Volume 48 Number 12
YEAR IN VISUAL ART One of the art world’s largest trends for 2013 culminated in November, at Christie’s record-breaking contemporary art auctions that saw the most money ever paid for an artwork (Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, $142 million) and the most ever for an artwork by a living artist (Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange), $58 million). The general outrage that followed for once united Joe Shmoe and the art blogosphere in reactions that ranged from disdain to histrionics. Hating rich people and their spending, it turns out, is something that we can all really get behind.
It was a bit surprising, really, to read such astonished responses from professed art world insiders, most of which gave voice to disgust and outrage at the amoral caprice and soulless gluttony of various, shameless one percenters plunking down ungodly sums of money on balloon dogs and other decadent, trashy, luxury stuff that clearly anybody’s kid could dream up. Or something like that.
Now that the dust has settled a little, it’s worth revisiting those sales without the preaching, and figure out what they mean for the art world going into 2014. A couple observations follow.
First, and contrary to universal opinion, as far as I can tell these artworks sold on the cheap. My math: the top ten collectors of art in 2013 are worth more than $10 billion each on average. At the November evening session at Christie’s, the average sale price for a work of art was just shy of $11 million. Those numbers make my head spin, so let’s scale down to you-and-me bucks: The wealthiest and most active collectors were paying mere fractions of their net worth, on average, for the artworks. Maybe a tenth of a percent. If you or I put down that much of our net worth, we’d be talking somewhere between, say, a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars. In other words, a completely reasonable amount of money — cheap, even. About the pricing you’d expect for an emerging artist’s work.
Looking at the money in scale, there are actually very few buyers at the top willing to splurge heavily on individual works of art. If, as ARTnews reported in its 2013 summer issue, there are 100 collectors in the world willing to throw down more than $50 million on art, it’s a tiny number of people and a very modest amount for a billionaire. The high end of the art market is pretty conservative considering who’s playing in that game. In fact, if rumors are true and Russian billionaire Roman Abromavich is the buyer for Three Studies of Lucian Freud, then he spent about 1.4 percent of his net worth on the paintings, something between the price of a nice sofa and a car, in you-and-me terms.
Second, these purchases weren’t speculative or the result of a bubble. The runaway consolidation of global wealth among the one percent is accelerating. If their spending on luxury items like blue chip art keeps any kind of pace with their expanding wealth, then the prices at the top tier should be racing higher every year. These people are astronomically rich. They should be putting down lots of money on art.
And it’s not all balloon dogs and pill paintings, either. Looking back over the year, you notice record-breaking investments in the work of young and talented artists, among them former Bay Area artist Tauba Auerbach, whose six works sold in June for a combined $1.34 million, as well as Cecily Brown, Mark Grotjahn, Julie Mehretu, Tara Donovan, and others.
And, I’m not even going to get too upset about that orange Jeff Koons dog sale, clearly an act of peer showmanship. Like an episode of Voltron, the other four colored dogs are scattered between billionaires Steven Cohen (Yellow); the Broad Foundation (Blue); Francois Pinault (Magenta); and Dakis Joannou’s DESTE Foundation (Red). In the end, you know what? At a relative scale for us worker bees, $58 million is something like splurging on a Basil Racuk bag. Maybe not entirely necessary, but well worth the dough, and I can totally understand the peer pressure if your friends are all lucky enough to have one.
My most optimistic take on this is that money flooding in at the top end of the market helps not just bluest blue chip artists like Koons, and not even the newly minted blue chips like Grotjahn, but also helps to redefine what a quality work of art ought to cost, and widens the expectations for what wealthier people than you and me ought to be paying. Let’s face it: I’m not in the market for a Francis Bacon painting, nor are you. *
For the curious, I got the top ten list from ARTnews.com; each billionaire’s net worth from Forbes.com; and the auction results from Christies.com. I’m sure the more statistically inclined among you will take issue with my unweighted averages, and I hope you feel free to comment with more elegant calculations than mine.
YEAR IN THEATER Before the holiday season crushes us in its tinsel-glinted maw and poops us out into 2014, it’s time to cast a backward glance and ponder 2013’s best moments in theater and performance.
Most satisfyingly enigmatic flights Getting lost can be a good thing. It can concentrate the attention, heighten the senses, activate the imagination, leave room for reflection — and leave something to talk about afterward. This is as true for a visit to the theater as it is for a walk around town.
The great director Robert Wilson put it like this when, speaking in 2012 in Berkeley during the revival of Einstein on the Beach, he noted the difference between his brand of theater and the average: “It’s something that you can freely associate with. [In the usual theater piece] you’re constantly told what to think or how to respond. If you go to the theater tonight, if you go to Broadway, every 20 seconds, 10 seconds, no more than 30, you have to react. It’s always, ‘Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it?’ And after a while you don’t understand anything. So in this work it’s ok to get lost.”
Without detracting from the power that can attend even the most didactic of narratives, let’s hear it for the productions this year that did not shy away from abstraction and mystery, as in Shotgun Players’ staging of Linda McLean’s strangers, babies or (more radically, if in workshop form) Affinity Project’s Nocturne (the best part in foolsFURY’s inaugural Factory Parts, a works-in-progress festival). (Robert Avila)
Best Habitués of the Home Theater Circuit We’re big fans of the Home Theater Festival and the back-to-the-basics performance model it so ably demonstrates. But where the festival ends, at the threshold of one’s own doorstep, the notion that there could be a whole DIY living room tour circuit is gaining ground. Two recent exemplars of this lo-key, high-mileage approach are Sebastopol’s the Independent Eye, which just returned home from a month-long, cross-country sojourn during which it performed 17 shows — nine in living rooms — and San Francisco’s Right Brain Performancelab expanded its private-home Due West salon into a roving three-weekend run of its 10-year anniversary performance, What Stays?, from Half Moon Bay to Oakland. (Nicole Gluckstern)
Most “Twisted” take on the big screen Dogugaeshi at Zellerbach Playhouse. Combining his own brand of invention and humor with the titular ancient Japanese form — in which moving sets of painted screens coaxed the eye through a seemingly infinite recession of figurative and abstract environments — master puppeteer Basil Twist and his deft collaborators created an opulent, entrancing, even mystical journey that ranks as one of the purest theatrical experiences all year. (Avila)
Most Pervasive Unofficial Theme for 2013: “Losing my Religion” While our headlines were more concerned with political détente and economic implosion, our stages were full of struggles of a more personal nature: that of religious belief (or lack thereof). With works like Tanya Shaffer’s Siddhartha-inspired musical The Fourth Messenger; Mugwumpin’s mesmerizing fall from prophetic grace, The Great Big Also; the epistemological ponderings of a dead felid in SF Playhouse’s Bengal Tiger at the Bagdhad Zoo; and the wounded evangelicalism simmering in Aurora Theatre’s A Bright New Boise, both actors and audiences were forced to confront questions of faith in ways that pointed to unresolved unease on both sides of the pulpit. (Gluckstern)
Most overdue Bay Area debut The Wooster Group + New York City Players at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This production of three of Eugene O’Neill’s early seafaring one-acts seemed to flummox many, though the audience I sat with seemed as riveted as I was by the strange, challenging approach to these texts. Certainly it was a little misleading to describe this as a Wooster Group production — despite having two Wooster actors in the cast and a Wooster set, it was very much in debt to the idiosyncratic and deeply committed approach of director and playwright Richard Maxwell and his NYC Players, who made up the majority of the cast. A long overdue Bay Area visit by these acclaimed companies, it anyway made for one of the more distinctive and provoking encounters between actors and audience all year. (Avila)
Most Memorable Elementals In Aurora Theatre’s production of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, fire played an ominous role, a tool deployed to destroy the civilization it helped build, while in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s collaborative Time Sensitive, ice took the main stage, with a dripping block signifying both the passage of time and the impermanence of the material world. While at first glance the two plays were to each other as fire and ice — one a carefully modulated farce, the other a frenetic roller coaster of status seekers and secret keepers — both inventively explored common themes of moral decay and the follies of keeping up appearances in a society full of questionable values and diminishing spiritual rewards. (Gluckstern)
Best performance of herself Judith Butler at CounterPULSE. The famed philosopher and theorist of the performativity of gender appeared as part of the ongoing Dance Discourse series, in dialogue with CounterPULSE’s Julie Phelps and outstanding performances by artists DavEnd, and Xandra Ibarra and Hentyle Yapp. While confessing it was not always easy “performing Judith Butler,” the Berkeley prof proved game, contributing to an exceptionally lively cross-disciplinary encounter. (Avila)
Playwriting Series Most Likely to Win a Gold Medal: San Francisco Olympians Festival Here be giants. Plus gods, mortals, and mythological creatures brought to often hilarious life by dozens of local playwrights and theatre artists over the course of three weeks. The brainchild of No Nude Men’s Stuart Bousel, the festival features an array of thematically-connected staged readings featuring characters long forgotten by contemporary audiences: Teucer, Thersites, Laodike, Cruesa, and Neoptolemus, to name but a few. Not content to stick to the script, SF Olympians offers a corresponding gallery show of fine art, encourages wild experimentation such as the debut installment of Megan Cohen’s crowd-directed “Totally Epic Odyssey,” and has even generated a book of new plays (Songs of Hestia, EXIT Press 2011). (Gluckstern)
Most persuasive British accents Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. In fact, the pair, true British theater royalty, made it all look so easy. (Avila)
Theater Company Most Likely to Boldly Go… Whether a given production is a hit or miss, Cutting Ball’s commitment to staging new absurdist and experimental works has secured it a very important spot in the Bay Area’s theatrical firmament. And although very different in content, the world premieres of Andrew Saito’s boldly apocalyptic Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night and Basil Kreimendahl’s quixotic, gender-queer vaudeville Sidewinders provided an essential sounding board for two bright new talents who would have otherwise struggled long to find homes for their misfit children. (Gluckstern)
Best mess Anthony Rizzi’s An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith at Kunst-Stoff. The Frankfurt-based American performer and former William Forsythe dancer took over the Grove Street loft space for three glorious nights in February as a magnificently straight-shooting queer amalgam of Jack Smith, Penny Arcade, and Pina Bausch, flouncing, crawling, and climbing around the bric-a-brac properties strewn around the room, dancing with anyone who wanted to, dropping a laptop from a ladder (ostensibly by accident), and generally flailing with memorable brio and brilliance. (Avila)
A Few Luminous Performances That Reminded Us There Are No Small Actors, Only Small Stages Donald Currie as Sandy in Cutting Ball’s Sidewinders; Nick Medina as Belinsky in Shotgun Player’s Shipwreck; James Udom as Freddy in Performers Under Stress’ Scamoramaland; Tamar Cohn as the Old Woman in Cutting Ball’s The Chairs; Safiya Fredericks as Sydney in 42nd Street Moon’s It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman; and Amy Lizardo as Yitzhak in Boxcar Theatre’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (Gluckstern)
Most promising solo debut Safiya Martinez in So You Can Hear Me, at the Marsh. Writer-performer Martinez memorably recounted her shattering experience as a 23-year-old special ed teacher in the South Bronx, inhabiting lives and personalities still too rarely seen on any stage, and with a precision and verve equally uncommon. (Avila) *
Who doesn’t like lasagna? Exactly. It’s one of many reasons I’m excited to head over to the new La Nebbia (1781 Church, SF. www.lanebbia.com) in Noe Valley. The name means “fog” in Italian, something we know too damn well here.
