The Grid

Willie's Railroad Job
On Jan. 13, the day Leland Yee was sworn into office as a San Francisco supervisor, merchants from his neighborhood called with what was, to them, disturbing news: The Municipal Railway had begun cutting down trees along Church Street, in front of their stores, to make way for transit access ramps for the disabled.

The merchants were especially angry about the project because, they said, Mayor Willie Brown had promised during the 1995 election campaign that the ramps would be built elsewhere.

Sensing a possible headache for the mayor (and, of course, a certain new supervisor), Yee called Brown to warn him of the erupting ire in Noe Valley. Caught between the needs of the disabled community and the merchants who supported him in the election, Brown made a choice.

He chose the business folks.
Although Muni's handicapped access project — which is mandated by federal law — had gone through a lengthy public approval process that included hearings before the city's Transportation Commission, and even though the ramps were the last piece of a larger project that was 80 percent complete, the mayor halted construction late in January. The decision to stop work in midstream did purchase political peace from Church Street merchants, who feared the ramps would eliminate parking and otherwise hurt their businesses.

By caving to Noe Valley pressure, however, Brown has also cost San Francisco taxpayers at least $50,000. And if the Church Street merchants continue to have their way with the mayor, the taxpayer tab could run as high as $720,000.

Brown stopped construction on the problematic handicapped access ramps, located on Church Street between 29th and 30th streets, on Jan. 29. But it wasn't until last week that he acknowledged the ramps would be moved. The mayor said he would like to see the ramps shifted down the block from the contested site, to a location in front of St. Paul's Church and School, which is closed for seismic retrofitting. (The school will reopen in the fall of next year; then it would be the nearly 300 children attending the K-through-8 school who face the added street congestion caused by the ramps.)

But ultimately, Brown said, a decision on the ramps' location would largely be left up to the neighborhood. “We have to have a community expression, a vote,” he said.

The mayor didn't say what type of vote, exactly, he was contemplating. And at a press briefing last week, Brown said he didn't know whether it would cost taxpayers money if the ramps were moved — and, for the record, he didn't care. “You'd have to ask Muni [if there is an additional cost],” the mayor said. “But if there is, I don't think it could be enough to stop us from going through with this.”

If Noe Valley merchants get their way, “community expression” could be expensive indeed.

The merchants, you see, want to move the handicapped ramps off Church Street altogether, and onto 30th Street. City sources say that ramp placement would more than triple the cost of the project, taking it from $340,000 to $1.06 million — an increase of some $720,000.

The mayor's kowtowing to Noe Valley store owners has already been expensive.
According to contractors working on the Church Street project, labor costs are continuing to mount, even though the project is suspended.

Len Wigney, vice president of Golden Bay Construction Inc., estimates the current cost of the delay at about $20,000. Work already done (and made irrelevant by the decision to move the ramps) has cost taxpayers another $20,000, Wigney estimates. Wigney says if he is asked to undo work already performed on the ramps, it could add thousands of dollars more to the bill. And remember, the labor costs grow each day Mayor Brown and his staff don't come to a decision.

The situation boils down to this: Mayor Brown made a choice. It's already cost taxpayers $50,000. It could cost hundreds of thousands more. And the meter on this money-siphon is still running.

So why is Brown, a man who has told the most powerful interests in the state to take a powder when doing so suited him, reacting with such priestly attentiveness to one block of mighty Noe Valley?

The answer is simple: votes.
In the December 1995 runoff between Brown and then-Mayor Frank Jordan, Noe Valley gave Brown nearly 70 percent of its votes. But there's more: The neighborhood is the fourth most heavily Democratic area in the city, and it produces the fourth highest voter turnout.

Mayor Brown surely understands this. More important, so does Noe Valley.
“I'm not saying I have any major influence over voters,” says Tom Maravilla, the owner of MikeyTom Market. “But if I go against Brown on the [49ers] stadium issue, for example, a lot of people are going to be swayed by that.”

