Public Works

Public power, underground



Public power advocates are looking for new ways to lay the groundwork for city-owned electricity — by just opening up the ground.

The plan could be a significant step forward for the public power movement and may open a new front in the long campaign to replace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. with a city-run agency.

Sup. Chris Daly has asked the city attorney to draft legislation that would require anyone who digs up a city street, for any reason, to install city-owned power and fiber-optic cables in the hole. That would mean, for example, that when PG&E replaces natural gas lines, as it’s doing all over the city right now, the company would also have to install (or allow the city to install) the infrastructure for a municipal power and communications system.

And since the city will be paying to tear up every single street to replace water and sewer pipes over the next two decades, the plan would eventually create a complete network that could be used to deliver public electricity — and Internet and cable TV — to residents and businesses.

"In 15 to 20 years’ time, we would have an electric grid that’s underground and owned by the city," Daly told the Guardian.

The advantage of the plan is that it may be far cheaper (and more practical) to build an underground city network than to condemn and buy out PG&E’s existing, aging system.

The idea isn’t new: Back in 2004, Sup. Tom Ammiano proposed a similar plan and held hearings on it. Ammiano talked about burying electrical cable as well as fiber-optic lines, which he said would be a far better solution to the digital divide than Mayor Gavin Newsom’s wi-fi plan.

Daly’s idea is to use a special tax program to purchase the equipment at bulk prices and have it on hand for whenever the jackhammers come out.

"The beauty of this proposal is you’re getting the efficiency of the streets being dug up," Daly said, which would reduce costs for the overall plan.

And of course, the final system would be all underground — much more aesthetically pleasing and safer during earthquakes than PG&E’s aboveground grid.

The cable itself isn’t cheap, but Daly suggests the city could take advantage of the Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act of 1982, passed by voters in response to the belt-tightening implications of Proposition 13. With Mello-Roos, local officials designate an area — from as small as a house lot to as large as an entire city — as a community facilities district and levy a tax to pay for improvements to the infrastructure in that area. Similar to a "community benefit district," it must be approved by the property owners, and the funds typically go toward better streets, services, and facilities — including electricity.

It costs the city as much as $380 a foot to dig trenches, then backfill them after installing conduit. But if the street is already torn up, the price of laying electric cable is only about $100 a foot, figures we’ve obtained show. The cost for wiring all 900-odd miles of San Francisco streets would run close to $500 million — less than half of what PG&E insists the city would have to pay to buy out its old lines. And individual neighborhoods could be wired for relatively modest amounts of money.

Daly said CFDs could be established by neighborhood or district and coupled with the installation of renewable energy sources, which the city is planning to do through community choice aggregation. For example, residents in Bernal Heights could decide to add a 2 percent property tax to their bills to buy the power lines, the Public Utilities Commission could put a solar array on the nearby reservoir — and a percentage of that neighborhood’s power would be locally owned and operated and cleaner than putting up a peaker plant on Potrero Hill.

"We’re undergoing a dramatic expansion of our renewables in the city," PUC spokesperson Tony Winnicker said. "If we could move our renewables through our own distribution system, there would be enormous cost savings for our ratepayers."

The Department of Public Works would coordinate the work. "We’ve been running the Street Construction Coordination Center for as long as I’ve been here," said spokesperson Christine Falvey, who’s been with the DPW for more 10 years. The center manages the permits for digging up the rights-of-way and tracks construction projects five years into the future to make sure streets aren’t continually wracked with potholes.

A fiber optics feasibility study prepared for the city by Columbia Telecommunications Corp. and released this past January also recommended that the city take advantage of open holes in the roads. "Opportunities for cost-effective installation of fiber arise each day as City crews work in the right of way. At a minimum, San Francisco should immediately adopt a future-looking policy to add to existing fiber and conduit infrastructure at every opportunity to build up critical mass," the report reads.

About half of PG&E’s lines are already underground, and the company is slowly moving to comply with state mandates that call for more buried cables. But the city’s Utility Undergrounding Task Force reported that at PG&E’s current rate, undergrounding the remaining 470 miles of wires would take 50 years.

San Francisco activists have tried repeatedly to take over PG&E’s system and enforce the federal Raker Act, which requires the city to operate a public power system. But every attempt has required a citywide vote to create a new power agency and to authorize the sale of bonds to buy out the utility’s system — and every time that’s gone on the ballot, PG&E has spent millions to defeat it.

The Daly plan would also require a ballot fight — but perhaps not an expensive citywide campaign. The Mello-Roos taxes could be approved neighborhood by neighborhood. The price would most likely be in the millions, not the hundreds of millions it would cost to buy PG&E’s entire system at once. *

The promise of high-speed rail


EDITORIAL Imagine — there’s a project on the drawing board in Sacramento that would:

Get two million cars off California’s roads.

Eliminate any need for expensive and environmentally damaging new runways at the San Francisco International Airport.

Create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs for economically depressed Central Valley communities.

Generate untold billions of dollars in long-term economic development in the state.

Make the ugly trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles a simple and affordable pleasure.

Represent the single most important contribution California could make to cutting global warming.

Pay for itself in 10 years.

Why isn’t everyone in the state demanding that it go forward immediately?

That’s the strange question about high-speed rail. It makes perfect sense on every level. It’s the sort of project that ought to satisfy every interest group in the state. The environmentalists love it; so does the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

Yet Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is prepared to effectively defund the agency that is planning the project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and is moving to ensure that the first installment of the money the project needs won’t be in the next set of infrastructure bonds, on the 2008 ballot.

The governor’s position is baffling, and the only explanations his staffers have offered are so factually inaccurate that they’re laughable. The Democratic Party supports it — but this project needs more than just a few statements of support. It needs to become such a priority for the state that the legislature can force the governor to move forward on it.

A high-speed rail line would carry people from downtown San Francisco to downtown LA in a little more than two hours. At current estimates, the trip would cost about $40. The technology is proven; high-speed rail works all over the world. In terms of energy use, it’s about the most efficient and environmentally sound way of moving people around that exists. The demand is clearly there. The total price tag — about $40 billion for a full build-out from Sacramento to San Diego — isn’t cheap, but every estimate shows that the project will pay for itself a decade after the first trains start running. That’s a great deal, even a spectacular deal, for any public works project.

But time is of the essence. Every year of delay hikes the price of the project by $2 billion. The high-speed rail agency ought to be racing at full throttle to get a plan on the next possible ballot — but instead, the governor’s budget is giving the authority less than a tenth of what it needs to keep going.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst says in a recent report that if the governor won’t fund the high-speed rail authority this year, the legislature might as well shut it down.

This is utter insanity. High-speed rail is crucial to the state’s future and needs a lot more champions. Don Perata, the senate president, and Fabian Núñez, the assembly speaker, need to tell the governor in no uncertain terms that the high-speed rail agency must be funded, and the first installment of bonds must be on the November 2008 ballot.

Tow-away zones that lie



Parking a car is notoriously difficult in San Francisco, where you can be towed for blocking a driveway, occupying a bus zone, failing to move your vehicle at certain times of the day, or being in a posted construction zone.

But many of those construction zone tow-away signs may be fake, a problem that the city does little to enforce and the public has a hard time discerning.

Contractors sometimes simply purchase a sign for $2 and post it without the legal right to do so. Often it’s an innocent error by out-of-town contractors who don’t know to apply for a street space parking permit. Other times it can be an interim step by contractors waiting for the right to reserve a spot outside their job site or by contractors who never met with a Department of Public Works inspector to determine the hours and scope of their parking needs.

Theoretically, parkers are free to ignore these fake signs. But it’s hard for the public to tell a fake sign from a real one unless they contact the city. And who does that while hunting for a parking space?

The streets are considered part of the public’s right-of-way. In addition to a construction permit, a street space permit is necessary if contractors will block the right-of-way, although underground services such as utility companies remain exempt.

The DPW issued 9,020 street space permits in 2006, according to spokesperson Christine Falvey. That year 93 citations were issued to property owners whose contractors did not have valid street space permits; all of those citations were prompted by citizen complaints.

"Street space violations are not proactive, they are reactive," said Dan McKenna, deputy manager of the DPW’s Bureau of Street Use and Mapping, which handles these permits and violations.

In other words, a construction zone tow-away sign will never be challenged if the public does not ask the DPW or the Department of Building Inspection, which has its own street space permit desk, to go out and validate it.

That’s what happened at the corner of Haight and Shrader streets last October when Service Concrete of Daly City got a valid permit for street space and sidewalk repair but failed to meet with a DPW inspector. Contractors often want to claim more spaces, for more hours, than what the inspectors may ultimately be willing to approve.

Service Concrete never scheduled a meeting with the department, nor did it register the times of enforcement. Therefore, it never had a legal right to tow anyone or reserve those parking spots, according to DPW deputy manager John Kwong.

"They never contacted the department to schedule a meeting for the street space occupancy," Kwong said. "Therefore, the street space permit is not considered valid. They’re not supposed to occupy." But they did, and the job was completed with at least four parking meters marked for tow-away.

A call to the phone number on the permit resulted in the contractor telling the Guardian, "I don’t remember. Even if you tell me, I won’t remember. I can’t comment on anything on this."

In April, the NEQE construction company received a building permit for a seismic retrofit at 240 Golden Gate Ave. It requested a street space permit May 11 and immediately posted no-parking signs. However, it did not have a site inspection, and the actual street space permit wasn’t issued until May 26, according to Nick Elsner, senior plan checker with the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping.

The initial tow-away signs were for seven days a week, 24 hours a day until November, although the permit on file said the contractor needed the space from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. The contractor eventually received 60 linear feet for three parking spaces for the limited time frame.

"They didn’t put it in the computer," a representative of NEQE told us. "What happened on the job site, we put up the sign for the parking permit. And then they give us notice. And I had to go back to the city because the parking department is different from the city. We showed all the documents, and it was fine."

Neither Service Concrete nor NEQE were cited for improper postings of their tow-away signs. Most violators are never cited. Elsner told us it is obvious that contractors often ignore the law, which, if violated, carries a penalty of up to $1,000 per day.

"When we learn about a tow zone without a permit, we go out and enforce the law," he said. "But we only have four inspectors."

At the height of summer last year, when construction was in full swing, there was a three-week backlog for the verification process, according to Elsner.

Getting street space used to be automatic, until the Board of Supervisors amended Section 724 of the Public Works Code in 2002. Before, the price of a building permit determined the length of time contractors could usurp parking spaces.

"In the past the street space durations, the amount of time you were given for a building space, was directly related to the cost of your project," Elsner said. "If you had a $40 million project, you got four years’ parking. So if you finished in three years, you had a year of free parking. The Board of Supervisors looked at this and decided there was something wrong. Now permits are issued on a monthly basis, six-month maximum. You pay per 20 linear feet, basically one parking space, $82.08."

Elsner said the public cannot tell simply by reading a sign whether it has been legally posted. "They may have filled the sign out correctly, but that doesn’t mean they have a permit," he said. The revised ordinance requires temporary tow-away signs to have the permit number on them in addition to the contractor’s name and phone number. But some contractors don’t bother to apply.

"Our biggest problem we have is with roofers," Elsner observed. "They get a permit to do a roof and say they don’t need a street space. What do you mean you don’t need a street space permit? Either the building has a huge setback or they intend to fly in by helicopter."

Elsner said the street space ordinance has no set hours or days a contractor may use a street space. "That is worked out with the inspector," he said. "If they are not working, their parking should be for public use."

He said he warns contractors that they are responsible for affixing the signs so they aren’t torn down. If there is no sign, the Department of Parking and Traffic is not obliged to tow.

Every day a new list of valid permits is sent to the DPT tow desk. However, some contractors have learned it is cheaper and easier to buy a few paper signs, fill them out, and tape them up rather than get a valid street permit. A sign costs $1.99 at White Cap Industries, a construction supply company.

Cheryl Duperrault is one of the street improvement inspectors at the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping who respond to public complaints. Of the 93 citations issued in 2006, she wrote 32, nearly a third. Duperrault said she cited contractors who simply posted a fake tow-away sign and never sought a permit.

"That has happened," she said. "I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more than it does. It’s easy to tell whether or not the street space permit is valid because they should have a big white placard visible from the street. It gives the information of the permit." *

The DPW offers a free brochure that describes the process of applying for street and sidewalk permits. The brochure is available at its offices on Stevenson Street or by fax or mail. A permit is required when anyone intends to block the public right-of-way "to construct, improve, excavate, occupy, and/or perform work." There is a hotline (415-554-5810) to see if there is a permit on file. The Bureau of Street Use and Mapping will respond if the public questions a temporary tow-away sign.