It’s a sister restaurant to Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan’s La Ciccia (barely a block away), but it’s more of an enoteca, prosciutteria, and, yes, lasagneria. Everything on the menu is meant to go well with wine, so you’ll find 10 kinds of hams, ranging from prosciutto to jamón Ibérico, along with fresh cheeses (like burrata), and there are also a few pizzas too.
Don’t expect the usual suspects — the kitchen is having some fun with toppings like squid ink, fresh mozzarella, anchovies, sultanas, and pine nuts. As for the hot lasagna action, there will be a traditional one with ragù and béchamel; another with ricotta, pesto, and escarole; and one that is like a seafood puttanesca. Porchetta is also rumored to be coming soon.
As for the wines, they all come from foggy regions in Italy, and you can try about 30 by the glass, and 20 sparkling wines or so are on the list too. It’s a casual place to swing by, with a 13-seat counter, a communal table, and some two- and four-top tables. Hours are Sun, Tue–Thu 5:30pm–10:30pm, and until 11pm Fri–Sat, closed Monday.
Due to soft open this Thursday in the former Frankie’s Bohemian Café space on Divis is Presidio Pizza Company (1862 Divisadero, SF.) from chef-partner Frank Bumbalo, who is opening the joint with the neighboring Fishbowl owners, Kevin Kynoch and John Miles. Anyone who has been jonesing for a New York–style slice will be happy to know Bumbalo is a Brooklyn native, and will be slinging thin-crust New York (Neapolitan round) style, plus Sicilian style, and here’s a new one to me: grandma pizza.
Bumbalo explained that grandma pizza is a form of thin-crust pizza, but square like a Sicilian (and not as thick), with origins in Long Island — its name seems to come from the type of pizza Italian grandmas and mothers make at home. Working the decks with Bumbalo is Chris Norton, previously a line cook at A16. There will be two entrances. If you walk in off Divisadero, you’ll find table service. If a quick slice is what’s on your mind, you’ll want to enter on Pine. (There will be some bar stools and a standing ledge). Hours to start will be Sun–Wed 11am–11pm, Thu 11am–12am, and Fri–Sat 11am–2:30am (whew, you can snag a slice just after last call).
Anyone who knows any southern Italians (or happens to be one) has probably heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional feast on Christmas Eve (Dec. 24th).
While the Italian half of my family doesn’t limit our “Cenone” to just seven fish, it truly is one of my favorite meals of the year. (Anchovy and breadcrumb pasta, what’s not to love?) Some San Francisco restaurants are getting in on the feast, and while some of the dishes aren’t exactly traditional, they’ll certainly be pleasing. Check out A16 (www.a16sf.com), $80 per person, or A16 Rockridge (www.a16rockridge.com), $75, which are both offering seven seafood courses; Locanda (www.locandasf.com) still has some seats at both its 5pm and 8pm seatings, $90; Palio d’Asti (www.paliodasti.com) is doing a feast for $79 per person; and lastly, the Calabrese-owned Poesia (www.poesiasf.com) in the Castro is doing a Calabrese-style, seafood-focused dinner that night too. Buon appetito, buone feste!
Marcia Gagliardi is the founder of the weekly tablehopper e-column; subscribe for more at www.tablehopper.com. Get her app: Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats. On Twitter: @tablehopper.
YEAR IN TOFU AND WHISKEY Call it the Rookie Magazine trickle-down effect: Teen girl rockers ruled the world in 2013. Granted, some 20-somethings were in there too. But still, these young and fierce ladies — celebrated on either Rookie’s more polished site or eye-popping Tumblrs of a similar demographic — were the artists to take notice of this year.
The young majors of 2013 were 17-year-old New Zealander Lorde and Los Angeles sister trio Haim, all in their early 20s. There were also female rappers and soul singers, like Cameroon-raised Lorine Chia (20), and Brooklyn-based Angel Haze (22). Locally, there was teen surf pop quartet the She’s. On a smaller scale, there are emerging acts like Sacramento’s sister duo Dog Party, which, at ages 14 and 17, released its biggest record to date on Asian Man Records this August.
Rookie is the web magazine for young girls that looks more to the Sassy archetype than Seventeen, but so far beyond those bounds that it’s almost ludicrous to compare the two. Started in 2011 by now-iconic mini fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, the website blends style, feminism, and culture into a Nylon-esque vision of rude glamour. More so, it’s become a casual, glittery hit-maker, simply by nature of showcasing exciting new talent early in the game, often before it’s been hungrily shredded by the widespread blogger industrial complex.
Musicians are featured in gushy profiles, or longer Q&As, often with more personalized questions than are found on standard music blogs. An early Rookie writeup on Lorde reviewed her full-length record Pure Heroine (Universal Music Group) in a typically conversational tone: “I first heard Lorde, when I was in the parking lot of a Target one night. It was 10:50pm and I was in the car by myself, listening to the radio; I had just been going through a breakup and was in an awful state of mind. Suddenly this song came on with a simple beat and this AMAZING voice that made me sit up straight and turn on Shazam, which told me it was Lorde’s song ‘Royals.'”
Can’t you too remember such a time? An moment in a youthful life, alone in your car or next to the stereo in your room, the disappointments of a confusing day rushing through your mind, and then the moment a song transformed that hurt into pure joy? It might not have been a pop song, but it certainly could have been.
Thanks to the thrill of that paradoxically anti-consumerist pop song “Royals,” Lorde (née Ella Yelich-O’Connor) was undoubtedly the biggest of the aforementioned bunch of teen girls who made it big in 2013. She became a bona fide pop star in black lipstick and a poof of untamed, grungy curls. And while her look and style are certainly endlessly dissected, she came to the pop charts when there was a specific need for her new breed of mainstream-yet-still-underground-enough-to-be-weirdish sound.
In her recent essay on Lorde and others of her ilk, NPR writer Ann Powers poetically described Lorde’s step away from pop stars of the tongue-out, twerked-out Miley variety we also suffered through in 2013: “Lorde is a phenomenon because of perfect timing. She came along just when listeners were craving what ‘Royals’ famously advocates: a different kind of buzz. After a few months as the new find of early musical adopters, this droll chanteuse became notorious for suggesting that some kids might prefer to stand apart from pop’s endless party.”
Angel Haze was another standout — a stunning, pansexual, artistically rare rapper who took Macklemore’s “Same Love,” and gave it meaning, singing of her own (real) struggles with sexuality. The young artist’s debut full-length, Dirty Gold, doesn’t even see release until January 2014, but her covers (she also took on Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”) made her a name to know in 2013.
Haze was featured on Rookie, as was soul singer Lorine Chia. A performer with a silky voice and tropical beats, Chia released an EP, Naked Truths (Make Millions Music), in October and frequently Tumbls her fascinating life and favorite musical finds. Like other young females who made their mark this year, she seems worlds apart from the sleek pop stars of yore, still enthralling but somehow approachable.
And then there was Haim, the crunchy, LA-based sister trio that hit it big with September-released Days Are Gone (Polydor Records, Columbia Records). The album went silver, selling nearly 90,000 copies stateside, which is big news in these unwieldy music industry days.
But apart from the pop and hip-hop charts, teen girls were also making waves in smaller local scenes. Case in point: The She’s. The talented, breezy-surf pop quartet started off the year playing Noise Pop and were on the cover of the Guardian, posed as a group to watch in 2013.
A few months later, there they were: life-sized on bus-stop posters plastered around downtown as part of that big Converse campaign that overran the city’s music scene this summer (not that we had anything to do with the leap). The She’s recorded a track for Converse’s Rubber Tracks popup station at Different Fur Studios, and also played a ton of shows throughout the year. Oh, and the SF natives all just graduated from high school.
As for Sacramento’s burgeoning Dog Party, the sister duo is still navigating those studious halls of yore. Singer-guitarist Gwendolyn Giles is a senior in high school, and drummer Lucy Giles is a 14-year-old sophomore. They started playing together at ages 9 and 6.
“Before [guitar] I played the flute, but that wasn’t for very long because I like guitar,” Gwendolyn tells me from their Sacramento home. “The flute made me dizzy. Also when I was in fourth grade, American Idiot came out and I was obsessed with Green Day.”
Lucy pipes up with her earliest inclination that she wanted to play rock’n’roll: “I was really into the White Stripes when I was in third grade. I like Meg White and so I just kind of decided I wanted to play the drums.”
