Michael Cohen, director of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, called us from the back of a taxi on a recent Thursday afternoon and complained that he was feeling "perplexed" by all the negative attention aimed at a plan his office helped design.
Perplexed? Maybe but the concept of having a private consultant take over some planning work during the environmental review of major development projects was never going to happen without a fight.
No sooner had Cohen, OEWD Development Advisor Michael Yarne, and Planning Department Director John Rahaim publicly floated the idea than it was roundly criticized by a host of opponents who called it a danger to public jobs and an invitation for conflict-of-interest nightmares.
The controversy was triggered by a draft request for qualifications (RFQ), released jointly by OEWD and the Planning Department, to hire a private consultant to help the city’s environmental review of major development projects. The consultant would be hired on the developers’ dime. The idea, Cohen said, was to do something about the long backlog in city planning’s Major Environmental Analysis division. Developers often complain that environmental review takes too long, and delays cost money.
"MEA doesn’t have enough resources to do all the work," Cohen told us. "Our simple suggestion is to require private development projects to pay to provide extra resources to the department." The RFQ states in an underlined font that the private consultant would work under the supervision of city staff, and that final policy decisions would remain with public employees. Cohen emphasized that if it goes forward, "not a single planner will lose their job."
Nonetheless, the RFQ was lambasted in a letter sent to Rahaim on behalf of IFPTE Local 21, a union representing about 250 city planners. The letter charges that it could undermine city jobs and allow developers to essentially purchase an environmental analysis that would pave the way for project approval.
Under the current system, a developer who requests a permit to build, say, a condominium high-rise must hire a private consulting firm to write a report describing how the new condos would affect the existing landscape. That report then gets forwarded to the Planning Department for review by MEA staff, a time- and labor-intensive process.
The RFQ would make it possible for a large-scale developer who desired a speedier environmental review to shell out more money for the private consultant, who would do much of the legwork of reviewing the environmental impact report. While city staff would still have the final say, the environmental review process for those projects would consist largely of a consultant overseeing a consultant.
And nearly all the consultants in the environmental-review field make their money from developers.
A source close to city planning told the Guardian that Yarne drafted the RFQ, and that the impetus behind it was to remedy delays encountered by the Treasure Island and Lennar Corp. Hunters Point Shipyard projects.
A critic who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Guardian that there’s a lot of skepticism surrounding the idea since it comes from a former developer. Yarne was a principal at development firm Martin Building Co. until 2007, and he publicly complained about the slow environmental review process while in that role.
"The only deficiencies that we have been informed of have been relayed to us by Michael Yarne in the Mayor’s Office," the Local 21 letter notes. "His primary observation has to do with the expediency by which these reviews have turned around. We do not believe that outsourcing these services addresses the problems he expressed to us." On the contrary, the letter states, "in-house staff would have to review a second consultant’s work, which would prolong rather than streamline the environmental review process."
Rahaim, the planning director, told us that "the idea was to look for ways to help the staff out," and stressed that he viewed it as "augmenting as opposed to outsourcing" city jobs. However, he added that it’s "not something I’m sold on as the only way to do this."
Rahaim seemed receptive to the union’s concerns, said Adam Gubser, president of the Planner’s Chapter of Local 21. But union members remain universally opposed to the proposal as it stands. "There are serious flaws that need to be addressed," Gubser said. "We’re very concerned about contracting out, so any proposal is held under a microscope."