Volume 44 Number 18

Schooling the teacher


THEATER From the mouths of babes come some pretty hefty words in Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s initially darkish, ultimately feel-goody new comedy: congenial, altruistic, pertinacious, solipsism. But it’s the way they sound in the mouth of his protagonist, 57-year-old first-grade teacher Sydney (a thoroughly disarming Julia Brothers), that gets our attention. They’re new to her too for the most part, at least in daily use. Freshly gathered from her class in a dictionary game of “stump the teacher,” the words loll in her mouth like some savored sweet, so much does she herself relish using them.

That these vocab words take on a thematic flavor for our winningly oddball heroine, and for us, comes as little surprise: The First Grade — one of four scripts selected in 2009 for potential development as part of Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Project, and now enjoying its world premiere in a handy production helmed by artistic director Tom Ross — is a play about what adults learn and do not learn over the course of increasingly fractured and fractious lives. The children, by contrast — and there are several others who figure in the plot besides Sydney’s first-graders — are all offstage presences.

Sydney has her classroom shtick down. As the play opens she addresses the audience as her class with an easy authority that is hilariously convincing in its confidence, probity, and self-indulged eccentricity. But home is another matter, despite amusingly similar attempts to impose order in this realm. Here the “natural” state of things goes topsy-turvy: Sydney’s a divorcée whose embittered ex-husband (a delightfully malcontented Warren David Keith) still lives under the same roof. Meanwhile, her grown daughter (Rebecca Schweitzer), a wife and mother herself, has moved back in with her parents, professed contempt for her own Ritalin-dosed child, and reverted to infantile tussles with mom over a hidden cache of cookies.

At the same time, Sydney wrestles creakily and crankily with an aging body and two particularly bad knees. This brings her into contact with a physical therapist (Tina Sanchez), a young Latina mother whom the overbearingly direct Sydney soon has sobbing mid-session while confessing to her own marital nightmare. Moved from thorny solipsism to a warm rush of altruism by the young woman’s story, Sydney offers support and shelter from what seems an abusive, potentially dangerous relationship with the woman’s husband, a disfigured Iraq War vet.

Already by this point in the story we’ve heard variations of “crazy” and “dangerous” liberally applied to just about every on- and offstage character. But it’s only when Sydney brings this stranger into the dysfunctional family fold that these unofficial vocab words take on literal import. This paranoid streak in Johnson’s play, colored immigrant brown, is partly counterbalanced by the appearance of a dignified and peaceable Spanish-speaking father-in-law (Paul Santiago), and a plot twist that, while unsettlingly ironic, ultimately redeems “altruism” for the home team.

In its sometimes forced but generally witty dialogue and its wide range of thematic colors, The First Grade makes for an engaging evening, especially as led by the indomitable Brothers. It also marks an overdue Bay Area debut for playwright Johnson, after 20-plus years of productions in the Windy City. (Maybe the time is ripe. Another play of his, A Guide for the Perplexed, was chosen as a 2010 Aurora GAP winner, and just received a reading at the Berkeley theater ahead of its Chicago world premiere.) If First Grade‘s final note sounds a little too sweetly, I suppose it’s in keeping with the practice of treats after a lesson learned. *


Through Feb. 28

Wed–Sat, 8 p.m.; Tues and Sun, 7 p.m.

(also Sun, 2 p.m.), $15–$55

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk.

(510) 843-4822


Valentine’s Day events



“Eat Your Heart Out” Supperclub, 657 Harrison; www.supperclub.com. Sun/14, 11am–3pm, $25–$150. All ages are welcome at this Valentine’s Day brunch benefiting the Black Rock Arts Foundation and featuring art, music, and performances.

“Hearts After Dark” Union Square; 206-4478, www.sfghf.net. Thurs/11, 7–10pm, $75–$125. San Francisco General Hospital Foundation hosts an evening of cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and live entertainment with DJ Solomon and ’80s cover band Tainted Love.

“Hugs ‘n’ Hearts” Club 8, 1151 Folsom; www.heklina.com. Sun/14, 9pm, $10–$25. Heklina hosts this Big Top party with special guests Amanda LePore and Cazwell.

“Love on Wheels Dating Game” Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell; www.sfbike.org/love. Fri/12, 6pm, $5–$10. The San Francisco Bike Coalition plays Cupid during another round of this dating game that pairs single cyclists with each other, with the same hilarious structure as the 1970s game show.

“My Sucky Valentine” Center for Sex and Culture, 1519 Mission; www.sexandculture.org. Sun/14, 7pm, $15–$25. Listen to good writers talk about bad sex and tainted love, including Stephen Elliott, Daphne Gottlieb, Carol Queen, and Simon Sheppard.

“Nightlife: Romance and Reproduction” California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Dr; 379-5128, www.calacademy.org. Thurs/11, 6pm, $10–$12. Learn about the animal kingdom’s most amorous creatures and unique sexual behaviors while DJ Jeff Stallings plays Balearic, African, Bedouin, and Latin beats.

“Sex and Science Wine and Dine Tour” California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Dr; 379-5128, www.calacademy.org. Sun/14, 6 and 7pm, $199. Take your cues from the planet’s lustiest creatures with a pre-dinner tour and champagne reception and a romantic four-course dinner with wine.

“Sweet Valentine’s Cruise” Pier 43½; 673-2900, www.redandwhite.com. Sun/14, 2pm, $36–$52. Join the Red and White Fleet for a romantic, fun, two-hour cruise of the San Francisco Bay, including a lavish appetizer buffet by Boudin and a complimentary beverage.

“Woo at the Zoo” San Francisco Zoo; Sloat Blvd at 47th St; 753-7236, www.sfzoo.org. Sat/13, 6pm, and Sun/14, 11am and 6pm, $70–$75. This multimedia event explores sexual and mating behaviors of animals, conducted by Jane Tollini of the former Sex Tours, all while you enjoy champagne and either a brunch bar or a decadent dinner of beef tenderloin on herbed couscous.


“Assuming the Ecosexual Position” The Lab, 2948 16th St; 864-8855, www.thelab.org. Sat/13, 8pm, $7–$10. Acclaimed performance artist and sex educator Annie Sprinkle and her partner Elizabeth Stephens explore, generate, and celebrate love through art during this special event that includes an erotic cake contest. Bring your own!

“Cora’s Recipe for Love” EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy; 673-3847, www.theexit.org. Fri-Sat, 8pm, through Feb 20. Sean Owens’ wacky alter ego returns to address love and longing through the eyes of Gas and Gulp regulars.

“Hearts on Fire!” Teatro Zinzanni, Pier 29; 438-2668, www.zinzanni.org. Sun/14, 12 and 5:30pm, $91–$145. Teatro Zinzanni presents two special performances of this joyful love affair featuring disco diva Thelma Houson and Christine Deaver. Show also runs through May 16.

“How We First Met” Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness; 392-4400, www.howwefirstmet.com. Sat/13 and Sun/14, 8pm, $25–$40. Real audience stories are spun into a comedy masterpiece in this one-of-a-kind hit show, now in its 10th year.

“Justin Bond: Close to You” Castro Theatre, 429 Castro; 863-0611, www.thecastrotheatre.com. Sun/14, 8:15pm, $35–$75. Accompanied by a lush 10-piece orchestra, the Tony nominee recreates sweet sounds from your favorite Carpenters hits. The evening also features the Thrillpeddlers as special guests.

“Love Everywhere” San Francisco City Hall Rotunda and Glide Memorial Church, www.erikachongshuch.org. Fri/12 (City Hall), 12pm; Sun/14 (Glide), 9 and 11am, free. The Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project debuts a new, large-scale work presented free as part of Dancers’ Group’s ONSITE series.

“MediaARTS 2010: Algo-rhythms of heart/break/beats” Ninth Street Independent Film Center, 145 Ninth St; www.mediaarts2010.com. Fri/12, 7pm, $10–$20. Ninth Street Independent Film Center presents an exhibition of the intersection of emerging technology, performance, and the moving image attempting to compute what it means to love and lose.

“Mortified: Doomed Valentine’s Show” Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St.; www.makeoutroom.com. Thurs/11 and Fri/12, 8pm, $12–$15. Share the pain, awkwardness, and bad poetry associated with love as performers read from their teen angst artifacts.

“On the Periphery of Love: A Solo Performance Festival with Valentine’s Day Implications” StageWerx Theatre, 533 Sutter. Fri/12 and Sat/13, 8pm; Sun/14, 7pm, $15–$30. StageWerx presents five new visions of romance, featuring work by Martha Rynberg, Thao P. Nguyen, Zahra Noorbaksh, Bruce Pachtman, and Paolo Sambrano.

“Rock & Roll Theatresports: Be My Valentine” Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason Center; 474-6776, www.improv.org. Fri/12 and Sat/13, 8pm, $17. BATS presents two days of shows featuring scenes and songs dedicated to love and relationships, during which six rock-themed teams will compete for points and audience accolades.

“Strange Love” Actors Theatre, 855 Bush; 345-1287, www.natashamuse.com. Sun/14, 6:30pm, $10. The Valentine’s Day edition of “A Funny Night for Comedy” features Will Franken, Wegent and Page, and host Natasha Muse.


“Love Dub” Yoga Tree Castro, 97 Collingwood; 701-YOGA, www.yogatreesf.com. Sat/13, 8:30pm-12:30am, $45. Yoga Tree and Upmost High Records present a hatha flow yoga class and live reggae concert, with a portion of proceeds to benefit Save the Redwood Tree Foundation, Surfriders, and Power to the Peaceful.

