Editor’s Notes

Pub date August 14, 2007
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

I’ve looked at all the grand designs for the tower that will pay for the new Transbay Terminal, and I’ve read the architectural critiques, and frankly, I’m sick of it all. The plans are all ugly, and they’re way out of scale for this city — but what really gets me is that this is how we’ve chosen to finance our civic infrastructure.

Why do we have to live with a giant high-rise office tower near the Transbay Terminal? Because if we don’t, there won’t be any money to build what should be the central transit link for the Bay Area, a landmark bus and train station on the scale (we’re told) of Grand Central in New York.

I’m not entirely in agreement with every decision that’s been made about the new terminal, but I do agree that it ought to be an essential part of the city’s future. As we shift away from the car and the freeway as the basic units of transportation in California — and we have no choice, we simply have to — a downtown center where trains and buses stop and people come and go will become what the Ferry Building was long, long ago. It will be the way people arrive in San Francisco. We need to make it work.

But the project will cost a lot of money, almost $1 billion — and nobody wants to pay higher taxes to fund this sort of thing. In fact, nobody in California wants to pay higher taxes for anything. So the folks at City Hall have decided that the only way we can have a new transit terminal is if we hock a piece of our city and our skyline to fund it. So we take some of the land on the terminal site and let a developer build a monstrosity of a high-rise on it — and that will bring in the money that we can’t get any other way.

It’s the same reason we have that god-awful Rincon Tower sticking its ugly head into the sky: the developer offered to pay for a fair amount of affordable housing and other community amenities that the taxpayers won’t fund because local government can’t raise taxes in California without reaching extraordinary lengths that are almost politically impossible. So here’s the deal: You want affordable housing? Give a big developer the rights to do something awful, and in exchange, we’ll get a few dollops of cash for civic needs.

Imagine for a moment what the state might look like if we’d had to cut this kind of deal to build the University of California system. You want nice colleges, with higher education available to every state resident who qualifies? OK — sell off the coast and let it become a giant Miami Beach. Or sell the Klamath, the Tuolumne, and a few other rivers to Disney for water parks. Or sell Muir Woods for condos. You don’t want to do that? Too bad — no world-class university system for your kids.

This is the devil’s bargain we have agreed to settle for in 2007. This is how we create public space, public facilities, public amenities. We save the Presidio by giving it to George Lucas. We create a wi-fi system by giving the broadband infrastructure to Google and EarthLink. We can’t do anything ourselves, as a community; all we can do is grab for the scraps the private sector will toss us.

My friends, this sucks. *