Her dad picked up a drum set at a garage sale, and the girls soon began lessons, and then started writing songs — with angsty lyrics about worrisome BFFs and the like, and stories that were mostly autobiographical. In 2013, the Giles sisters released their third full-length, bratty pop-punk record Lost Control, on Mike Park’s legendary Asian Man Records. It stands with the Donnas, the Bangs, and a mix of other fun party punk acts before them.
Ty Segall tops their mutual list of favorite new (or new-to-them) acts of 2013, followed by the Descendents, the Babies, fellow SacTown locals Pets, and most of the Burger Records roster.
“My sister and I really love Ty Segall,” Gwendolyn gushes of the prolific rocker. “He’s amazing … my favorite artist of all time.”
Dog Party went on a full US tour with Kepi Ghoulie (of ’80s band Groovie Ghoulies) and just last week played with the Aquabats at Slim’s. Next up, they’ll play the Gilman Fri/20.
As with other female artists this year (and for the past decade), Dog Party has had to deal with web trolls intent on breaking them down.
“Now that we’ve gained a little bit of popularity, there have been some nasty things written about us on the Internet,” Lucy says. “But that doesn’t really affect us. We don’t like to listen to what they say because we don’t really care.”
While the Giles sisters hadn’t known about Rookie before they were featured on the site, they’ve heard a lot of feedback since the post, which urged readers to “stream the new album by our (and probably your) new favorite band.”
“We got a lot of attention from Rookie,” Gwendolyn says. “People have come up to us and been like ‘Hey, I heard about you from Rookie!’ It’s pretty cool.”
“Our social media sites had a pretty big boost off that article,” adds Lucy.
Tofu and Whiskey’s top records (and sandwiches) of 2013
1. Weird Sister, Joanna Gruesome
2. In Dark Denim, Antwon
3. It’s Alive, La Luz
4. Run Fast, The Julie Ruin
5. Ionika, Metal Mother
6. Ride Your Heart, Bleached
7. Self-titled, Golden Grrrls
8. Mama’s Hummus sandwich, Bi-Rite
9. Tofu Banh Mi, Hella Vegan Eats
10. Vegan Reuben, Ike’s
FILM The return of Ron Burgundy — the boorish, quotable Will Ferrell character immortalized in 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — has been heralded for months, thanks to an extravagant marketing campaign that has included car commercials, a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor, and Burgundy-branded Scotch.
But before you claim Burgundy fatigue, there’s the actual sequel to consider. And Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is quite hilarious, as it turns out. Director, co-writer, and longtime Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay — formerly of Saturday Night Life, he’s the co-founder of Funny or Die, and has directed such Ferrell hits as Anchorman and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) — came to town to discuss his new comedy.
SF Bay Guardian I know you’re here to talk about Anchorman 2, but first I have to express my deep love for Step Brothers (2008).
Adam McKay We were just talking about how that’s the one movie we have that’s super-polarizing. People either loved it or hated it. Roger Ebert wrote one of my favorite reviews that we’ve ever had, where he said that the movie was a symbol of the downfall of Western civilization. [Ed. note: the exact quote is “In its own tiny way, it lowers the civility of our civilization.”] Will Ferrell and I loved that. It read like the Richard Jenkins character in the movie wrote the review! But it might be my favorite movie we’ve done. I think it makes me laugh the hardest.
SFBG Will you ever make Step Brothers 2?
AM We were actually on our way to making Step Brothers 2. The problem was, everyone I told said, “Why? Cause you can’t do Anchorman 2?” I said to Will, “Are we gonna make this movie and the whole response is gonna be, ‘[They made this because] they couldn’t do Anchorman 2‘?” I just didn’t want to deal with that. Fortunately, we love Anchorman as well. But yeah, we had a whole idea. We’d outlined it. John C. Reilly was in. So it still may happen.
SFBG A lot of Anchorman 2‘s humor comes from its cameos. Were you flooded with calls from actors who wanted in?
AM We did have a little bit of that, actually, which is unusual. Fortunately, they were people we loved. I heard right away that Tina [Fey] was up for a cameo, and I’m like, “Yes!” I bumped into Sacha [Baron Cohen], and I was like, “Hey, would you wanna…” “Yeah, I’ll do it!” It was weird to get those kind of effusive responses. It was kind of crazy.
SFBG The first film was PG-13. I’m surprised the sequel is, too. While watching it, I assumed it would get an R for language.
AM We actually had a long battle with the MPAA over it, and we had to trim down quite a few things. It’s all, like, sexual innuendo, and if you say this word you can’t say that word. But meanwhile, if you kill 100 people they don’t care. We were kind of pulling our hair out. But at the end of the day, I think we did pretty well with it. It was always meant to be PG-13. It’s a silly, kind of living cartoon movie. It’s not a hard, dirty movie.
The crack scene was a big, big [sticking point]. Originally it was much longer. But you’ll get to see that on the DVD. There’s a whole other version of the movie where we replaced all of the jokes, since we did so much improv. So it’s the exact same physical movie, but almost every joke is different.
SFBG A lot of the jokes might be perceived as racist or sexist if they were taken out of context. How do you ensure that viewers don’t receive those the wrong way?
AM That was really tricky. We had to calibrate that through all the screenings that we did. The first screening had too much of that in it, and it felt a little uncomfortable, so we’d kind of pull it back. But the whole premise is, these guys are idiots. And they don’t understand anything about multiculturalism, women’s lib — they don’t get any of it. So as long as that premise is clear, you’re OK. They’re not mean guys — except for Champ Kind, who probably is a Tea Party right-winger. But the rest of them are just idiots.
So long as the racial jokes were more just ignorance, it was OK. But if it ever became like a pointed slam, that’s when it would cross the line. So we stayed away from all that kind of stuff, and just had them sort of live in ignorance.
SFBG Like the first Anchorman, the film layers its silliness over cultural commentary. Here, it’s how ridiculous 24 hour news has become.
AM That was always the inspiration. In the first movie, we had women breaking into the newsroom, and these avuncular anchormen just being shits, basically. And that’s hilarious and awful at the same time, and significant enough that you have stakes that you can tell the story.
So for this one, the central idea was 24-hour news, and when the news became what it is today. Really, we knew we had the movie when we were like, “Let’s have Burgundy be the guy who ruins it all.” [Laughs.] And we decided to pin it all on him: the birth of infotainment, the birth of ratings-driven, corporate-owned news, and the idea that Burgundy would be really good at it.
ANCHORMAN 2 opens Wed/18 in Bay Area theaters.
FILM If longer were better, this would be the platinum era of movies. Never before have so many mainstream releases staggered toward or beyond the two-and-a-half-hour mark once reserved for the truly epic — in storytelling breadth, not just in fight scenes, expensive CGI effects, or simple directorial inability to say “when.”
David O. Russell’s American Hustle is about that long, and it’s like a lot of things you’ve seen before — put in a blender, so the results are too smooth to feel blatantly derivative, though here and there you taste a little Boogie Nights (1997), Goodfellas (1990), or whatever. Normally that would not be a particularly promising combination, but in the current climate perhaps no praise could be higher than to say there isn’t a minute among Hustle‘s 138 when it’s safe to run to the bathroom. This isn’t necessarily the best film of the year, let alone the most original, but it’s quite possibly 2013’s most enjoyable major-studio release — at least if you’re over 15 and not over-enamored with superheroes or elves.
Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting-scandal of the late 1970s and early ’80s (an opening title snarks, “Some of this actually happened”), Hustle is a screwball crime caper almost entirely populated by petty schemers with big ideas almost certain to blow up in their faces. It’s love, or something, at first sight for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who meet at a Long Island party circa 1977 and instantly fall for each other — or rather for the idealized selves they’ve both strained to concoct.
He’s a none-too-classy but savvy operator who’s built up a mini-empire of variably legal businesses while honing a ’70s swinger suavity à la Bob Guccione. She’s a nobody from nowhere who crawled upward, gave herself a bombshell makeover (Adams is almost exclusively costumed J. Lo-style, inner side boobs on full display), and like Barbara Stanwyck in 1941’s The Lady Eve specializes in posing as British aristocracy — the Lady Edith, to be precise. They’re upwardly mobile con artists who know their limits.
The hiccup in this slightly tacky yet perfect match is Irving’s neglected, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s not about to let him go — nor can he bring himself to leave their son, even if the kid isn’t his biologically. At least she’s their main problem until they meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who entraps the two while posing as a client in desperate need of loan-sharking services. Their only way out of a long prison haul, he says, is to cooperate in an elaborate Atlantic City redevelopment scheme he’s concocted to bring down a slew of mafioso and presumably corrupt politicians. Even if they have to fabricate crimes to hustle the not-yet-guilty into — notably a beloved Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) whose nose is as clean as can be given a constituency riddled with tough customers and backdoor deals.
A male even more aspirationally alpha than Irving, Richie is in over his head with this Machiavellian plan — which eventually ropes in terrifying, seldom-seen mob legend Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) — as his oft exasperated superiors are well aware. But as the sting rolls heedlessly forward, the conspirators’ Achilles’ heel turns out to be Rosalyn, who can’t be kept entirely out of the loop and certainly can’t be counted on not to blurt exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible time.
Scored to a K-Tel double-album-full of greatest hits from earlier in the Me Decade (these people aren’t on the cutting edge, musically or otherwise), American Hustle is a giddy tale of Horatio Alger-style all-American gumption headed toward a train wreck. Russell’s filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010’s The Fighter, and the casting is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film’s ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified “winners” primarily driven by profound insecurity.
Our first view of Irving (or anything) is a camera spin around his ample middle-aged gut and up to the gaping bald spot he’s in the process of concealing. Bale retains his handsome features, but the physical transformation he’s undertaken here extends to a schlemiel-in-camouflage slouch whose roots you can feel in Irving’s very thought processes. More recognizable despite his curly locks and disco shirts is Cooper, who after this and Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) has clearly found his niche: playing control-freak rageaholism for manic comedy.