Galaxy quest



(Bioware/Electronic Arts) PC, Xbox360

GAMER It took a piece of state-of-the-art hardware and a team of abundantly talented animators and programmers to get me back to the gaming basics. I’d assumed control of Commander Shepard, hero of Mass Effect 2, and I needed to weigh my many options; making the wrong choice would have disastrous consequences. As the Xbox hummed and guzzled power from across the room, the back of a takeout menu became its newest pen-and-paper peripheral — a list of pros and cons.

The first Mass Effect introduced us to Commander Shepard and the galaxy he inhabits: our familiar Milky Way, but teeming with alien species, political intrigue, and the casualties of interstellar capitalism. It, too, was a game of choices. The series’ developer, BioWare, specializes in role-playing games built around these choices, allowing players to make their own decisions while navigating intricate dialogue trees and labyrinthine, branching plots. Moral quandaries and rhetorical pickles are almost as frequent as futuristic gun battles in Mass Effect 2, and an instinct for the right choice of words at the right moment can be more valuable than a hyperactive trigger finger. The characters you encounter can be made to do your bidding, but only if you cajole those who need cajoling, and threaten those who can’t be cajoled.

It’s a system that cannot be sustained without top-notch writing, and BioWare’s well-honed dialogue, careful storytelling, and limber imagination can be felt in every aspect of the game. Though the subject matter takes full advantage of a “Mature” rating, it avoids the schlock or ham-handedness that plagues similarly calibrated titles. The shocking crimes of Mass Effect are the product of a science fiction universe built painstakingly from the ground up, and as Shepard journeys across the galaxy, he encounters crises mundane and mythic.

Though some troublesome complaints persist, the sequel improves on the original in most important areas, boasting a fleshed-out side-quest system, refined galactic exploration methods, and a host of other changes designed to make life as the savior of the galaxy just a little bit easier. The farther into the game you get, however, the less these mechanical concerns matter — the staggering ambition of the designers, along with the depth and nuance of the fiction they created, dwarf more pedestrian concerns. As an inhabitant of a dangerous, space-operatic world that feels more alive than most video game representations of existence on Earth, your survival will depend on your decisions. Choose wisely.

The importance of being earnest


FILM Say what you will about films adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels: there’s no denying they attract some genuine talent. Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried know that many will dismiss Dear John as a “chick flick,” but both believe there’s more to the movie than that. “It’s not just Channing Tatum without a shirt on,” Seyfried insisted during a recent visit to San Francisco with her costar. “It’s a real movie. It has a real message. It has a really good theme. I think everybody’s going to leave feeling a little inspired.”

And while Tatum admitted it’s likely not the kind of film he’d go out and see with his group of male friends, he maintains that the story will appeal to a wider audience than just young girls. “It’s the ultimate date movie,” he said. “I really do think people will go and like it for that.”

Talking to Tatum and Seyfried, it’s clear that these are two actors committed to their work. With their careers on the rise, they’re receiving plenty of offers. That’s why both express the importance of playing characters they can connect with. For Seyfried, the role of Savannah in Dear John was one she’d been waiting for. “When this script came about, I thought, ‘Wow, how amazing would it be to play a romantic lead.’ That’s like my dream,” she explained. “I wanted to be Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet (1996) when I was 12. This is finally my chance to inspire other young girls to be in love.”

Tatum plays John Tyree, the third soldier he’s taken on after roles in Stop-Loss (2008) and G.I. Joe (2009). He’s had a lifelong “fascination with the military and what it takes to be a soldier.” But his interest in Dear John reflected the film’s treatment of its soldier character, which focuses more on his relationships than on wartime violence or politics. “We try to take a lot of the war and soldiering out of it,” he said. “Any time we could take John out of a uniform or not show him in a military atmosphere, we did.”

But while Dear John‘s leads enjoyed their experience filming the movie, don’t expect to see the pair doing the same thing next time. They’re looking for variety: eclectic roles that will surprise audiences. “We all want to be challenged in our jobs,” Seyfried said. “It’s more satisfying at the end of the day when you’re connecting with somebody you don’t know.”

DEAR JOHN opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters.

Double vision


The just-reissued Vampires of Dartmore album Dracula’s Music Cabinet (Finders Keepers) includes a track titled “Hallo, Mr. Hitchcock,” in which beloved Hitch silently answers a series of phone calls from a manic, murderous prankster. The track isn’t used in Johan Grimonprez’s latest unconventional film essay Double Take, but it would be ideal material for the movie. Like his fellow Europeans the Vampires, Grimonprez has a fatal attraction to the master of suspense — an exploration of the nature of fear, particularly Cold War fear (and its relevance to 21s century scaremongers), his movie toys and teases its way toward a climax in which the master director meets his doppelganger.

Double Take‘s voice-over narration — co-authored with Tom McCarthy — suggests that such an encounter can only be bad: any man who sees his double, even the great Hitchcock, is doomed. This conceit is really just an element of drama within Grimonprez’s masterful many-layered montage. He combines Hitchcock’s appearances in movies and on television with footage of vocal and physical Hitchcock impersonators, creating a hall-of-mirrors experience that is frequently funny. More incitefully, he forwards the idea that The Birds (1963) has connections to the Bay of Pigs and to terror by air both then and now. If this seems like a ludicrous theoretical stretch, it helps to know that Grimonprez has a wry sense of humor, and that his 1998 movie Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y still might be the best movie about September 11, 2001, even if it predates that landmark moment by over three years. In other words, Grimonprez is prescient.

He’s also rather sweet. Double Take‘s final scenes linger on one Hitchcock impersonator, Ron Burrage, and what seems to be his lifelong male partner. This particular Hitch has a nuanced appreciation of the absurdity of his life and dual identity, which makes his singular mortality all the more poignant. Grimonprez is anything but a sentimentalist, but unlike many filmic theorists, he allows himself to have a heart as well as a brain.


Fri/12, 7:15 p.m., Roxie

Straight from the heart


MUSIC It’s typical to want to leave everything behind at times, because everything just seems the same after a while, no matter where you’re from. When Bethany Cosentino ventured to New York City for college and hated being walled in by the snow and skyscrapers, she inundated herself with the warm melodies of the Beach Boys, surf music and 1960s girl groups — the soundtrack of her native California. Like the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” come to life, homesickness eventually drove her back west to record a slew of hazy, sun-stroked 7-inches for her new project, lovingly christened Best Coast.

“The aesthetic is drawn from revisiting my love for California after leaving it and becoming obsessed with this idea of California in the ’60s and surfboards tied to Woodies,” Cosentino explains. “It’s a cliché California thing, but that’s where it comes from.”

That kind of heartsickness is just the reason Best Coast’s modus operandi feels real, or more than a mere throwback to old lovelorn damsels in distress singing about their bad boy dream lovers. Each song evokes the pleasurable lethargy brought on by summer’s heat, resulting in cozy, worn-in anthems for anybody caught in a cold room or chilly state of mind. Meanwhile, Cosentino’s words, always sung in a drawl, are straight from the brain of any young person chasing love in the modern world: “I’m always waking up with something in my head / It’s six a.m. and I’m in someone else’s bed / Oh, I wish you were here,” she purrs on “Wish He Was You.”

Grungey guitars and dazed bedroom lo-fi, like the Ramones on a serious Shangri-Las binge, color songs like “Sun Was High (So Was I)” and “Something In The Way.” Glimpses of Phil Spector shine through the reverb splendor of Best Coast’s most fully-realized single, “When I’m With You.” Here Cosentino separates the women from the girls. Veiled by a gossamer layer of sarcasm and accompanied by a full band and a choir, she brazenly exclaims, “The world is lazy / But you and me, we’re just crazy / Cuz when I’m with you, I have fun.”

Long before Cosentino plugged into indie beach party territory, she was an actor in commercials for Child World and Little Caesars. She had dreams of being on Broadway. Her first songwriting attempt, at 15, was fueled by her first major breakup. She recorded demos as Bethany Sharayah and was courted by major labels, but turned them down because she wasn’t ready.

A foray into psychedelic ambient music with her band Pocahaunted stands as a testament to Cosentino’s adventurous spirit. Formed with her friend Amanda Brown, the band — which opened for Sonic Youth at a 2007 Berkeley show — specialized in atmospheric, guitar-driven drone music that is wildly opposite from Cosentino’s catchy Best Coast gems.

“Behind the scenes, I was listening to Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac and pop music,” Cosentino explains. “I’m just returning to the kind of music I’ve always wanted to play and write. If you knew me as Bethany Sharayah and you came to a Pocahaunted show, you’d be like, ‘What the heck is this?'”

Judging by the sold-out status of many of Best Coast’s 7-inches (released on labels like Art Fag and Black Iris) and the buzz around the band, both a major indie label and a hectic 2010 are on the horizon. Their first proper album was finished in two weeks and boasts all new tracks. After a mini-war among labels, it will come out later this year.

Best Coast, which includes Cosentino’s best friend Bobb Bruno on bass, goes on its first North American tour with the Vivian Girls starting next week. Cosentino is looking forward to stretching her legs onstage. “When we play live, I don’t think about it too hard,” she says. “Mistakes are made and words get messed up, but it’s just fun. There was a couple slow dancing in the front at one show and I wanted to cry. They came up to me afterward and said, “That was our song.” If I’ve fulfilled any sort of dream, that was it.”

Think of Best Coast as a sonic love letter to California.


With the Vivian Girls and the Bananas

Tues/, 9 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455


Wise “Blood”


MUSIC Most bands change over time. Change makes most people uncomfortable. I — for all intents and purposes — am most people. Therefore, when a band I care about changes, most of the time I feel uncomfortable.

