City Planning’s latest mess

Pub date September 15, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The San Francisco city planning director, John Rahaim, has kept a fairly low profile since taking over the troubled department in 2008. But some serious problems are starting to fester on his watch — and if he and the planning commissioners don’t clean up the mess, the supervisors need to step in.

Rahaim remains somewhat in the shadow of the former director, Dean Macris, who is responsible for some of the worst San Francisco development problems of the past three decades. And the Macris influence is still very heavy in the department. But Rahaim needs to step out and show that things are going to change. For starters, he should:

Scrap the plan to privatize environmental review. As Rebecca Bowe reports on page 15, the department is looking at bringing in outside consultants to help clear up the backlog in the Major Environmental Analysis division of the Planning Department. It’s a horrible idea — the environmental consulting firms that do this work make most of their money from developers, and that’s where their loyalties will always lie. The city planning staff is by no means perfect, but at least the unionized MEA staffers have some ability to demand that builders follow the rules and that environmental impact reports are relatively honest. The whole idea comes (not surprisingly) from the big developers, particularly Lennar Corp. at Hunters Point and the consortium looking to redevelop Treasure Island; they’re worried about the short-staffed Planning Department’s slow pace of project review. But we don’t see those developers helping raise new revenue for the city — money that could allow planning to hire more staff.

Back away from allowing developers to block sunlight in city parks. San Francisco voters approved a measure back in 1984 that essentially halted the construction of any tall buildings that would cast shadows on city parkland. Proposition K has worked remarkably well over the years. But now, with such behemoths as the 100-plus-story tower planned for the Transbay Terminal area and the high-rise condo complex near the Transamerica Building threatening to block out the sun in public open space, the developers are looking for ways to "update" — that is, gut — Prop. K protections. On Aug. 23, a who’s who list of big local developers, architects, and lawyers met with city planning officials to discuss the issue (the attendance list, and more background, is posted at The Planning Commission will get a briefing on the topic Sept. 17.

We don’t see the problem with Prop. K — protecting parks from high-rise shadows is pretty basic planning and has been public policy for 25 years. Rahaim should drop this developer-driven plan, now.

Get Macris the hell out of the Planning Department. Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Planning Commission hired Rahaim a year and a half ago. So why does Macris, the former director, still have an office in the department? Why is he routinely consulted on major issues? When, oh when, will he finally go away?

According to the mayor’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard, Macris isn’t costing the city any money — a handful of developers are chipping in to cover the cost of his paycheck. That alone is a problem — since when do developers get to have their own paid planner sitting in on office in the Planning Department?

And frankly, Macris has been a shill for big developers all his career. He oversaw much of the massive over-construction that took place in the 1980s, and resisted all attempts at slowing down runaway growth. He’s a bad influence on the department, and Rahaim needs to send him packing, now.

Rahaim has gotten a fairly free ride so far, but things are starting to spiral out of control in his department. It’s a disturbing pattern, and the supervisors should be prepared to hold hearings and start taking action. *