The case against 8 Washington

Pub date March 6, 2012
WriterTim Redmond

In city planning terms, it’s a fairly modest project: 134 condos, no buildings more than 12 stories tall, on a 27,000-square-foot site. It’s projected to meet the highest environmental building standards and offers new open space and pedestrian walkways. It’s near Muni, BART, and ferry lines. And the city will collect millions of dollars in new taxes from it.

But the 8 Washington project, which will come before the Planning Commission March 8, has become a flashpoint in city politics, one of the defining battles of Mayor Ed Lee’s administration — and a symbol of how the city’s housing policy has failed to keep pace with the needs of the local workforce.

Put simply, it will create the most expensive condos in city history, housing for the richest of the 1 percent on the edge of the waterfront — and will further push San Francisco toward becoming a city that caters almost entirely to the very wealthy.

So in a city where the growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest of us has become a central issue and where the lack of affordable housing is one of the top civic concerns, 8 Washington is an important test. By any rational standard, this sort of development is the last thing San Francisco needs.

But some of the best-connected lobbyists in the city are pushing it. One of the mayor’s closest allies, Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak, is a leading advocate — and the final outcome will say a lot about city politics in the Lee administration.

There are all sorts of half-truths and misleading statements by supporters of 8 Washington. Here are the five main reasons the project shouldn’t be approved.

1. It fills no housing need. San Francisco has no shortage of housing for the very rich; the dramatic need, outlined in both regional planning documents and the city’s own General Plan, is for low- and moderate-income housing for the people who actually work in this city (see “Dollars or sense?” 9/28/10). While San Francisco is getting richer by the day, the core workforce — public employees, workers in the hotel and restaurant industry, service workers, construction and trade workers, and a majority of the people in the lower levels of the finance and tech sector — are being priced out of the city. That means more people working here and living far out of town, often commuting by car, in what everyone agrees is an unsustainable situation. Meanwhile, more and more high-paid workers from Silicon Valley are living in San Francisco — again, commuting to distant jobs, either by car or by corporate bus.

The city’s General Plan states that some 60 percent of all new housing built in the city should be below market rate. San Francisco desperately needs housing for its workforce. This type of project simply puts the city deeper in the hole and further from its housing goals.

2. It’s a reward for bad actors. The main developer of this project is Simon Snellgrove, but one of his partners is, by necessity, Golden Gateway, which owns a significant part of the land — and which has been flouting at least the spirit if not the letter of city and state law and costing San Francisco tens of millions of dollars.

As project opponent Brad Paul has noted in written testimony, when Timothy Foo, the current owner, bought the complex from Perini Corp. about 20 years ago, he used a loophole in state law that allowed him to avoid a formal transfer of ownership. That means the property wasn’t re-assessed, costing the city about $1.5 million a year. According to the Assessor’s Office, the deal wasn’t illegal (and these tricks to avoid reassessment are relatively common) but still: He’s costing the city millions by using a loophole not available to most people.

Golden Gateway, which was built in a redevelopment area as middle-class housing, is now renting out apartments as short-term tourist or corporate rentals. There are dozens of examples right now on Craigslist. City law bars the owners of rental housing from converting it to hotel rooms, but a loophole in that law makes what Foo’s outfit is doing technically legal. But he’s clearly violating the spirit of the city ordinance that seeks to protect rental housing from hotel conversions.

One of the main aesthetic complaints about the area — something Snellgrove’s lobbyists have tried to use to support the project — is the ugly fence that now surrounds the Golden Gateway Tennis and Swim Club. But who do you suppose put that fence there?

Do we as a city want to be giving special zoning benefits to companies that try to circumvent tax and housing laws?

3. It’s an environmental disaster. Snellgrove and his architects, Skidmore Owning and Merrill, are seeking LEED platinum certification for the project, saying that its energy-efficiency, water use, and green building materials will make it one of the most sustainable structures in San Francisco. It is, the project website notes, close to all types of public transit.

But LEED doesn’t take into account what the building is used for (see “Is LEED really green,” 7/5/11) — and in this case, the use makes a huge amount of difference.

People who buy multi-million-dollar condos don’t tend to take Muni or BART when they go places. That’s not conjecture, it’s a proven fact. A 2008 study by the American Public Transportation Association notes, bluntly, that wealthier people are more likely to drive cars. When you move into the stratospheric regions of the ultra-rich, that’s even more true. A 2011 report on the Charting Transport website notes: “The very rich tend to shun public transport.”

The current zoning in the area allows for one parking space for every four residential units. Snellgrove is asking for one space per unit — in other words, he figures every single buyer will have a car.

Many of the people who buy these condos won’t be working or even living most of the time in San Francisco. These are condos for world travelers, second and third homes for people who want to spend a few weeks a year in San Francisco. “They aren’t going to be living here all year,” Christina Olague, a former Planning Commission member who is now the District 5 supervisor, told us last July.