Lawrence’s Judy Holliday-meets-Valerie Perrine turn has justly been praised enough elsewhere. She’s spectacular, but the stealth heart of the movie belongs to Adams in a role that might easily have been played as merely “hot.” Sydney is brighter and more coolly rational than those around her; but life has taught her that a girl’s best bet is to look good and make the man think he’s doing the thinking for both of them.
Adams is a natural comedian, yet here she’s also the presence onscreen most alert to everything that’s going on, making Sydney the most thoughtful character and hers the most subtle performance. Without her, American Hustle would be great fun but a little hollow. With her, it almost seems genius, as if Preston Sturges had remade 1997’s Donnie Brascoe.
Big fantasy films have grown repetitious, yet they grow ever longer despite the fact that short-attention-span cinema really, really benefits from reining in the runtime. Prestige movies, too, seem to be under some sort of pressure to streeeeetch it out. Would Captain Phillips, The Butler, or even (sue me) Blue is the Warmest Color have been better with a tighter length and focus? Of course they would. But the sheer bulk seems to confer importance, like those literary magnum opuses each year that command attention not because they’re an author’s best, but because they weigh as if they ought to be. *
AMERICAN HUSTLE opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.
YEAR IN NIGHTLIFE The drink of the year was the Chinese Mai Tai at Lipo Lounge. It’s $9, but it’s huge and you only need one. Or maybe a half, if you want to remember your pants. Oh, just drink the whole thing.
It was another supersweet, neon-bright yet sonically sophisticated year of clubbing and dance music, full of ups, downs, and twirl-arounds. Celebrated rave cave 222 Hyde and Hayes Valley drag outpost Marlena’s closed (boooo). But Mighty and 1015 got mindblowing new sound systems, Monarch and DNA Lounge expanded, Project One inherited 222’s speakers, Public Works and F8 doubled-down on adventurous bookings, and ambitious venues Audio Discotech and Beaux opened (and are still finding their footing). And we got a new dance music record store, RS94109, and rising dark techno star, Vereker.
As far as music goes: we’ve managed to fend off the worst of pop-EDM, while welcoming the drum ‘n bass and big-room ’90s sound comeback with open underground arms. (Also, there is an actual underground!) San Francisco’s still a major destination for techno up-and-comers — and even though you may stumble across some clueless tech-bros sporting 2k7-wear or novelty rasta wigs on our finer dance floors, give them a hug and hope they improve! It’s all good.
Before I get into some of my favorite 2013 things, let’s tip a hat to two legends we lost this year: Scott Hardkiss and Cheb i Sabbah. Between them, they brought a whole world’s worth of music to our dance floors and spanned generations. Dancing forever in their honor.
HIP-HOP, Q’ED UP
Hip-hop got so good in 2013, the Year that Twerking Ate the Internet. Trap sounds and molly pops seemed to invigorate the East Bay scene: E-40 dropped a zillion slaps, while Iamsu! and Sage the Gemini (who can totally get it, hellieu) swerved onto the national scene. Buffed-up SF legends Latyrx dropped a nifty disc after two decades. In the bigtime, Kanye bought up every edgy electronic producer he could to impress Pitchfork, while Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar recontextualized essential ’90s rap tropes — gangsta and concept albums, respectively, but in a party way.
Unfortunately, another ’90s rap trope, tired homophobia, was also revived, with Eminem and Tyler, the Creator fumbling bigtime. This time, however, there was such a huge and thriving queer hip-hop party scene that we could look right past all that lazy ish. Queer rap broke big in 2012 when eye-catching artists blended witch-dark sounds, quantum vogue moves, and afro-surreal poetry with R&B licks, broken bass boost, and neon-bright performance art.
That scene deepened and brightened this year — here, at super parties like Swagger Like Us, 120 Minutes, Fix Yr Hair, and House of Babes and unstoppable homegrown talent like Micahtron, Double Duchess, and even cameo appearances by classic homohop babes Deep Dickollective — proving that spitting flames can still burn down the disco. And queer-rap resistance even grabbed the national spotlight when Daddie$ Pla$tic‘s electro-anarchic “Google Google Apps Apps” went viral.
SWEET AND LOW
The Honey Soundsystem crew ended its Sunday night parties at the top of its game with a huge blowout — surprise marriage proposal, performance by fabled ’80s singer Jorge Socarras, and slew of unannounced guest DJs included. Honey was an ostensibly gay club, but that might have just been a feint to pack the floor with hairdressers. While it never ceased brazenly shoving its raw homosexuality in the oft-frigid techno scene’s face, its influence went way beyond the queer sphere. For five years, it was our best weekly in terms of musical guests (Wednesdays’ fantastic Housepitality almost ties it on that score), bringing in a mind-blowing roster of international underground players.
But Honey Sundays were more. Will there ever be a party ballsy enough to take as a month-long theme the skyrocketing real estate market, condo-mapping its venue and printing “luxury house” brochures? Or base the décor of one of its biggest parties around a collection of putrid haters’ comments? What promoters, nowadays, even bother to actually design and print challenging works of art as posters and flyers, or truly transform their venues? (DJ Bus Station John, still our gold standard, is the only one I can think of.)
Fortunately, Honey parties will continue, just not weekly. But SF is full of such amazingly talented crews, both well-established (As You Like It, No Way Back, Sunset, Lights Down Low, Icee Hot, Opel, Pink Mammoth) and burgeoning (Isis, Face, Modular, Mighty Real, Trap City, Odyssey). My wish for 2014 is that many of these really invest themselves in building a whole vibe for their parties, top to bottom, instead of just relying on groovy headliners, online promotions, and audience goodwill. As the changing city chases out its artists and loses its edge, we need entire worlds of freakiness to escape into and call our own.
TOP SOUNDS OF 2013
>> Nebakaneza, “Expansion Project, Vols. 1-11“
What does our most forward-thinking dubstep DJ do when dubstep’s no longer an option? He deepens his crates, cycling through 12 months-worth of excellent mixes, themed by genres like yacht rock and classic soul, to rediscover his bass roots while transforming his sound into something even more thrilling.
I finally get it! All you need is a $1 million light rig, 40,000 glowsticks, an indoor fireworks show, and an arena full of half-naked teens. This EDM stuff is actually kind of fun.
Disclosure’s Grammy-nominated debut Settle (Cherrytree) will nest atop most critic’s dance picks this year, and rightly so: the young Lawrence Brothers brought lovely, 2-step-fueled house back into headphones and charts worldwide. But if it also brings more attention to breezy sonic relatives like Bondax, AlunaGeorge, Joe Hertz, the Majestic Casual roster, and the hundreds of bedroom producers who suddenly switched from making EDM and dubstep to deeper house sounds, then so much the better.
Shoegaze plus death metal equals an arctic beauty and burning mystery that transcends even My Bloody Valentine’s wonderful, self-released mbv and, when listened to alongside this year’s icy electronic-ish masterworks like Tim Hecker’s Virgins (Paper Bag Records) and the Haxan Cloak’s Excavations (Tri Angle) — or more emotive ones like Chance of Rain (Hyperdub) by Laurel Halo, Psychic (Matador) by Darkside, or Engravings (Tri Angle) by Forest Swords — makes strange sense of a near future.
Steve Reich, “Music for 18 Musicians,” SF Contemporary Music Players, Jan. 28
The fact that there was a near-riot to get into a performance this hypnotic, hyper-complex 50-minute 1974 piece by minimalist icon Reich attests to SF’s ravenous appetite for “contemporary classical.” That the audience sat in stunned silence a full two minutes after the piece concluded before exploding with applause attests to the excellence of our local players. (And while we’re on “classical,” kudos, too, to the SF Opera’s summer production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” — three fantastic hours of the most ravishing singing I’ve ever heard.
>> Patrick Cowley, School Daze 2 x LP (Dark Entries)
The instant Internet popularity of Montag’s trippy “Porn Archives Lo-Fi Mix” earlier this year should have tipped off the coming re-evaluation of porn soundtracks as electronic artworks. But when members of Honey Soundsystem released this two-disc compilation of fascinating, atmospheric early tracks by local electronic wizard Patrick Cowley (1950-1982) used in ’80s gay porn flicks, it became a critical sensation.
Here’s a question: Do you need to actually be at a party to enjoy it? I was out of town when this joint went down. But after witnessing my feeds blow up and listening obsessively to the Soundcloud set, later posted to Youtube, it feels like I was there when the young Brit freaked everyone out with a hard, deep techno set. No FOMO, baby.
I may be fascinatingly elderly, but all the young kids flocked to the ’90s big-room house sound revival this year. This party, a SF reunion brimming with new faces, classic tracks, and legends at the decks, is like Universe plus cool straight people, or maybe the End Up in the East Bay.
>> Jay Tripwire
I fell deep(er) in love with so many DJs this year: Guy Gerber, Kyle Hall, Osunlade, J.Phlip, Greg Wilson, Catz ‘n Dogz, South London Ordnance, Finnebassen, 0Phase, MK, Vakula, Robert Hood, Huerco S., Kastle, Psychemagik, Jeff Mills, Keep Schtum, Stretford Dogs Club — but this revered Canadian DJ’s DJ always sets my (vinyl!) standard, especially with this year’s banging techno DJ Mag and expansive Electronic Groove (best deep house buildup of the year on that one, imho) mixes.
Vogue beats continued to come into, er, vogue harder than ever this year, their flashy attitude and underground authenticity influencing musicmakers, like our own up-and-coming Soo Wavey label. Young NYCer Divoli, however, gives you real quantum fishiness to gag on all day — and goes waaay above your wig, hunty. These three volumes of lightning-made bedroom beats might be overload, but take us into some incredible sonic landscapes, beyond the balls.
