Early indicators

Pub date February 1, 2011

Land use politics and the way development decisions are made at City Hall fed San Francisco’s ascendant progressive movement over the last decade. So in the wake of a still-unfolding political realignment, an early key vote is making some preservationists and developer foes nervous.

At the center of that concern is Sup. Jane Kim, who broke with her progressive colleagues Jan. 25 to be the swing vote in the board’s 6-5 approval of attorney Richard Johns to the historian’s seat on the Historic Preservation Commission. Progressives and preservationists opposed the nomination on the grounds that Johns isn’t a historian and that he has close ties to former Mayor Willie Brown, a friend of developers whose longtime chief of staff was Johns’ wife, Eleanor.

And they’re suspicious of Brown’s support – both overt and stealthy – for Kim’s supervisorial campaign (see “Willie Brown and the accusations of machine politics in D6,” 10/16/10, Guardian Politics blog).

Kim didn’t explain her vote at the full board meeting, and her comments at the Rules Committee (which she chairs) and to the Guardian that Johns “was qualified” and she could “see no reason not to support his nomination” irked many of her progressive supporters who consider development the big issue.

Feeding concerns about the potential blunting of historic preservation and other tools used to scrutinize development projects was the Jan. 25 announcement by Sup. Scott Wiener that he is calling for hearings into whether the commission is improperly hindering development and other policy priorities.

“The Historic Preservation Commission — and I supported the creation of the Historic Preservation Commission — has become an increasingly powerful commission reaching into a lot of different areas of policy in the city,” Wiener said during the discussion of Johns’ nomination, citing housing, parks, and libraries as areas the commission has affected. “It’s important to have a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints on this commission, and if we’re going to have a committee made up exclusively of advocates for historic preservation, only advocates, that is a problem.”

Former board President Aaron Peskin, who led the effort to create the commission through the voter-approved Proposition J in 2008, disputes the allegation that the commission has become too powerful, as well as the claim that Johns is qualified to serve in the historian’s seat, one of six seats on the commission that now requires professional qualifications.

“The facts do not support Sup. Wiener’s allegations,” Peskin told us, noting that the Board of Supervisors and the mayor retain the authority to decide what is and isn’t historically significant. Yet Wiener said that even commission- and staff-level actions affect other city goals. “The conducting of a survey does have legal impact,” Wiener told us.

But Peskin said San Francisco has very few protected buildings compared with other major U.S. cities, something voters sought to change through Prop. J, and Peskin said he was disappointed that Kim didn’t support the law’s dictates. “This is the second time in 2011 when the slim alleged progressive majority has not stayed together,” he said, referring also to the election of David Chiu as board president.

Peskin and others who fight land-use battles say they don’t yet want to jump to the conclusion that developers might have an easier time with this board. “It’s my profound hope is that this is a learning experience,” Peskin said of Kim’s vote.

Veteran land use attorney Sue Hestor noted that neither Kim nor Wiener has a record on land use issues by which to judge them and she didn’t want to make a big deal of their Jan. 25 actions. Yet she said that development is a huge issue in the Tenderloin, SoMa, and Rincon Hill areas that Kim represents, so there are major tests of her progressive values coming soon.

“In District 6, it’s the defining issue because it’s the most explosive district in terms of growth,” Hestor said. “Land use is about who gets to live in the city.”



While most of the discussion about the Johns nomination focused on his qualifications as a historian — indeed, that was the basis of most of the opposition to his nomination, by both activists and progressive supervisors — there was some telling subtext focused on Hestor’s point that land use is the most fundamental progressive issue.

At the Jan. 20 Rules Committee meeting, Kim even asked Johns about his “vision for affordable housing as it related to preservation.” But the answer she received wasn’t terribly reassuring to those who see the lack of affordable housing for low-income city residents as a serious problem that the city is failing to address (see “Dollars or sense?” 9/29/10).

“San Francisco is made up of lots of different groups of people with lots of different backgrounds,” Johns said at the hearing, noting that it is important to “preserve the culture and the past that have brought us to where we are. But part of that past is the ability to grow.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Johns expanded on the point, sounding a more pro-growth point-of-view than many of his colleagues on the commission are likely to share. “Development and preservation can go hand-in-hand,” Johns said. “Maybe it’s the development that allows what might be a slowly deteriorating building to be fixed up properly.”

As an example, he cited his 20 years of work on preserving the Old Mint Building — his main claim to expertise as a historian — which was ultimately accomplished as part of the development project that included office and commercial development and the Mint Plaza public space.

“People of all income levels have a right to live in San Francisco,” Johns said, adding, “The real need some people would say is the need for middle class housing.” When we noted that it’s often the low-income residents who are ousted when old buildings get modernized, he said, “You have to think about the desirability of people to live in crummy housing.”

Chiu and Kim both downplayed the importance of the Johns vote. “People are trying to read too much into this,” Chiu said, explaining that he opposed the nomination because he simply felt Johns didn’t meet the criteria as a historian. “What was relevant is what city law says.”

Kim told us that it wasn’t until the full board meeting that she learned how her progressive colleagues felt about the matter, and that she didn’t want to change how she voted in committee. “It was not important enough for me to change my vote based on my verbal commitments,” Kim said later.

Yet on the evening of the vote, Kim told the Guardian that she felt “pressure” to support Johns, although she wouldn’t say from whom. “I was put in a bad position on this issue,” she said. Many progressives have speculated that pressure came from Brown, which Kim denies. “We didn’t talk about this, not once,” she said.

But in his Jan. 30 column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Brown crowed about the victory by “my friend Richard Johns” and called Chiu’s opposition to him “a mistake that could haunt him for some time,” saying Chiu has set up Sups. Malia Cohen and Kim “to be the swing votes on every issue where moderates and progressives split.”

Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.