All Rise: The Lawsuit Challenging Waterfront Height Limits Reaches Strange Heights of Its Own

Big-time land use and litigation go together like daytime baseball and hot dogs. So, it's little surprise that a lawsuit underwritten by the San Francisco Giants — a baseball franchise and aspiring waterfront high-rise developer — is aiming to knock a measure off the forthcoming June ballot that would mandate a vote of the people on every waterfront high-rise development.

The suit claims that injecting the electorate into the process would contravene the 1968 law that tranferred the Port from state to local control; it contends that only the mayorally appointed Port Commission has a say in waterfront planning. This argument cuts out the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, and voters. And that's odd.

It was only 1990 when San Francisco voters enacted a waterfront development moratorium — which lasted nearly a decade — until a comprehensive plan was formulated. Since that time, four subsequent waterfront development measures have come before the electorate. Somewhat awkwardly for this lawsuit's benefactor, voters in 1996 approved a "150-foot-high concrete and brick wall blocking our waterfront" — now referred to as AT&T Park.

Christopher Victorio

The Giants, it would seem, are claiming the election that validated their sumptuous waterfront digs back in the day was, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, illegal.

"The whole notion that local initiatives violate the Port's ability to control its own land seems kind of crazy. They don't have that kind of control anyway," says SF State professor Jasper Rubin, author of A Negotiated Landscape: The Transformation of San Francisco's Waterfront Since 1950. The waterfront height limits at issue, notes Rubin, weren't devised by the Port Commission but the Planning Commission. "The city, vis-à-vis its authority, imposed that limit on the Port. ... I don't think they're gonna get anywhere with this lawsuit."

If the suit puts the Giants at odds with their recent past, it puts its actual litigants at odds with their very recent past.

Michael Theriault and Tim Colen are two of the suit's plaintiffs. In November, however, both were official proponents of Proposition B, a measure urging voters to alter waterfront zoning rules to allow the doomed 8 Washington project at nearly three times the area height limit.

So, the plaintiffs in a suit arguing voters shouldn't be permitted to dictate waterfront height limits last year sponsored a measure asking voters to dictate waterfront height limits.

Asked to square this, Colen sighs. "They are different. And the same."

 
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