I must admit that the first few times I heard Yeasayer’s sophomore LP, Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian, 2010), my level of discomfort was hovering somewhere between a middle seat of the Muni No. 9 during rush hour and a trip to a swingin’ singles club with Larry Craig and John Edwards. Expecting another slice of the eclectic, experimental indie rock of their fantastic debut, All Hour Cymbals (We Are Free, 2007), I was shocked to find 10 surprisingly streamlined, often danceable cuts, generally devoid of the varied Middle Eastern influences that peppered their debut. But after a few listens, something funny happened. My discomfort turned into enjoyment, my disappointment into excitement.

In reality, I should have seen this coming. A band as creative and fiercely individual as Yeasayer was never going to make the same album twice. Tracks from All Hour Cymbals like “2080” and “Sunrise” hinted that the Brooklyn-ites had this in them, and Odd Blood is the sound of a band saying, “Fuck it, let’s go for it.” It would have actually been a safer decision for the group to move in an even more esoteric sonic direction since they’ve already got the hipster, faux-intellectual demographic on lock. As groups like Animal Collective and Of Montreal have proven, you can do pretty damn well just by hanging on to those kids.

Don’t get me wrong, while Odd Blood represents an ostensibly poppier direction for the group, it’s not like they turned into the All American Rejects. Even the most mainstream-friendly cuts — the lead singles “Ambling Alp” and “O.N.E.” — are heavily layered, multifaceted tracks that simply don’t sound like anything anyone else is doing. “Ambling Alp” — an upbeat, immediate number built from agitated stabs of synth, a busy bassline, and vocalist Chris Keating’s confident, dexterous vocals — twists and turns for four exhilarating minutes. “O.N.E.” has a distinctly island feel and is ready to soundtrack the summer, even if it’s still February.

Keating and Co. (multi-instrumentalists Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder) keep throwing curveballs, especially on the ballad “I Remember.” Keating’s emotive, graceful falsetto is at the heart of the plaintive track, sure to strike a chord in those who are missing a loved one. The surprisingly simple and direct (in lyrical content and melody) number shows off a totally different side of the group and creates a palpable sense of nostalgia and longing. More flappers-and-the-Charleston than flannel-and-thick-rimmed-glasses, “Rome” sounds like something out of an indie cabaret show. “Love Me Girl” would be a lost MJ track if he’d been dropping acid instead of hanging out with mannequins.

Is Odd Blood a step forward or a step back? To borrow a Wonka-ism, it is a step slantways. And it was always going to be. All I can say for sure is there is no way to tell where Yeasayer will go from here, because the members themselves don’t seem to know (or care) what the future holds. Honestly, if their next album is an Uzbek folk rolk-influenced dubstep/crunk/easy listening mashup, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Would I be apprehensive about it at first? Of course. Would it stop me from giving it a long listen? No fucking way. In fact, it would only be a true letdown if it sounded like a copy of a previous album.

Burn notice


SONIC REDUCER Eat your veggies. Don’t play in traffic. Follow your intuition, a.k.a. your muse. Judge a superstar by her voice not her frump factor. And watch for low-flying planets.

Words to heed, if not live by, since we seem to be reading the well-worn wrinkles and begging for guidance from musical wise women — pillars amid the sky-shattering winter storms, as health-care reform gets severely shaken and everyone ducks those flying shards of survival anxiety. We look to Patti Smith at Herbst, holding forth with gravity, grace, and acceptance, or even Susan Boyle, warbling like a songbird, stylist or no. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to cop a healing, soothing teacup of a chat with Scout Niblett, née Emma Louise, avid practitioner of astrology and maker of the beautifully raw new The Calcination of Scout Niblett (Drag City).

The U.K. native and onetime East Bay resident passes through town briefly for a Noise Pop show on Feb. 25 at Cafe Du Nord, and she has an astrology-informed perspective on the losses that marked the far-from-awesome recession of ’09-10 and the recent, seemingly endless processional of celebrity deaths: Saturn is squaring Pluto, an alignment that has particularly touched the Libra singer-songwriter, as well as unsuspecting others.

“I think people in general are still being affected by the tension in the sky,” says Niblett from her home in Portland, Ore. “We’re all going through it, but some of us are nailed on the head.” The effect for her: “It feels like I’m grieving for a life that I used to have or the person I used to be.”

As a result, Niblett dreamed up a series of songs like the corrosive “Strip Me Pluto,” a tune that, she explains, “is really to do with letting go of things, especially things that you think make up yourself and are completely attached to and identify with. In a sense that attachment causes you suffering, really. Learning to let go of things is your ticket to feeling better.”

“Don’t be scared, my child / It’s so clear tonight … I’m scared I’m not doing me right,” she wails on one shaved-raw track, “Ripe With Life,” under the recording ministrations of Shellac’s Steve Albini, as a stark, shark-like electric guitar twists and moans beneath a hollowed-out voice that recalls Cat Power, PJ Harvey, and the bluesmen — like John Lee Hooker — that Niblett loves. Much like the cover shot of Niblett waving and not drowning but bearing a menacing-looking blowtorch, the song comforts and unsettles, looks straight into the eye of fear. It’s a charm for troubled times.

For Niblett, the stars demanded more introspection on her fifth full-length. “I’ve noticed before that all the albums seemed to have these relationship-oriented songs, kind of celebrating my life through other people. This one wasn’t about that, but it was about me looking at myself, not with rose-colored glasses, but realistically and seeing things in my life that are dysfunctional.”

The cosmos also called for music in which “you can hear every single thing that’s happening,” and sounds that have been run through, as one track title puts it, an “IBD,” or Inner Bullshit Detector. Niblett will be testing at least one song further soon. In addition to giving a free chart reading as part of a forthcoming Drag City contest, she plans to offer 100 different versions of Calcination‘s title track on the label site, each numbered and available for download only once.

“My idea is to see how much the song will change after playing it that many times, kind of as an experiment for myself,” Niblett says. Unfortunately she’s only recorded 20 so far. “I kind of didn’t realize what I got myself into,” she exclaims. “Now I’ve started recording, and I’m like, ‘Omigod, what was I thinking?'”


Feb. 25, 8 p.m., $12–$14

Cafe Du Nord

2170 Market, SF





This Matador electro-rock combo coagulated from the Blood Brothers’ remains. Wed/3, 9:30 p.m., $5. Cafe Du Nord, 2174 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com


Bring out your beaniest for the second annual heavy metal chili cook-off and get serenaded by Hot Fog and ezeetiger. Sun/7, 1 p.m., free. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Gillian Welch’s steady hand cranks out immaculately recorded, tender country rock in a ’70s-era backwoods-moderne flavor. Tues/9, 8 p.m., $25. Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. www.livenation.com

It just so happens


CHEAP EATS Dear Earl Butter,

Like a cat always lands on its feet, your chicken farmer lands on a chicken farm. Weirdo the Cat would be proud of me, according to the Mountain.

Hard to believe, but life sometimes does that to you. Just when you need them, voilà: chickens. I had no idea! I just had to get somewhere friendly, and by sheer chance on the same day the anvil fell on my head I got a mass e-mail from Fabienne Gagagaga, telling my whole family, among other things, to keep in touch.

I last saw Fabienne 10 years ago, at my dad’s wedding. She was working at that time in marketing. A couple days after my anviling, when I still hadn’t regained my shape and it looked like I wasn’t going to, I decided it would be best for me to have my nervous breakdowns in another language — one I didn’t know at all, give or take voilà. And so I did, I kept in touch.

Fabienne’s reply was almost immediate, full of warmth, and just dripping with butter, but didn’t mention chickens. I arrived in the dark, by train, and very much in need of food, sleep, and kindness.

There was a lamb stew waiting for me. The lamb was from her farm. That night while I slept for the first time all year, two baby lambs were born. I watched the sunrise over some sailboat masts, then went with her to help Fabienne buy about 100 new chicks.

Over the next few days I helped fork, shovel, and broom out two chicken coops, I helped feed the chickens, closed the chicken doors at night, helped haul and stack sacks of feed, handled livers, and cleaned, cut, and cooked up 80 chicken hearts into a cherry beer stew with carrots and onions.

There aren’t a lot of lady farmers in France, and riding around on tractors and pickup trucks with this ‘un made me about as proud as I’ve ever been. Here was somebody doing for real what I make a living, in a way, pretending to do.

The Chicken Farmer, farming chickens. Not just four or five but hundreds. Imagine! It was as if John Wayne or Clint Eastwood ever actually found themselves roping steer, or something.

We even went to the dump once. Everyone loved us there!

I ate fresh scallops, many many oysters, and butter butter butter — the best butter ever, with some pretty good bread under it sometimes.

In Farmer Fabienne’s sisterly keeping, I not only found food, sleep, and kindness, but meaningful work. And Earl, in case you ever need to know this, there is no better balm for a broken heart than scraping chicken shit and cooking chicken hearts. The cherry beer was an accident, but a good one.

Dear Nice Lady,

That is great. The best thing about Java Supreme is that if you know when to go, you can get to talk to Joel almost every day of the week. He’s not always there, and those days are always hard. But most days he is. Me too. For the last 18 years, I have spent my mornings, almost all of them, at Java Supreme. It is also one of the few holdouts to the old Mission values that are no longer on Mission Street. Old Mission values are this: you can afford to eat.

I get a double espresso every morning, and it is $1.75. And when I make coffee at home, guess where I bought it?

Today I went back for lunch, too. I had the Italian roasted eggplant sandwich with pesto, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, and tomatoes, $3.95, with salad, $5.50, because the salads are great. I love this particular sandwich.

Someone suggested I get it with turkey instead of eggplant, and for years I did that. Ed makes it for you without blinking an eye. It is Ed’s place. He tries to keep things simple. I heard him say that on the phone, once.

