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instructions for the future

In November 1986, after years of wrangling and false starts, the voters of San Francisco passed the Accountable Planning Initiative, popularly known as Proposition M.

The initiative directed the Planning Department to revise the city’s Master Plan in accord with eight "priority policies":

  1. That existing neighborhood-serving retail uses by preserved and enhanced and future opportunities for resident employment in and ownership of such businesses enhanced;

  2. That existing housing and neighborhood character be conserved and protected in order to preserve the cultural and economic diversity of our neighborhoods;

  3. That the City’s supply of affordable housing be preserved and enhanced;

  4. That commuter traffic not impede Muni transit service or overburden our streets or neighborhood parking;

  5. That a diverse economic base be maintained by protecting our industrial and service sectors from displacement due to commercial office development, and that future opportunities for resident employment and ownership in these sectors be enhanced;

  6. That the City achieve the greatest possible preparedness to protect against injury and loss of life in an earthquake;

  7. That landmarks and historic buildings be preserved; and,

  8. That our parks and open space and their access to sunlight and vistas be protected from development.

Proposition M is still on the books. Its provisions appear regularly in the Planning Department's environmental impact review of proposed construction and demolition.


Déjà vu all over again

april 24, 2000. Tim Redmond must wonder why he ever bothers to write anything new. In the spring of 1983 the future executive editor of the Bay Guardian recorded a few trenchant observations in a series entitled "There’s Big Trouble in Highrise City":

The dire warnings of two decades of urban environmentalists and neighborhood activists have now come true,… and with a passion: both the major bridges serving San Francisco are now filled to capacity each morning and evening, creating massive traffic jams as outlying Bay Area residents commute to their jobs in the city.

…Environmental Sciences Associates admitted that "Downtown office workers who would desire housing in San Francisco but would be unable to find [it] would be forced to seek housing in other Bay Area communities."

…The [Planning] department’s… action fulfills the worst fears of highrise foes who were reluctant to believe an administrative program directed by the Planning Department would ever result in stricter controls on downtown development.

In April 1983 many San Franciscans saw monsters lurking just outside their door, waiting for the opportunity to come in and destroy the affordable, diverse neighborhoods they prized. Today even Supervisor Leslie Katz and her colleagues at the Planning Department have adopted Redmond’s perspicacious tone:

The supply of housing units in the City has not kept pace with the demand for housing created by… new employees. Due to this shortage of housing, employers will have difficulty in securing a labor force, and employees, unable to find decent and affordable housing, will be forced to commute long distances, having a negative impact on quality of life, limited energy resources, air quality, social equity, and already overcrowded highways and public transport.

In April 1983, the monsters went by the name of highrises; in April 2000, we call them dot.com’s. New garb, old guys. The threat is the same.


In 1986 the voters of San Francisco thought they could drive back the highrise monsters by passing Proposition M, which sharply limited the yearly construction of office space and inserted new growth guidelines into the city’s Master Plan. As a consequence, developers have to pay a variety of fees to alleviate the extra burdens that their presence adds to housing, transportation, and educational facilities. At least, that was the original intent. But in practice, the requirement means that developers with money to throw around can develop pretty much as they wish.

Nevertheless, Prop M has managed to put a lid on downtown building so that, until recently, the annual quota has rarely been challenged. But no one back in 1986 foresaw the dot.com invasion of the early 21st century. This year’s construction has already reached the cap of 950,000 square feet. Proponents want to encourage what they see as a wave of prosperity; opponents want to prevent what they see as a tidal wave of destruction. To channel the flow of these "business services" — "to get them classified and make them play by the same rules" — Katz has proposed a number of changes to the Master Plan. Dot.com’s, now bearing the respectable rubric of research, development, and technology, will be required to pay more than anyone else for the privilege of setting up shop; in exchange, they will be allowed to set up as many shops as they like.

The 55-page proposed amendment to the planning code doesn’t continue the story to the next chapter, but one possible version already exists in outline form. New-technology firms will continue to buy up old buildings and nicely renovate them as office — oops! RDT — space. Desiring to live in the neighborhood where they work, their high-paid employees will willingly pay inflated prices for nearby houses or newly created condos. Displaced by the high-rollers, the area’s current residents will have no choice but to move elsewhere, probably outside the city. For them, the RDTs’ promise of jobs and contributions to affordable housing will come too little, too late.


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In all the discussions of the multimedia menace (or multimedia miracle, if you’re on the other side), one word is never spoken: class. Yet that’s what the brouhaha is really all about — that old warhorse known as the class struggle. The terms of engagement have changed. It’s no longer a question of management or capitalists or bosses exploiting workers. Instead, the very work that sustained and defined workers is being abolished, exported to lower-paying countries and replaced by hi-tech jobs at home. The folks at San Francisco Partnership and elsewhere have suggested that, in fact, their space contains not offices but multimedia and digital "industries." Never at the height of the American labor movement did steel workers or shipbuilders enjoy the disposable income of these new techies.

The two sides don’t speak the same language, as recent events in the vicinity of 16th and Mission demonstrate. Problems abound in the area, including an unusually high rate of heroin abuse, but services are scarce. For the past several years, a coalition of neighborhood groups has worked to establish a drop-in center where people could find drug counseling, employment services, or simply a place to sit and talk. They found a likely spot in the former Kragen Auto Parts store and persuaded the Department of Human Services to include the project in this year’s budget. Suddenly, the appropriation disappeared. The Chronicle reported that parents of children attending nearby Marshall Elementary School objected, although it’s hard to understand how a plan to get people off the streets could be offensive. Chris Daly, coordinator of Mission Agenda, has another explanation: There were also complaints that the center would be too near a transit hub. A couple of weeks after the project was killed, Dallas-based Eikon Investments announced plans to convert the old armory at 14th and Mission to office space, mainly for Internet-related businesses. One reason given for the choice of the site was its proximity to a transit hub.

For a time after the passage of Proposition M, the chastened monsters kept a wary distance from San Francisco’s gates. Don’t look now, but I think they’ve come back.