Death of fun, the sequel



Fun – in the form of fairs, festivals, bars, art in the parks, and the freedom to occasionally drink alcohol in public places – is under attack in San Francisco.

The multipronged assault is coming primarily from two sources: city agencies with budget shortfalls and NIMBYs who don’t like to hear people partying. The crackdown has only intensified since the Guardian sounded the alarm last year (see “The Death of Fun,” 5/24/06), but the fun seekers are now organizing, finding some allies, and starting to push back.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and other city hall leaders have been meeting with the Outdoor Events Coalition, which formed last year in response to the threat, about valuing the city’s beloved social gatherings and staving off steep fee hikes that have been sought by the Recreation and Park, Fire, Public Works, and Police departments.

Those conversations have already yielded at least a temporary reprieve from a substantial increase in use fees for all the city’s parks. It’s also led to a rollback of the How Weird Street Faire’s particularly outrageous police fees (its $7,700 sum last year jumped to $23,833 this year – despite the event being forced by the city to end two hours earlier – before pressure from the Guardian and city hall forced it back down to $4,734).

The San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee will also wade into the issue April 25 when it considers a resolution warning that “San Francisco has become noticeably less tolerant of nightlife and outdoor events.” It is sponsored by Scott Wiener, Robert Haaland, Michael Goldstein, and David Campos.

The measure expresses this premier political organization’s “strong disagreement with the City agencies and commissions that have undermined San Francisco’s nightlife and tradition of street festivals and encourages efforts to remove obstacles to the permitting of such venues and events up to and including structural reform of government permitting processes to accomplish that goal.”

The resolution specifically cites the restrictions and fee increases that have hit the How Weird Street Faire, the Haight Ashbury Street Fair (where alcohol is banned this year for the first time), and the North Beach Jazz Festival, but it also notes that a wide variety of events “provide major fundraising opportunities for community-serving nonprofits such as HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, and violence-prevention organizations that are dependent upon the revenue generated at these events.”

Yet the wet blanket crowd still seems ascendant. Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier now wants to ban alcohol in all city parks that contain playgrounds, which is most of them. Hole in the Wall has hit unexpected opposition to its relocation (see “Bar Wars,” 4/18/07), while Club Six is being threatened by its neighbors and the Entertainment Commission about noise issues. And one group is trying to kill a band shell made of recycled car hoods that is proposed for temporary summer placement on the Panhandle.

That project, as well as the proposal for drastically increased fees for using public spaces, is expected to be considered May 3 by the Rec and Park Commission, which is likely to be a prime battleground in the ongoing fight over fun.



Rec and Park, like many other city departments, is facing a big budget shortfall and neglected facilities overdue for attention. A budget analyst audit last year also recommended that the department create a more coherent system for its 400 different permits and increase fees by 2 percent.

Yet the department responded by proposing to roughly double its special event fees, even though they make up just $560,000 of the $4.5 million that the department collects from all fees. Making things even worse was the proposal to charge events based on a park’s maximum capacity rather than the actual number of attendees.

The proposal caused an uproar when it was introduced last year, as promoters say it would kill many beloved events, so it was tabled. Then an almost identical proposal was quietly introduced this year, drawing the same concerns.

“These are just preliminary numbers, and they may change,” department spokesperson Rose Dennis told us, although she wouldn’t elaborate on why the same unpopular proposal was revived.

Event organizers, who were told last year that they would be consulted on the new fee schedule, were dumbfounded. They say the new policy forces them to come up with a lot of cash if attendance lags or the weather is bad.

Mitigating such a risk means charging admission, corralling corporate sponsorship, or pushing more commerce on attendees. This may not be a hindrance for some of the well-known and sponsored events such as Bay to Breakers and SF Pride, but consider how the low-budget Movie Night in Dolores Park might come up with $6,000 instead of $250, or how additional permit fees could strangle the potential of nascent groups such as Movement for Unconditional Amnesty.

The group is sponsoring a march in honor of the Great American Boycott of 2006. On May 1 it will walk from Dolores Park to the Civic Center in recognition of immigrants’ rights. The group wanted to offer concessions, because food vendors donate a percentage of their sales to the organization, but the permit fee for propane use from the Fire Department was too high.

“They couldn’t guarantee they’d make more than $1,200 in food to cover the costs of permits,” said Forrest Schmidt, of the ANSWER Coalition, who is assisting the organizers. “So they lost an opportunity to raise funds to support their work. It’s more than $1,000 taken off the top of the movement.”

ANSWER faced a similar problem after the antiwar rally in March, when the rule regarding propane permits was reinterpreted so that a base charge, once applied to an entire event, was now charged of each concessionaire – quadrupling the overall cost. ANSWER pleaded its case against this new reading of the law and was granted a one-time reprieve. But Schmidt says none of the SFFD’s paperwork backs up a need to charge so much money.

“They kept on saying over and over again, ‘You guys are making money on this,’ ” Schmidt said. “But it’s an administrative fee to make sure we’re not setting anything on fire. It’s essentially a tax. It’s a deceitful form of politics and part of what’s changing the demographic of the city.”

The Outdoor Events Coalition, which represents more than 25 events in the city, agrees and has been meeting with city officials to hash out another interim solution for this year, as well as a long-term plan for financial sustainability for all parties.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Robbie Kowal, a coalition leader and organizer of the North Beach Jazz Festival. But he’s still concerned about what he and the coalition see as a continuing trend.

“The city is changing in some way. It’s becoming a culture of complaint. There’s this whole idea you can elect yourself into a neighborhood organization, you can invent your own constituency, and the bureaucracy has to take you seriously. Neighborhood power can be so effective in fighting against a Starbucks, but when it’s turned around and used to kill an indigenous part of that neighborhood, like its local street fair, that’s an abuse of that neighborhood power.”



Black Rock Arts Foundation, the San Francisco public art nonprofit that grew out of Burning Man, has enjoyed a successful and symbiotic partnership with the Newsom administration, placing well-received temporary artwork in Hayes Green, Civic Center Plaza, and the Embarcadero.

So when BRAF, the Neighborhood Parks Council, the city’s Department of the Environment, and several community groups decided several months ago to collaborate on a trio of new temporary art pieces, most people involved thought they were headed for another kumbaya moment. Then one of the projects hit a small but vocal pocket of resistance.

A group of artists from the Finch Mob and Rebar collectives are now at work on the Panhandle band shell, a performance space for nonamplified acoustic music and other performances that is made from the hoods of 75 midsize sedans. The idea is to promote the recycling and reuse of materials while creating a community gathering spot for arts appreciation.

Most neighborhood groups in the area like the project, and 147 individuals have written letters of support, versus the 17 letters that have taken issue with the project’s potential to draw crowds and create noise, litter, graffiti, congestion, and a hangout for homeless people.

But the opposition has been amplified by members of the Panhandle Residents Organization Stanyan Fulton (PROSF), which runs one of the most active listservs in the city, championing causes ranging from government sunshine to neighborhood concerns. The group, with support from Sup. Ross Mirkarimi’s staff, has delayed the project’s approval and thus placed its future in jeopardy (installation was scheduled to begin next month).

“My main concern would be that this is a very narrow strip of land that is bordered by homes on both sides,” said neighbor Maureen Murphy, who has complained about the project to the city and online through the PROSF. “My fear is that there is going to be amplification and more people and litter.”

The debate was scheduled to be heard by the Rec and Park Commission on April 19 but was postponed to May 3 because of the controversy. Nonetheless, Newsom showed up at the last hearing to offer his support.

“Rare do I come in front of committee, but I wanted to underscore … the partnership we’ve had with Black Rock Arts Foundation. It’s been a very successful one and one I want to encourage this commission to reinforce,” Newsom told the commission. “I think the opportunity exists for us … to take advantage of these partnerships and really bring to the forefront in people’s minds more temporary public art.”

Rachel Weidinger, who is handling the project for BRAF, said the organizers have been very sensitive to public input, neighborhood concerns, environmental issues, and the impacts of the project, at one point changing sites to one with better drainage. And she’s been actively telling opponents that the project won’t allow amplified music or large gatherings (those of 25 or more will require a special permit). But she said that there’s little they can do about those who simply don’t want people to gather in the park.

“We are trying to activate park space with temporary artwork,” she said. “Guilty as charged.”

Yet any activated public space – whether a street closed for a fair or a march, a park turned into a concert space, or a vacant storefront turned into a nightclub – is bound to generate a few critics. The question for San Francisco now is how to balance NIMBY desires and bureaucratic needs with a broader concern for facilitating fun in the big city.

“Some people have the idea that events and nightlife are an evil to be restricted,” Wiener said. But his resolution is intended as “a cultural statement about what kind of city we want to live in.” *


Paul Fenn wonders why the Chronicle ran a front page PG&E ad while covering a major CCA story in half a paragraph on page 27


By Bruce B. Brugmann

I asked Paul Fenn, architect of San Francisco’s community choice aggregation plan and a national expert on CCA power, if the Chronicle/Hearst had contacted him about the announcement of the CCA plan last week (no) and what he thought about its coverage His answer:

“During Earth Day week and the height of the national debate on Climate Crisis, the San Francisco Chronicle failed to show up at a major City Hall press conference on April l7 on a plan to implement the largest municipal solar public works project in history–to be built by the City in San Francisco. The Chronicle blacked out not only the statements of sponsoring Supervisors Ammiano and Mirkarimi, but CCA law sponsor Senator Migden, Assemblyman Leno, and the head of Greenpeace USA, who called the Community Choice Aggregation Plan the world’s leading solution to Climate Crisis.

“Instead of informing its readers about an event that Ross Gelbspan called a ‘globally important event’ and Helen Caldicott called a ‘world leader,’ the Chronicle chose to cover a debate on restricting car access in Golden Gate Park–the equivalent of covering a bar brawl after a declaration of war. All they gave us was half a paragraph on page 27–I could not help noticing a large green PG&E ad on the Chronicle cover page that day.”

Fenn is founder and director of Local Power, an Oakland-based group promoting CCA power. For more information, go to his website at

Clean isn’t always green



There’s no more symbolic and tangible an issue for elected officials than clean streets.

Not everyone can see firsthand how well local schools are operating, whether nonprofits receiving city grants are spending the money wisely, or if every board and commission is complying with open-government rules.

On the other hand, everyone knows when the streets are filthy, and if a grease-soaked, wind-tossed burger bag slaps you in the face on your way to the ballot box, you’ll angrily remember it.

But clean doesn’t inherently equal green. Street sweepers don’t magically cause dirt to disappear. Where do the used condoms, food wrappers, trails of frothy malt liquor, puddles of urine, auto exhaust particulates, oil and gas residue, toxic chemical spills, and arching piles of trash go after being sucked into a street sweeper’s collection bin?

Well, two places really. When haulers and street sweepers at the Department of Public Works pick up junk from the streets, as much as possible gets recycled at a site on Tunnel Avenue.

"DPW separates materials we pick up for recycling [furniture, appliances, construction debris, etc.], which as recently as 2003 went to the landfill," department spokesperson Christine Falvey told the Guardian.

Then, however, the street sweepers all congregate at a DPW maintenance yard on César Chávez Street, where workers hose charming layers of sludge off the inside reservoir panels of the trucks and out onto two grates — little more than storm drains, which ultimately empty into the bay.

Harvey Rose, chief budget analyst for the Board of Supervisors, released a comprehensive management audit of the DPW in January. Buried on page 149 is a description of what San Francisco does with all this waste scrubbed from the city’s asphalt surfaces and left clinging to the inside of street sweepers.

For the audit, Rose’s office hired health and safety experts from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the San Francisco International Airport to conduct an inspection of the maintenance yard.

We recently requested a copy of the report, and it shows that the foul and possibly toxic liquids removed from the trucks — still swirling with smaller debris that slipped through the grates — wind up in the city’s sewers.

A capture basin below the drains, which the SFPUC cleans out once a week, gathers some of the smaller debris such as trash and gravel. But the basins lose their treatment capacity once they’re a third full, and auditors noted that the basins were almost overflowing when they visited. And despite the presumably high concentration of pollutants in the waste liquids (uninhibited runoff from the streets is a chief contributor to water pollution), no special attention was being given to their handling.

"There are no measures in place to prevent an acute discharge of a collected hazardous material," the analyst’s report concluded, "or to reduce the chronic influx of pollutants generated from this activity."