Recently, in a cream cheese banishment program (not something I can recommend) me and Joel have been enjoying the Java No. 2, which is a bagel with avocado, tomato, sprouts and red onion. But neither of us gets the red onion. We didn’t plan it. It just so happens.


Daily: 6:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m.

703 Guerrero, SF

(415) 206-1832

No alcohol

Cash only

Cafe Prague


DINE When in Prague, one would naturally try to eat as Praguers do, and in my experience, this means lots of pizza. The city, as a physical artifact, is a gothic dream, a fantasy of spires, castellations, and cobblestones worthy of Walt Disney. And being sealed up in the aspic of communism for 40 years actually enhanced these charms. When Milos Forman was looking for a place to film Amadeus, his 1984 movie about Mozart in Vienna, he settled on Prague as the setting because it had changed so little since the 18th century.

Except for the people, that is, who emerged from behind the ruins of the Iron Curtain in 1989 with a hunger for all things western, from Bulgari to holidays in Thailand to pizza. I ate as much pizza in Prague as I did in Rome a few years later, and that is saying something. And the wonderful Czech beer, Budvar, was so cheap in the late 1990s it might as well have been pouring from the taps. What was trickier to find was a spot that served traditional Bohemian cooking in a bohemian atmosphere — a place, in other words, like our very own Café Prague.

We never found a place like Café Prague in Prague, but here you don’t have to do much searching, and you can even take BART, since the restaurant expanded last year from its home in the Financial District (once on Pacific Avenue, now on Merchant Sreet) to new digs in the Mission District — on Mission Street itself, in fact, just two blocks from the 16th Street BART Station. The set-up offers, in addition to convenience, a more authentically bohemian setting, or at least one farther removed from soaring glass towers full of bankers counting their taxpayer-funded bonuses. Inside it’s homey; the only bohemian touch that seems to be lacking is a pall of blue smoke from cigarettes being nervously puffed by sallow, Kafkaesque young men.

Today’s Kafka aspirants, from the look of it, are strapping lads (and lasses) who make quick work of huge mugs of Czechvar (Budvar’s North American label) before tucking into immense and satisfying platters of central European food. I have never seen so much food on plates. Even the appetizers are colossal. A bratwurst platter ($7), for instance, consisted of a stack of wonderful sweet and smears of mustard and ketchup to swipe them through, along with a tangle of sauerkraut, a heap of pepperoncini, coins of dill pickle, and a wealth of other pickled vegetables. There was easily enough here for a table of four, especially since we’d earlier loaded up with abandon on the seductive, warm bread in its bottomless basket.

A bowl of split-pea soup ($5) was likewise almost a meal in itself, especially with the addition of bacon and dumplings. When bacon is mentioned as an accoutrement on a menu, you might expect a few bits or crumblings, for a hint of flavor and crunch and some decorative effect. Here the bacon appeared in the guise of nicely crisped slats — enough of them to amount to some real heft. And the bacon was the meaty English kind, not the fatty American stuff. Just to make sure no one would go away hungry, the kitchen tossed in some dumplings as well.

A word on the dumplings, which are ubiquitous. They are dotted with caraway seeds and resemble large slices of the crustless white bread the English use to make their tea-time cucumber sandwiches and are not (as I was expecting) spheres of boiled potato dough. The dumplings were impressively stacked beside several flaps of sauerbraten ($15), a vinegar-marinated pot roast that seemed slightly tough but was smoothed and softened by a broad lake of velvety brown gravy, and beside the roast duck ($15), rich as a winter night. Another small pile of sauerkraut helped balance some of the duck’s fattiness.

After such an avalanche of food (plenty of protein and fat and, thanks to the dumplings, nearly limitless starch), the very thought of dessert might leave you queasy. I can’t say that Café Prague’s version of apple strudel ($5) is a pastry version of Alka-Seltzer, but it is good, with more apples than pastry for a somewhat lower center of gravity. It almost looks like (dare I say?) a slice of deep-dish pizza, except for a chocolate-speckled egg of whipped cream on each side, for a little flourish of bohemian decadence.


Dinner: nightly, 5–10 p.m.

2140 Mission, SF

(415) 986-0269

Beer and wine

Cash only

Somewhat noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Lusty lingerie


By Chhavi Nanda

Legend has it that the feast of Saint Valentine might be based on myth — simply a Catholic invention meant to take the place of Lupercalia, a pagan holiday celebrating fertility. Chaste saint helping Christians marry? Or half-naked forest people drinking wine and wearing goat-skins? We’ll take the half-naked forest people. But since goat skins are so hard to come by these days, we’ve decided to honor our pagan past in a contemporary way, with an ode to lingerie, the unofficial uniform of modern heretics. The saints can keep their flannel pajamas and cotton nightgowns. We prefer the garters, thongs, bustiers, and bootie shorts in the city’s best temples of temptation.


There’s a good reason Dollhouse Bettie is a perennial favorite for those who love what goes under clothes: the vintage and vintage-inspired offerings are beautiful, flattering, and reasonably priced. Fans of the ’50s will love the New Old Stock Exquisite Form ($89), a strapless corset with soft white cotton peaked bra cups, expanding spiral steel boning, and intricate details like lace mesh and satin ribbons. Looking for a full ensemble? Add an all-lace wrap ($127.50) with long, flowing sleeves and flowery embroidery, perfect for a dramatic unveiling or for slightly more cover during your postcoital cigarette.

1641 Haight, SF. (415) 252-7399, www.dollhousebettie.com


If your style is a bit more black leather than white lace, you’ll love Felicity’s Fetiche, a delightful boutique branded as “apparel for the uninhibited” and geared toward professional dancers. This is where you’ll find costumes, bright-colored fishnets, sexy tank tops, and even affordable leather items like the OverBust Busk-Front Leather Corset ($22), many of which come in plus sizes.

1214 Sutter, SF. (415) 474-7874, www.felicitysfetiche.com


Don’t be deterred by the fact that Aricie Lingerie is in a mall. This local shop’s selection of European items can’t be beat. One of our favorites is the Sublime Silk Chemise ($299), a sexy, sophisticated take on the little white dress by Lise Charmel, one of France’s premier lingerie houses. Sure, it isn’t cheap, but neither are you.

50 Post, SF. (415) 989-0261, www.ariciesf.com

INJEANIOUS LOUNGEOf course, sexy undergarments aren’t just for the ladies. You can find everything sultry and silly — from break-aways to short shorts, from comic-book undies to banana sacks — at the Castro’s Injeanious Lounge. We especially like the offerings from Ginch Gonch ($20–<\d>$30), a line of “youthful underwear with an adult flare” (think hearts, trucks, or jungle themes).

432 Castro, SF. (415) 861-3963, www.injeanious.com


Another good bet for the boys is the signature Bandito ($5) from Artificial Flavor, a comfortable, form-fitting brief that comes in rich, vibrant colors with complementary color piping. The Cole Valley shop sells clothing too, just in case you want to carry your style from the bedroom to brunch.

912 Cole #208, SF. (800) 961-6705, www.aflavor.com


And finally, if you’re hell-bent on shopping at a store that’s not locally owned, we’d have to recommend U.K.-based Agent Provocateur, owned by Vivienne Westwood’s son. We can’t help but salivate over the Love Cream Love Garter ($50), a delicate lace piece with cream embroidery and silk ribbon detail. Or, for darker moments (in our millionaire dreams), we’ll take the Telescopic Whip ($590), a retractable accessory with a snap and wrist-hold made from metal and available in either black or red. BDSM on the go? Yes, please.

54 Geary, SF. (415) 421-0229, www.agentprovocateur.com


Good vibes


Many people consider massage a luxury, a kind of pampering or relaxation that is lovely but unnecessary. But done right, massage — or any kind of bodywork — is actually an integral part of overall well-being. A powerful tool to balance the body physically, mentally, and spiritually, bodywork is an act of self-love. And what better time to express love of any kind than Valentine’s Day? Whether you want to honor yourself, your partner, or your coupledom, now is the perfect moment to tend to your somatic needs. Below are three of our favorite spots for personal treatments, gift certificates, and couples’ sessions. Each place is focused on holistic health and all are refreshingly between the extremes of new age woo-woo hippie-dom and pretentious L.A. spa culture.


This intimate Hayes Valley spot is more healing center than mere day spa. Therapists are trained in several modalities and develop custom sessions for every client, including consultations before and after treatment. It’s also worth noting that Earthbody is uniquely committed to sustainability, using only organic materials (including fair-trade cotton sheets), plant-derived ingredients in balms and oils that are made in-house, and eco-safe cleaning products.

Individuals: No matter what you choose for yourself or for a loved one, you can’t go wrong. Those with chronic pain might try a body centering treatment ($95–<\d>$155), while those looking for a bit more pampering might like a classic facial ($75–<\d>$165). Not sure what you want? Let the therapist figure it out in a basic bodywork session, starting at $65 for 30 minutes, then find out what your bodyworker learned about you while you snack on almonds, fruits, tea, and specially filtered Kangen water.

Couples: Many couples’ massages are merely two individual massages happening in the same room. Not so at Earthbody. Meant to honor the special union between two people — whether they are lovers, friends, or family — these treatments feature two therapists performing a special synchronized choreography. “When people have a commitment to each other, they have an energy that radiates with another field,” says founder Denmo Ibrahim. “Each body is being addressed, but the field also is being addressed.” Treatments start at $225 per couple for 60 minutes and go up to $490 for the two-and-a-half-hour Lotus treatment.

