Stop the Cow Palace land grab

Pub date March 25, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Technically, the Cow Palace isn’t in San Francisco, but it’s part of the larger city’s history. It was the site of two historic political conventions, a string of historic concerts, and lots of less memorable smaller events. It’s home to the Grand National Rodeo. For a lot of people who care about links to the city’s past, it’s a treasure. For the half-million or so folks who pass through the doors every year, and the dozens of promoters who use the cavernous hall for expositions, shows, and performances that don’t fit anywhere else, it’s an invaluable part of the local cultural scene.

For people who worry about earthquakes and catastrophes, it has immense appeal — the place could serve as a gigantic shelter, with beds, showers, a huge parking lot for staging, and room to land helicopters in the event of a disaster.

To real estate developers, it’s a potential gold mine. And to Daly City, where the Cow Palace sits, it’s an opportunity to create a huge new complex of condos and retail stores that would bring in millions in new taxes.

So when state Sen. Leland Yee introduced a bill that would force the state to declare the Cow Palace surplus property and sell it to Daly City, the battle lines were drawn. A front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that the venerable place could be razed for redevelopment. Supporters have come forward to talk about its role in the community and its value as a venue. The Daly City manager, Pat Martel, argued that the place gives her city nothing whatsoever in terms of taxes and hosts some events — like a gun show and the Exotic Erotic Ball — that her constituents find offensive.

What’s missing from most of this debate is the fact that this is 68 acres of prime real estate that’s still publicly owned. Declaring it surplus would almost certainly lead to the privatization of an immense block of potentially priceless urban land.

Yee’s bill, SB 1527, is just the latest chapter in a battle over the Cow Palace that goes back several years. The board that oversees the facility, which reports to the state Department of Agriculture, has been negotiating with Daly City to lease 13 acres of parking lot and underused land for development. That would allow the city to build some new housing, seek a supermarket that the neighborhood badly needs, and add to the local tax base. But the talks have stalled — and after Daly City hired powerhouse lobbyist and former assemblymember Bill Duplissea to take the case to the Legislature, and Daly City’s council asked for help, Yee stepped up.

SB 1527 mandates that the state sell the property to Daly City, with the proceeds going to pay off some of the debt the state incurred through the governor’s misguided deficit-recovery bonds. Yee argues that the state needs the money in this brutal year to save public education, and we understand how powerful that message can be — but selling off public land to cover budget shortfalls is almost always a terrible idea.

There’s little doubt what the endgame is here: Daly City doesn’t have the cash to buy 68 acres that will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars at fair market value. All the small municipality will be is a conduit — the land will be quickly flipped and sold (or leased for very long terms) to private developers.

The Yee bill is designated an "urgency measure," which means it could be approved as early as April. That’s ridiculous; there is no urgency here. This is a huge decision, and needs a lot more public discussion and debate.

We suspect that there’s a way to meet Daly City’s needs for development without turning over the entire 68 acres. There’s almost certainly a way for the Cow Palace to remain and for some of its land to be used for housing and retail.

But we haven’t even seen a template for what sort of project would go on the site. How much of the housing would be affordable? How much of the retail would serve the community? Would this become another chain-store-and-luxury-condo site with gated homes in an economically depressed area? What will the San Francisco neighborhoods that border on the site get out of it? Will there be any new parkland or open space? How will a large commercial complex there affect traffic, noise, pollution, displacement, and other environmental factors in the surrounding areas?

How on earth can you talk about selling off such a huge chunk of public land without even talking about how it will be used?

This is nuts. Yee’s bill needs to be defeated, and all the parties (including the San Francisco city planners and supervisors) need to start cautious, long-term discussions about the Cow Palace, its land, and the needs of the public. Otherwise this will appear — with justification — to be nothing but a sellout of gargantuan proportions.