Tweeking the tidelands

Pub date July 10, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan


With the furor over her erratic driving incident still lingering and a primary challenge from Assemblymember Mark Leno starting to get nasty, state senator Carole Migden is now wading into another potentially pungent political pool.

This time around, the battle involves the state’s laws governing coastal land use, the Port of San Francisco’s revenue needs, and the competing interests of folks who live along, work near, or simply like to relax and recreate along the city’s bayside waterfront.

Migden’s Senate Bill 815 would make three major changes to the ancient and arcane laws that govern the use of the state’s tidelands. It would allow the port to rent out 11 seawall-protected properties, currently used for surface parking lots, for development over 75 years, after which they would return to the public trust.

It would also permit the port to sell off "paper streets" — lots that serve as view corridors, public rights-of-way, and connections between the city and its waterfront, including portions of Texas, Custer, Ingalls, and Davidson streets developed with warehouses, as well as the recently closed Hunters Point Power Plant.

Last, Migden’s bill would allow the transfer of the 36-acre, federally owned Jobs Corps parcel on Treasure Island to local control as part of an exchange of public trust and nontrust lands on Treasure and Yerba Buena islands.

Port special project manager Brad Benson told the Guardian that the local agency worked with the California State Lands Commission for two years on ways to help increase the port’s revenue-generating capabilities, and this bill was the result.

"We cc’d the neighborhood organizations on the amendments that we sent to Migden’s office on June 12, and we invited further discussion," Benson said of the proposal, which is intended to help cover the port’s estimated $1.4 billion cost for seismic retrofits and restorations, hazardous-material remediation, storm-water management, and improved waterfront access by relaxing the land-use restriction of the 1969 Burton Act.

The Burton Act gave the port control of San Francisco’s waterfront from Fisherman’s Wharf to Candlestick Point, including 39 historic finger piers between Fisherman’s Wharf and China Basin. But it also limited the port to leasing seawall lots for street purposes such as surface parking while giving it the financial responsibility of maintaining and restoring the historical waterfront.

Today just about everybody agrees that surface parking is a horrible use of the seawall lots — with the possible exception of the Giants, who want to retain 2,000 spaces on the 14-acre lot they lease next to Mission Creek. But in recent weeks disagreement has broken out over last-minute amendments that were added to Migden’s bill June 20 to impose height limits on four seawall lots in the Northeastern Waterfront Historic District and remove a fifth lot entirely.

Those amendments were added following input from neighborhood groups like the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association, and the Friends of the Golden Gate, a 1,400-member nonprofit whose stated goal is "to preserve open recreational space for the citizens of San Francisco."

In a June 20 letter to Migden, Telegraph Hill Dwellers president Vedica Puri argued for height limits on the basis of a "visual and historic connection between the waterfront and Telegraph Hill" created by "higher structures closer to the base of Telegraph Hill and lower buildings near the Embarcadero." Noting that three of the disputed lots are currently zoned for heights of 40 feet, with the fourth lot, closer to Telegraph Hill, zoned for 65 feet, Puri argued for respecting local height limits in place as of January.

Meanwhile, the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, and the Friends of the Golden Gate asked that lot 351, which abuts the Golden Gate Tennis and Swim Club, be excluded from the deal.

"There is an ongoing struggle in the Barbary Coast neighborhood over an outsize condominium project usually known as the 8 Washington Project," Jonathan Middlebrook of the association’s Waterfront Action Group warned.

Friends of the Golden Gate chair Lee Radner, in a June 29 letter to Loni Hancock, chair of the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, argued for keeping lot 351 under the public trust because it "abuts the open recreational space, along the Embarcadero, Washington, and Drumm streets."

"Lot 351, if removed from the public trust," Radner wrote, "will give a developer the option to build high-rise, exclusive, and costly condominiums that would spill over into the recreational space and change the open view corridors to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower forever, limit the light and views of many neighbors, and impact the traffic on an already congested Embarcadero."

But two local planning and land-use groups argue that Migden’s amended legislation would wrest control of height restrictions from the local planning process and benefit a well-heeled few at the expense of everyone else.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, said he believes height limits and urban design should be decided at the local level. "The problem with stipuutf8g a 40-foot height limit is that you end up getting squashed retail space, creating a pokey, unpleasant atmosphere," said Radulovich, who’d rather see the lots taken out of the bill than included with those provisions. "To my mind the question is: how do builders create a great street? And what building controls help achieve that goal? We wanted to make these lots more walkable, bikeable, and accessible to contribute to the overall public good with the maximum opportunity for local control. The latest amendments tip the balance towards state interference, and that’s inappropriate."

Tim Colen of the Housing Action Coalition accuses the neighborhood associations of "not wanting any height increases or other uses to the extent that it might threaten their view." Colen said developer Simon Snellgrove of Pacific Waterfront Partners is interested in lot 351, which lies across from the Ferry Building, to create high-end condos, mixed-use residential units, and 34 below-market-rate units.

He acknowledges that the Golden Gate Tennis and Swim Club would lose three tennis courts under the legislation. "But this is a chance for 34 families to get housing and be able to stay in San Francisco," Colen said. "The Golden Gate Tennis and Swim Club is a really sweet facility, but it ain’t public recreation. Migden’s bill benefits some very well-heeled people when the interests of many are at stake."

Migden’s bill, which cleared the Senate but must return for final approval because of the amendments, is set to work its way through the Assembly by August. Benson said continued negotiations would be a good thing. "We appreciate Senator Migden’s work, but we believe height limits are a locals-only matter to be decided by the Board of Supervisors and the mayor."

But the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association’s Diana Taylor said her group "spent hours getting the community informed, telling the port what we wanted, until eventually we came up with a bottom line, what our compromises were…. That’s where senator Carole Migden developed amendments, and this was the first time that we came to a coordinated agreement. But now we find out that the port isn’t happy with some of the amendments. What we’d like to see is a more clear-cut strategy to bring the port and the communities together. We’re adversaries right now, but we shouldn’t be."

With the port set to have a public discussion July 31 about lot 337 (the Giants’ parking lot next to Mission Creek), Jennifer Clary of San Francisco Tomorrow notes that Mission Creek is home to 60 species of birds. As she said, "Isn’t habitat preservation and restoration part of urban development? Is it really a choice between people and birds? Is that the decision?"<\!s>*