534 Laguna, SF. (415) 552-7000, www.earthbody.net


Fans of contemporary design will drool over this gorgeous, 10,000-square-foot oasis, where walls are bedecked with art and mirrors and lounges look like sets for a photo shoot in Dwell. The nine-year-old center specializes in personalized, customized service, keeping charts on every client that include therapist notes after every session. An added bonus for Valentine’s Day: mention this article and get 14 percent (Get it?) off any service, along with a free soy-based candle.

Individual: Give yourself or your loved one the center’s specialty treatment, a 90-minute hot stone massage ($165). Unlike similar treatments at other places, bodyworkers at Therapeia actually use the heated stones as tools for massage, rather than simply placing them on the body. “The stones have such a smooth, even, wide surface area, it’s like two massages in one,” says studio coordinator Jacquelyn Moore. For something even more special, add the gift of ongoing self-care with a membership. For $49 a year, members get access to featured specials, including 20 percent off every treatment, 10 percent off products, and 40 percent off treatments during their birthday week. Anyone planning to visit more than three times a year will save money.

Couples: Special, larger rooms are reserved for couples’ treatments ($295–<\d>$385), which feature two therapists working on each person individually. “People enjoy relaxing in same room as a partner,” Moore says. Or if you’d like to share your space with four or more people, you can all enjoy your massage in a special lounge outfitted with a fireplace, fountains, and luxurious leather couches.

1801 Bush (lower level), SF. (415) 885-4450, www.therapeiamassage.com


Exotic, elegant, and decadent, this locally-owned business specializes in traditional Thai massage. Not only are the treatments fantastic, but the new Embarcadero location is beautiful, accented with imported Thai furniture and fabrics, recycled wood, and floating flowers in a tinkling fountain. Bonus? If you book a treatment at the King Street location, you can get 10 percent off a meal at nearby Grand Pu Bah.

Individuals: A first-timer’s best bet is a one-hour traditional Thai massage ($60). You’ll slip on light, pajama-like garments and lie on a cushioned mat in a curtained room while your therapist — trained in Thailand as well as certified here — uses hands, elbows, and knees to knead, stretch, and press out your kinks. Both relaxing and active, many people call this modality a cross between a massage and a workout.

Couples: Book two massages together and you can receive tandem treatments, or spoil yourselves with the three-hour Royal Lanna or Royal Siam massage, both centuries-old combinations of traditional Thai bodywork, reflexology, and herbal massage. Finish with delicious homemade lemongrass tea and, a special for Valentine’s Day, chocolate.

38 Bryant, SF. (415) 644-0808; 690 King, SF. (415) 252-5020, www.suchadathaimassage.com

Cheap dates


By Chloe Roth

Crosby, Stills, and Nash once crooned, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” If you’re lucky enough (or unlucky, for the V-Day scrooges out there) to find yourself paired up with anyone on this recession-doomed Valentine’s Day, you might be worried about how to show appreciation for your significant other while staying within your budget. The Beatles aptly sang, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.” And unless you’re currently in love with an escort, they are absolutely right. So this Feb. 14, whether you’re engaged in a truly loving and reciprocal relationship, passing time with a willing partner while you look for the ideal one, or courting a gold-digging opportunist, you can show the one you’re with a good time without doling out a lot of cash.

After all, “cheap date” doesn’t have to be a pejorative term used to describe the town bicycle (yeah, yeah, everyone’s had a ride). In the current economic climate, “cheap date” may describe your only option, but fret not! If you can’t afford an expensive five-course meal or want to steer clear of the overpopulated movie theaters (i.e. avoid seeing the cheesy rom-com your partner picked out), there are plenty of alternatives. Here are a few non-dinner-and-a-movie examples of how to show your honey a good (and affordable) time in either San Francisco or the East Bay.


When you were six, falling down in public was routine and relatively painless (given you didn’t have very far to fall). It’s a little different now that you’re an adult, especially if your clumsy face-plant happens in front of someone you’re trying to get into bed. But, really, what better way to get to know someone than through total humiliation? For many cold-weather novices (and too-cool-for-Brian-Boitano snobs), ice-skating offers the perfect opportunity for mutual embarrassment and, thus, subsequent bonding. On Valentine’s Day, the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center (750 Folsom, SF. www.skatebowl.com, 415-820-3532) is open to the public from 1-2:30 p.m. and 4-5:30 p.m. Admission for adults is $8 (or $11 with skate rental), a pretty low price to pay for feeling like a kid again. If you find yourself on the other side of the Bay Bridge and still fancy a skate, head over to Oakland Ice Center (519 18th St., Oakl. 510-268-9000, www.oaklandice.com). It’s open for public skating on from 1-3 p.m. and 3:15-5:15 p.m. (also $8, $11 with skate rental).


If you skip the Valentine’s Day movie but still hope to get some R-rated action from an old-fashioned guy or gal, take advantage of San Francisco’s topography and drive up to Twin Peaks (501 Twin Peaks Road, SF.). It’s timeless, it’s free, and it’s quintessentially San Franciscan. Plus, who doesn’t love the classic make-out session at a lookout point? If you’re lucky, sneaking some of this old-fashioned romance into your night will get you one step closer to the set of twin peaks you’ve been trying gain access to since your first date. Or, if you’d like to catch a view of the Bay from Berkeley, drive up to Indian Rock (950 Indian Rock Ave., Berk.) or the Lawrence Hall of Science (Centennial Dr., Berk. www.lawrencehallofscience.org).


If you’re in the East Bay and you’d like to get your date a little drunk in the middle of the afternoon (and why wouldn’t you?), take them to the Takara Tasting Room (708 Addison, Berk., 510-540-8250, www.takarasake.com). The popular local sake company offers five different courses of sake tasting for a mere $5. And since sake has an average alcohol content of 15 percent (that’s 3 times more than most beers), you can get a pretty nice buzz going. If you want to continue on a more pampering route, then head over to Piedmont Springs (3939 Piedmont, Oakland 510-652-9191, www.piedmontsprings.com) for a little soak in a rustic redwood tub. Sure, you could do the whole candle-lit bath thing at home, but who wants to spend the next day cleaning up puddles, soap rings, and melted wax when you could, well, not? Piedmont Springs offers private outdoor tubs ($15), saunas ($13), and their popular combination room ($20). And if you’d like to plan a little sip-and-soak series in SF, check out the Valentine’s Day lineup at the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild’s Beer Week 2010 (www.sfbeerweek.org/feb14). Then once you’re nice and drunk, head to one of SF’s more affordable spas: Kabuki Springs & Spa (1750 Geary, SF. 415-922-6000, www.kabukisprings.com), or Imperial Day Spa (1875 Geary, SF. 415-771-1114, www.imperialdayspa.com). Side note: please remember that hot-tubbing while inebriated is not the safest thing to do, so be smart about it. Drowning does not a romantic Valentine’s Day make.


If it’s nearing the evening and you’re still seeking a last-minute hookup, the best (and strangest) place to look would be the Great San Francisco Pillow Fight (Embarcadero, SF. www.pillowfight.info), held annually in Justin Herman Plaza. When the Ferry Building clock strikes 6 p.m., grab a pillow you’re willing to destroy and start some feathery flashmob chaos. If you’re not familiar with the term “flashmob,” Wikipedia (that ever-reliable source of real information) defines it as “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse.” If all goes well, you’ll go home afterwards, sweaty and covered in feathers, and perform more unusual acts with your newfound Valentine.

On pension reform, a way forward


EDITORIAL Sup. Sean Elsbernd is taking on one of the most complicated and politically tricky issues in San Francisco — reforming the pension fund and health care system for retired city employees. He’s right that the system needs reform — but his measure has some serious drawbacks and needs some significant amendments.

The problems facing the system are so confusing, and the legal and financial aspects so arcane, that it’s hard for anyone to grasp the full situation. But we can sum it up pretty simply:

San Francisco’s pension fund is in far better shape than pension funds in many cities and is a long way from any financial crisis. But over the next few years, thanks to weak stock market performance, the city’s cash obligation — the amount of general fund money that must be paid into the retirement system — is going to rise quickly into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The retiree health care system is in a lot more trouble — with the rising cost of care, the city will be on the hook for a serious amount of money over the next decade or two. And since the obvious answer — a single-payer system that would cut costs immensely — isn’t anywhere on the immediate political horizon, the San Francisco supervisors need to address the problem.

Elsbernd’s proposed fix is also complicated; the main legislation runs 61 pages. But in essence, he wants to make sure all city employees pay directly into the system; raise the amounts new employees, cops, and firefighters contribute; and set up a rainy-day fund to divert excess pension revenue in good years into a trust that could fund health care pension obligations in down years. He’s also going after a scam common in the police and fire departments where people about to retire get sudden promotions and big salary bumps for a few months, then collect pensions based on the higher pay scale.

The first part is — and should be — almost certainly dead. Members of the Service Employees International Union local 1021 agreed several years ago as part of contract negotiations to give up a pay hike; in exchange, the city agreed to take over the workers’ obligation to pay into the pension fund. Changing that, and outlawing any similar deals in the future, is unacceptable to labor and could drag down the whole proposal.

It’s also tricky to raise pension contributions for “new employees” since Mayor Gavin Newsom has been firing people then rehiring them at lower pay rates. Do those people lose their pension seniority? That has to be fixed.

But given the sweet deal cops and firefighters have, it’s entirely appropriate to ask them to contribute more to retirement. And while some city employees actually get and deserve raises in their final year of work (and the language in Elsbernd’s bill doesn’t address this and needs work), pension spiking is a problem that tends to give extra cash to people who are on the higher end of the pay scale at the expense of lower-paid workers.

And the heart of his proposal — to set up a trust fund for excess money in good years — deserves serious consideration. Yes, it’s a set-aside, and yes, there are legal complications. But the cost of doing nothing is too high to ignore.