In other words, the city is cleaning crud off the streets, where people can see it — then dumping it into the bay, where it’s a lot less visible.

In the DPW’s official response to the audit, director Fred Abadi did not dispute how poorly the agency was treating discarded waste from street sweepers and vowed to link the catch basin to a multichambered oil-grit separator, as auditors proposed. Falvey admitted that sometimes night-shift sweepers dumped their entire loads at the César Chávez yard, but she said that habit stopped after the audit was released. The DPW is currently in the market for an oil-grit separator, she added, and the maintenance yard’s drains that receive material from the sweepers have been covered with metal nets.

Of course, all that flushing also requires a lot of water — and that’s in scarce supply right now. San Francisco is experiencing its fourth driest winter on record, and to fill the region’s water needs, there’s talk of diverting more precious flow from the Tuolumne River, threatening fish and wildlife (see "Draining the River").

The DPW’s "street flushers" can each hold 3,200 gallons of water and use about 15,000 gallons of freshwater every business day to cover an average of 25 routes.

In comparison, three average San Francisco households would have to cease using water for an entire month to equal the amount of water used to clean local streets each day. The DPW’s Bureau of Street Environmental Services used 5.6 million gallons of water last year, according to figures provided by water officials. The agency used 90.8 million for landscape maintenance, mostly irrigation for street medians, which during droughts in the late ’80s was temporarily outlawed to conserve water, according to SFPUC spokesperson Tony Winnicker. San Francisco is not there yet, but "for now we would just like everybody to cut back," Winnicker said, "and certainly the city has room to do that as well."

There are costs involved in not cleaning the streets. The Maryland-based Stormwater Center, funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, argues that it’s not clear how much street cleaners help remove surface pollution before it runs directly into the oceans. The center says, however, the runoff could be reduced by 5 to 30 percent with the right modern trucks and aggressive maintenance.

Street sweeping as a municipal function historically began as a matter of aesthetics. Unmanageable layers of trash and slime on the street are unsightly and generally not considered to be a part of good public policy, to say the least.

More recently, though, cities have looked at how street cleaning can also help green their locales. "They still want to pick up trash and litter, which was the original idea," said Jim Scanlon, a program director for the Alameda Countywide Clean Water Program. "But it’s moving a little bit more toward wanting to pick up the finer particles because of the pollutant-reduction capabilities."

To its credit, the DPW has planted several thousand trees in the city over the past three years at the direction of the mayor, helping to contain burgeoning stormwater during heavy rains that would otherwise overflow into the ocean. It’s a strategy lauded by groups such as San Francisco Planning and Urban Research. And elsewhere at the César Chávez maintenance yard, auditors noted the DPW’s good housekeeping, including its storage of toxic materials.

But scooping up noxious sludge in one place and pouring it out somewhere else isn’t exactly the sort of green behavior that Mayor Gavin Newsom likes to talk about. *

Property wrongs



For decades the narrow strip of land at the corner of Fulton and Stanyan streets in the Inner Richmond sat abandoned, accumuutf8g weeds and trash. At some point in the distant past, neighbors say, it had been a nice lawn, but no one remembers exactly when that was.

"I walk past it every morning," 75-year-old Kathleen Russell, who has lived in an apartment overlooking the lot for 34 years, told the Guardian. "I kept hoping somebody would put a lawn in or something, something that was pretty. But it was just left vacant and unattended."

Last year the Department of Public Works posted a sign declaring the vacant land blighted after receiving repeated complaints. Then in January a small group of neighbors began transforming the lot into a community garden. They cleaned up the garbage, cut down the weeds, and planted vegetables. Soon after, the DPW sign disappeared and was replaced by fava beans, garlic, and lettuce.

Justin Valone, who lives down the street from the piece of land, helped initiate the garden. "The response from the community has been amazing," he told us enthusiastically. "We’ve had nothing but support from neighbors. It’s been a real catalyst for getting to know everyone in the neighborhood."

Only one person seems to take issue with the project: the landowner. While visiting San Francisco from her out-of-town home, Aileen O’Driscoll discovered the guerrilla garden on her property and was less than thrilled. She also found neighbors using a hose from her building to water the plot without permission. O’Driscoll told Citywide Property Management, which takes care of the lot and the adjacent apartment building, that she wanted them off her land. She refused to speak to the gardeners directly and did not respond to our inquiries.

Carol Cosgrove, co-owner of Citywide, has been responsible for returning the lot to its unkempt state. "I think beautification of the city is important. I agree with it completely, but I think that personal property and private property is still important," she told us. "Instead of taking something aggressively and taking the water and not even bothering to seek out who the owner is and ask permission or to give a proposal to, this could have been done more responsibly."

Citywide got in touch with Valone and told him to stop using its water (which he did) and to remove the plants (which he didn’t). In response, gardeners began trying to generate broader support for the garden. They went door-to-door with a petition. Some neighbors asked Citywide to leave the plants alone.

Still O’Driscoll refused to talk. The San Francisco Parks Trust contacted the property managers to show there is organizational support for the garden. District Supervisor Jake McGoldrick’s office called too, offering to help mediate a deal between the two groups. The gardeners even agreed to lease the unused land. Citywide says it has presented the case to the owner many times, but O’Driscoll won’t budge and won’t offer an explanation.

"I can’t really speak for her, but she doesn’t want the garden there right now," Cosgrove said.

Gardeners are frustrated by her unwillingness to talk to them. "We could address her specific concerns, but without knowing what they are, we can’t do anything," says Becky Sutton, another garden organizer.

When they felt negotiations were going nowhere, garden supporters began holding a constant vigil at the lot, hoping for the chance to speak to the landowner directly. Groups of friends and neighbors stayed by the garden for days, talking to passersby and getting more signatures on the petition. Currently they have more than 300.

The benefits of the garden would extend beyond the 1,300-square-foot plot, advocates assert. "Green space in San Francisco is very valuable to all residents," said Jude Koski, director of the San Francisco Garden Resource Organization (SFGRO), a local community gardening organization that is willing to help broker a deal over the land. "It is a wonderful way to engage the community. It’s an opportunity for people to come together who wouldn’t otherwise be coming together." According to a 2004 survey by the Recreation and Park Department, 47 percent of San Franciscans would like to see more community gardens in the city.

The two sides have reached something of an impasse: O’Driscoll wants the garden gone, Citywide says it has no choice but to follow her orders, and the gardeners don’t want the lot to go back to dirt and weeds.

But even if they lose this lot, the gardeners see the fight as ongoing. "We want to see this garden not just be bound by the concrete that is all around it but be something that will inspire people and help them know they can utilize vacant land in their neighborhoods," Valone said. "People can take responsibility for beautifying and creating important and useful resources for themselves and their neighbors in the space around them. Whether you’re a renter, whether you own land or not, you can still take responsibility for land and utilize it." *

The sunshine posse



On Saturday mornings, with roughshod regularity, a handful of San Franciscans gather at the Sacred Grounds Cafe on Hayes Street to swap strategies and catch up on their political triumphs and setbacks. They don’t look like a powerful bunch, and they aren’t household names, but they’re changing the way the city handles public records, meetings, and information.

All of these folks started with one simple request for what ought to have been public information. All of them ran into a stone wall. They eventually found one another at hearings in front of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, where they took their cases and debated the minutiae of the law that grants them access to what they’re looking for.

For Wayne Lanier, it started with a $600 tax for neighborhood beautification. James Chaffee and Peter Warfield were seeking reform at the San Francisco Public Library. Kimo Crossman wanted more transparency in the city’s wi-fi deal with Google-EarthLink. Michael Petrelis was trying to find a keyhole into local nonprofit AIDS agencies. Allen Grossman thought the city’s attorneys should shelve their redactive black ink. And Christian Holmer — he just considers sunshine a part of his job.

They’ve been working together loosely during the past year or so — and in most cases, they’ve won. Their ongoing battles also show how the city’s laws and practices badly need reform.

Collectively, the sunshine crew considers the issue of metadata its biggest victory of the year (see "The Devil in the Metadata," 11/15/06), because it forced city officials to abandon their fear of the unseen electronic data that is generated whenever they hit send or open a new word-processing document.

Paul Zarefsky, a deputy city attorney with the City Attorney’s Office, argued that electronic documents could be rife with redactable goods and hackers could use this data to crack into the city’s server. According to him, this was ample reason to only release public information as a paper document or a PDF. The sunshine activists said this was an environmental waste and a very un–user friendly format in this age of electronic searches. The task force and Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors agreed, found the city attorney’s arguments specious, and demanded agencies follow the letter of the law and release documents in an electronic format.

Some departments still aren’t doing that, which is a problem these citizens have discovered: the Sunshine Ordinance, though very good, could be much better and is overripe for reform.

The ordinance, adopted by voters in 1993, grants San Franciscans far more traction and power than the federal and state open-records laws by setting deadlines and offering the forum of the task force for addressing complaints when documents are not forthcoming.

When a citizen makes a request for a public document, it’s often because somebody sees something from the kitchen window while washing dishes and says, "Huh, I wonder what’s going on."

For Wayne Lanier, that moment came when he received a bill from the city for $600 after he improved the sidewalk and installed some planters in front of his house on Fell Street. Lanier had gone through the proper planning and permit process and was confident everything he’d done was within the law. So why was he being fined?

With a little research, Lanier discovered that an ordinance, recently passed by the supervisors at the urging of the mayor, inadvertently took into account sidewalk fixtures such as planters when taxing property owners and merchants for putting up signs and cluttering rights-of-way. Lanier began to research how the law came to pass.

"I was told there were various meetings with the mayor," Lanier said. "I didn’t know when they were. So I started using the Sunshine Ordinance as a means to getting the mayor’s calendar. First I wrote a rather chatty letter asking for it, and there was no response. So I wrote a more formal request and also said maybe you ought to make your calendar public. The governor of Florida’s done it. It’s quite easy to do."

But it wasn’t easy for room 200. Lanier filed his original request March 3, 2006. A year later he has not received what he asked for. He’s been told by the Mayor’s Office of Communications that the calendar can’t be released because it tells exactly where Gavin Newsom is supposed to be and who is going to be protecting him. Lanier has urged the office to make the document public at the end of each week, once security concerns have passed. That hasn’t happened.

In addition to losing portions of the mayor’s calendar during a staff turnover and heavily redacting the few calendar items it has made available, the Mayor’s Office has not set or followed a policy regarding public access to this public document. But Lanier’s original request has not been dropped. Christian Holmer picked it up.

Holmer is sunshining for sunshine. A manual laborer by day, Holmer’s been a longtime resident of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and became volunteer coordinator of the San Francisco Survival Manual, a manifestation of the 40-year-old Haight Asbury Switchboard, once a clearinghouse of services and information for city residents. The modern-day equivalent is part of a public information pilot project approved in 2004 with the support of 10 members of the Board of Supervisors that encourages the sharing of all city documents in an open forum. Holmer makes regular and massive requests for all manner of information from a variety of agencies, urging them to employ the technological ease of e-mail to send him documents as soon they’re created by the city — in effect, CCing him on everything.

Holmer says the point is not only to compile a library of city documents but to establish best practices for the agencies that are supposed to provide information when the public requests it. By encouraging this free flow of information that takes, according to him, only a few keystrokes and mere seconds to disseminate electronically, Holmer hopes a culture of openness is being cultivated.

"You push a department to a certain level of compliance, and it raises all the boats," Holmer said.

James Chaffee began seeking public information about the San Francisco Public Library in 1974, long before the Sunshine Ordinance was born. The tall, professorial man has a habit of employing erudite references from literature, philosophy, and film in his regular newsletters decrying the secret actions of the Library Commission. His writings have received attention and acclaim in the national world of library news.

"The original library commissioners would be shocked if they could see the openness that exists now," Chaffee says.

He’s pushed for more weekend library hours and successfully brought enough attention to block the public library’s plans to purchase costly and suspicious radio-frequency identification tags and grant the task of collecting overdue fees to a debt agency.

Peter Warfield, executive director of the Library Users Association, and Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, picked up the radio-frequency issue and ran with it, making public records requests that might substantiate the library’s argument that thousands of dollars in workers’ compensation claims for repetitive stress injuries would be remedied by an investment in the expensive new technology.

The library wouldn’t turn over any documents, so Tien and Warfield went across the bay to Berkeley, which doesn’t have a Sunshine Ordinance (though the city is currently working on one). The Berkeley Public Library gave enough information to fully debunk the claims. Of more than $1 million spent on five years of workers’ comp, just 1 percent was for repetitive stress injuries. The Chaffee-Warfield-Tien efforts halted a nationwide move toward employing this potentially privacy-invading technology.

