Real Estate

Pelosi: is she punting on SF Clean Energy Act?


Is Pelosi for clean energy in Washington and Denver but standing with PG&E and punting on supporting the Clean Energy Act in San Francisco? Is she investing with T. Boone Pickens and his Clean Energy Fuels Corp. in Texas and punting on clean energy in San Francisco?

By Bruce B. Brugmann

Paul Hogarth, the agile staff writer and columnist for the Beyond Chron website, asked a key question of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference this morning on the first day of the Democratic Convention in Denver.

Hogarth reported on Beyond Chron that he had asked Pelosi that, “because she endorsed Al Gore’s ambitious goals of energy independence by 2019, does she support San Francisco’s Clean Energy Act (Prop H)–which calls for energy independence by 2040.”

“I haven’t see the text,” she told Hogarth, but I support going in that direction. This timetable of energy independence is a path we hope to go on.”

Hogarth made the proper point: Maybe, he noted, she should have sent a proxy to the Democratic County Central Committee endorsement meeting, referring to the recent vote by the DCCC approving the Clean Energy Act. She did not send a proxy to vote and her quote to Hogarth is her only known public response to the measure. The head on Hogarth’s story made his point more direct: “Pelosi Schools Traditional Media; Punts on SF Clean Energy Act.”

Meanwhile, the punting question was raised again for Pelosi by a major story in the Wall Street Journal (8/23/08). The Journal reported that Pelosi and her husband Paul invested between $50,000 and $100,000 in T. Boone Pickens’s Clean Energy Corporation in Texas. The Journal said the investment “could benefit from legislation the California Democrat favors to boost U.S. use of natural gas.”

“The investment is a small fraction of the Pelosis’ net worth. But it highlights the unlikely alliance evolving between Mr. Pickens, an old man with a long history of support for Republican causes, and powerful Democrats who have welcomed Mr. Pickens’s recent campaign for developing alternatives to oil.” (B3: Pickens was a major funder of the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, which helped defeat John Kerry in the last presidential election.)

Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, told the Journal that the investment “does not raise any direct conflict of interest issues” or violate any ethics rules of the House of Representatives. “The speaker has been an advocate for increasing our country’s energy independence and for renewable energy for years, long before this purchase.”

Pelosi has always been a PG&E ally in San Francisco and Washington, notably in her move to help PG&E and the development gang privatize the Presidio and set the precedent for privatizing the national park system.

So the question for her is even more tantalizing: will she go for clean energy in Washington, Texas, and Denver but stand with PG&E and punt on the Clean Energy Act in San Francisco? We’ll try to get the questions to her. But I suggest that others work on it as well. She’s tough to pin down when it comes to PG&E, clean energy, and renewables back in her home district. B3

PS: How much are the Pelosis worth? Anywhere from $15 million to $156 million (including real estate), according to the The Journal. The investment amounts to less than one per cent off the Pelosis’ total 2007 public and private investment assets, which, not including real estate, are estimated at between $15 million and $52 million, based on the Speaker’s disclosure record, according to the Journal. Including real estate and bank account assets, the Pelosis’ net asset value is estimated at between $35 million and $156 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Money for nothing



Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seems to be feeling pretty confident in her reelection prospects this November, despite an independent challenge by high-profile peace mom Cindy Sheehan.

But that hasn’t stopped the San Francisco Democrat from raising big bucks from scores of interest groups who are contributing to her campaign committee and to the political action committee she controls, known as PAC to the Future.

Most of the money she’s raising is going toward assuring her continued power in Washington by giving it to the campaigns of other Democratic members of Congress, particularly those facing tough election battles that could threaten the party’s House majority.

Pelosi’s reelection committee has raised $2.36 million over the past two years, hundreds of thousands more than the average House member, according to federal campaign disclosure records and data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Her PAC raised an additional $585,000 during the current election cycle and spent $769,000, much of which has also gone to other candidate committees in payments of $5,000 and $10,000.

Many newly elected Democrats in the House represent conservative constituencies, and with her blessing they sometimes vote with Republicans to distance themselves from the party’s perceived liberal leaders like Pelosi, according to a new book published this month, Money in the House: Campaign Funds and Congressional Party Politics (Perseus, 2008). Democratic leaders in the meantime have continued a phenomenal fundraising spree to help protect those House members.

