It’s all unofficial at this point, but I’m hearing that Mayor Gavin Newsom is (finally) getting ready to appoint a new city planning director, a fact that sounds like an uninteresting bit of bureaucratic business but is actually one of the most important decisions he’ll ever make. And it will impact everyone who lives in the city, for years to come.
The director of city planning holds an immensely powerful job in this town. You wonder why there are too many cars on the streets and too many tall office buildings downtown, why there’s not enough affordable housing and not enough open space, why Muni is overcrowded and doesn’t run on time? I can trace all of those problems back to decisions made by the city’s planning directors over the past several decades.
In theory, the director reports to the Planning Commission, which sets policy on things like desirable types of development, where offices should go, where blue-collar jobs should be protected, and how many new people can be crammed into a geographic area without overwhelming the capacity of the streets and the transit systems. The way city planning textbooks talk about the job, planners develop visions of urban space, looking at what patterns of land use and development will improve the quality of life in a community, then set zoning rules to foster those visions.
In reality, here’s what’s been happening under the incumbent, Dean Macris, in San Francisco:
A developer who wants to make a lot of money building a project these days, probably a high-rise full of expensive condos hires a fancy architect and comes to the planning director with a proposal. The fancy architect talks about (to use the sort of language you actually hear inside the Planning Department) "a tall, slender shaft rising between the mounds of the downtown skyline" no, I didn’t make that up and next thing you know, Macris is in love. Oooh, he wants that tower so he and his staff devise planning rules and guidelines to make it possible for the developer to build it.
(Of course, the way the Planning Department budget works only encourages that sort of behavior. Much of the money to run Macris’s fiefdom comes from developer fees. No developers, no fees.)
Then the activists come along and demand that the developer kick something back to the community. So the developer who stands to make an absolute killing on the project throws a few dollars around for a little bit of affordable housing and a few community amenities. And next thing you know, there’s an enormous high-rise under construction.
Developer-driven planning is, by definition, terrible. It was under Macris’s prior reign, in the 1980s, that something like 30 million square feet of high-rise office space was built downtown, driving up housing prices, attracting more traffic, overburdening Muni, and, since high-rise offices cost more to serve than they pay in taxes, hammering the city budget.
And now the city is poised to make some absolutely critical decisions about the future. We need a real planning director who isn’t a developer toady.
The search is down to two or maybe three candidates, at least one of them truly awful. And I hear from good sources that Newsom is listening to Macris’s advice on the choice. I fear for my city.<\!s>*