Then there’s Kimo Crossman.

Crossman is regularly criticized for his public records requests, which some city agencies feel are voluminous and burdensome. "I’ve had to stop the office a couple times. There are 300 people in this office," said Matt Dorsey, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, which receives almost daily requests or reminders of requests from Crossman, the length and breadth of which bring some city departments to their knees.

Technology is Crossman’s interest, and he made his first public records request of the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services in September 2005, for contracts and related documents between the city and Google-EarthLink.

"As an interested citizen, I wanted to participate in the wi-fi initiative," Crossman told us. He received his request — with 90 percent of the information redacted. The DTIS claimed attorney-client privilege and the need to protect proprietary information to keep Crossman from seeing more than a fraction of the data.

Even though a specific section in the Sunshine Ordinance allows for the release of a contract when there are not multiple bidders and today the deal is strictly between the city and Google-EarthLink, the DTIS still refuses to hand over the documents Crossman wants. DTIS spokesperson Ron Vinson continues to cite the advice of the City Attorney’s Office.

The city attorney’s relationship with sunshine is a problem, according to Allen Grossman, a retired business lawyer. Grossman’s requests for information have transcended their original intent — some Department of Public Works permits for tree removal near his home on Lake Street. They have become an inquiry into why so many departments regularly employ the City Attorney’s Office to represent them when it’s a direct violation of section 67.21(i) of the Sunshine Ordinance. That section states the city attorney "shall not act as legal counsel for any city employee or any person having custody of any public record for purposes of denying access to the public." The public lawyers are permitted only to write legal opinions regarding the withholding of information, which must be made public.

"The whole purpose of that section was to level the playing field and get the lawyers out of it," said Grossman, who says the office ghostwrites letters denying access, putting citizens who may not have legal counsel to advise them at an unfair advantage. It’s not in keeping with the spirit of the law.

Dorsey defends City Attorney Dennis Herrera, pointing out that deputy city attorneys no longer represent departments at the task force when there’s a complaint. They’re still writing those letters, though.

"When we give advice on sunshine, it’s a matter of public record. We will prepare a written cover-your-ass statement," Dorsey said. "To some we would appear as the bad guy, but I yield to no one on our commitment on sunshine in this city."

Bruce Wolfe, a task force member who’s seen scores of departments employ the ghostwriting tactic, said, "There is one area that concerns me greatly — the use of attorney shield. The question is what is the city attorney’s role? The advice is important because that’s something every other department can use, but it shouldn’t just be some way to squiggle out of providing records."

Dorsey related a recent case in which KGO wanted access to Muni documents that identified the names of operators. "We provided the documents, but we redacted the names. If we lose to KGO in front of the task force, we have to turn over docs. If we lose to a court that finds we violated privacy, we’re on the hook for potential substantive damages. These results can get very expensive for taxpayers. There’s an act of balance that has to occur."

Many task force members, activists, and citizens agree that the ordinance and task force are wonderful tools but still lack the necessary bite. The task force has no power to review documents and determine if a department’s secrecy claims are true. And when a department is found in violation, there are no specific fines or penalties that the task force can levy.

But some are still happy the body even exists. "We have a great Sunshine Ordinance Task Force," said Michael Petrelis, who has been trying to find information about local AIDS nonprofits and advisory boards that are usually exempt from public records law — unless they receive city funding. Petrelis found that avenue into these organizations, and when they don’t comply with records requests it’s still a boon for him, because filing a complaint requires them to come and be accountable in front of the task force, an open hearing that Petrelis can also attend. "I have learned so much at those meetings, just observing," Petrelis said. "The task force process is so valuable in all its beautiful permutations." *

Sink or swim



Click to view the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission subsidence map (PDF)

Will rising seas destroy San Francisco’s sewers? Should condos South of Market be on stilts? Could the huge Coca-Cola bottle at the Giants’ ballpark one day bubble with seawater? Can anyone explain why San Francisco still doesn’t have flood insurance?

As temperatures rise, snow packs vanish, and sea levels surge, San Francisco is waking up to its own inconvenient truth: surrounded on three sides by water, paved with concrete throughout, and erecting condo towers faster than you can say "bamboo," the city by the bay is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

With a recent California Climate Change Center report predicting sea levels will rise between four inches and three feet by 2100, San Francisco can expect increased flooding and damage to vital infrastructure and the destruction of fragile ecosystems and low-lying neighborhoods.

The evidence of impending doom is already there.

Addressing a climate change summit last month, Tom Franza, assistant general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, revealed that seawater already tops the city’s weirs for about an hour during very high tides. Franza expects this salt water intrusion, which threatens to kill helpful microbes that digest our solid waste, to get worse as sea levels continue to rise.

So what steps is the city taking to combat climate change?

The SFPUC is already building safety valves on floodgates and pushing for environmentally friendly development toward a future where green roofs, grassy swales, and permeable sidewalks will help stop rainwater from inundating already stressed sewers. It’s also working with the Departments of Planning and Public Works to map blocks and lots that are already sinking — known officially as subsidence — and therefore especially vulnerable to flooding from rising seas.

It comes as a shock to learn that the Planning Department doesn’t already have maps of areas that are prone to floods, but zoning administrator Larry Badiner told the Guardian, "In the past, floods were related to free-running streams, and since there aren’t any in San Francisco anymore, it wasn’t an issue."

Senior planner Craig Nikitas did confirm for us that city planners are working with the SFPUC and the DPW to flag blocks and lots prone to sinking, a phenomenon associated with rising seas that city officials don’t quite understand.

"If I had to guess, I’d say [they’re sinking] because most are on sandy soils or fill and over time there’s been a settling of sand or because of subterranean flooding," Nikitas said.

As the city’s subsidence map shows, the problem is biggest in SoMa and along the bay — where concrete-intense development is on the rise.

In the future, Nikitas told us, "If a developer comes in to do something in those areas, the system will flag it, and builders should pay extra attention to drainage and elevation, using raised entrances three steps up from the street and trench drains and installing sump pumps if there’s a subterranean garage."

As small a step as subsidence mapping sounds, it’s a sea change for city planners. SFPUC principal engineer Jon Loiacono recalls how in the past he was trained to say, "If flooding happens on your property, it’s your problem."

Loiacono remembers only one instance when the SFPUC built a pump station in response to a developer’s concerns. That was almost a decade ago.

Advising developers about the perils of building in flood-prone areas sounds obvious, but with that step comes responsibility that threatens to drown the city fiscally. Asked who’ll pay for flood damage, Loiacono pointed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"FEMA is currently mapping San Francisco, but the city would have to join FEMA’s flood insurance program to get coverage," Loiacono said.

Surprised that the city doesn’t already belong, the Guardian called FEMA’s Oakland-based spokesperson, Frank Mansell, who revealed San Francisco is the only city in the Bay Area that isn’t part of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Participating in the FEMA mapping program would allow residents to qualify for federally subsidized flood insurance and get rebuilding grants after a disaster. FEMA’s Henry Chau says San Francisco will have to raise its standards "slightly higher" to join the agency’s flood insurance program.

Noting that FEMA’s San Francisco map is due this summer and includes development that lies in the city’s floodplains — development FEMA strongly discourages — Mansell said he doesn’t know why San Francisco doesn’t belong. But he does know cities that do must build to code and enact ordinances to ensure people aren’t living in flood zones. He said cities that do build in flood zones must take preventive steps such as raising buildings.

"If cities don’t comply with FEMA’s requirements, they’re put on notice and could be removed from the flood insurance program," Mansell said, adding that disasters such as Hurricane Katrina illustrate why private brokers won’t sell flood insurance.

But as FEMA digitizes and puts its maps online and predicts that 92 percent of US residents will belong to the NFIP by 2010, not everyone is singing its praises. San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission executive director Will Travis faults FEMA’s flood maps for not factoring in climate change.

"Instead, FEMA looks to the past to determine floodplains. As a result, their maps are inadequate and show less inundation than is already occurring," Travis told us. The BCDC just released maps that show a two-meter sea level rise in the bay that would put the San Francisco and Oakland airports and the Giants stadium underwater.

"But we won’t allow the Giants’ ballpark to flood, SFO to be underwater, and San Francisco to become Venice," Travis said. "Instead, sea walls and levees will be built. It’ll require more investment in infrastructure and shoreline protections. The point of the maps is to show people what could happen and get them to take action. Sea level rise doesn’t belong in the realms of science fiction. It’s happening now."

With the California Climate Change Center reporting a seven-inch rise in the bay since 1900 — and the feds refusing to address the role of carbon emissions in climate change — Travis predicted that insurance companies will have the biggest impact in land use planning.

"There’s always an effort to shift costs from the private to the public sector, and from there, from the local to the state to the federal government," Travis told us. "But insurance companies are looking at potential huge losses and won’t be offering policies at all, or offering them at very high prices."

Mansell defended FEMA’s flood maps, arguing that they’re used primarily for insurance and so can’t be used for forecasting.

"We look at existing data," Mansell said. "Otherwise everyone’s premiums would be unpredictable and probably high. FEMA does encourage communities to build to the highest standard, which means the 100-year flood event that has a 1 percent chance of occurring. And FEMA doesn’t conduct the studies. The Army Corps of Engineers does."

Army Corps spokesperson Maria Or confirmed that her agency collects data at different times of the year — data showing the climate has been changing and helping forecast what those changes will mean.

"But we can’t base maps on pure speculation," Or told us. "We continuously look at new data and reanalyze the situation based on that new information. The more relevant question is how often a FEMA map is updated."

Mansell said it takes FEMA one to two years to create a flood map, using computer models, precipitation and tidal patterns, rivers and stream flows — and tracking how much concrete is laid down in an area and how much is built in a floodplain.

"Areas are mapped and remapped and show three levels of risk — low, moderate, and high risk," he said. Based on these ratings, FEMA reviews flood insurance premiums once a year.

But with FEMA the main hope of covering sea rise–related flood damage, experts such as Dr. Peter Gleick of the Oakland-based Pacific Research Institute join the BCDC’s Travis in accusing FEMA of having "failed miserably in integrating climate change into its planning."

"BCDC included climate change in their maps. FEMA did not. Why aren’t there flood maps everywhere around the country that integrate climate change?" asked Gleick, who produced a map 17 years ago showing the impact of a one-meter sea level rise on the bay.

"It’s a little depressing to have been working for two decades on this," Gleick conceded. "I’m glad people are starting to pay more attention and accept that sea level is going up, because the impacts will depend on how we react and how quickly, but we’re decades too late to prevent bad things from happening."

Outraged by President George W. Bush’s we-can’t-afford-to-unilaterally-cut-greenhouse-gases argument, Gleick said, "They’re putting short-term economic gain ahead of long-term survival." But he praised California for establishing a cap to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

In light of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that suggests a 10- to 20-foot sea level increase in the next 1,000 years, Gleick observed, "That means hundreds and millions of people will be potential refugees. So we better reduce our greenhouse gases starting now. We can’t prevent some change, but we hope to prevent disastrous sea level change."

Gleick said he’s worried that we won’t protect low-income areas or move fast enough to prevent damage, a shortcoming that will also have devastating environmental impacts.

"Marshes and wetlands have no place to retreat, since the areas around them are already built up," he explained. "Bay Area communities should make parks, bay and coastal trails, and wetlands bigger, so they’ll have greater protection 50 years from now. And if you’re developing a building that’s supposed to last for 50 years, you need to design it now for the changes that are to come." *

More than clean



Cleaner streets, crack-free sidewalks, an urban landscape unmarred by graffiti and made greener by leafy trees: that was the improved "quality of life" espoused by Mayor Gavin Newsom in his State of the City speech Oct. 26, 2006. And he’s put resources into delivering that pretty picture, with increases to the Department of Public Works (DPW) budget and funds allocated for sidewalk revitalization and the citywide Clean Corridors campaign.

But the city’s top-down approach to realizing the mayor’s goals — and the apparent lack of consideration for the implications of those priorities among ordinary people — has created a backlash from affluent District 7 (where Sup. Sean Elsbernd is upset over the fines being doled out to property owners for cracked sidewalks) to the working-class Mission District (where an aggressive new street cleaning regime has been proposed).

"This is something that just dropped out of the blue, and I think it’s unacceptable," Mission resident Peter Turner said at a Jan. 31 public hearing on the proposal to clean many streets in his neighborhood every weekday. "The city has shown a vast amount of disrespect to the Mission."