Elsbernd should have done this differently — he should have met in advance with all the stakeholders and sought to hammer out a compromise. Even so, there’s a lot for progressives to work with here. If Elsbernd is willing to engage with labor and the board majority, and the progressive supervisors are willing to acknowledge the problem and look for amendments that make this bill acceptable, there’s a way for the city to come out ahead.

Sup. David Campos has moved to “split the file” — that is, to turn the Elsbernd bill into two identical measures. The move gives the progressives a chance to make amendments even if Elsbernd doesn’t want to go along, and could wind up giving the supervisors a choice between two competing measures. We’d prefer that Elsbernd work with his colleagues on a measure everyone can back. But in the end, the best option is a charter amendment that fixes the problems Elsbernd has identified — without being unfair to city employees.

And if Elsbernd and the progressives can come to a deal, there’s a lesson here for the mayor: if you try to work with your opponents, you can actually get things done.

Progressives should care about pension reform


OPINION In today’s failing economy, with double-digit unemployment and huge government deficits, progressives have a strong interest in ensuring that San Francisco’s pension system remains viable.

After years of working and contributing a percentage of their income to a pension fund, city employees receive a guaranteed annual pension based on an employee’s years of service and his or her pay level at retirement. In the private sector, most employees participate in a 401(k)-type of retirement plan, in which the pension is based on the amount contributed to the fund.

Under the city charter, the city is only required to pay into the pension fund when its liabilities exceed its income. When the fund loses money, as it has in recent years, the city is required to make up the difference.

In 2005, investments losses brought the fund below the break-even mark, requiring the city to pay $175 million in retiree pension and health premiums. Today, that number has grown to $525 million — an increase of 200 percent. Two years from now, in 2013, the amount will grow to $675 million, eclipsing what it costs to run San Francisco General Hospital for one year.

While headlines reporting pensioners who receive $100,000 or more raise the public’s ire, most retired city workers receive modest pensions. Still, there are abuses to the pension system that must be eliminated. A recent civil grand jury report found that some police and firefighters engage in pension “spiking” by promoting employees in their last year of service to increase the amount of their pensions. That practice has cost the city $132 million.

The question of how to address the city’s growing pension liability is now before the Board of Supervisors. A proposed charter amendment would change the contribution levels for police and fire employees hired after July 2010 from 7.5 percent to 9 percent and base pensions on the last three years of the employee’s salary to reduce pension spiking.

Some argue that the measure unfairly targets labor and city workers by eliminating pension formulas that have been used for decades. But with the city’s $522 million budget deficit, if San Francisco’s pension problem isn’t fixed, escalating pension costs will ultimately force city officials to confront this choice: make huge service cuts and layoffs or be unable to meet the city’s retirement obligations to its retired workers. That’s why we have to act now.

Other pension funds have faced this reality. One San Francisco union leader whose fund is paid by its workers told me that his union voted to reduce future pension benefits while increasing the amount of employees’ contributions. “It was a bitter pill, but we knew we had to do it,” he said.

The proposed charter amendment doesn’t go this far and only has a minimal impact on the city’s present pension liabilities since it only changes contribution levels for future employees. However, if the amendment reaches the June ballot, these modest reforms should not become a wedge issue.

Having a sustainable pension fund that protects the futures of workers without bankrupting the city is a progressive value. Progressives should also support ending pension abuses that only benefit a small number of workers at the expense of taxpayers and other workers who contribute to the fund. Pension reform is one step, among others, that must be taken to restore San Francisco’s fiscal stability.

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco’s public defender.

Editor’s Notes


The mayor of San Francisco is mad that the Board of Supervisors won’t even schedule a hearing on his proposals to stimulate business and job creation in San Francisco. He ought to be happy. If this loopy plan ever gets to the point of open, full discussion, Gavin Newsom will wind up with a real political embarrassment.

Let’s analyze, for example, the suggestion that the city waive payroll taxes for biotech companies. That’s supposed to make those companies more likely to hire new people. After all, any economist knows that taxing something discourages people from doing it, so taxing a payroll ought to make companies less likely to hire. And getting rid of that tax ought to create jobs.

Well, since one of the things I do is help run a small business in San Francisco, let me explain how it actually works.

Say you’re a biotech company that wants to hire a new entry-level worker at a modest $35,000 a year. Can you afford it? Let’s cost it out.

There’s the salary, of course. Then there’s the 7.5 percent you’re paying in federal Social Security tax. That’s $2,626 more. And since you’re in San Francisco, you’re paying for health insurance; that’s probably between $2,000 and $4,000 a year, depending on the plan, but let’s peg it at the city’s minimum mandate, which is $1.09 an hour, or $2,267.

So now your $35,000 worker costs $39,893. Then there’s unemployment and disability insurance and workers’ compensation. The person’s going to need a desk and a chair, or a lab bench and a stool (and they have to be ergonomically correct), and probably a computer, a phone line, and software. And you’re going to have to spend some money on training. You’re going to offer a couple weeks of paid vacation, right? And you have to give sick days. So you have to account for the money you’re spending to cover your new worker when he or she isn’t working. If it all pencils out at less than $42,000, you’re doing well.

Oh, wait, I forgot — there’s the damn city payroll tax. That job-killing factor that could make the difference between hiring and not hiring. Better account for that; it could be a deal breaker.

Are you holding your breath? Ready for the ax to fall? Here you go: the payroll tax on your new hire is a whopping $525 a year. About $10 a week. You probably spent more on the help wanted ads.

So let’s be honest — the payroll tax may sound awful (and actually, I think a gross receipts tax would be more fair, for a lot of reasons). But suspending it won’t create a single new job. It’s too small a factor to count as more than decimal dust in anyone’s hiring decisions.

Here’s what suspending the payroll tax for biotech companies will do: reduce city revenue, almost certainly by enough to force more program cuts, and that means more job cuts for city workers. So you gain no private sector jobs — zero — and you lose public sector jobs. How, exactly, is that encouraging employment growth?

Quit complaining, Mr. Mayor — the last thing your proposals need is real public scrutiny.

Building the movement


Frustrated by deep cuts to education spending and quality, momentum is building across California in support of the “Strike and Day of Action to Defend Public Education” on March 4.

Students, laborers, and faculty throughout the University of California system are trying to expand on last semester’s organizing efforts by strengthening ties to groups from all tiers of the public education system. But questions linger about the best way to proceed and what exactly the event should look like.

“I think that the regents and [UC President Mark] Yudof are very fearful of what would happen if the students and workers united. They could be unstoppable,” said Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT).

That collaboration is exactly what many grassroots organizers are hoping to achieve, although their central message is not limited to participants in the UC system alone. They argue that fee increases and cutbacks at the universities are symptomatic of a greater problem, namely the denigration of free and low-cost public education.

“This emerged as a movement of students and workers at the university level. What we’re doing now is going beyond the UCs,” said Blanca Misse, a graduate student and member of the Student Worker Action Team (SWAT).

By reaching out to members of preschool, K-12 public school, community college, and California State University communities, organizers hope to turn March 4 into a rallying moment for the entire public education system in the state. Organizers also want to ensure that the UC system isn’t funded at the expense of other institutions of public learning.

“We need to be fighting for money and political power,” Misse added. “The committees need to mobilize all of the fighting sectors and show them our strength.”

At the Jan. 17 meeting of the Berkeley March 4 organizing committee, one of many ad hoc groups set up across the state, a gathering of about 35 union members, graduate students, community activists, and undergraduates discussed what the day should look like locally. They also reported back on their attempts at organizing the local community, including garnering union support and reaching out to high school students.

Javier Garay noted that at a meeting of the Oakland Education Association, a union of public school workers, “89 percent of the nearly 800 attendees voted in solidarity with the March 4 Day of Action, possibly including a strike.”

Yet the most heated discussions centered on how to unite the interests and power of the university population behind the broader fight for public education funding.

During the meeting, Tanya Smith, president of the local chapter of the University Professional and Technical Employees union (UPTE), stressed the importance of “not being an ivory tower” by extending activism “beyond Berkeley’s campus and reaching out to the political center in Oakland.”

Student activist Nick Palmquist, a fourth-year development studies student at UC Berkeley, admitted that the “tuition issue” is a big motivating factor for college students. At the same time, he noted, “Students have a lot of potential to see the bigger picture. We’re trying to expand the consciousness of the movement.”

That movement stretches back to the beginning of the school year, when students realized that Yudof and the Board of Regents were planning on making up for the $814 million budget cut from 2008-09 and the additional $637 million cut in 2009-10 with layoffs, furloughs, and a possible fee hike.

On Sept. 24, 2009, groups organized strikes and walkouts across the University of California system, including an estimated 5,000-person protest in the legendary Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley.

Exactly one month later, several hundred people gathered on the Berkeley campus for the Mobilizing Conference to Save Public Education. According to the invitation, the purpose of the conference was “to democratically decide on a statewide action plan capable of winning this struggle, which will define the future of public education in this state, particularly for the working-class and communities of color.”

After an intense day of discussion, the body voted to establish March 4 as a “statewide strike and day of action.” Though it remains unclear how the different interests would come together (the call left demands and tactics open for debate), the message was clear: to save public education, diverse groups need to stand together cohesively.

Tensions escalated dramatically in November when the regents approved a 32 percent fee increase. At UCLA, where the regents held the meeting, an estimated 2,000 students gathered in demonstration and protest.

UC Berkeley student Isaac Miller told the Guardian, “I think we left there feeling like even though the fee increase went through, this is a long-term fight. It was really empowering to connect to students from all over the UC community.”