"Speaker Pelosi’s extraordinary financial commitment to her party, and especially to her party’s vulnerable members, illustrates the overriding emphasis congressional parties and members place on money," writes author Marian Currinder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. "And her encouragement of selective ‘opposition votes’ demonstrates the complexity of governing in a highly partisan and highly competitive political environment."

Even the day-to-day reelection expenses of Washington’s unrivaled leading lady are outsize, as Pelosi’s spending records show. In June 2007, she celebrated her 20th year in Congress with a glitzy fundraiser held in the capital’s Union Station that cost at least $92,000 and featured a performance by soul singer Patti LaBelle.

The bill included $25,393 for a slick video production; $61,105 on catering, rentals, and securing the site; $2,000 for hairstyling and wardrobe assistance insisted on by LaBelle; $2,824 on flower arrangements; and $1,396 for chocolates from a Pennsylvania-based confection maker.

Pelosi spent at least $650 from her campaign on makeup for the steady string of appearances she made after being sworn in as House speaker in January 2007. An annual fundraiser held this year at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco cost $23,454 for catering and other expenses.

As for the top contributors to Pelosi’s reelection committee, they include several members of the Gallo family, proprietors of the E&J Gallo Winery, who gave a total of $23,000 through maximum individual donations of $4,600. The Modesto-based company has long made contributions to both parties, particularly enriching candidates who show a willingness to scale back or even throw out the federal estate tax, which affects the inheritances of the wealthiest American families.

The Corrections Corporation of America gave $2,300 to Pelosi and $2,700 to her PAC. CCA is part of a storied group of for-profit privatization companies in Nashville, Tenn. that are closely tied to former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist and includes the Hospital Corporation of America and Ardent Health Services.

Just this year, the state of California hired CCA to house 8,000 inmates at six of the company’s facilities; a significant portion will go to a new $205 million CCA complex under construction in Arizona.

The nation’s largest private jail company suffered bad publicity during the 1990s due to a series of high-profile escapes and inmate killings inside its prisons. It teetered on the edge of bankruptcy after overbuilding jails without having enough inmates available to fill them, but the George W. Bush administration helped save the company with a new homeland security agenda that called for confining rather than releasing undocumented immigrants while they awaited deportation or asylum-request proceedings. The company’s revenue jumped nearly a half-billion dollars over the last five years and its lobbying activities in Washington, DC have increased similarly.

The entertainment industry has ponied up its share to Pelosi as well. The maximum $4,600 donation came from Aaron Sorkin, powerhouse writer behind the long-running TV series The West Wing and the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War. Christie Hefner, a regular donor to Democrats and heiress to Playboy Enterprises, contributed $1,000.

Steven Bing, a Hollywood producer who inherited a real estate fortune, and billionaire Las Vegas developer Kirk Kerkorian gave thousands to Pelosi over the last two years. Kerkorian has given to both parties, but he and Bing share a special relationship after having fought a nasty tabloid war.

Kerkorian allegedly hired private investigators to sift through Bing’s trash in search of DNA evidence that would link him to a child borne by Kerkorian’s ex-wife, whom he was divorcing, according to a lawsuit filed by Bing. Vanity Fair in July described Bing as part of a skirt-chasing entourage that ran with Bill Clinton and threatened to tarnish Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid with its freewheeling bachelor reputation.

The wealthy Herbert and Marion Sandler, major supporters of and other social justice causes, gave Pelosi a combined $9,200. The couple presided over the meteoric rise of Oakland mortgage lender Golden West Financial, which sold to Wachovia for $24 billion in 2006. The housing crisis led Wachovia to post staggering multibillion-dollar losses this summer, and some business writers have attributed its declining fortunes to the Golden West purchase.

In June, George Zimmer of Fremont, founder of the Men’s Warehouse, gave $2,300. Notable husband and wife political team Clint and Janet Reilly, both active as candidates and donors, contributed a total of $19,200 to Pelosi’s campaign and PAC.

"Essentially, raising money for the party and its candidates is required of leaders," Money in the House author Currinder told the Guardian. "Pelosi wouldn’t have been elected speaker if she wasn’t a stellar fundraiser."

So where is Pelosi’s money going if not to television ads for her own campaign? She divided $250,000 among the campaigns of approximately 70 congressional candidates, and disbursed about $532,000 more to them through PAC to the Future. The beneficiaries included $14,000 to Democrat Chet Edwards of Texas, whose district includes President George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch. Pelosi has publicly recommended him to Barack Obama as a possible running mate.