Others think there are more pressing problems.

"What is quality of life?" asked Vicki Rega, who lives at 21st and Bryant streets and spoke to the Guardian on her way out of the hearing. "Some trash on your street or a dead kid on your sidewalk?"

The signs started appearing a few weeks ago, posted on trees and lamp poles in the Mission. The type is a tiny 10-point font, often difficult to read through the plastic wrap that holds the paper to the pole. Even if you can make out the words, it’s still pretty unclear that they announce a proposal to ramp up mechanical street cleaning — from as little as one day a week to as many as five.

"The signs were very, very confusing," said Eric Noble, a Shotwell Street resident who was further insulted that postings weren’t made in Spanish and Chinese. "That’s really unconscionable in the Mission."

Beyond warning residents of the radical change to their daily lives, the signs invited them to two public hearings to discuss the issue, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 5. The first hearing drew about 150 residents and frustration that the only sign of officialdom present was DPW representative Chris McDaniels, who was sitting alone behind a vast empty desk, taking notes.

"Who is deciding this issue, and why aren’t they here to hear us?" Judith Berkowitz asked.

Attendees expressed anger at the process and annoyance that car-owning residents on dozens of city blocks east of Valencia Street and north of Cesar Chavez Street will face steep fines and be forced to scramble for new parking spots on a daily basis.

At the beginning of the meeting, the reasons for the change were introduced: illegal dumping in the area had doubled in one year, calls to the city’s trash hotline 28-CLEAN had increased 18 percent from 2005 to 2006, and the sweeper truck in the Mission had been collecting huge amounts of trash.

"It’s the sidewalks, not the streets," several speakers said. They pointed out that the trucks are more successful blowing trash around than sucking it up. Many offered numerous suggestions for how to better clean the streets: have more trash cans and volunteers, employ the homeless, coordinate with other city services, educate the merchants, bring back people with brooms and dustpans — but don’t just run trucks through the streets.

One Alabama Street resident said she’s committed to using public transportation to get to her job in Richmond, but like many others at the meeting, she pointed out that if cars need to be moved five days a week for street cleaning, why not move them all the way to work?

"It’s a disincentive for people to use public transit," she said.

And if they don’t get moved, does the city really mind?

"Is it really trash, or is it revenue?" Shotwell Street resident Eric Noble asked, citing the added opportunities for writing parking tickets. "If revenue enhancement is behind this project, you’re going to see it all over the city."

DPW spokesperson Christine Falvey denied money was the motive and said parking fine revenue goes to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has recently revealed an $11 million budget shortfall. Falvey also said changes in street cleaning schedules are usually prompted by complaints from residents, but in this case the proposal was sparked by recommendations from city staff who work in the area.

Street cleaning trucks have been in use since 1976 and currently clean about 90 percent of city streets, but according to Falvey, the DPW has never done an analysis of their efficiency and effectiveness. A consultant was recently hired to make that determination.

"Every time some city agency comes up with an improvement, it does more to inconvenience," David Jayne, a Potrero Avenue resident, told us. "I’m really worried this is another one-size-fits-all cure."

But Newsom has made clean streets a top priority for his reelection year.

"How do we dare to dream big — while not forgetting to fill potholes, clean our streets and parks, and address the small problems of urban life that make such a big difference to our quality of life?" Newsom asked in his State of the City speech.

And how do we do it without pissing off the neighbors?

"You’re not going to find anyone who says, ‘Yeah, I think the neighborhood should be dirtier,’ " Florida Street resident Scott Adams told us. "Things should be done to improve the hygiene of the streets."

But he and others who live on these streets and have watched them for years said they were prepared to push brooms and pick up trash if the city were willing to work on other qualities of life such as rising violence, slipping public schools, and the truly ill transportation system.

The DPW’s stated mission is "improving the quality of life in San Francisco." And that’s been a popular pastime of recent mayors. Frank Jordan had One Neat City Week and the Litter Strike Force. Willie Brown promoted his Spring Cleanings and Great Sweeps. Gavin Newsom touts a goal to make this the "cleanest and greenest city in the country."

So his proposed 2006–7 budget for the DPW’s Street Environmental Services hovers around $33 million, an 11 percent boost over last year. That’s more than the 7 percent increase the patrol unit of the San Francisco Police Department received, the 4 percent Muni Services and Operations received, the 1 percent that went to Child Support Services, and almost two times more than the rise for the housing and homeless budget line in the Human Services Agency.

Street Environmental Services is a fancy-pants term for picking up trash, spraying off pee, and painting over graffiti. The mayor’s most recent plan to achieve this is called Clean Corridors and was unveiled in November 2006 with a $1.67 million allocation from Newsom for targeting the filthy faces of 100 specific blocks throughout the city. (Although this project focuses on the same areas in the Mission, the increased street cleaning is a separate proposal.)

The essence of Clean Corridors is to get residents and business owners to feel more responsible for their property, using both education and fines for things such as cracked sidewalks and dirty facades.

The program also pays for 20 neighborhood ambassadors who each patrol designated areas, picking up trash, reporting graffiti and areas needing repair, issuing litter citations, and educating the public. They’re essentially litter cops.

"He wanted specific people responsible for areas," Falvey said of the mayor’s ambassador program. "He wants that person to own their block."

Yet some residents bristle at Newsom placing such a high priority on litter as the murder rate is spiking, Muni is failing, housing is becoming less affordable, and city hall is mired in dysfunction.

"The war in Iraq. The violence in the streets — that’s probably my number one concern. Public schools. Transportation," Noble said when we asked about his quality-of-life concerns.

"Quality of life means being able to meet the basic necessities of your life," Myrna Lim said. The Excelsior resident is so frustrated with the parking situation in her neighborhood she organized a protest Feb. 24 against any new fine increases. "If you’re on a very tight budget, $40 for a ticket is a lot. When people talk about San Francisco being a very expensive city, that’s part of it. It makes day-to-day living very difficult. Over what? Parking?"

Yet the Mission parking proposal has prompted some community organizing. E-mail sign-up lists were passed around the hearing room, and a healthy chat about the issue now exists at a Yahoo! group. Several residents who aren’t currently members of neighborhood organizations told us they’re thinking about joining or starting one.

"I was quite amazed to see all the people," Noble said of the first hearing and the conversation it sparked. "Maybe one thing that will come out of this is more neighborhood discussions."

The DPW has also been chastened and scheduled an evening meeting in March. "We’ve heard overwhelming support that something needs to be done but overwhelming response that it’s not mechanical street cleaning," Falvey said.

"The city should really be a conduit for people to organize themselves," she added. "For any kind of long-term, sustained effort, it’s got to come from the neighbors." *

Department of Public Works…Works!


by Amanda Witherell

I ride my bike. A lot. And I’ve learned to avoid the treacherous ravine that is 17th Street where PG&E has been wrecking some serious havoc for the past few months. But the very end, between Texas and Mississippi is still my preferred way to approach Guardian headquarters and there’s one final ditch that stretches across the entire width of the road and, in very unavoidable fashion, has been doing it’s best to warp my nimble rims.

So the other day I called the city’s Pothole Hotline — 415-695-2100. A nice man took down the address of the crevasse and thanked me for calling. The DPW’s website promises repairs within 48 hours and when I was riding in this morning, I was thinking, “They’ve got about two hours to deliver on that promise…”

And they did! It’s all filled in! The hotline works!

Of course, this could be a coincidence and they’d been scheduling to dump some tarmac there for weeks…to truly test this I may have to find some more potholes to report. That shouldn’t be hard.

So clean you can eat off ’em


by Amanda Witherell

Hey Mission residents: there’s a public hearing tomorrow morning at 9 am, Room 400 in City Hall about street cleaning. The city is planning on having a lot more of it in the neighborhood, which means more sweeping up of newspapers and broken glass, but also more moving of your car and more getting of parking tickets. It affects everyone from Cesar Chavez to 19th Street and everything east of South Van Ness. If you have a Department of Public Works poster saran-wrapped to the street pole or tree in front of your house, they’re talking to you. You can double-check here, and roll down to City Hall tomorrow morning to give your two cents.

So clean you can eat off ’em


by Amanda Witherell

Hey Mission residents: there’s a public hearing tomorrow morning at 9 am, Room 400 in City Hall about street cleaning. The city is planning on having a lot more of it in the neighborhood, which means more sweeping up of newspapers and broken glass, but also more moving of your car and more getting of parking tickets. It affects everyone from Cesar Chavez to 19th Street and everything east of South Van Ness. If you have a Department of Public Works poster saran-wrapped to the street pole or tree in front of your house, they’re talking to you. You can double-check here, and roll down to City Hall tomorrow morning to give your two cents.

Who’s the poseur at City Hall?


By G.W. Schulz

San Francisco has always been notoriously behind statewide on skatepark construction, despite the relatively small monetary investment they require and the high civic value they produce. One spot already exists at Crocker Amazon Park, but it’s largely regarded as mediocre. Conservative states years ago were funding the construction of skateparks through their public works departments and allowing young skaters to participate in the designs. Shit, rural Kansas was doing it a long time ago.

Flowers unempowered


It’s been quite a year for local florist Guy Clark. His dad passed away about a year ago, and Clark suffered a heart attack shortly afterward. Two weeks later, the building at 15th and Noe where he rents garage space to sell flowers caught on fire. The good news was that his space was not damaged. The bad news was that his landlord, Triterra Realty, didn’t immediately renovate the destroyed apartments and let most of the tenants move out, telling the two who remained, Clark and Irene Newmark, that they would have to move soon, too: once the renovations were completed, the building would be put on the market and possibly sold as Tenancy-in-Common (TIC) apartments.

Some more bad news came the other day, on the morning of Jan. 22 when Clark discovered his space had been vandalized in an apparent hate crime.

“KKK” was scrawled across the garage door in blue paint. “Fuck you” with an arrow pointing to the door was written in off-white paint on the sidewalk. Additional garnishes of white and blue were splashed and smeared throughout the area.

“They totally trashed the place,” Clark told the Guardian. “I imagine that it’s geared toward me because I’m an African American.”

Clark said he notified the San Francisco Police Department, and an officer came by to file a report and take some pictures. The case will be referred to the Hate Crimes unit.

“I can’t really think of anybody who would do something like this,” said Clark, adding that he recently had a minor altercation with a neighbor up the street but no other suspects immediately came to mind. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who come by are a blessing.”

Clark has been living and selling flowers in the neighborhood for 25 years, and renting this particular space for five. The Guardian awarded his shop a Best of the Bay in 2005.

“This is more than tragic. Guy is very loved by this neighborhood,” said Irene Newmark, who lives in the building where Guy’s Flowers is housed. Newmark thinks increased gentrification, while not directly related to the hate crime, is changing the place where she’s lived for many years. Newmark listed off several nearby properties that have been sold recently or are on the market, including one that sits vacant across the street.

“They offered to buy me out for $10,000, but that’s not a financial incentive to move,” she said, adding that by the time she paid taxes on the money and found a new place to live most of the money would be gone. She said the owners of the building told her their intent was to sell the building on TIC speculation and “the day it sells you’ll receive your Ellis Act notice.”

Riyad Salma, a spokesperson from Triterra Realty, based on nearby Sanchez Street, said the company has joint ownership of a few other properties in the neighborhood and would be putting a different TIC on the market shortly. He didn’t want to comment on the TIC prospects for the building where Guy’s Flowers is housed, saying it was too market dependent and difficult to say at this point what they will do. He did confirm that the building would be put up for sale soon, “marketed as a whole building or TICs. Whoever will take it,” he said.

Salma also expressed dismay about the crime. “The vandalism seemed to be hate-motivated and race-motivated and it’s not something we’ve ever seen in the neighborhood,” he said.

Sitting on a bench among pots of flowers that decorate the sidewalk in front of her building, Newmark said, “It’s so ironic that those that are beautifying the neighborhood are being forced out.”

Nearby a Department of Public Works employee wielded a hose like a magic wand, trying to make the hateful slurs disappear.

Clark said he plans to keep doing what he does for as long as he can, whether it’s in this building or the one where he lives, four doors down the street.

“I’m usually closed on Mondays and Tuesdays,” said Clark. “But I was thinking about just going and selling whatever I had left. The idea of selling flowers makes me feel better.”