Meanwhile, a three-day protest at UC Berkeley culminated in a day-long occupation of Wheeler Hall on Nov. 20. As the protesters outside multiplied in support of the occupiers, they expressed solidarity with their causes as well as anger at the fee hike.

Callie Maidhof, a graduate student and spokesperson for the occupiers, said at the time, “One of the reasons behind this particular action is that students realized that not only is the state an unreliable partner, so is the administration. The only thing students can do at this point is reach out to each other.”

Maidhof was referring to a frequently repeated refrain from the regents and Yudof: “The state is an unreliable partner.” They argue that their hands are tied by the budget shortfall and the UC system has to figure out ways to sustain itself apart from increasingly erratic state funding. “The message is if the state fixes the budget, all our problems will be over,” said Mike Rotkin, mayor of Santa Cruz and a former lecturer at UC Santa Cruz.

So when a Jan. 21 San Francisco Chronicle article (“Regents to Back UC Students’ Protest at Capitol”) reported that the regents and Yudof agreed to stand alongside the students in Sacramento on the March 4 Day of Action, many were shocked and angered. “This is a complete turn-around for them,” Palmquist said. “They were never in support of our efforts. But now they feel threatened and they also feel like they can capitalize on them.”

In an open-letter response, several unions wrote back: “This is a cynical publicity stunt, and we do not buy it.”

Victor Sanchez, president of the UC Students Association (UCSA), said the article misrepresented what Yudof and the Regents said. “The regents and Yudof agreed to participate with students on a separate March 1 day of activism, not March 4,” he said. Calls and e-mail to Yudof’s office to confirm were unreturned at press time.

Sanchez explained that the March 1 activities are the culmination of UCSA’s annual Student Lobbying Conference, which takes place in Sacramento from Feb. 28–March 1. Its actions focus primarily on lobbying the Legislature. That approach is more in tune with the administration’s message that the problem lies in Sacramento.

UCSA’s demands include increasing funding for higher education by $1 billion, creating alternative sources of revenue through comprehensive prison reform, preserving the California grant program, and passing Assembly Bill 656.

Sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico (D-Fremont), AB 656 would place a severance tax on oil companies and divert revenues toward higher education. “It is strategic for us to focus resources in Sacramento, because that’s where the negotiations are happening,” Sanchez said. “But we also understand that we’re fighting a two-front war and need to hold both the Legislature and the administration responsible.

“At the end of the day, it is our event and our day of action,” he continued. “We made it clear we aren’t going to change our demands. We stand in solidarity with the March 4 organizers. We’re all advocating a common goal, and folks are going to apply complementary pressure. Our end goal is prioritizing education, and we need to move forward with that collective mentality.”

If all this seems confusing, that’s because it is. The groups that have formed in reaction to cuts to public education are numerous, amorphous, and have slightly different agendas. Some subscribe to the position that the fault and solution primarily rests in Sacramento, while others argue that the administration and appointed, rather than elected, regents are to blame. Most agree with Sanchez that both are part of the problem.

As community organizers build toward March 4, it is clear that the day will be significant. The real question is, if students can maintain their momentum and their newfound network with other sectors of public education, what will happen on March 5 and beyond?

Big Brother Obama


The Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally collected thousands of telephone records between 2002 and 2006, a Jan. 20 Justice Department report revealed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) publicly scolded FBI Director Robert Mueller for the transgression, but the practice of secretly spying on Americans’ international communications has become standard practice, even under the new presidential administration.

In late 2005, The New York Times exposed how the George W. Bush administration authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on Americans’ e-mails and phone calls without then-required court orders. The scoop prompted retired AT&T technician Mark Klein to reveal the existence of a NSA-controlled secret room at a San Francisco AT&T facility, providing undisputed proof of this public-private spy operation and the extensive amount of personal data that is collected.

Not only was no one held accountable, but the Democrat-controlled Congress legalized the operation after the fact by passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FISA Amendments Act) in 2008. Klein responded last year with the self-published book Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine … And Fighting It to narrate his version of the civil liberties and privacy battle.

The creeping intrusion on Americans’ privacy continues unabated under the Obama administration, according to government watchdog groups and media pundits. “Things have changed slightly — for the worse,” said Rebecca Jeschke from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Barack Obama, while still a Senator, hinted what his later inclination might be when he voted for the FISA Amendments Act, arguing that it was needed to foil terrorist plots (after having previously stated his intention to oppose the bill). Now that the legislation is law, his administration is using the same rationale as its predecessor to fend off attempts to repeal it, namely that it is crucial to national security.

Yet the EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deem the practice and the legislation that authorized it to be unconstitutional. They’re challenging it in courts but having a difficult time in light of executive branch opposition and national security claims.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was originally crafted to constrain and oversee the government’s spying activities on Americans after the Nixon administration abused its power to eavesdrop on Vietnam War protesters and political adversaries.

FISA required officials to obtain from a judge individual warrants with specific named individuals or specific phone numbers before it wiretapped phone calls or read e-mails in the U.S. Outside the borders, spying remained unrestricted. The FISA Amendments Act subtly blurs those lines and leaves loopholes whereby the government can intercept U.S. residents’ communications without having to notify the FISA court.

Under the new protocols, the FISA court can authorize NSA to conduct surveillance on U.S. soil as long as the target isn’t American and is “reasonably believed” to be located abroad, no matter who the interlocutor may be, foreigner or American. When information is incidentally collected on American citizens, “minimization procedures” are designed to prevent the unnecessary retention or dissemination of such information.

“Now under the new law, the FISA court is looking at bulk surveillance under which the government doesn’t specify who it’s going to wiretap, which phone numbers it’s going to monitor, or which e-mail addresses it’s going to surveil. All the government has to say to the court is that the targets of its surveillance are overseas. Once the government has said that, the court just checks a box and grants permission. So insofar as Americans engage in international communications, this is a law that gives the government carte blanche to monitor those communications,” explained ACLU National Security Project Director Jameel Jaffer.

Civil liberties advocates say this unchecked eavesdropping power violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Yet the Obama administration is “aggressively defending the FISA Amendments Act,” Jaffer said. It is arguing that the courts don’t even have a role in evaluating the constitutionality of the government’s surveillance activities.

A brief filed by the Justice Department in January 2009 maintains that the FAA “strikes a reasonable balance between the critical intelligence it serves and the privacy interests of Americans it indirectly affects,” and that “plaintiffs’ arguments from the start have rested on speculation and surmise.” In short: trust in the government’s good faith for not abusing its power.

Another worrisome aspect of the FISA Amendments Act is the immunity from liability it retroactively granted to telecommunications carriers that assisted the government in carrying out its warrantless wiretapping program before Congress consented to it.

In January 2006, Klein gave EFF critical engineering documents proving that AT&T, his former employer, let NSA access its 611 Folsom St. office building to tap into its Internet data flow to duplicate it and send it to a secret room the agency controlled. That included e-mails, Web browsing, voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone calls, pictures, and streaming video, be they international or domestic.

Thanks to this installation, anything transmitted on the AT&T network was swept by the NSA. And there were clues that the San Francisco secret room was just one in a series set up all over the country. In his book, available on Amazon, Klein gives an account of his personal protest and involvement in the case spearheaded by EFF against AT&T.

Klein tells how he figured out what the San Francisco room was about, how he struggled to get the story out, and how he tried in vain to inform Congress. But following approval of the FISA Amendments Act, the lawsuit was dismissed in June 2009, along with 32 other similar cases brought by customers against their telecommunications service providers.

“The surveillance system now approved by Congress provides the physical apparatus for the government to collect and store a huge database on virtually the entire population, available for data mining whenever the government wants to target its political opponents at any given moment — all in the hands of an unrestrained executive power. It is the infrastructure for a police state,” he wrote. According to his sources, the equipment is still in place. Security even has been beefed up at the Folsom Street building where he used to work: the entrance to the entire floor where the diversion device is inserted is now restricted.

EFF is appealing the dismissal of the AT&T lawsuit, arguing that the communications companies’ amnesty is unconstitutional in that it grants to the president broad discretion to block the courts from considering the core constitutional privacy claims of millions of Americans. Officials with the Justice Department told us they wouldn’t comment because of the ongoing litigation.

In the meantime, the current judicial and legal gridlock is barring the public from reviewing what took place under the Bush administration and what is going on right now. Can our communications channels be trusted? Klein says he won’t be appeased unless the equipment is torn out.

Sitting boundaries


Aggressive lobbying efforts by the San Francisco Police Department and some of its allies who are pushing a proposed sit/lie ordinance have irked some current and former members of the Board of Supervisors.

The legislation was privately created by new Police Chief George Gascón and then played up in the mainstream media. It would make it illegal to sit or lie down on public sidewalks. Supporters say it would make it easier for cops to target people who harass neighborhood residents.

But in other cities where similar laws have been passed, protests have erupted from homeless-advocacy organizations and civil liberties groups, which say criminalizing this behavior unfairly (and unconstitutionally) targets homeless people who have nowhere else to go.

In Portland, Ore., a similar law was enacted then overturned by the courts. In Los Angeles, an ordinance against sleeping on the sidewalk was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, resulting in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2006 that unless adequate shelter is available for homeless people in L.A., arresting them for sleeping on the sidewalk amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

But an e-mail action alert included in SFPD Central Station Capt. Anna Brown’s monthly community newsletter encouraged people to contact the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to support the creation of a sit/lie ordinance. “Naturally, there is resistance from the left-leaning Board of Supervisors who feel this is an attack on the homeless population,” it noted.

