want San Francisco to be?  

egg-sf
egg-sf

I find it ironic that Art Agnos wants "No Wall on the Waterfront"...yet he is best remembered during his sole  mayoral term for his "Wall of Homeless at City Hall."

 
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