Gavin Newsom Takes on San Francisco – In Court

Newsom's State Lands Commission is suing the city over height restrictions San Francisco voters imposed on waterfront building developments.

Gavin Newsom (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Suppose you were running for governor of California. You’re ahead in the polls thanks to landslide support in the Bay Area — but the mayor of Los Angeles is gaining on you fast. If you’re counting on San Francisco to help you win the election, would you sue San Francisco?

That’s what Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is considering as he runs for governor. Newsom is not personally suing San Francisco, but the California State Lands Commision — of which he’s the chairperson — is suing the city over height restrictions on waterfront development, and the case is likely to head to trial in a San Francisco Superior Court in September.

The State Lands Commission is an obscure three-person panel that manages California public land policy. Newsom did not file this lawsuit, but he’s not dropping it, either. Former State Lands Commission chair John Chiang brought the suit, though Newsom did sit on  the commission when the suit was filed. Chiang currently serves as state treasurer. (And ironically, he’s also running for governor in 2018).

The reason: The commission is not pleased over San Francisco’s passage of a 2014 measure called Proposition B.

As a refresher, Prop. B required voter approval for any development on the San Francisco waterfront that would exceed height limits in city zoning code, and voters passed it 59-41. The measure grew out of objections to a proposed luxury condo called 8 Washington St., a 12-story Embarcadero high-rise derisively nicknamed the “Wall on the Waterfront.”

Opponents felt 8 Washington would have blocked views of the Bay. “There shouldn’t be reserved areas for luxury high-rises on our waterfront, because it’s so beautiful,” says former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, who served as one of the chief spokespeople for the Prop. B campaign.

But the State Lands Commission sees Prop. B as a dangerous precedent allowing municipalities to ignore California law. The Commision was unwilling to comment on pending litigation, but Rhys Williams, Newsom’s chief of staff, explained their rationale.

“The Commission is acting to protect the entire state from overdevelopment,” Williams tells SF Weekly. “This isn’t principally about San Francisco. It’s about stripping the state’s trustees — the State Lands Commission — of its guardianship of public trust lands, which threatens its ability to protect all of California’s coast from overdevelopment.

“If you take away the Commission’s powers of coastal environmental protection in one city, you create the conditions to take it away statewide,” Williams adds. “Prop B. effectively opened the floodgates on massive coastal development throughout California, and Lt. Gov. Newsom doesn’t support that.”

Prop. B has affected some pretty significant projects along the San Francisco piers. The Golden State Warriors had to scrap their 2014 plans for an arena at Piers 30-32 because it would been three times taller than zoning allowed. The San Francisco Giants won voter approval to build a high-rise at their ballpark parking lot, but only after making height concessions and adding below-market-rate housing. Prop. B has forced to developers to persuade San Francisco voters to get waterfront projects approved.

“The developers do not want to negotiate any development deals with the people or neighborhoods of San Francisco,” Agnos says. “They like the old system, which is to negotiate with the mayor and their favorite supervisors.”

Agnos argues that developers are behind the lawsuit.

“They’ve gone to Gavin Newsom and, using the State Lands Commission, are suing the city to block the voters of San Francisco from voting on projects that are built on their public land,” he says.

In a statement to SF Weekly, Newsom claims otherwise. “The State Lands Commission is the constitutionally entrusted guardian of state lands throughout California, preventing poorly conceived coastal developments and protecting California’s environmental heritage,” Newsom says. “I believe that the Commission strikes the right balance, where we support and protect local communities from bad projects while upholding the environmental interests of all Californians, and that’s what I intend to push for as we settle this matter.”

Notice an important detail there: a stated willingness to settle the case before it goes to trial, if it’s possible to find common ground between Prop. B and the commission’s statewide concerns.

That may be a more politically expedient outcome for Newsom’s campaign, sparing the awkwardness of Newsom suing his hometown while running for governor. But he hasn’t backed off the fight, and he may have enough goodwill with voters thanks to his work on marriage equality and cannabis legalization.

So Newsom’s commission is going forward with plans to sue San Francisco — to borrow a phrase from his famous gay marriage speech, “whether you like it or not.”

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