Air play


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REVIEW There is something about "The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air," the de Young Museum’s current retrospective of Ruth Asawa’s work, that initially feels a bit like a natural history museum display. The darkened space, punctuated with spotlights, showcases Asawa’s floating woven wire forms, which look like giant representations of diatoms or plankton. The shadows this installation creates are an important factor, illustrating the concepts the artist considered during their making: positive and negative space, organic growth, and continuous line. One of the first pieces greeting visitors at the entrance resembles a hanging column of ballooning onion and bell shapes. It’s made of woven aluminum and brass wire, and Asawa describes it as a test to see how large a sculpture she could create in crocheted metal wire without it collapsing from its own weight.

A nearby glass case displays sketchbook pages from her formative art-school years. On one page a sentence stands out boldly: "DRAW AIR WITH NOTHING." The lacy forms of industrial metal wire are paralleled by the pen-and-ink drawings on the walls, some of which Asawa calls "meanderings." They’re images formed in an intuitive yet mathematically exponential process — not unlike the route her lifelong career of object making and art activism has taken.

Born in Norwalk, Calif., in 1929 and raised on her parents’ vegetable farm, Asawa was one of thousands of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. At the Santa Anita racetrack camp, she had her first formal lessons in art, taught by several Walt Disney studio animators who were also interned. After the war she attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied with legendary artists and thinkers including Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. There she met the man who would become her husband and father to her six children, architect Albert Lanier.

After college Asawa studied in Toluca, Mexico, where she learned to crochet baskets. She pushed this traditional craft into the realm of fine art during the 1950s. Her work was chosen to represent the United States in the 1955 São Paolo Biennial, and soon after the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired her work for its collection. However, in the Bay Area, where she has lived since the ’50s, Asawa has remained relatively unknown.


At the de Young the viewer traipses past Asawa’s complex, bundled copper-wire tumbleweed puffs; wiry snowflake configurations; spongy Möbius strips; plump, electroplated copper, cactilike works; and graphically bold, obsessive-compulsive-esque lithographs and drawings. Some of these date to the late ’90s, but nonetheless, we are really wandering in a realm of late-modernist works. So by today’s postmodernist and post-postmodernist values, Asawa’s pieces don’t readily leap into a contemporary critical arena. They are, for the most part, graceful and avoid the taint of macramé kitsch, although a subtle whiff of hippie-era flavoring does hover over the exhibition. Yet before one judges her art by today’s standards, let’s look at why she merits a retrospective.

This is not Asawa’s first overview: the Oakland Museum of California held one in 2002. One dramatic mandala sculpture on display — Wintermass, from the late ’60s — is similar to the bronze gracing the front entrance to the Oakland Museum. And this isn’t the only Asawa piece available for free viewing in the Bay Area — she is far more ubiquitous than many locals realize. Over the days following my visit to the de Young exhibition, I stumbled upon several of her public works — many of which in no way resemble the art chosen for the show. Rather, they seem to be created by an almost evil twin. Asawa’s public objects generally tend to land in a goofier, now quaint public-art aesthetic. The list includes that tourist mecca mermaid fountain at Ghirardelli Square, the sea lion statue (generally hidden under climbing children) at Pier 39, the whimsical San Francisco landscape fountain outside the Grand Hyatt San Francisco at Union Square, the pair of occasionally functioning giant origami fountains in Japantown — and the steel origami doughnut fountain (titled Aurora) near the Gap’s Embarcadero headquarters. She also helped with the design of Children’s Fairyland in Oakland and more recently a San Jose memorial dedicated to the Japanese American internment.


Asawa was a public sculptor to be reckoned with during city upgrades in the 1970s and ’80s. She was also the force who created the revolutionary Alvarado School summer art workshops in the early ’70s. She spearheaded the creation of San Francisco’s School of the Arts High School and actively served on both state and city art boards. This exhibit includes photo documentation by Asawa’s close chum Imogen Cunningham of her early work and bohemianlike family life. Asawa saw little difference between making art and teaching it to children, which could easily make her one of the godmothers of the social practice genre. The format in which Asawa chose to display her objects early on could also make her something of a forebear of installation artists.

In a period in which homespun crafts and the DIY joys of creation — think ReadyMade magazine — are so prevalent, an appreciation of Ruth Asawa is a timely thing. Captured in the wonderfully dated 1978 documentary by Robert Snyder that’s screening at the exhibition, Asawa declares that "a line can go anywhere" and talks of the importance of being like a bulb planted in soil: she should always be growing while here on earth. Much like that enormous New England mushroom discovered expanding for miles underneath the soil, Asawa planted herself here and flourished quietly, germinating an idealistic sense of the importance of art in the community — something I hope never grows out of style. *


Through Jan. 28

Tues.–Thurs. and Sat.–Sun., 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.; Fri., 9:30 a.m.–8:45 p.m., $6–$10

De Young Museum

Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., SF

(415) 750-3614


Free wi-fi for everyone


EDITORIAL Basic municipal infrastructure — roads, water and sewer pipes, train tracks, airports, that sort of thing — has traditionally been owned and operated by the public sector, and for good reason: private experiments with toll roads, profit-motivated water companies, and even city rail companies have typically been disasters. The fundamental building blocks that hold a city together are public goods, paid for by tax dollars, for use by all, either free or at the lowest possible cost.

We’ve argued for years that electricity ought to be in that category, and San Francisco is finally taking some cautious baby steps toward public power. But city officials are about to turn what could be the single most significant new piece of infrastructure in our lifetime — broadband Internet service — over to a private consortium. It’s a mistake, and the supervisors shouldn’t go along with the deal.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has made free universal wi-fi a key part of his political agenda, but through a process that’s been secretive and flawed from the start, he has chosen Google and EarthLink to put forward a proposal. As Sarah Phelan reported last week ("Selling Wi-Fi," 12/27/06), the two big tech companies are taking their road show around the city, trying to convince residents and businesses that their plan — which calls for limited free access combined with a fee-based system — will envelop the city in a wi-fi cloud, allowing anyone with a laptop to get instant Internet access anywhere in town, at no cost to taxpayers.

That may be true — but in the process, the city will be giving up a huge part of its future.

Ten years from now, maybe sooner, universal broadband will be as much a part of civic infrastructure as roads are today. Consumers will demand it. Businesses will insist on it. Public education will require it. Providing quality service to everyone — everywhere in town — will be an essential service. Why would we want to leave it to the private sector?

There are all sorts of problems with the Google-EarthLink proposal, starting with its lack of real universal access. Sure, everyone gets a connection — but at 300 kilobytes, it won’t be terribly fast. If you want to be able to quickly download music, videos, or large business files, you’ll need to pay by the month for an upgrade. Low-income folks, in other words, will be stuck in the slow lane. That’s not terribly fair.

It’s also not terribly surprising: these companies are out to make money. And over the years, their bottom line will drive the entire program.

There’s absolutely no need for that to happen. The city’s hired a consultant to look at creating a citywide network of fiber-optic lines under the streets, which is a fine idea, although it would take a few years to build. But even according to the Google-EarthLink consortium’s own estimates, the universal wi-fi network will cost only about $10 million. For a big-city public works project, that’s nothing. Almost every election, we approve another $100 million or so in bonds — for schools, community college buildings, libraries, parks, and police stations, all worthwhile projects. The city’s annual budget is more than $5 billion, and the cost of maintaining the network would run at about $2 million a year. This could turn out to be as important as anything the city ever builds — and it’s chump change.

The supervisors need to put the private wi-fi proposal on the shelf and immediately start plans to place a bond act on the next ballot to build a city-owned wi-fi and fiber-optic system that will offer true universal, free, high-speed broadband access for all. *

The Destroy California Initiative


If you knew there was an initiative on the ballot that would make it impossible for government to protect the environment, build affordable housing, raise minimum wages, and mandate health care, you’d vote no on it, right?
Especially if you knew this measure would force taxpayers to spend billions to prevent developers and private property owners from doing things that harm neighborhoods, communities, and the environment.
So why is Proposition 90, which does all this and more, still leading in the polls?
It’s all about fear — and the ability of one wealthy real estate investor from New York City to fund a misleading campaign that exploits legitimate concerns about eminent domain.
Eminent domain is the legal procedure that allows the government to take over private property. It’s been used traditionally to build roads, rail lines, schools, hospitals, and the like. But it’s also been used — abused, many would say — to condemn private homes and turn the land over to developers for more lucrative projects. And after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that doing so was OK, it was easy for property-rights types to whip those fears into a frenzy.
New York Libertarian and real estate investor Howie Rich, who hates government regulation, used the court decision to saddle up a herd of Trojan horses with eminent domain, stuffing the poison pills of “highest best use” and “regulatory takings” deep in their saddlebags, slapping their rumps with wads of cash, and sending them into California, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington.
Here in California, Rich’s millions went in large part toward paying petitioners a buck per signature to qualify Prop. 90 for the ballot. The pitch was stopping eminent domain — but there was little mention of the extreme provisions contained within the measure’s fine print that if passed, will mean more lawyers and fewer herons and hard hats.
For starters Prop. 90 changes the rules for calcuutf8g how much the government has to pay property owners when it takes their land. The new rules would dramatically increase the price of infrastructure and public works projects like building roads and levees, as well as purchasing open space and preserving habitats and endangered species.
Worse, Prop. 90’s language changes the valuation of regulatory takings. That’s legal mumbo jumbo, but what it amounts to is this: whenever the government takes actions that aren’t explicitly for the protection of people’s health and safety — like establishing rent control, minimum wages, and agricultural easements — property owners can claim that the value of their holdings was decreased. (Protecting an endangered species, for example, might prevent some parcels from being developed.) Under Prop. 90 those landowners can file claims of “substantial economic loss” — and put the taxpayers on the hook for billions (see “Proposition 90 Isn’t about Eminent Domain,” page 22).
Prop. 90 opponents predict that if the measure passes, its effects will be disastrous, wide-ranging, and immediate.
Bill Allayaud, state legislative director for the Sierra Club, told us it was Prop. 90’s “regulatory takings” clause that led to unprecedented opposition after individuals and groups analyzed the measure’s fine print.
“One little paragraph activated a coalition like we’ve never seen in California history,” Allayaud says.
Prop. 90 flushes away a century of land use and community planning, including regulations and ordinances that protect coastal access, preserve historic buildings, limit the use of private airspace, establish inclusionary housing, and save parks. In short, Prop. 90 destroys everything that makes California a decent place to live.
Over at the California Coastal Commission, executive director Peter Douglas frets that his agency will no longer be able to carry out its mandate to protect the coast.
“Every decision the Coastal Commission makes where we approve projects but impose conditions to protect neighborhoods and communities will be subject to claims,” Douglas says.
“Sensitive environments like the San Francisco Bay and Lake Tahoe will be exposed, along with residential neighborhoods, ag lands, and public parklands. And it will erode the state’s ability to protect against new offshore oil drilling, new liquid natural gas terminals, harmful ocean energy projects like offshore wind turbines and wave energy machines and make it impossible to set aside essential marine reserves to restore marine life and fisheries.”
Members of the California Chamber of Commerce oppose Prop. 90 because it will make it more complicated and costly to build new infrastructure like freeway lanes, sewer lines, levees, and utility sites.
President Allan Zaremberg observes, “At a time when California is trying to finally address the huge backlog of needed roads, schools, and flood protection–water delivery systems, the massive new costs of Prop. 90 would destroy our efforts to improve infrastructure.”
Among government agencies the outlook is equally bleak. Unlike Oregon’s Measure 37, which passed in 2004 and has already led to over $5 billion in claims, Prop. 90 isn’t limited to private land but extends to private economic interests. This wide-ranging scope means that it’ll be almost impossible for government to regulate business without facing claims of “substantial economic loss,” making it prohibitive to protect consumers, establish mandatory health care coverage, or raise minimum wages.
San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera told the Guardian, “If Prop. 90 passes, we might as well get out of the business of local government.”
Asked what California would look like if Prop. 90 had been law for a decade, Gary Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, paints a sprawl-filled picture.
“All the project proposals that weren’t built would have been, open space and parks wouldn’t have been preserved, almost every public works project would have been affected, and things wouldn’t have been constructed, because there would have been no money because the cost of everything would have gone up.”
Currently, the cost of a piece of land is valued by the market. Under Prop. 90 land would be valued by what it might be used for.
“For instance, a piece of land alongside a highway could one day be developed into a subdivision,” Patton explains. “So that’s the price it would have to be bought at. So unless taxes are raised, Prop. 90’s passage would mean that California would be able to do less. Traffic would be worse. The affordable housing crisis would intensify. Fewer swimming pools and civic centers would be built. Everything that’s done through spending dollars collectively would cost more.”
Within the Bay Area individual communities have chosen to adopt urban growth boundaries, but if Prop. 90 was already in place, Patton says, many environmental and community protection projects wouldn’t have happened.
“Where now we have more focused growth, which is economically and socially as well as environmentally beneficial, there’d be lots more sprawl,” Patton explains. “We’d be a lot more like Fresno and Bakersfield and San Bernardino and Los Angeles. The Bay Area is a place where more people have got together and made sure their communities did things that have been beneficial.”
As for restoring Golden Gate’s Crissy Field or the South Bay Salt Ponds or preserving bird and wildlife sanctuaries, forget about it.
“We’d be more like Houston. Prop. 90 says unless you can pay me for not developing this land, then one day I’m gonna be able to develop it,” Patton says.
Mary Ann O’Malley, a fiscal and policy analyst at the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, helped write the legislative analysis for Prop. 90 and as such is familiar with the measure’s far-reaching but more obscure provisions.
“Governments will be required to sell land back to its original owner if they stop using the land for the purpose stated when it took the property in the first place,” O’Malley explains. “And government won’t be able to condemn property to build on another property for the purpose of increasing local government’s tax revenues, but it could do so to build roads and schools.”
As for how the “regulatory takings” section of Prop. 90 affects government’s ability to protect the environment, O’Malley says local governments frequently impose case by case mitigation requirements to uphold the Endangered Species Act, telling a developer where it can build.
“If this is simply an enforcement procedure required by the Endangered Species Act, then it probably would not be viewed as a compensatory act, but if it’s an independent local project decision, it might fall within Prop. 90’s purview.”
Although Prop. 90 supporters say it won’t affect existing laws, Douglas says it’s simplistic to believe that current zoning won’t be superceded.
“Zoning plans aren’t exclusive. They may allow ancillary uses with government’s approval. For instance, you can build additional housing and wineries on ag land, but sometimes these uses are totally incompatible with the area. At which point local government steps in and says, ‘Oh no you don’t.’ But under Prop. 90 government is vulnerable to claims.
“Taxpayers are gonna be stuck with a multibillion-dollar bill. It should be called the ‘Destroy California Initiative.’” SFBG
Read about the Proposition 90 money trail and the truth behind the campaign’s stories at