Maravilla erected a huge Willie Brown for Mayor billboard — free of charge — on his store during the mayoral campaign.

And when the trees came down on Church Street, Maravilla, other merchants, and their neighbors kicked into high political gear. Dave Monks, the president of the Noe Valley Democratic Club, and Eva Skoufis, the owner of a local laundromat, were the chief troop-ralliers. Monks drafted a letter asking the merchants to call the mayor. One of the merchants photocopied the letter, enlarged it, and posted it in all the store windows in the area.

The letter gave clear marching orders.
“Today: Call Mayor Brown's office at 554-6141. … Ask him why Muni is digging up the neighborhood when we have asked him to meet with us. You may be pushed off on some aide, but tell the aide your thoughts and ask him/her to respond.”

“Everyone do this today. We need 100 phone calls to each of these people today. We are turning the corner, but cannot do it unless everyone acts now. No exceptions. No excuses.”

The letter urged spouses, relatives, friends, and employees to join the phone campaign.

Updates were mailed almost every day until the mayor caved to the pressure, announcing that the project had been halted. Since then, members of Brown's staff have descended on the community like Red Cross workers after a disaster, promising citizens all their concerns will be taken care of.

Sometime in the future, Muni officials say, they will present a list of options on ramp placement to the community. Then, the officials say, Noe Valley will hold what amounts to a mini-election on the placement of the ramps.

The degree to which the mayor has deferred to the community is amazing, even viewed in the context of Brown's reputation as the ultimate legislative deal-maker. The administration's apparent unconcern with the cost of Noe Valley appeasement is even more startling.

Scan this comment from Paul Imperiale, the mayor's disabled services coordinator:

“I know the 30th Street option is expensive, and operationally it doesn't make sense, but we will leave that to the people.”

Translation for non-bureaucrats: We know it's wasteful and stupid, but these people have clout, and we're going to do it anyway.

Zell's Cat's Out of the Gate!
Investment titan Sam Zell, owner of several San Francisco high-rises, appears to be interested in purchasing the city's 18 publicly owned parking lots and, not so coincidentally, grabbing the multimillion-dollar annual revenue stream they generate.

Zell, a Chicago-based financier who runs a holding company called Equity Investment Group and whose holdings are mainly in real estate and retail properties, made inquiries this month about the city garages, asking how many the city runs and how much revenue they generate.

Bill Maher, a former supervisor recently appointed head of the Department of Parking and Traffic, told the Parking and Traffic Commission last month that a “private person” was inquiring about the lots. In a subsequent meeting, Maher reportedly told the Union Square Association, a group of merchants including representatives of Macy's and Neiman-Marcus department stores, that the “private person” was Zell, and that he'd offered $200 million in cash.

And Zell isn't the only capitalist eyeing the garages. Last week, an investment banker named John Brennan held a meeting with Gavin Newsom, the newly appointed supervisor and former president of the Parking and Traffic Commission. “They said that they were aware that Zell had made his offer to Maher and that now that the cat's out of the gate, they wanted to throw their hat in the ring,” Newsom says.

Tortured metaphors notwithstanding, Newsom is convincing when he questions a sale of the parking lots. “My knee-jerk reaction is negative,” Newsom says. “It's hard not to expect him [Zell] to want to make a profit, and that would mean he would have to bring rates up to market, and as you know market is relatively outrageous.”

The city's 18 garages, some of which are run by nonprofit associations, generate $35 million a year. And almost anyone who could raise $200 million would like to get an all but certain 17.5 percent annual return on it. “They [the garages] are worth a lot more than that,” says Sharon Bretz, the vice president of the Parking and Traffic Commission.

Which brings up a couple of interesting compound questions: Why would anyone even begin to consider selling public property until appraisals had been done, and before competitive bids had been sought? And who the hell is Sam Zell, and why does he (apparently) have an inside track on this hush-hush deal?

Tara Shioya also contributed to this column.

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