Forget Miami, Playa del Carmen is the new Ibiza of North America — with all the tech house festivals, bare white flesh, and urbanizing displacement (and opportunity) that entails. And Mexico’s tech scene, like its economy recently, is coming on strong with players like Rebolledo and White Visitation. But the best nightlife sound in the world still comes from Plaza Garibaldi at 3am in Mexico City, when dozens of spangled mariachi bands play all at once for your attention. Pure musical bliss.
YEAR IN DANCE This is not 12 Days of Christmas but 12 Months of Dancing. And while there were plenty of lords-a-leaping and ladies dancing (and even a few drummers drumming and pipers piping), there is nothing even remotely accumulative in this annual looking-back at the year that was. Chronology — and what stood out within a particular month because of the generating ideas — and their shape on the stage determined the (sometimes difficult) selection.
January Bebe Miller, a feminist post-modern choreographer, has been making work for over 25 years. So her multimedia A History (Jan. 25, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), announced as a piece about “remembering remembering,” sounded just about right. It was and it wasn’t. The concept proved more intriguing than its realization, but watching the work attempt to give shape to complex ideas offered its own satisfaction.
February Modern dance repertory company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago teaming with Alonzo King LINES Ballet in the gorgeous Azimuth (Feb. 2, Cal Performances) seemed like one of the year’s unlikelier projects. Yet to watch Hubbard’s dancers take to LINES’ skewed approach to ballet with such ease — and seeing King rise to the challenge of choreographing for a large ensemble with utter confidence — was surprising and delightful.
March With the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands (March 1, War Memorial Opera House) San Francisco Ballet acquired another treasure from possibly the most gifted ballet choreographer working today. In a series of beautifully distinct, picture-postcard scenes of refined dancing, the choreographer honored the roots of ballet in social dance. (Lands will return Feb. 18-March 1, during SFB’s upcoming season.)
April As an Indian American dancer, singer, musician, writer, and actor, Sheetal Gandhi has a lot of resources. She excellently drew on all of them for Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-Law, Daughter, Wife)(April 19, ODC Theater), her humorous and poignant portrait of the restrictions that still shape Indian women’s lives, both in this country and in India.
May The wild applause notwithstanding, it was such a relief to watch the end of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s overwrought Rodin (May 11, Cal Performances), based on the sculptor’s relationship with his pupil and lover Camille Claudel. You try to keep an open mind about an artist’s take on ideas, but sometimes it’s time to say “enough is enough, never again.”
June Though we also got versions by Yuri Possokhov and Bill T. Jones this year, Mark Morris and the Bad Ass Jazz Trio’s Spring, Spring, Spring (June 12, Cal Performances) was the most radical as well as most cogent reinterpretation of The Rite of Spring. Forgoing the original choregraphy and using the score’s four-hand version as musical inspiration generated a work of both ease and heft.
July Serendipity ruled. I happen to catch Pierre Lacotte’s approximation of what Parisian audiences might have seen in 1832 with La Sylphide (July 9, Palais Garnier) generally considered the first Romantic ballet. Excellently — of course — performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, this version looked like a distant cousin of the one we know, and offered a feast of classical dancing set to a score with hokey charm.
August ODC/Dance’s yearly Summer Sampler (Aug. 2-3, ODC Theater) is such a smart idea. As these superb dancers adapt themselves to their more intimate “home” theater and afford an opportunity to observe them up close, they newly reveal themselves as individuals and as a group. This year’s splendidly performed program showcased ODC’s most recent creation, the splendid Triangulating Euclid, Kimi Okada’s sparkling new Two If By Sea, and the company premiere of Kate Weare’s The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us.
September The San Francisco Dance Film Festival (Sept. 12-15, various venues) is growing up fast. This annual showcase of screen dance — the intricate partnering of two motion-driven arts — more than ever impressed with the range and quality of its lineup: shorts, documentaries and filmed versions of stage performances. Amy Dowling and Austin Forbord’s Well Contested Sites, filmed on Alcatraz with professional performers and former prisoners, carved itself into your brain as well as into your heart.
October Somehow artists manage to scratch enough support together to keep working (and eating, and living) in the Bay Area. So anniversaries still happen. But I can’t remember a recent one as joyous as Rhythms of Life: Down the Congo Line (Oct. 5, YBCA) for Dimensions Dance Theater’s 40th. To see a whole generation ready to build on what Deborah Vaughan has started was not the least of its gifts.
November In Joe Goode’s Annex, Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions just may have found a home. The venue’s two-story ceilings and industrial look allowed Kreiter to add some discreet ladders, wires, and ropes as support structures for the aerial work she set on her six athletic women dancers. You can take the metaphor inside the piece any way you want, but Give A Woman A Lift (Nov. 8) soared.
December Like it or not, parenthood is life-changing. Maybe that’s why, in Father On (Dec. 5, ODC Theater), Scott Wells’ five dancers — four of who are recent dads — looked not only sleep-deprived but also often frantic. The one non-dad, Rajendra Serber, was the ultimate outsider. Using game structures and sports imagery, Wells created a hilarious but also curiously affectionate piece about the challenges and confusions encountered by the male and his kid. The lesson on becoming a sensitive father left me laughing through tears. *
STREET FIGHT The coming year will be a critical one for shaping transportation in San Francisco. Mayor Ed Lee’s Transportation Task Force, comprised of SPUR, city agencies, and labor and transportation organizations, is floating a package of proposals to finance transportation infrastructure that includes a general obligation bond, fees on cars, and a sales tax increase. Some permutation of the elements in the package will ultimately go in front of voters by November 2014.
It’s important to take a look at what’s being proposed and what’s at stake, right now, because whatever goes forward to the November ballot must be certified by June 2014. In the next six months, progressives have an opportunity to offer better ways to shape the city’s transportation future. Here are some things to consider.
First, whatever one thinks of this decidedly development-oriented mayor and his policies, the Transportation Task Force Report, issued to the public last month, makes a clear case for raising the $10 billion we need for transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. Proclaimed as the “first of many steps,” it can be considered a conversation starter that is open for modification and amendment.
The report points out the need to replace all of Muni’s 1,050 buses and trains by 2030 (costing $228 million in local matching funds) and implement the Transit Effectiveness Project ($282 million required), while also showing that Muni needs over $800 million in order to avert transit crowding as the city approaches a population of 1 million.
It considers the costs of implementing a citywide bicycle network ($108 million to get to 10 percent mode share for bicycling, or $215 million to approach 20 percent). It envisions making 70 miles of streets safer for pedestrians, and it shows what it will take to make Market Street a signature transit-bike street.
Mayor Lee’s plan includes a progressive funding proposal: A citywide vehicle license fee. The VLF, which needs majority approval by voters, would repair the past damage wrought by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Republicans, who gutted state education, transportation, and social funding by slashing the fee in 2004.
State legislation last year enabled San Francisco to re-establish the fee for local transportation needs. Collecting 1.35 percent of the market value of registered vehicles in the city can raise $73 million annually for transportation programs. Since it’s based on the value of the vehicle, luxury car owners pay more. Progressives should rally around this proposal.
While the VLF is promising, the other two funding schemes proposed by the task force are dubious. Increasing citywide sales taxes by a half-cent, proposed for the November 2016 ballot, is regressive. Based on taxes as a share of household income, low-income households pay a disproportionately higher portion of their income in sales taxes relative to wealthier people.
Innocuous on the surface, the use of a sales tax to spread the burden reflects a neoliberal tactic to divert attention from more equitable taxation such as increasing annual assessments on commercial property owners who are reaping huge windfalls from the real estate boom. This takes us to the General Obligation Bond (GO Bond) proposal.
GO Bonds are a long-term debt financing tool whereby the city borrows to build transportation infrastructure and future property tax revenue repays the debt. Rather than raising property taxes, the scheme proposed by the task force ensures that tax rates remain below 2006 levels and the city would only issue new debt as other debt is retired.
Progressives should look carefully at this. While this scheme would effectively create a dedicated fund for Muni (a good thing), by locking-in this revenue source, there may be negative impacts on future social, education, or housing funding. And the GO Bond will only raise $55 million annually. (Raising property taxes, which no one is talking about as a mechanism to finance Muni, could yield much more.)
Bonding is also a boon to bankers, and ultimately uses already scarce transportation funds to pay interest on debt. Moreover, none of the proposals address Muni’s operating cost, which is $861 million today but must expand with additional capacity and operators.
Nobody knows better than downtown land owners that public transit is the keystone for making San Francisco functional and profitable. In the 2.5-square-mile downtown area, half of workers — 170,000 — take public transportation, more than those who drive alone. Every day, 200,000 riders use surface transit on Market and another 350,000 pass through the four downtown BART/Muni Metro stations.
Hundreds of thousands of workers use transit to access one of the densest concentrations of office, hotels, and retail space in the country. Transit is what makes this density work and what generates value and profit to real estate investors. It’s why Twitter and others choose to be downtown.
Almost 20 years ago, a coalition of progressives advocated for the creation of a downtown transit assessment district (TAD), an annual property assessment on downtown commercial property, excluding retail and hotels, that would provide revenue for Muni operations. Had it been established, it would have generated up to $54 million its first year. In today’s dollars, this would amount to over $85 million. Considering the new developments since the 1990s, by now TAD revenue could have likely approached $100 million annually. For comparison, the Task Force suggests a general obligation bond would raise $54 million, a sales tax increase $69 million, and a vehicle license fee $73 million annually (these can only be used for infrastructure and not operations).
But a transit assessment district has been all but erased from the menu of possibilities for funding Muni. For the past 20 years, neoliberal developers and real estate speculators have captured the discourse of how transit can be financed, and have instead offered lucrative tax breaks to new tech firms such as Twitter, raised Muni fares, and allowed destructive deferred maintenance of the fleet. In this latest round of funding proposals, the assessment district remains off the table, while a regressive sales tax and a paltry GO Bond are promoted.