Mural as magnet


Stretched across the west wall of the New Santa Clara Market in the Lower Haight is a full 15 by 45 feet of political controversy, in both its intended content and the fact that it has become a magnet for graffiti.
Located on the southeast corner of Haight and Scott streets, Positive Visibility, as the mural there is titled, shows women suffering from the symptoms of HIV-AIDS. It was completed in 1995 by an artist named Juana Alicia, who learned her craft in part from two former students of painter Diego Rivera.
Reflecting a somewhat surreal departure from Rivera’s own direct imagery, Alicia’s painting (finished with help from other HIV-AIDS activists) contains a multitude of pastel colors applied in vigorous brushstrokes. In one segment, a tattooed drug addict accepts a clean needle from a needle-exchange worker. Another woman nearby wears a shirt with the queer pink triangle and the phrase “silencio = muerte.” Three pig-faced corporate drug execs guard a prescription bottle, and a woman is kicking one of them directly in the face. Slivers of broken mirrors create a mosaic across the mural’s top center. Affable skeletons celebrate el Dia de los Muertos.
The message: women contract HIV too. It’s not unlike the hundreds of other politically charged murals most San Franciscans are proud to have coloring the city. But currently, Positive Visibility faces a cruelly ironic fate; it’s half covered in a red paint used by the building’s owner to rub out graffiti while awaiting a complex decision about how and when to restore it.
Alicia, who now lives in Mexico and has taught arts education and community organizing for 25 years, has also completed major pieces in the Mission District and at the San Francisco International Airport and the UCSF Medical Center. (She did not respond to an e-mailed list of questions.)
The problem is that Positive Visibility has been plagued by graffiti since it was completed — not spray-can lettering so much as haphazard markings. The entire bottom has been covered at times, sending neighbors into a furor and attracting citations to the owner of the building from the San Francisco Department of Public Works. Some of the graffiti has targeted the content of the mural in the form of angry expressions that the piece is antimale. One resident said she’d prefer that any existing mural at the spot reflect “the neighborhood’s vitality.”
“It’s been very controversial,” said Marc Shapiro, who lives nearby on Waller Street. “Some people want the mural. Some people don’t. I didn’t care what happened as long as somebody would maintain it…. The street has been so terrible for the last 10 years, you know. Nobody was maintaining the mural. So we had to live in a neighborhood with all of this horrible graffiti.”
The Neighborhood Beautification Fund under then-mayor Willie Brown put up $8,000 to restore the mural in 2000, an effort that included several layers of what was supposed to be a special graffiti-proof varnish. It wasn’t enough, and the graffiti continued.
“The final straw was when there were swear words — ‘Fuckin’ bitch,’ ‘asshole,’” said the building owner’s son, Suheil Alaraj. “The neighbors were, like, ‘We have children. We can’t keep walking across the street and bypassing this.’” Shapiro added that sometimes attackers would throw entire buckets of paint on the mural.
Alaraj called Alicia last year to see if she’d be interested in restoring it again. But the talks broke down and Alicia, he says, threatened to sue him if he painted over the mural completely. Exasperated, he called Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the Lower Haight, looking for suggestions on what to do. His office convinced Alicia to allow the Mission-based muralist collective Precita Eyes to restore the piece. Nonetheless, finding money for the project took several months. Some of the funds again came from the mayor’s beautification fund.
“Basically, they took such a long time,” Alaraj said. “They could have had it up six months ago, restored. They were waiting for this, waiting for that, waiting for this. [The graffiti] kept getting worse and worse. Once there’s tagging on it and you don’t do anything about it, people feel it’s a free-for-all. It just got out of control.”
Three months ago he decided to paint over the bottom, which was hardest hit with graffiti. Each morning he’d go back with a paintbrush until finally, about two months ago, the graffiti ceased.
Mirkarimi aide Regina Dick-Eudrizzi told the Guardian that due to a misunderstanding about covering the graffiti, Alaraj used the red paint instead of white, which would have made restoring the mural easier. The red paint doubled the costs, and only recently did Mirkarimi’s office and Precita Eyes manage to come up with the $10,000 necessary to complete the restoration. There’s a possibility that Precita Eyes could re-create the mural at a new spot, rather than restoring it at its current location. SFBG

Here comes Miami Beach


A pebbled, unmarked trail crunches underneath Peter Loeb’s soft leather shoes as he walks through the Rockaway Quarry in Pacifica, his dog following behind.
Until recently, the 87-acre plot was owned by a man named William F. Bottoms. But he never showed much interest in developing it, and locals have long used the network of trails for hiking. It’s one of the few remaining vacant lots of its size in Pacifica.
Bordering the west side of the property is a ridgeline — a small stone peak literally cut in half by what was once a noisy limestone mining operation — that separates the Pacific Ocean from flat seasonal marshlands that turn to rolling hills just past the highway, where the property stops.
Like the rest of the small coastal town, the former quarry is submerged much of the year in a thick, fast-moving fog. From the ground, it hardly seems like an ideal place in which to introduce luxury living.
“It’s the windiest spot in Pacifica,” Loeb says. “It’s the coldest, windiest spot in the whole city.”
But its close proximity to San Francisco has a headstrong Miami developer drooling.
R. Donahue Peebles bought the quarry last summer for what he says was $7.5 million, and although he hasn’t actually submitted a formal proposal to the town, he’s talking about building 350 exclusive hotel suites, 130 single-family homes, more than 200 town houses, live-work lofts and apartments, and an untold number of stores, such as the Gap and Trader Joe’s.
It’s an unusual battle for the normally quiet town. Tucked 10 miles south of San Francisco just off Highway 1, Pacifica is a largely middle-class bedroom community of about 37,000 people that’s so overwhelmingly residential, it’s hardly seen any commercial development larger than a shopping center with a Safeway.
Loeb served on Pacifica’s City Council for eight years in the 1980s and has lived in the same home near the quarry for three decades. He helped formulate the land use plan for the property, which was designated a redevelopment area in 1986. The plan calls for mixed-use residential and commercial spaces, preservation of the walk and bikeway system, and “high-quality design in both public and private developments including buildings, landscaping, signing and street lighting.”
Joined by a stay-at-home dad named Ken Restivo, Loeb is now organizing the opposition to Peebles — and it hasn’t been an easy task. Peebles has already poured several hundred thousand dollars into a campaign to overturn a 1983 city law that requires voter approval of a housing element in the redevelopment zone. This in a town where the typical council candidate spends less than $10,000 running for office.
Of course, as the opponents point out, it’s not clear exactly what Peebles wants to do. His plans are still tentative; he’s trying to get blanket approval for a massive development before he actually applies for a building permit.
The point of the 1983 law was to ensure that new development on the property would be mixed-use, mostly to offset the city’s high residential concentration and to increase the amount of money the city received in tax revenue.
“What he’s trying to do is privatize the certainty and socialize the risk,” Restivo said. “He wants to know whether he can build the houses before he even starts with a plan, and he wants to leave us trusting him to do whatever.”
Measure L on the November ballot would give Peebles the right to include as many as 355 housing units in any final plan. But even if the bill passes, Pacifica’s City Council would get to negotiate and vote on any final deal with Peebles.
Peebles isn’t the first developer to spend a small fortune attempting to overcome the required ballot vote to develop housing on the quarry, which could attract buyers from all over the millionaire-heavy Bay Area. A similarly well-funded effort failed just four years ago.
The difference is, Peebles likes to win — and has proven before that he knows how to do it.
When it comes to commercial and residential development, Peebles is a prodigy of sorts.
At just 23 years old, after one year at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, the ambitious young man forged a relationship with Washington, DC’s infamous former mayor Marion Barry.
The returns were handsome. Barry appointed Peebles to a city property assessment appeals board membership, a sleep-inducing government function that is nonetheless among the most powerful at the municipal level. Peebles also counts the legendary former congressman and now Oakland mayor–elect Ron Dellums as a mentor; a teenage Peebles worked for him as a legislative page.
“Ron was an interesting person,” Peebles said in a recent phone interview. “One of the things I learned was that you can have your own ideas. He was a very liberal member of Congress. He got to chair two committees even though he was an antiwar person [during Vietnam], because he respected the process.”
After a short tenure on the assessment board, Peebles was developing thousands of square feet of commercial space across the nation’s capital under the Peebles Atlantic Development Corporation, today known simply as the Peebles Corporation. Eventually, an attempt to lease a multimillion-dollar office building to the city inspired accusations of cronyism, according to a 2001 Miami New Times profile. Peebles left Washington and moved to Florida.
There he indulged in the truest spirit of American affluence, putting together enormous hotels and condominium complexes, working in partnership with public agencies. He earned a reputation for resorting to multimillion-dollar litigation when those relationships went bad.
Peebles is well aware that major developments naturally attract conflict. He says it took him a while to become thick-skinned as a controversial developer. In south Florida, however, he proved skilled at getting cranes into the air, completing a $230 million residential tower and a $140 million art deco hotel in Miami Beach during the first half of this decade.
And now he’s set his sights on the low-density, small-scale town of Pacifica.
“Pacifica is unique in many ways, but politically it’s not,” he told the Guardian. “If you look at any city, small or large, it always has people on both sides of the issue. There are people who like to say ‘no’ a lot. [In] most environments — if you look by and large across the country, DC for example — developers are generally not the most popular all the time. Pacifica is not different politically in that regard from other places.”
Press accounts depict Peebles as highly self-assured, even cocky. He once cited his favorite saying to the San Francisco Business Journal as “Sometimes you have to be prepared to stand on the mountain alone.” But he’s also charming and enthusiastic, something that Loeb admits has won Peebles the hearts of many Pacificans.
“The comments we get from people who have seen him speak is, ‘I was soooo charmed by him. I trust him,’” Loeb said. “On the basis of what?”
Restivo chimed in, “He’s a very charismatic speaker. He makes promises and gives voice to people’s fantasies and wishes.”
Pacifica isn’t technically the first place in California where Peebles has attempted to introduce his version of the East Coast’s taste for high-rise condos and hotels. In 1996 a bid to redevelop the old Williams Buildings at Third and Mission in San Francisco crumbled when the partnership he’d created with Oakland businessman Otho Green turned into a civil battle in San Francisco Superior Court. The two couldn’t agree on who would control the majority stake, and another bidder was eventually chosen by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. Peebles and Green later settled a $400,000 dispute over the project’s deposit, according to court records. Green, in fact, alleged in a complaint against the city that Willie Brown had him kicked out of the deal.
The 1996 fallout notwithstanding, Pacifica marks the first time Peebles has actually bought land on the West Coast for development.
And he’s using a proven political tactic to win over hearts and minds: fear.
The quarry is still zoned as commercial land, and if Measure L fails, Peebles reminds Pacificans, he could go to the city council with a proposal that strictly includes retail and office space.
In a letter he circulated to the city’s residents, he warned that the alternative to a plan that includes housing could just as easily be a Wal-Mart.
“Your ‘yes’ vote means we will have an opportunity to study and evaluate a better option for our community,” Peebles wrote in the letter. “A ‘no’ vote means we would be forced to file an application for a large scale commercial development such as a big box or a business/industrial complex.”
But a plan that exclusively contains commercial space doesn’t appear to be what Peebles really wants. Despite the fact that Pacifica is hardly the type of crony-driven city that he’s used to, he’s shown that he’s willing to pay what it takes to get his housing element.
In a six-month period, the political action committee that he formed to push through Measure L spent more than $163,000, according to campaign disclosure forms kept in Pacific’s tiny, half-century-old City Hall, which sits close to the ocean amid a neighborhood of clapboard beach houses.
Nearly $90,000 went to a Santa Barbara public relations firm called Davies Communications, whose clients range from schools and major oil producers to Harrah’s Entertainment and the Nashville-based privatization pioneer Hospital Corporation of America.
Two user profiles under the names “Jimmy” and “Susan” surfaced on a Google message board where the development has been discussed, and they link back to a Davies mail server in Santa Barbara. Jimmy and Susan claimed to be Pacifica residents in favor of Peebles’s plan. (A call to Sara Costin, a Davies project manager who’s been present at some of the community meetings, was not returned.)
Peebles spent $10,000 more on the influential Sacramento lobbying firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller and Naylor, which specializes in passing ballot measures. Another $70,000 went to professional petition circulators who were needed to get the measure on a ballot.
Peebles isn’t the first one to bring big money to the city. Four years ago the publicly traded Texas developer Trammell Crow Company spent $290,000 just on election costs in an attempt to get a mixed-use development with housing past Pacifica voters, according to public records. The company’s plan for the quarry included 165,000 square feet of retail space, over 300 apartments and town houses, and a town center. The late 2002 ballot measure still lost by over 65 percent of the vote, despite the fact that the opposing political action committee, Pacificans for Sustainable Development, spent just $6,500.
An Environmental Impact Review released at the time suggested the wrong type of development could threaten the habitat of an endangered garter snake and a red-legged frog, both known to be living in the area. The lush Calara Creek, which runs the length of the property to the ocean, was also perceived to be in danger of pollution runoff without the proper setbacks. And traffic mitigation on Highway 1 has remained a top concern of the city’s residents.
Peebles insists he’s identified state money that can help with widening the highway and says he’d also donate land for a library and new city center. Beyond election costs, Peebles says he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on experts who’ve helped him craft a better plan that promotes sustainability compared to what Trammel Crow had to offer.
“I’ve had an environmental consulting team and contractual consulting team for the last year analyzing this property, analyzing these issues that are necessary,” he said.
Affordability is another matter, however. Peebles has suggested to the business press that single-family home prices on the land could range from $3 million to $8 million.
A mixed-use development on the land could still bring millions of new tax dollars to a city that has struggled in the past to find money for emergency services and even basic public works projects.
Loeb and Restivo haven’t been without their own rhetoric in the debate. They started a Web site,, which prophesies a nightmare traffic scenario on Highway 1 where it bottlenecks into two lanes through town. They add that estimates on potential tax revenue are unreliable without a definite plan.
But their group, Pacifica Today and Tomorrow, has hardly spent enough to even trigger disclosure requirements. And Pacifica remains a modest world, far removed from Miami’s glass-and-steel monoliths. Only a man with an ego equal to the size of his development dreams would try to so dramatically alter Pacifica’s topography. Peebles says he’s confident he’ll prevail in November.
Loeb and Restivo recognize that the area won’t stay empty forever, and they aren’t opposed to all development. Restivo told us he’d be more than happy to consider a commercial and residential project on the site — “but ideally it’d be much smaller.” SFBG