If five of the 165 residents of 8 Washington fly in a private or corporate jet from, say, New York to their SF pad once a month, the project will cause the use of jet fuel equivalent to what a normal family would use driving a car for 330 years, Paul noted.

“How many solar panels are needed compensate for burning 396,000 gallons of jet fuel a year?” he asked.

Then there’s the construction issue. If the developer’s projections are correct, as many as 20,000 dump truck runs will be trundling along the Embarcadero for several months, one every two minutes — and it could be happening right as the traffic nightmare called the America’s Cup is hitting the waterfront.

It also goes against some 40 years of waterfront planning policy, all of which as focused on downzoning and creating open space. This would be the first upzoning of San Francisco waterfront property in decades.

4. It will wipe out what is mostly a middle-class recreation facility. The Golden Gateway Tennis and Swim Club will be closed for three years, then (possibly) reopened later as a smaller facility. The club — with two outdoor pools and six tennis courts — sounds like something for the elite, and it’s managed by the upscale Bay Club, but a lot of the users are longtime Golden Gateway residents and seniors. “I would say 30 or 35 percent of the users are seniors,” Lee Radner, chair of Friends of Golden Gateway, told me. Most, he said, are middle-class people, and the expense isn’t that high. “My wife and I pay $3 a day to use the pool,” he said. “I swim every day, and it would cost more than that to use the public pools in the city.” He added: “There are some wealthier people, of course, but many of us are retired and on fixed incomes.”

We’re talking about 90,000 total square feet of outdoor recreation space — which dwarfs the 20,000 square feet of open space the developer promised to provide.

5. The city doesn’t get much out of the deal. In exchange for upzoning the waterfront, creating a big all of buildings and screwing up the city’s housing balance, what does the San Francisco general fund get? Not a lot. The estimates for new tax revenue run about $1.5 million a year of the next 60 years — and when you translate that to what economist call “net present value,” the cash equivalent today of that revenue stream, it’s about $30 million. The Port of San Francisco is talking about creating a special infrastructure financing district — sort of the equivalent of a redevelopment area — to pull that money out in advance, which may not even be legal (since part of the land is a former redevelopment area, the state law that allows these special finance districts may not apply). But even so, a Jan. 14 Port memo suggests that the agency has plans to spend all that money on its own infrastructure — setting up a potential battle between the supervisors and the Port Commission over where the money, if it actually can be collected up front, will go.

Like any developer, Snellgrove will pay into the city’s affordable housing fund — in this case, about $9 million to pay for the equivalent of 27 units. No affordable units will be on site, of course; that would detract from the uber-wealthy ambience of the place. And it’s not clear when those units would be built. “Nobody builds 27-unit buildings any more,” Paul, a former deputy mayor for housing, said. “We’ll have to wait until there’s enough money for a bigger project, somewhere, sometime down the road. That’s what we’re getting here.”

Either way, it’s not a huge benefit for allowing this disaster of a project — and it’s a terrible statement for San Francisco to make. At a time when the mayor has cleared the Occupy protesters — who are talking about how little the rich pay in taxes — off the waterfront, the city is preparing to move in the exceptionally rich, who aren’t paying anywhere near their fair share in tax revenue to local government.

(Nobody knows for sure whether the costs of servicing high-end residential exceed the revenue the city gets from property taxes. In 1971, the Guardian put together the first-ever cost-benefit study for highrise office development, which showed that commercial buildings cost the city more than they paid; that’s been confirmed and demonstrated over the years to the point where it’s hardly even an argument any more. The supervisors ought to ask the city economist or the budget analyst to do the same sort of analysis for luxury condos.)

There’s another element here: Mayor Lee made a point during his campaign to say over and over again that he was an independent thinker, that powerful and influential allies like Rose Pak would not be calling the shots at City Hall. This will be his first major test: Pak and lobbyist Marcia Smolens are working hard to promote 8 Washington. And we’re already getting some disturbing signals out of the mayor’s office.

Lee told us that he has “no thoughts” about the project and hasn’t been paying any attention to it. That’s an odd stance, considering that his own Port Commission is pushing it and staffers in his office are working with the developer. This is a big priority for Pak, and the notion that she has never mentioned it to the mayor defies reason. Board President David Chiu, who talks to the mayor regularly, opposes the project, which is in Chiu’s district.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who pays attention to local politics could be missing what will be one of the landmark votes this spring on the Planning Commission — which will take up the project March 8 — and the Board of Supervisors.

The mayor, may, indeed, be ignoring everything that supporters and opponents of 8 Washington have said and may be waiting until the Planning Commission vote to take a position. But if he’s just ducking questions because he’s planning to support it, he’s making a big mistake.

This is a chance for San Francisco to go beyond the platitudes about building housing, go beyond the hype about “green” buildings, see through the fraud about community benefits and consider what this really is: A special favor for a developer who wants to cater to the top 1 percent of the 1 percent and move San Francisco even closer to being a city of, by, and for the elite. The only reasonable vote on 8 Washington is No.