Meanwhile, Sup. John Avalos and his progressive cohort (Sups. David Campos, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, and Norman Yee) have offered a “Transit Equity” amendment. But it only nibbles at the edges. Their proposal limits future Muni fare increases and future transit impact fees on low-income social service providers receiving public money. This is commendable and should be adopted by the board.
Yet while progressives are spot-on to emphasize equity, they’ve not offered a financing scheme such as a transit assessment on the tech boom. Avalos’s plan to direct $70 million of the city’s general fund to low-income transit riders looks good on paper, but as proposed it might actually siphon funds from one funding pot to another. Like the GO Bond, this may have implications for other important social programs progressives care about.
This will be a critical year for setting the trajectory of transportation finance for a generation. Progressives should direct the legislative analyst to analyze the nexus between downtown real estate value and Muni capacity in order to better inform the debates. We have six months to illuminate a more equitable path that asks more from the tech boom and real estate speculators.
PARKING METER CIRCUS
If the recent debacle over parking meters is any indication, progressives will start 2014 on a clunky, disjointed, and rudderless transportation platform.
In the case of parking meters, last month progressives joined the bandwagon of pandering to motorists and voted to block the expansion of parking meters, a proven source of revenue that could help avert future fare hikes or service cuts. It is also a key to managing the public right-of-way as Muni seeks to implement important improvements. What seems to be happening now is that the supervisors are taking transit riders for granted while pandering to a conservative ideology of unfettered free parking.
It’s no surprise that conservative-leaning supervisors such as Mark Farrell oppose the expansion of parking meters. Conservative ideology holds that the government accommodates unfettered, cheap automobility at all costs, and Farrell said bluntly that he does not like paying for parking.
The impacts on Muni, on pedestrians, on bicyclists, and on the planetary environment are secondary to free parking. But progressives are becoming increasingly disoriented on this issue. While they decry parking meters, they haven’t offered a way to better manage streets so that we can improve Muni, bicycling, and walking.
Maybe it’s time to champion a citywide, omnibus residential parking permit strategy in all neighborhoods (as Sup. Kim hinted). Or are supervisors willing to champion the better alternative: just take away parking without a management strategy? Perhaps even better, can they champion the removal of travel lanes now open to private cars and keep the unmetered curbside parking? These options won’t bring in revenue (except maybe more tickets) but would certainly make space for a reliable Muni and a citywide cycletrack network, both progressive goals.
Speaking of parking, there’s rumors that the two-acre Plumber’s Union Hall on Market Street might be developed. Hey Building and Trades Unions, how about a car-free, family-oriented affordable housing development smack dab in the middle of the city so some of your members don’t have to commute from Tracy?
Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University.
As anyone who has traveled the streets of San Francisco knows, there’s an increasing number of bicyclists out there. And the just-released biennial bike count from San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency attempts to quantify that increase: 14 percent since 2011.
The agency counted bikes at 51 key intersections around the city during the afternoon/evening commute from Sept. 10-19, counting a total of 23,225 bikes. Comparing 40 counted intersections in 2011, that’s a 14 percent increase; or a 96 percent increase since 2005 when comparing the 20 intersections measured then.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition trumpeted the report as good news, including in its press release this quote from Mayor Ed Lee: “Every year we are seeing more people riding a bicycle in San Francisco, and the latest bicycle count data proves it.” And SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum said, “It’s clear that if we build it, they will come. No other mode of transportation is growing as fast or has a higher return on investment in terms of improving our city for everyone.”
But the reality is that the city is lagging far behind its own stated goals to make cycling a safer and more attractive transportation options, largely because of a severe underinvestment in its cycling network. The report notes that the city has invested $3.3 million in its bike network since 2011, but that was mostly playing catch-up from when a court injunction stalled all bike projects in the city for four years.
The SFMTA report doesn’t calculate the critical number in terms of how we’re really doing — transportation mode share, or the percentage of overall vehicle trips taken by bike — an estimate it is now working on in a separate study at the end of January.
An American Community Survey in 2012 put SF bike mode share at less than 4 percent, which is a far cry from the 20 percent by 2020 that is the city’s official goal, one it has little chance of meeting without a serious increase in infrastructure investment and other changes. The SFMTA’s own stated goal is 8-10 percent mode share by 2018, the result of failure to make needed investments, which amounts to an admission that the city’s official goal is little more than political pandering.
“We’re still moving forward on all the goals that we set to accomplish, but we do have funding needs,” SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told us, instead emphasizing the agency’s goal of attaining a 50-50 split between private automobile use and all other modes of transportation, including Muni and cycling.
The SFBC has worked in close partnership with the city, but the continuation of Shahum’s quote in her press release also indicates that she’d like to see the city doing more to promote safe cycling: “It’s time for the City to truly invest in our bicycle network, and ensure that our City’s streets are welcoming and comfortable for the growing number of people riding.”
But the city is moving forward with some bike improvements, including a makeover of Folsom Street now underway.
In the wake of some high-profile cases of motorists running over cyclists in San Francisco this year, including the Aug. 14 death of Amelie Le Moullac at the intersection of Folsom and 6th Streets, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has taken a lane from drivers to create safer cycling along seven key blocks of fast-moving Folsom Street.
The project on one-way Folsom Street between 11th and 4th streets creates an extra wide bike lane with bright green cycling signage on the roadway, with that green lane narrowing and breaking up as it approaches the right turns on 10th, 8th, and 6th streets. The idea is communicate with both motorists and cyclists about how to safely merge and avoid having cars make the unsafe “right hook” turns that are dangerous to cyclists.
“Right now, the project is almost complete and it should be complete by the end of the month,” Rose told the Guardian.
He said the design was discussed and subjected to community outreach efforts during community plan meetings in recent years, but that it was recently accelerated as a $250,000 pilot project with help from Sup. Jane Kim’s office following public concerns about how dangerous that fast-moving strip is to cyclists.
Rose said the traffic flows in the project area will be carefully monitored to see how it’s working, and the agency hopes to learn from that data “so it will inform future projects.”
By John Farrell
OPINION When Congress established the Presidio Trust in 1996, it wanted to ensure its financial stability. Congress believed taxing private tenants impeded the Trust’s financial stability, so it enacted provisions within the Presidio Trust Act to ensure that tenants were tax-exempt. The only problem is that Congress doesn’t have the power to exempt tenants under the US Constitution.
In 1897, the State of California ceded to the United States exclusive jurisdiction on all lands held for military purposes, including the Presidio. Military installations are federal enclaves exempt from state authority. Per legal counsel of the State Board of Equalization, a “federal enclave” is a property over which the federal government holds exclusive jurisdiction.
In 1989, the federal government closed the Presidio as a military base. Since the Presidio is no longer for military use, the federal government transferred jurisdiction to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in 1994 for natural, historic, cultural, and recreational purposes.
Did this transfer to GGNRA end its tax-exempt status? Did this transfer negate the concept of “federal enclave” and “exclusive jurisdiction,” since the Presidio is no longer used for military purposes? Could the city now tax private beneficiaries? This issue has never been addressed.
The Presidio Trust was created by Congress in 1996 for a dual purpose: to rehabilitate and repurpose historic buildings and environmental resources, and operate as a vibrant public park independent of annual taxpayer funds.
In establishing the Trust, Congress’s concern was with the city’s potential assessment of property tax. In California, any private party that rents or uses space on government-owned property is subject to property tax.
In order to curtail the possible assessment of property tax, Congress enacted legislation signed into law by President Clinton on November 29, 1999. Public Law 106-113 (HR 3194) includes specific language providing that, “The Trust and all properties administered by the Trust and all interest created under leases, concessions, permits and other agreements associated with the properties shall be exempt from all taxes and special assessments of every kind in the State of California, and its political subdivisions, including the City and County San Francisco.”
Our City Attorney and Congressional representative have the opinion that all third party interests for private benefit under the Presidio Trust’s jurisdiction are exempted from taxes by the Presidio Trust Act.
This language confirms Congress’s intent to exempt private tenants from all forms of state and local property taxes. The only problem is that if Congress enacted the Presidio Trust Act to exempt third party beneficiaries, it did not have the authority per Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, which provides the Powers of US Congress. In other words, this part of the legislation was unconstitutional.
Because of this unconstitutional loophole, the city is losing at least $10 million annually in property tax and over $100 million since inception. This amount doesn’t include revenue loss from other taxes such as real estate transfer tax. Further, if the George Lucas plan for a Presidio museum is approved, the city will lose at least $8.1 million annually in property tax.
The city is losing an additional $12.5 million from the recent sale of Lucasfilm’s to Disney in 2012 (based on a 2.5 percent transfer tax on a conservative $500 million assessment). An ownership transfer includes a lease of 35 years or more. Lucasfilm had a 66-year lease at the Presidio transferred to Disney. Per the state Revenue and Taxation Code, this is a legal transfer and there is no rational why there is no transfer tax imposed.
The city has decided to adhere to the legislation by Congress to tax exempt tenants even though it is unconstitutional. But everyone should pay their fair share.
John Farrell is a Realtor, former city budget analyst, and fifth generation San Franciscan.
The San Francisco Board of Education approved a land swap with city government on Dec. 10, gifting San Francisco an empty lot that it will use to build new affordable housing. That’s 115 units of living space for low-income San Francisco renters, wrapped in a bow for the holidays.
The proposal was the brainchild of board members Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell and Sandra Lee Fewer, who worked on the measure with the Mayor’s Office of Housing for over two years. The district will trade a lot on 1950 Mission street and another on Connecticut Street in exchange for a property it currently rents from the city of San Francisco. The city will also pay SFUSD $4.5 million, according to district data.
The deal was the culmination of that work, which Fewer said was the right thing to do.
“Could we get more money from [selling] this property with a private developer? I’m sure. But would we get the value? No,” Fewer said at the meeting.
The original intent of the land swap was to provide affordable housing for the school district’s employees. Project proponents say school district workers are being priced out of San Francisco in droves. But the affordable housing project will be general use, with no specific provisions for teachers or other SFUSD workers.