Signs of the times


The Mission has become a battleground between those trying to stop war and those trying to combat blight — a clash of values that is headed for a court battle that will determine whether San Francisco has gone too far in its campaign against the posting of handbills.
On one side are the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition, World Can’t Wait, and other groups that stage the city’s biggest rallies against war and injustice. They’ve been hit by the city with tens of thousands of dollars in fines for their notices getting posted in violation of a city law cracking down on blight, and ANSWER has responded with a lawsuit.
On the other side is a 56-year-old activist named Gideon Kramer, who led the campaigns against graffiti and illegal signs and eventually became the eyes and ears of the city’s Department of Public Works and the Clean City Coalition. That nonprofit antiblight group gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in city money annually and in turn gave Kramer a full-time job pursuing his zealous fight against blight.
Kramer’s job is to cruise around in a city-provided motorized cart to document and remove illegal signs and submit that information to the DPW, which then issues citations and levies fines. Although Kramer maintains he doesn’t single out antiwar groups, he does admit that it was the blanketing of the Mission with ANSWER flyers and posters during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq that animated his animus toward sign posting.
“They hide behind the First Amendment, but this is not a free speech issue,” Kramer told the Guardian. “They completely obliterated this neighborhood for two years until I got them to stop…. This place looked like a war zone five years ago, when I finally took this area over.”
To Kramer, his efforts are simply about beautifying the Mission, which to him entails removing graffiti and flyers, particularly the ones affixed to any of the 88 historic lampposts along Mission Street, violations that draw a fine of $300 per notice rather than the $150 fine for most poles.
But to ANSWER’s West Coast coordinator Richard Becker, the city and Kramer are chipping away at fundamental rights of speech, assembly, and due process in their myopic effort to gentrify the Mission and other still-affordable neighborhoods.
“It is connected to a drive in San Francisco against working-class communities. This is being done in the name of fighting blight,” Becker said, “but it’s part of the transformation of San Francisco to a city that caters only to the middle class and above.”
The antihandbill measure — passed by the Board of Supervisors in 1999 — is part of a clean-city campaign that includes aggressive new measures aimed at removing graffiti and punishing those responsible, increased spending on street and sidewalk cleaning, crackdowns on the homeless, and most recently, the prohibition of campaign and other signs on utility poles.
State law already prohibits all handbills and signs from being on traffic poles. The local law extends that absolute prohibition to “historic or decorative streetlight poles,” such as those along Mission from 16th to 24th streets, along Market Street, around Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, and on a half dozen other strips around the city.
In addition, the measure sets strict guidelines for all other postings. Unless those posting handbills want to register with the DPW and pay permit fees, their signs must be no larger than 11 inches, “affixed with nonadhesive materials such as string or other nonmetal binding material (plastic wrapped around pole is OK),” and with a posting date in the lower right corner. Signs must be removed within 10 days if they’re for an event, otherwise within 70 days.
Any deviations from these conditions will trigger a fine of $150, payable by whatever entity is identifiable from the content of the handbill, regardless of whether the group actually did the posting or knew about it. That standard of guilt, known legally as the “rebuttable presumption” — wherein someone is considered guilty unless they request an administrative hearing and can prove otherwise — is one of the targets of the ANSWER lawsuit, which is scheduled for its first pretrial hearing next month.
“In San Francisco, the distribution of handbills and other such literature is a quintessentially protected First Amendment activity, as it is everywhere. But the moment someone posts a group’s literature on city property, the DPW is entitled to presume, under the rebuttable presumption, that the group itself is responsible — absent any evidence of a connection between the group and the person who did the posting,” wrote attorney Ben Rosenfeld, who is representing ANSWER and two other accused violators, in a brief to San Francisco Superior Court.
Furthermore, he argues that there are no evidence standards for contesting the fines, which themselves have a chilling effect on free speech, particularly for poorly funded social and political activists. And, as he told the Guardian, “most people believe that posting flyers, because it’s such a time-honored way of communicating, is legal.”
Yet the City Attorney’s Office argues that city law is defensible and that rebuttable presumption — which is a similar legal precept to how parking tickets are handled — has been validated by the courts.
“We are going to argue that it’s reasonable and fair and it mirrors a state law that has withstood challenges,” said city attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey. “As a matter of principle, we don’t think the right of free speech allows defacing public property.”
It is that argument — that illegally posting signs is akin to vandalism or littering — that seems to be driving city policy.
“It happens very frequently, and the concern for the city is it costs a lot of money to remove,” the DPW’s Mohammed Nuru told the Guardian. “It adds to urban blight and makes the neighborhood look ugly.”
The view that handbills are blight has gotten a big boost from city hall in recent years — and so have those who advocate that point of view most fervently.
The nonprofit group San Francisco Clean City Coalition — whose board members include city director of protocol Charlotte Schultz and NorCal Waste executive John Legnitto — identifies its mission as keeping “San Francisco clean and green by building bridges between resources and the neighborhood groups, merchant associations, and residents that need them.”
A review of its federal nonprofit financial disclosure forms shows the organization has steadily received more public funds from at least three different city departments in recent years, totaling almost $300,000 in 2004, the last year for which the forms are available, plus another $170,000 in “direct public support.”
“Our organization has grown substantially,” said Clean City executive director Gia Grant, who is paid almost $70,000 per year and has been with the group for five years. “It has increased every year for the last five years.”
Most recently, the group won the $140,000 annual contract to manage the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, bringing to that low-income neighborhood the same kinds of blight abatement work they’ve been doing in the Mission, mostly through their contract with Kramer and his alter ego: SF Green Patrol.
“I believe all San Francisco residents have the right to live in a beautiful neighborhood, no matter where they live,” Grant told us.
Kramer has been applying that mantra to the Mission for several years now: tearing down signs, removing graffiti, painting and repainting the lampposts, and tending to the landscaping at Mission High and other spots. Kramer told us he volunteered his days to the cause even before he was paid for his efforts.
“Basically, the Green Team deals with the restoration of public property,” Kramer said. “I’m doing a lot of things in the community on behalf of the Mission District.”
Yet Kramer is hostile to the view that maybe the Mission was fine just the way it was, a point made by many residents interviewed by the Guardian — particularly activists with the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) — who are more concerned with gentrification than the proliferation of signs for war protests.
“Because their causes are so lofty, they feel like they’re above the law…. They think that because their cause is so important, the end justifies the means,” Kramer said of the many groups with which he’s battled, from ANSWER and MAC to New College and the Socialist Action and Anarchist bookstores. “Free speech is not unlimited and the war in Iraq has nothing to do with clean streets. They’re just lazy and would rather just wheat-paste posters everywhere.”
Kramer said he’s been paid a full-time salary for his efforts for the last year, although neither he nor Clean City — which contracts with him — would say how much he makes. But whatever it is, Grant said Kramer’s days as a fully funded antisign enforcer might be coming to an end.
“The Green Patrol is not being funded by DPW anymore,” Grant said, noting that the contract expires at the end of August. “At this time, there’s no plan to carry it past August.”
ANSWER’s Becker has had several confrontations with Kramer, although both men insist that their actions aren’t personally directed at the other. Kramer is just trying to remove what he sees as blight and Becker is just trying to keep the public aware that the United States is waging an illegal war on Iraq and supporting Israel’s aggressive militarism.
“The war, from our perspective, is really growing,” said Becker. “A considerable number of people are becoming more alarmed by what’s happening. The war has intensified and it’s a complete disaster.”
Set against that global imperative — and the role of US citizens in allowing it to continue — Kramer’s “sacred lampposts” are a little silly to Becker. “He’s got this attitude that ‘I’m preserving your community for you,’” Becker said. “It’s a crazy thing and it’s gotten completely out of control.”
But facing fines that could total $28,000 with penalties, ANSWER has been forced to take the sign laws seriously, pursue legal action for what it believes is an important constitutional right, and instruct volunteers on the rules (with only limited effectiveness, considering some unaffiliated antiwar activists simply print flyers from ANSWER’s Web site and post them).
“The most important issue to us and to other political organizations with limited income is being able to communicate with the public,” Becker said.
And the sign ordinance has made that more difficult. Nonetheless, ANSWER has remained aggressive in calling and publicizing its protests, including the antiwar rally Aug. 12, starting at 11 a.m. in Civic Center Plaza.
As Becker said, “Despite the threat of these massive fines, we’re going to keep moving forward.” SFBG