That unusually overt political plea caught the eye of Aaron Peskin, former president of the Board of Supervisors and current chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, who called it “funky.” Peskin told us he’d never seen an advocacy pitch like this go out in a captain’s newsletter before, and he questioned whether this was an appropriate use of city resources.

But the City Attorney’s Office says this doesn’t fall under city laws banning electioneering by city employees, who are barred from using government resources to endorse a candidate or ballot initiative, or from doing any campaign-related work on city property.

Yet this kind of pitch “is not considered political activity,” Jack Song, a spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, told the Guardian.

But Sup. David Campos, a former police commissioner, frowned upon it nonetheless. “Something like this is not really helpful to the Board of Supervisors and the Police Department working together,” Campos said.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi took a similar view. At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, he requested a hearing about the ordinance because he said the media-driven public debate had occurred without formal discussion. Anti-loitering and public nuisance laws are already on the books, Mirkarimi pointed out.

“What makes those laws inadequate?” he asked. “How would the proposed law augment what is already in effect?”

The alert wasn’t actually written by Capt. Brown, who included it in her newsletter. It was drafted by the Community Leadership Alliance, an organization headed by David Villa-Lobos, a longtime resident of the Tenderloin and a candidate for the District 6 Supervisor seat.

Since Gascón floated the idea of creating a sit/lie ordinance, CLA has kicked into high gear to mobilize support, most recently issuing its action alert e-mail to 8,000 recipients. Police captains were included in the e-mail blast, Villa-Lobos told us, but each captain decides independently what to include in his or her newsletter.

People sitting and lying on sidewalks is “a really, really big problem, especially in the crime-ridden areas,” Villa-Lobos said. “God bless the homeless, but it’s a big problem there too.” Several years ago, his organization tried to mount a campaign for a sit/lie ordinance, but it didn’t go anywhere. “People came out and said we were trying to violate civil rights,” he said.

The Community Leadership Alliance is active in the Tenderloin, SoMa, and the mid-Market Street area, and the group occasionally holds monthly meetings at the Infusion Lounge, an upscale nightclub owned by Scott Caroen, the chair of the organization.

Gascón worked with deputy city attorneys to draft the ordinance and all district police stations have submitted to their commanders a list of areas that they feel could benefit from the law, according to a Tenderloin district newsletter. Mirkarimi told the Guardian that some supervisors were kept in the dark for weeks about the fact that an ordinance had been drafted. “This wasn’t collaborative at all,” Mirkarimi told us. “We never received it until we demanded to see it.”

The Haight-Ashbury, where residents and visitors have been complaining about harassment from wayward traveling youth, has been ground zero for discussion about a sit/lie ordinance. A small group of irate residents there and the Park Station Capt. Teresa Barrett have rallied in support of the law, saying it would give police a new tool to target these disruptive street kids.

But it’s clear that the ordinance’s supporters want to see it applied broadly and to be used to roust the homeless in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“CLA feels that our sidewalks should be enjoyable and a place of social gathering, and that the ordinance could go a long way in helping our neighborhoods feel safer,” reads the Community Leadership Alliance alert that was included in the police captain’s newsletter. “It may also reduce the overall homeless population in San Francisco by discouraging people from coming to the city to beg for money.”

PG&E kicks press out of debate


By Brady Welch


It sounded like a great story: a representative of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. agreed to a public debate over the merits of a ballot initiative the company essentially had paid to place on the California ballot. The measure seeks to curtail public power and clean energy in the state. And so far, PG&E has been loathe to discuss it in any open forum.

But on Jan. 27, PG&E’s political consultant, David Townsend, was scheduled to square off with state Sen. Mark Leno, a staunch foe of the measure, before what sounded like a great audience: the Northern California Power Agency, which represents 17 public power providers across the state.

At Sacramento’s Doubletree Inn, I headed to the lobby of the California Ballroom, where I found a woman sitting at a table adorned with the logo of the NCPA. “I’m a reporter here to cover the debate between Sen. Mark Leno and a representative from PG&E,” I said. “Would this be the right place?”

She smiled politely. Sorry, she said, you have to be an NCPA member and registered for the conference.

“I was invited by the senator,” I told her.

“Then you will have to wait until he gets here,” she said curtly.

I walked upstairs to the front desk — and just then, Leno walked through the main lobby’s sliding doors. I introduced myself, walked with him to the conference room, and quickly slipped in with some other attendees. Within three minutes, a man sitting next to me was called to the side by a steward who whispered something to him, and then just as quickly, returned to his seat. He turned to me.

Are you with the media? he whispered.

“I’m with a newspaper,” I said.

He then informed me that the conference was actually private, and sorry, I would have to leave. They would explain more outside.

After I was escorted out, Leno came up to me and explained that there had been a miscommunication. Turns out Townsend didn’t want the media around. And worse, the NCPA folks appeared to be taking his side. Leno arranged for me to hear his opening statement, but that was all.

The senator’s remarks were pointed. He noted that PG&E’s proposed legislation is not an initiative, but an amendment to the state Constitution. He mentioned the curtailing of free enterprise and a demise of state government. He likened the utility’s disrespect for the legislative process to a spit in the face, and at one point openly asked Townsend: “What good is your word?”

The political consultant, for his part, sat quietly. At times he rolled his eyes or bit his thumbs. When Leno was wrapping up, Townsend leaned over to the moderator and whispered something. The moderator then came over to me and said I’d have to leave.

So I walked out — but not without wondering: when exactly did PG&E hirelings get the right to exclude reporters from meetings filled with representatives of public agencies?

Leno himself wasn’t sure. “With all due respect to David Townsend,” he told the Guardian a few days later, “I don’t see why a consultant wouldn’t want to discuss the themes of his campaign in public. I think his decision not to allow the press to hear him speaks for itself.”

Despite multiple calls and e-mails, we couldn’t get NCPA director James H. Pope to tell us why he lets PG&E determine who can — and can’t — attend his sessions. Jane Cirrincione, NCPA’s assistant general manager for legislative and regulatory affairs, told us that Townsend was invited by her boss and was not authorized to speak publicly for PG&E.

But Peter Scheer, director of the California First Amendment Coalition, offered a possible explanation. NCPA, he contends, “is capitulating to PG&E’s demand for secrecy, not for ideological reasons, but simply because if the spokesperson walks, they don’t have a conference. The reasons for excluding the press are basically that mundane and stupid.”

DEIR in the headlights


GREEN CITY Public comments on the city’s draft environmental impact report (DEIR) for Lennar Corp.’s massive redevelopment proposal on Candlestick Point and the Hunters Points Shipyard includes complaints that the comment period was too short (see “The Candlestick Farce,” 12/23/09), concerns that the city violated state requirements to notify the Ohlone Tribe, and frustration that the city’s preferred plan represents the most significant and substantial impacts of any of the five scenarios analyzed in the DEIR.

These and many other concerns about the impacts of the 10,500-home project will need to be addressed in the final EIR, which Mayor Gavin Newsom and other project proponents expect to be completed by June.

Some object that the city is considering an early transfer of the shipyard and would undertake activities that are currently the Navy’s responsibility (see “Eliminating Dissent,” 06/17/09), saying the final EIR should prominently reference Proposition P, which voters approved in 2000, establishing community acceptance criteria for the cleanup.

Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, submitted his organization’s comments “under protest for the inadequate extension of the public comment period, which we believe unfairly penalizes the public review of the draft EIR.”

Land use attorney Sue Hestor called the public comment submission schedule “abusive” in comments submitted for POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights). “The schedule is being driven by an insane desire to have the final EIR certified and all local approvals done by June,” Hestor said.

Ohlone chairperson Ann Marie Sayers and Neil MacClean of the Ohlone Profiles Project wondered why the Planning Department did not contact anyone on the city’s list of official Ohlone representatives. “We want the SF Planning Department to follow Senate Bill 18, which requires them to include Ohlone people in the planning process,” MacClean said, noting that there are at least four Ohlone villages within the proposed development area.

Jaime Michaels, coastal program analyst for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, expressed concerns about the DEIR’s proposal to make a 23.5 acre reduction in existing state park boundaries (see “Can I buy your park?” 08/12/09).

Project proponents, Michaels said, “would need to demonstrate that the decreased area would not compromise or reduce its value as a park/beach facility.” Michaels also worries about the impact of adding a minimum of 1.7 acres of fill in the bay to accommodate a bridge at Yosemite Slough, a plan she described as “a significant amount of coverage, particularly for a facility where the large majority of its coverage is needed to serve vehicles accessing the new stadium only 12 days a year.”

Michaels expressed concerns that the project’s plans to address sea level rise would negatively affect bay views and public access to the shoreline.

The project includes a 9.6-mile trail and a variety of other public amenities directly adjacent to the shoreline. Proposed building structures located away from the immediate shoreline would accommodate a 36-inch sea level rise by 2075, and the DEIR promises to employ adaptive management strategies along the perimeter beyond 2050.

“Unfortunately, partly due to illegibility and the scale of the drawings, it is difficult to assess precisely how these adaptations would appear,” Michaels observed. “However, it can be assumed that over time levees would need to be raised and likely widened at the base, thereby partly or entirely obstructing the public’s view of the bay from inland areas, encroaching on and reducing the area devoted for public use and impacting the overall public access experience.”

Arc Ecology discussed the DEIR’s failure to provide a comprehensive sustainability plan, address adjacent development projects, justify a 49ers stadium on the shipyard, or evaluate the potential for the development of port-related heavy industrial activities.

“The city is determined to get this project passed right now, and the developer is afraid that if someone else comes along as mayor and District 10 supervisor, they may not be as sympathetic,” Bloom said. “But the project — as outlined in the DEIR and the city’s way of approaching the deal — is against the interests of San Francisco.”