In addition, about half of the money Pelosi has raised since the beginning of 2007, slightly more than $1 million, went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, DC. She also gave to the Democratic parties of key battleground states including Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Ohio. She singled out Democrat Travis Childers of Mississippi for extra cash totaling $21,000. In May, Childers stunned observers by defeating a Republican in a special election held when a representative vacated his House seat to take over for conservative icon Sen. Trent Lott.

"She has had prodigious success raising funds for individual Democratic candidates, for the DCCC, and for her own campaign and PAC," Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institute, told us. "Most party leaders represent safe seats but nonetheless try to set a high standard for raising money to advance their party’s broader objectives."

Pelosi’s Capitol Hill and San Francisco offices directed our questions to her fundraising operations at the DCCC. Her political director there, Brian Wolff, called the war chest "another vehicle for her to communicate with constituents in California." But he conceded that the pressure is on, "especially now that we have so many candidates and incumbents that need help. It definitely falls on her to be able to have a very aggressive fundraising campaign."

Wolff insists, too, that the Democrats revolutionized fundraising by seeking out smaller donations from large numbers of people instead of returning to the same short list of affluent contributors they had in the past.

In general, top donations to Pelosi still have come from lobbyists and lawyers, the real estate industry, insurance companies, banking and securities firms, and Amgen, a major biotech researcher based in Thousand Oaks. Officials from the labor movement’s biggest new power broker, the Service Employees International Union, also gave substantial sums, as did other major unions. But they fell far behind the contributions of large business interests.

Art Torres, chair of the California Democratic Party, told us that health care reform failed in 1990s at least partly because of political spending by drug companies. But he said that Democrats winning the White House and expanding their majorities in Congress would create a greater mandate to overhaul the health care system.

"It’s always been about issues" rather than fundraising, Torres said. "When I’ve talked to her, it’s always been about ‘How can we get this or that legislation through?’<0x2009>"

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the nation’s largest drug wholesaler, McKesson Corp., is based in San Francisco, and donors from pharmaceutical companies gave Pelosi more than $85,000 this cycle. Drug companies have given freely to Democrats in the past, but Democratic officeholders "still voted against their interests every time," Torres said.

Pelosi’s campaign spending on everything but her own reelection shows she doesn’t regard Sheehan as much of a threat. But the antiwar candidate did make it onto the ballot Aug. 8 and the Sheehan campaign has raised approximately $350,000 since December in small contributions after refusing to accept money from PACs and corporations.

"We didn’t have the party infrastructure going into this," said Sheehan campaign manager Tiffany Burns, adding that Pelosi’s campaign expenditures are "just another example of how Pelosi believes she is entitled to this seat."

Editor’s Notes



The San Francisco Chronicle has come up with a new name for the broad spectrum of political leaders and activists who make up the San Francisco left. We’re now "ultra-liberals."

The term first appeared in Heather Knight’s Aug. 15 article on the changes in the local Democratic County Central Committee. Her lead sentence was almost breathtaking in its drama: The party, she wrote, "has veered dramatically to the left, telling voters that on Nov. 4 they should elect a raft of ultra-liberal supervisorial candidates, decriminalize prostitution, boot JROTC from public schools, embrace public power, and reject Mayor Gavin Newsom’s special court in the Tenderloin."

There’s no question that the progressives made significant advances in winning control of the DCCC in June. And I think it’s entirely fair — and a good thing — that the party has veered to the left. It’s "dramatic," though, only because for so many years the Democratic Party in one of the world’s most liberal cities wasn’t particularly liberal at all: it was controlled by political machines and friendly to real estate developers and big business.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that San Francisco Democrats support public power and decriminalizing sex work and oppose military recruiting in the public schools. Those are pretty basic San Francisco values. What’s surprising is that it took a wholesale organizing effort and a huge battle to get the party to where it is today.

But I still cringe at the term "ultra-liberal."

David Campos, a Police Commission member (and generally a fairly even-minded guy) who is running for supervisor in District 9, called me this weekend to tell me he was laughing about the new tag: "It’s a badge of pride," he said. And of course, on one level, I agree with him.

