Defend the deal

EDITORIAL Creating a functional and equitable San Francisco for tomorrow requires political will and foresight today. Do our current political leaders have the requisite courage and commitment to the broad public interest, or are they too willing to give away the farm to powerful private interests wielding promises or threats?

This week at City Hall, there was a fascinating test case for these questions, one that we laid out on Sept. 8 on the SFBG.com Politics blog (“Developers lobby hard to slash payments promised to Transbay Terminal and high-speed rail”). In a nutshell, it involves developers of the biggest office towers proposed for San Francisco reneging on promises to pay for vital public infrastructure, which they made in exchange for lucrative upzoning of their properties.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they hired top political fixer Willie Brown to make their case to politicians, including those he helped bring to power, giving him a cut of whatever money this shakedown can shake loose. The Board of Supervisors was set to consider the issue after the Guardian press time for this issue, so check our Politics blog for what happened, but there a few observations we can make without even knowing what the outcome was.

This power play would never happen unless these developers and their allies — including Salesforce, which has leased most of the Transbay Tower, what would be the tallest building on the West Coast — thought they had a reasonable chance of success. And given how the Mayor’s Office seems willing to give developers and business leaders whatever they want, it seems likely that this lobbying effort will more than pay for itself, to the detriment of the public.

Mayor Ed Lee isn’t a political leader, he’s really just the city’s chief administrator, a role he’s been playing since Brown was mayor and that he continues playing since Brown helped put him into Room 200. Chief-of-Staff Steve Kawa, another loyalist to Brown and downtown, dishes out discipline to supervisors who don’t toe the line.

City leaders should be willing to play hardball, stick to the original deal, and call the bluff of these developers, even if that means risking that these towers might not get built in their proposed form and timeline. Yes, that strategy might involve some legal liability, but these massive towers were always proposed as a means to an end.

San Francisco doesn’t need a 1,000-foot office building. But given its commitment to rebuild the Transbay Terminal, it does need to ensure that expensive project includes 21st century rail service connecting to the rest of the state, as well as the open space and neighborhood amenities that these developers should fund.

Equally important, San Francisco needs to show that it’s not for sale, that it won’t be bullied, and that its leaders are looking out for more than their own political interests.