Though the teachers’ union supports the land swap, United Educators of San Francisco President Dennis Kelly warned that teachers are in dire need.
“It’s more than an oversight, it’s an insult, felt very deeply, and very bitterly,” Kelly said at the podium. “Affordable housing will not house a single teacher, not a single one, because of where the dollar breaks are.”
The board has made various promises over the past decade to aid with teacher housing, all empty words, Kelly told the Guardian. There’s yet to be a solution from the school district or the board on finding sustainable housing for teachers.
The problem is a microcosm of one of San Francisco’s toughest challenges during this tech-fueled affordable housing crisis. Affordable housing helps the poor, and the rich certainly don’t need help staying in the city, but help for middle-income earners is hard to come by.
Research from education nonprofit ASCD shows most first-year teachers face three challenges: difficulty learning to manage classroom behavior, an overload of curriculum creation, and lack of school support. San Francisco’s new teachers face a fourth: finding a place to sleep at night.
Second-year SFUSD science teacher Kate Magary, 29, knows this all too well. Her first year on the job went from challenging to hellish as she looked for an affordable place to live.
Despite having a modestly salaried full-time job, she couldn’t afford a studio on her own. She eventually found a room for rent on Craigslist, but her noisy roommates made grading papers and writing curriculum a constant challenge. She started a new apartment hunt, but even that was like a full-time job.
“As a first-year teacher, it was awful,” Magary said. “I tried not to let it affect me too much at school, but the stress from home eventually made it with me to the classroom.”
She over-disciplined some kids, she said, and her patience was at the breaking point for most of the year. When teachers suffer, students suffer.
Magary is a science teacher at the Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is on the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts campus at Twin Peaks. Three-story homes and apartment buildings dot the hills along the road from Market Street on her drive to school, but Magary can’t afford them.
Instead, she eventually found a place on Treasure Island. A sixth-generation San Franciscan, Magary is happy to stay in what is still technically part of the city. But her lease is tenuous, and she anticipates having to move within the next few years. She’s not alone.
Out of SFUSD’s 3,284 teachers, 927 live outside of San Francisco, according to data from their union. That’s 28 percent of teachers living outside of the city, 3 percent higher than just last year. That number masks the depth of the problem.
New teachers who aren’t established in San Francisco bear the brunt of displacement. Half of all new teachers leave SFUSD in their first five years, according to data from the district. And 35 percent of teachers hired since July 1 live outside the city.
“A teacher might start in the district, live in the city, and move out,” said UESF spokesperson Matt Hardy. “The turnover is very high, particularly in newer schools.”
Teachers we talked to said there are problems for those who manage to stay in San Francisco as well. They sometimes sleep in unstable or unsafe housing, couchsurf, or sleep in their cars. In the morning they teach the city’s children.
It’s bad for teachers, but worse still, it’s bad for students. Recognizing this, federal, state and city government have all pitched in to try and find housing solutions for teachers.
Unfortunately for them, and for us, they’ve mostly failed.
OWNERSHIP FOR NONE
Art Agnos is most well known for being San Francisco’s former mayor. But after stepping down in the ’90s, he served in the Clinton Administration as the Department of Housing and Urban Development regional director throughout California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii.
He was in charge of finding folks places to live.
The crisis for teacher housing was stark. At the time, Agnos was in charge of implementing Clinton’s housing program for teachers in San Francisco. The experiment? Build affordable housing units at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School on 25th Avenue exclusively for teachers.
The idea died in a sea of NIMBYism.
“The resistance came from the neighborhood who thought affordable housing for the teachers would diminish the value for their property and make traffic issues,” Agnos told the Guardian. “The Board of Education yielded to that NIMBYism and refused to pursue the deal, which was on the table.”
The federal push for teacher housing died, having created a home for just one teacher in San Francisco by the year 2000, and only 100 in California, according to news reports at the time.
California would follow suit with a less ambitious teacher housing program. The Teacher Next Door program offers assistance for teachers buying homes in San Francisco through the Mayor’s Office of Housing. We called the office to get statistics on its use, but as of press time it had not called back.
Among teachers, the program is mostly a joke.
“That’s the case with most teachers,” science teacher Tom Dallman of Ruth Asawa School of the Arts told the Guardian. “They roll their eyes when it comes to talk about buying a place in San Francisco.”
Median home prices in San Francisco skyrocketed past $1 million in June, a signal that for many teachers, homeownership in the city is a near impossibility.
Subsidized Below Market Rate housing is out of their reach too. San Francisco teachers make anywhere between $40,000 and $80,000 a year, placing them just above the salary as a single person to qualify for affordable housing.
“The struggle is about middle income people who do not qualify for mortgages or newly develop projects, because the market is astronomically high,” Agnos said. And that’s leading to a teacher migration, numbers from the UESF show.
“If they have to live in Oakland, they’ll work in Oakland,” Agnos said. “Their talent will follow them.”
The dream of homeownership for San Francisco’s education workforce is a thing of the past, Susan Solomon, vice president of the UESF told us.
“Maybe long, long ago this was a possibility,” she said, “way back when.”
Fewer was ecstatic to see the land swap deal go through, and excited to see affordable housing for San Francisco families.
But when asked what she’ll do to tackle the struggle to find affordable housing for teachers, she said that the upcoming contract negotiations may be the time to revisit a new plan.
“We’ve asked the unions to give us a poll for a long time,” she said. She wants to know what the teachers want. Do they want to live in housing together? Have rental subsidies? Housing assistance? What are their needs?
Sup. Jane Kim, a former school board member, said there’s a split of preference in the union. Should affordable housing solutions be given to teachers in their first five years in SFUSD, to encourage them to stay in San Francisco, or to veteran teachers?
“There’s a limited amount of funding,” Kim told us. And when the district lucks itself into extra funding, it’s hard not to spend it in the classroom. “How do you invest the limited dollars that you have?” she asked.
Santa Clara’s school district built its own affordable housing, and spent $6 million in 2005 to construct 40 units for its workforce. Three years later, they built 30 more units. Teachers there initially paid $1,075 a month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment, according to The New York Times.
“You cannot be an education advocate without being a housing advocate,” Fewer said. But housing help has been largely elusive for SFUSD employees.
“Stubbornness is keeping me in the city,” Magary said. But without some help, that may not be enough.
Each weekday, gleaming white buses operated by Google and other Silicon Valley tech giants roll through congested San Francisco streets and pause for several minutes in public bus stops, picking up passengers bound for sprawling tech campuses.
Using bus zones for private passenger pickup is not legal — but so far, that hasn’t resulted in any kind of systematic enforcement. It did boil over as an issue when it became the focal point of the Dec. 9 Google bus blockade, a Monday morning rush hour episode staged by anti-gentrification activists that went viral thanks to Bay Guardian video coverage, spurring commentary by Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and dozens of other media outlets.
The significance of the private buses as a symbol for an economically divided San Francisco, private service that spares a high-salaried class of workers from the delays, crowds, and service breakdowns that can plague Muni, has never been more resonant. The shuttles are frequently mentioned in conjunction with eviction and displacement, since apartment units in proximity to shuttle routes have become more desirable and expensive.
And as more shuttles are sent out to transport passengers, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has come under increasing pressure to solve the logistical and other problems they create.
“Our policies are catching up to this new transportation mode,” SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said in a recent phone call. “The shuttle service has been growing very rapidly.”
Accordingly, SFMTA is working on a pilot program to allow Google and other providers of private shuttle buses to share space in Muni bus zones in an organized fashion. The policy would establish a set of guidelines around boarding and alighting, implement measures to prevent Muni delays, create a formal permitting process, and require the shuttles to display identifying placards.
Although Muni needs funding to improve its aging infrastructure (see “Street Fight”), this plan to accommodate private shuttles would not result in any new revenue collection for the agency. Google and other private shuttle providers would be charged a fee under the program, but it would go only toward cost recovery, allowing the agency to break even.
Leslie Dreyer, one of the masterminds behind the Google bus blockade, calculated that the SFMTA could theoretically collect $1 billion if it aggressively targeted private shuttles for violating the Curb Priority Law, which prohibits vehicles other than Muni from using designated bus zones.
“It’s a ballpark estimate,” Dreyer said, describing her project as more of a thought experiment to illustrate a broader point. “We were trying to get people to think about … the bigger issue of what these things symbolize: evictions, gentrification.”
Dreyer based her findings on a color-coded chart released by SFMTA in July, showing the frequency of shuttle stops at 200 known locations. Paul Rose insisted the $1 billion estimate was too high because the total number of daily private shuttle trips is actually lower. He added that it’s more than just Google that is using the stops: At least 27 institutions and employers provide private shuttles in SF, according to data compiled by SFMTA.
But even based on the information that Rose provided, that same calculation shows that Muni could collect $500-600 million in fines from all the shuttle providers. That’s theoretically enough to augment a sizeable portion of Muni’s annual operating budget, which is around $800 million.
The pilot program for sharing bus zone space with private shuttles is expected to be reviewed by the SFMTA board early next year, and it could be implemented by July of 2014. It does not require approval by the Board of Supervisors.
In the meantime, given that Google and other private shuttle providers are in rather obvious violation of a law prohibiting them from doing what they do every weekday like clockwork, why doesn’t the SFMTA bother to enforce the law?
Rose offered several answers to this question, but most just pointed to more questions.
The fine for violating the law that prohibits vehicles other than Muni from using bus zones is $271, Rose confirmed. According to a Strategic Analysis Report prepared for the SFMTA in June of 2011, which notes that the Curb Priority Law is part of the City Transportation Code, “enforcement … has been limited.”
“We have only so many resources, and most enforcement is based on complaints,” Rose explained.
But the same strategic analysis report, dating back to 2011, shows that a great number of complaints have flowed in from disgruntled transit riders.
