Sunshine and shadows

Pub date February 9, 2010
WriterTim Redmond
SectionGreen City

It was, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed, the end of the world for development in the city, or at least something close to that. A ballot measure, sponsored by Sup. David Chiu, restricting new buildings from casting shadows on city parks “could imperil major development projects,” a Jan. 28 article by John Cote said. “Everything from a new wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the expansion of the Moscone Center and creation of a new downtown core around a rebuilt Transbay Terminal could be affected.”

A lot of that is wildly exaggerated. The Chiu ordinance, which has since been pulled from the ballot pending a city study of the issue, would hardly have halted all development — or even all high-rises — in San Francisco. It wouldn’t have gutted the Transbay Terminal plan (although it might have forced planners to reduce the height of a tower that would soar 400 feet above the tallest building in San Francisco). In fact, the real story is how Chiu has managed — for now — to stop a backroom attempt by developers to undermine a 25-year-old environmental law. We found some fascinating evidence of how Mayor Gavin Newsom has been working with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to undermine Chui’s efforts — using broad threats to try to get his way.

Chiu’s legislation sought to clear up a couple of loopholes in a landmark 1984 law, which passed on the ballot as Proposition K. The measure, authored by then-Sup. Bill Maher, essentially barred any new construction that would cast a significant shadow on a city park.

In 1989, the final implementation guidelines were approved, and they’ve stopped literally hundreds of proposed projects from casting dark shadows on public open space.

But in the past year, city planners have been meeting with lawyers for big developers and looking for a way to change the rules. Citing new technology that better measures the curve of the earth and complex algorithms that calculate sunlight, the Planning Department has since proposed revising the Prop. K guidelines — in a way that would allow taller buildings and more shadows without getting the approval of voters or supervisors.

Chiu told us he’s been trying for months to find out exactly what the proposed guidelines would do — how many new buildings, at what heights, would be able to shadow which parks. “I was unable to get any answers,” he said.

The measure he drafted would have barred any new guidelines that allowed more shadows — and would have required the Board of Supervisors to sign off any changes. It would still allow the city to make case-by-case exemptions for projects that cast minor shadows but are otherwise deserving of approval — affordable housing developments, for example.

But downtown went nuts — and Newsom joined the fray.

The crux of the opposition came from the Chamber — and is outlined in an e-mail from Chamber Vice President Rob Black to members of the Chamber board.

“The mayor was very direct and clear about the need to defeat the measure,” the e-mail, which we obtained, states. “The mayor was also very clear that he was in no mood for deal-making on the issue and that he would look very unfavorably on any developer or anyone else who tries to cut a deal with David Chiu on the issue. He literally said, you will be on your own for the next two years if you go there.”

Black confirmed that the e-mail was in fact his — but said the version we’d obtained “has been edited. Some words were changed and other omitted.” He refused to say what the changes were, saying that the e-mail was meant to be a confidential communication to his board. However, he confirmed that the basic message and descriptions of a meeting with Newsom were accurate.

Tony Winnicker, Newsom’s press secretary, confirmed that Newsom had been directly involved in trying to scuttle the ordinance — and didn’t deny the mayor had made those threats.

“The mayor made clear the importance of asking the supervisor to withdraw the measure,” Winnicker wrote in an e-mail to us. “The mayor was clear that backroom deal-making should not be tolerated on the issue.”

Chiu was somewhat aghast at the mayor’s statements. “The context for all this is that the developers and their lawyers were trying to change the rules,” he said.

Aaron Peskin, the former supervisor and longtime North Beach neighborhood activist, told us that the “hysteria around this is factually untrue. This isn’t about stopping development — it’s about making sure development doesn’t have an adverse impact on the city’s common space.”

So now Chiu has agreed to hold off — but only if the key stakeholders (not just developers) have some input into how planning devises new shadow rules. And he’s ready to go back to the ballot in November if the developers try to play games again.

That makes sense, Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told us. “There should be a heavy burden of proof on the people who want new rules,” he said. “And there should be a heavy burden of proof for anyone who wants a ballot measure.”

In other words, Prop. K — as it is, as it’s stood all these years — is working pretty well. And if the developers hadn’t tried to sneak in some big changes, none of this would have happened in the first place.