That was their office. They were working. Today's San Franciscans are looking.

The polarity of the city has been reversed. While San Francisco once reflected the influence of the waterfront, the waterfront now reflects the influence of the city.

"It's a total inversion," says Jasper Rubin, a former city planner overseeing the waterfront and now an SF State professor of urban studies. "The city has transformed and a functional connection to the waterfront no longer exists. What molds the waterfront, then, reflects the needs and goals of a city reaching to be 'world-class.' It looks at the waterfront as a different kind of resource; as opposed to being an integral part of the economy, it's the new frontier."

The template for today's crusade against waterfront development was established in 1965, during the battles over Fontana Towers.
Juan Pardo
The template for today's crusade against waterfront development was established in 1965, during the battles over Fontana Towers.
SnøhettaWhether the Warriors' state-of-the art arena advances past the drawing board is a decision city voters may well be called upon to make.
SnøhettaWhether the Warriors' state-of-the art arena advances past the drawing board is a decision city voters may well be called upon to make.

The next big battle over that frontier is coming — and right soon. The skirmishes are being fought, nightly, over wine and cookies.


The posterboards Art Agnos schleps wherever he goes are emblazoned with chipper watercolor images of the waterfront arena he reviles. For easier portability, he's sliced oval-shaped holes atop them so they can be toted like suitcases, and reinforced these with duct tape. PowerPoint it ain't.

The small army of political consultants amassed by the Warriors have portrayed Agnos as a vestige of the city's past. Yet that's not the worst thing to be when courting San Francisco's entrenched voting class — an aging group less than enthralled with the present, let alone the city's trajectory toward a discomfiting future.

Put bluntly, Agnos is an old-school politician making an old argument via old methods. To old people.

It's a rare attendee at one of these presentations who can't remember the day President Kennedy was assassinated. But, again, that's okay. More people than ever live in San Francisco these days. But the neighborhood activists who show up for Agnos' presentations have made lives here. They were here yesterday, they'll be here tomorrow; this isn't their "San Francisco phase." In short, they live here.

People who live here vote here.

So while it may be a bit grandiose to gauge the mood of the city based on the results of an off-year, low-turnout, unsexy election, it's fair game to gauge the mood of those who bother to vote in off-year, low-turnout, unsexy elections. Fewer than three in 10 San Franciscans deigned to participate in the November election that doomed 8 Washington. And that was actually a so-so turnout for a municipal affair; sans alluring state and federal issues, transitory San Franciscans blow off local elections. The issues affecting us the most are decided by the fewest, and most veteran, voters.

Older voters of the sort piling into rec centers and coffeehouses to observe Agnos brandishing a laser pointer — his one conceit to modernity — tend to skew disproportionately high in esoteric, municipal elections like last November's. Or the one pending in June.

Their younger and newer neighbors may not even know what "Manhattanization" means, let alone reflexively object to high-rise development. Manhattan is cool. High-rises are everywhere. Far-flung change is less threatening to an influx of newcomers who, themselves, represent far-flung change. Longtime San Franciscans concerned that their younger incarnations couldn't make it in this city today — or who are, perhaps, struggling in the present — have experienced a different San Francisco than those with the means to move to the city now. Absent context, the notion of change is meaningless.


Today's anti-gentrification activists protest tech buses, but yesterday's protested high-rises. Agnos' talking points are larded with stimuli just for them.

Ask an ascendent young San Franciscan to stop playing with his smartphone long enough to tell you what he thinks about Fontana Towers, and he'll likely get right back on the smartphone to Google it. But when Agnos broaches the subject to his stump-speech demographic, an outpouring of lamentations envelops the room. These people know from Fontana Towers.

The twin 17-story twin apartment complexes were erected in 1965 atop the former site of the Fontana Fruit Canning Company's brick warehouses, vestiges of a once-bustling port.

"There had been an unspoken rule that you didn't build tall on the waterfront before that," says Allan Jacobs, the city's planning director from 1968 to '75. A pair of Soviet-style blocks resembling freestanding radiators changed that rule to a spoken one, inspiring the 40-foot height limit blanketing much of the waterfront — and establishing the template for the next half century of development clashes along the water's edge.

In 1968, an irate Mayor Joseph Alioto growled that "40 people can't stop a $100 million project." He has been proven stunningly and repeatedly wrong in the decades since: The 30-story World Trade Center, Embarcadero City, and the 550-foot-tall U.S. Steel Building all contributed to the flotsam and jetsam of unrealized projects dashed along the waterfront.

Then as now, the populist charge against waterfront development was waged primarily by well-to-do, highly connected individuals heavily concerned with aesthetics — and groups composed in large part of such individuals. The arguments the Sierra Club, Telegraph Hill Dwellers, or San Francisco Tomorrow advanced against infill and towers 50 years ago are the same ones those very groups are making against the Warriors arena — and its accompanying towers — today. The oft-repeated refrain about a looming "wall on the waterfront" traces back more than half a century (though, in a less politically correct age, it was referred to as a "Chinese Wall.").

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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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