“The frequency of public comment and complaints regarding bus zone conflicts … may indicate a more problematic situation than these limited data imply,” a portion of the 2011 study noted after presenting the results of a field study, in which some analyst was presumably sent out to physically observe the private shuttle buses (illegally) stopping in the bus zones.
Rose’s contention that a lack of complaints was behind the lack of enforcement didn’t really seem to hold up, but he offered another reason, too. “We’d have to ID the bus,” he explained. “There isn’t an identity placard or permit to ID them specifically.”
Establishing an identification system is one of the goals of the pilot program now under consideration, he added. Then again, Google buses have license plates. And if SFMTA has the capability to do anything well, it’s to harness license plate data as a mechanism for collecting fines from offending motorists.
In fact, officers under the parking enforcement division of the SFMTA use an automated system called AutoVu Patroller, made by a tech company called Genetech (not to be confused with Genentech, a pharmaceutical giant that has its own fleet of buses transporting San Francisco employees to its South Bay campus).
EASY TO TRACK
The AutoVu patroller starts automatically when a parking enforcement officer fires up the on-board computer. It works by scanning license plates as the parking vehicles cruise down the street, using plate recognition technology to feed the data into a system that checks the identifying numbers against an existing hotlist.
When a hit occurs, it’s automatically flagged on screen. With the flick of an index finger, an enforcement officer can instantly bring up a vehicle’s model, year, and VIN. If a vehicle lacks a permit, it automatically generates a hit, signaling that enforcement may be needed. Then there’s the obvious point that Google buses and other shuttles are highly visible, and stopping all the time — whether or not an enforcement officer has a license plate scanner or not.
But at the end of the day, the private shuttles are treated differently from other kinds of vehicles that are found to be in violation of the transportation code. No matter what the laws on the books say, it’s difficult to imagine the SFMTA or the SFPD, which also has enforcement power, causing tech employees to be late to work as they roll through the city in climate-controlled coaches with tinted windows.
Far from targeting the shuttles for enforcement, an in-depth conversation has actually been taking place between the shuttle providers and SFMTA for quite some time, with representatives from the Planning Department and other agencies brought to the table as well.
The SFMTA actually regards the shuttles as being somewhat helpful, Rose said, since they get drivers out of their cars and into pooled transportation modes, thereby helping to alleviate congestion.
“We are developing these policies to better utilize the boarding zones for these shuttle providers,” Rose explained. “What we’re trying to do is provide a more efficient transportation network.”
To that end, the city has organized a series of stakeholder meetings in recent years with Google, Apple, Adobe, Genentech, the University of California San Francisco, and other shuttle providers to design a way for Muni buses and private buses to coexist in harmony, in city bus zones. Those conversations were referenced in the 2011 report; three years later, the pilot program is expected to solidify those discussions into a formalized system.
Here and there, some bus zones have already been altered to accommodate the private shuttle buses. “[An] extension of the Muni zone on 8th Street (in the South of Market) appears to be working well; although SFMTA Staff report that shuttle operators using the new zone have balked at the suggestion that they should help pay for the $1,500 improvement,” the 2011 strategic analysis noted.
The plan that’s coming down the pipe will essentially serve to legitimize what the shuttles are already doing. But so far, this deal won’t result in any financial gain for the transportation agency. If it goes forward as planned, the opportunity to make transit improvements by collecting revenue from private companies that use public infrastructure will be passed up.
We caught up with Dan Miller at a cafe in San Francisco’s Financial District, where solitary patrons hovered over laptop screens as they sipped coffee.
Sporting a goatee and collared shirt, Miller, 26, seemed to blend in perfectly. The Washington DC native, a product of the East Coast real estate development world whose father had a hand in developing several iconic properties, was in San Francisco for meetings about FundRise, a startup he and his older brother Ben cofounded. The company is frequently described as being like Kickstarter, but for real estate investment.
Miller has been meeting with representatives from San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, a city agency in the Mayor’s Office. While nobody in City Hall was willing to get specific about those meetings, it seems officials are looking to FundRise for help tackling the city’s bedeviling housing affordability crisis.
Miller has been meeting with economic development offices in cities nationwide, and he’s convinced that housing affordability is a problem everywhere. “But it’s more acute in San Francisco than anywhere else I’ve seen,” he said, “just because of an influx of tech jobs.”
In the last six months, he added, OEWD representatives have seemed increasingly concerned.
The idea of crowd funding real estate is new, and the whole enterprise is still coming to fruition. But the underlying idea is intriguing: Take real-estate investment out of the hands of exclusive multimillion-dollar investment firms, and open it up instead to anybody who happens to have 100 bucks or more to throw in.
In an affluent city like San Francisco, the tool could create wiggle room for more housing projects that are tailored to actual needs, through partnerships with affordable housing developers.
It started when Miller and his brother encountered across-the-board rejection from big investment firms. To hear him tell it, the rise of private equity firms — which have no meaningful connection to the communities they develop — has produced blandness on a sweeping scale.
Objectives like preserving economic diversity, or honoring a community’s wishes, don’t factor in when these firms determine what to fund; they only consider whether an investment is deemed safe and profitable. That means predictable: think obscenely expensive, characterless market-rate condos. And since they’re the dominant financiers, their judgment is the final call.
“We spun off from our family business and started buying old auto warehouses, converting them, leasing them to local tenants,” Miller explained. “We took these projects to private equity firms, and they just didn’t get it. All the decisions they made were predicated on the financial pro forma,” he added, referring to documents that project expected returns. “They were really constraining what’s possible.”
Sounding like a tech person, he pronounced the whole system woefully inefficient. FundRise seeks to take advantage of little-known Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, as well as new provisions under the federal Jobs Act, to give people the opportunity to use crowd funding instead. (It doesn’t eliminate the need to apply for bank loans, which is a different part of the financing picture.)
The idea is that FundRise vets a project’s viability to make sure it won’t result in widespread loss, then helps proponents attract contributions through an online social network.
In the investment world, the vast majority of transactions are made by “accredited” investors, whose net worth equals $1 million or more, or with annual incomes of $200,000 or higher. But there are others out there who might have extra cash to put toward projects they believe in, like, say, affordable housing complexes for seniors — who don’t mind making a lower return.
The Miller brothers have built an online system they hope will connect these would-be lenders with projects in their own communities.
“Since you can invest directly, digitally, you’ve cut out so many middle men,” Miller explained. “You can make a 6, 8, 10 percent return. The real estate investment firm targets are 20 percent. But that’s because there’s just people taking a piece all the way down the ladder.”
The cofounders may be idealistic, but at the end of the day, they’re businesspeople, not activists. Since the company takes a cut of all investment earnings, it could succeed financially even if it the platform only winds up getting used to finance pet projects for dot-com millionaires.
Nevertheless, some longtime champions of low-income housing have recognized its potential to help solve a perplexing puzzle: How to secure capital for affordable housing in a world where investors are hardwired to make as much money as possible.
“We are hoping that as the larger movement for crowd funding works with the SEC, we can have more people make these investments in the local community,” said Tracy Parent, executive director of the San Francisco Community Land Trust.
Her organization is the first nonprofit affordable housing developer to test the waters with FundRise, in a bid to raise $1 million to keep Marcus Books, a historic African American-owned business, in its current Fillmore Street location. Due to a short timeline, they’re confined to accepting funding only from accredited investors. But in the future, they could use the tool to structure a public offering that would allow anyone to contribute toward preserving affordable housing.
While public subsidies will still be needed for below-market housing, “FundRise allows affordable housing developers to take properties off the speculative market,” Parent explained. “Any way we can democratize capital investment,” she added, “will be a good thing for our community.”
EDITORIAL Our attitudes and ideologies shape how we see the world. How we define the problems and challenges we face in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities shapes the menu of solutions that we may choose to pursue. Perspective is everything, something progressives seem to understand better than many political moderates, who like to think of themselves as somehow transcending ideology and social bias.
Consider the issue of homelessness, a perennial concern here in the city of St. Francis. Are you someone who sees homelessness as primarily about poverty, a symptom of the larger problems of wealth concentration and economic inequity? Or do you see the homeless here as a quality-of-life issue for the rest of us, hurting tourism and public safety and subjecting everyone to disturbing sights and smells?
There have always been strong strains of both attitudes here, although those who hold the latter view try to avoid publicly making crass statements condemning “the degenerates” on the streets, as prominent techie Greg Gopman expressed last week, for which he was widely condemned, although many of his Facebook friends defended him and his comments.
Gopman apologized, and was subjected to the standard round of politicians condemning and distancing themselves from the impolitic comments, but neither were very reassuring. In fact, on the day after the story broke, Dec. 12, Mayor Ed Lee actually told the Examiner that he wanted to enlist Gopman’s help in addressing the homeless issue.
When we asked Lee Press Secretary Christine Falvey, “How do these intolerant comments qualify Gopman any kind of public policy role, and why would [Lee] be rewarding this behavior with an advisory position?” Falvey took issue with our “advisory position” label, but she otherwise refused to clarify or amend his statements, telling us, “I’ll let Mayor’s comments stand.”
Lee and his allies have long seen the homeless problem in terms of aesthetics and public safety. It’s similar to their views on other byproducts of late capitalism — from gentrification and evictions to global warming and underfunded public services — seeing them as nuisances divorced from the economic agenda that they’re actively promoting.
But these issues are connected and they need to be addressed holistically.
We were happy to see Lee starting to follow the advice we offered in this space last week (“Tech leaders must engage their critics”) by convening a closed-door meeting with top tech leaders on Dec. 16, hosted by conservative venture capitalist Ron Conway.
Yet as long as that insular crowd understands these issues as mostly image problems, divorced from the economic system they’re helping to overheat, then all they’re doing is damage control and cosmetic work.
We would welcome their participation the real public discussion that we’ve been calling for, one in which a variety of community voices helps define the problems we’re seeking to solve. And once that happens, we’ll be asking this thriving economic sector to share some of its wealth and not just its clueless commentary.