But there’s something more to the story here. The way the Chron uses it, "ultra-liberal" is supposed to be a derogatory term, just a bit short of "radical" (or in another era, "commie." It suggests candidates who are out of touch with the mainstream, who don’t represent the majority, who can’t entirely be trusted.

I asked Knight what she meant by that term, and she had no comment. But here’s what I think is happening: Newsom’s political operatives are mad that the progressives have seized control of the term "progressive" — which is, in fact, an accurate and historically valuable term. They’d like to call Newsom a progressive mayor — which is inaccurate and historically invalid. But since they can’t get away with that, they’ve pushed the Chron to use another term for people like Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin, and the best the editors could come up with is "ultra-liberal."


Speaking of progressive issues: the move to reinstate JROTC in the public schools is really a wedge campaign that will be funded by downtown interests and used against progressives like Eric Mar, who is running in a more moderate district. The issue itself is a no-brainer. Do we want military recruitment programs in the public schools? The progressive candidates for school board need to stand up on this one and make it clear that they aren’t going to back down — JROTC has to go.

A hollow victory for urban gardening movement


When I first heard about current plans to build a “Victory Garden” in Civic Center Plaza — which will be officially planted tomorrow at 10 a.m. in a ceremony featuring Mayor Gavin Newsom and Alice Waters, the pioneering restaurateur who founded Slow Food Nation — I thought it was a really cool idea. Here was the city of San Francisco giving some of its most prime and high profile real estate over to the urban gardening movement, which seeks alternatives to the fossil fuel dependent industrialized food system.
And the Victory Garden concept is great, conjuring up the collective commitment to our national interests that inspired patriotic citzens to plant gardens during the two world wars. Sure, the logistics of tending and securing the garden might be tough, but Newsom seemed to be making a commitment to put city resources behind this important symbolic statement.
Then I heard that they’re going to rip out the garden in a couple months, in my mind reducing the garden to a mere photo op for our jolly green would-be governor. Ick. Just what this country needs, another hollow gesture toward environmental sustainability rather than the bold collective action that we actually need to tackle serious problems like climate change, resource depletion, and a wasteful, polluting, and ineffective global food system.

I’m for PG&E, at 50 bucks a head


If public power can work in Rock Rapids, Iowa, why can’t it work in San Francisco?

By Bruce B. Brugmann

When I came into yesterday’s public hearing at City hall on the emerging clean energy act initiative, I wasn’t surprised to see the room stacked with people obviously rounded up by PG&E for the occasion. After 42 years of covering PG&E, I know how private utility operates.

I asked the man sitting next to me, obviously not a
City Hall regular, why he was attending the hearing. His answer was vague but he was obviously agitated about the clean energy act initiative. Was he going to testify against the initiative? Yes, he said. Was he paid to attend the hearing?
He mumbled a bit and then said, yes, $50 bucks. But, he pointed out, he hadn’t been paid yet.

The word got around the hearing room that PG&E’s going rate for this hearing was $50. Julian Davis, the chair of the clean energy campaign, was first up to testify and promptly mentioned the going rate.
He then said that he considered it “cynical and tragic” for a corporation like PG&E to take advantage of communities of color into advocating on behalf of an agenda that ultimately does not serve their interests. (Many of the members of the audience were persons of color. Davis is black.)

Many of them testified, arguing that the initiative, which calls for setting renewable energy goals and making San Francisco the nation’s greenest clean energy city, would be too expensive and burdensome and ought to be killed forthwith. They testified that they couldn’t afford higher electric rates, higher taxes, higher anything in the city’s tight economy. Several said they were living on fixed incomes and simply could not afford another penny on anything.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, sponsor of the bill, and Sup. Chris Daly, chair of the rules committee meeting, Sup. Bevin Dufty, and many pro-clean energy speakers pointed out the many advantages of clean energy and public power. Cities with public power across the state and country had lower electric rates, better service, and extra money for their general funds. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is a national leader in renewable energy and conservation efforts, while still keeping its rates far below PG&E rates in adjoining communities.

After hearing the clean energy speakers, several people came up to Davis after the hearing and said they were confused and annoyed that they had been misled by PG&E. They were interested in the arguments for clean energy and the initiative and wanted to know more.

Davis said he told them, among other things, that “one of the essential components of the clean energy act is a mandate to offer the kind of jobs and job training in the clean energy industry that PG&E is not currently offering to the very communities they are willing to exploit to promote their status quo agenda.” The jobs idea was of particular interest, he said.

