Backers last week turned in 21,067 signatures to place the matter on the ballot in June — far exceeding a goal of 15,000 to secure 9,702 valid ones. The Department of Elections quickly certified the initiative, presenting voters with the opportunity to ensure they determine the fate of every future waterfront development exceeding existing height limits. These range from zero feet in open space to 40 feet along much of the strip, topping out at just 105 feet.

Luxury condos towers and major arenas tend to be a shade taller than that.


Describing land-use and development matters in San Francisco as onerous and contentious is a bit like describing Warriors center Andrew Bogut as tall. On the waterfront, everything grows more arcane still: State land is held in trust by the Port; usage is severely proscribed; and a litany of state and local approvals is necessary before any nails get hammered.

Atop all this, Agnos et al. would mandate a vote of the people on every significant project, a move akin to installing a kill switch on the development process: "Let the people protect the waterfront," is the exclamation point to his stump speech.

Mortally wounded by the 1989 earthquake, the Embarcadero Freeway came down two years later.
San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Mortally wounded by the 1989 earthquake, the Embarcadero Freeway came down two years later.
Mayor Art Agnos helps remove the Embarcadero Freeway; not long thereafter, the city's voters removed him.
Dennis DeSilva/Studio 7
Mayor Art Agnos helps remove the Embarcadero Freeway; not long thereafter, the city's voters removed him.

Audiences convinced waterfront development has devolved into an auction for connected political insiders tend to cheer. But development-by-referendum is hardly an ideal solution to any problem, let alone one of a planning process supposedly overtaken by favored builders.

And one man's protection is another's obstruction.

The proposed ballot measure affects not only the Warriors but two other potential waterfront high-rise megaprojects. In the first, the Giants envision a mixed-use development behind AT&T Park entailing 3.5 million square feet of retail, housing, and office space, along with an Anchor brewery — plus skyscrapers ranging from 320 to 380 feet tall. For the second project, veteran builder Forest City aims to remake Pier 70 with perhaps 1,000 units of housing, 2.2 million square feet of office space, and structures reaching 235 feet high.

If forced to win voter approval, all three developers pushing their own measures onto the ballot — as soon as November — would present a messy scenario for Mayor Ed Lee, described within City Hall as "a fucking nightmare."

Rough sailing, then, is in store. But, like the tides gently advancing and receding along the waterfront, it's all cyclical. This gathering development showdown is just the latest battle in a decadeslong war. The history of the waterfront recapitulates the city's own — as will its future.


The big cranes at the Port of San Francisco have been dormant for years. In large part, all that's being loaded and unloaded along this city's waterfront are cruise ship passengers. The city serving as a backdrop for their selfies has been utterly transformed by the decline of its port. Once a legitimate industrial center, San Francisco is now reliant upon the tourism and service industries — a place of production turned to one of consumption.

In 1966, an estimated one of every seven San Francisco workers held a job dependent upon the Port. When these jobs evaporated, an entire class of city residents ceased to exist. A diaspora of ethnically diverse, blue-collar laborers — and an influx of white-collar office workers — led to an explosion in the price of residential real estate. As hordes of tech workers today re-enact this cycle, real-estate and rental prices continue their ascent to parodic levels.

All of this stemmed from the demise of the Port — which, like Hemingway's description of bankruptcy, came gradually then suddenly.

In 1958, the Hawaiian Merchant was the first containerized cargo ship to depart San Francisco Bay. It sailed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into the open sea, a harbinger of change to come. The rise of containerization led to the advent of larger ships that San Francisco couldn't accommodate. It required an untenable investment in infrastructure and equipment, and sprawling plots of land nonexistent in this city. The Port faltered, and set off a domino effect of failure. Processing and storage facilities dependent on materials no longer delivered to the waterfront decamped for Oakland, Emeryville, and other warehouse-friendly East Bay locales. High-wage blue-collar jobs departed with them.

Across the bay, meanwhile, federal grants to the Port of Oakland fueled explosive growth. Between 1968 and '73 alone, at least five major shipping lines jilted San Francisco for its larger, better located, and more modern rival.

By the time Otis Redding sang "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" five decades ago, the waterfront was a realm in flux within a city in flux. For more than a century, the Port served as the engine room of San Francisco. Men and materials arrived and departed here, and the city sprung up around it. To a large extent, the Port dictated the composition of the city writ large.

Not anymore. Minus the screeching whistles, smoke-belching plants, acrid processing facilities, and caravans of trains, trucks, and stevedores, a new type of San Franciscan emerged, voicing new concerns regarding the waterfront. Notions of access, unobstructed sightlines, and environmental stewardship are recent; the San Franciscans toiling in and dependent upon the city's engine room weren't hung up on everyone's pristine views of the place.

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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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