And, yes, I testified at the hearing. I sometimes do this to counter the time worn PG&E line that, gosh, golly, gee, electricity is so complicated, city workers are so lazy, dumb, and incompetent, how in the world can they run an electrical company if they can’t make the muni run on time. Wheeze, wheeze, and wheeze again.

And so I pointed out that in my hometown of Rock Rapids, Iowa, population 2,800, a bedrock conservative Republican farming community way out in the northwestern part of the state,
the town has successfully operated a public utility since l896, and it’s doing just fine. It provides good, reliable, hometown electricity, has good low rates and excellent service, makes money for the general fund and subsidizes projects such as the local swimming pool, and doesn’t gratuitously cut off service with no way to appeal or complain, as is PG&E policy. And the public utility is locally accountable to a local board of directors composed of local townsfolk, such as my old friends Dave Foltz, a local real estate man, and Eugene Metzger, a local banker.

To this day, I told the supervisors, II always carry in my pocket a little blue coin purse that eloquently makes the local point. And I pulled the purse out of my pocket and read the inscription to the supervisors: “Call before you dig, Rock Rapids Municipal Utilities, (7l2) 472-2513.)”

And so my central argument is unbeatable: If public power works in Rock Rapids, Iowa, why can’t it work in San Francisco, California? PG&E has yet to get back to me on this one. Meanwhile, I’ll keep you posted throughout the campaign on public power in Rock Rapids. On guard, stay plugged in for the duration, the fun has just started, B3

“Top of the Structure Is Not Empty”


PREVIEW The Garage is the kind of tiny, funky, out-of-the-way theater we all thought wouldn’t be able to survive the dealings of cutthroat real estate moguls. Fortunately choreographer and arts entrepreneur Joe Landini failed to buy into the pessimism. In 2003 he founded SAFEhouse (Save Art From Extinction) and last year moved his operations into a former garage at 975 Howard Street, a block still industrial enough to have available parking at night. Drawing on his programming experience with the now-defunct Jon Sims Center for the Arts and Shotwell Studios, he has filled the space with events (dance, multimedia, theater, and performance art), workshops, and residencies — including one specifically for the LGBT community. For the first time, the multidisciplinary space hosts SAFEhouse’s third Summer Performance Fest. Through August 28, Landini presents more than two dozen choreographers in shared evenings of edgy new works that should satisfy any aficionado wanting to take the pulse of the city. Top of the Structure Is Not Empty, with choreography by Rebecca Bryant, Cathie Caraker, Kelly Dalrymple, Sonshereé Giles, Hope Mohr, Don Nichols, Jerry Smith, and Andrew Wass opens the series. What do these ever-so-different-from-each-other artists have in common? They all investigate ideas on plagiarism and authorship in their work. Expect to see references to Trisha Brown, Miguel Gutierrez, Mark Morris, Nijinsky, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Max Roach, and Meg Stuart.

TOP OF THE STRUCTURE IS NOT EMPTY Fri/11–Sat/12, 8 p.m. The Garage, 975 Howard, SF. $10–$20. (415) 885-4006,,

Lennar’s bombing range in Orlando


Explosive news from Orlando: unexploded bombs found on Lennar housing site

How did Lennar build homes on a former military base without the live ordnance first being cleared? That’s the subject of a CNN report about a neighborhood in Orlando that was built on the former Pinecastle Jeep Range.

And as questions swirl about who knew what and when, a bigger question is coming into focus: who will the homeowners be able to hold accountable, now that their homes have been built? Is it the Army Corps of Engineers, the developer?

The report notes that “multiple lawsuits have been filed, accusing builders of gross negligence and seeking unspecified monetary damage.”

NIMBY nightmare: top ten things you don’t want to find in your backyard.

So, is this “real estate fraud” as one commentator on the CNN online edition claims?

And is it true that the government would have to step in and help the banks if all these property owners refused to pay their mortgages, claiming that the contract to buy the property was fraudulent, due to non-disclosure?

Either way, here is an interesting comment that should give prospective home owners pause:
” The twisted thing about real estate is you owe the bank not the developer. The bank pays the developer, and the home-owner is left with 30 years of house payments on a piece of property not safe to live on and lower in value than they paid for it. “

MUD money


Originally published October 10, 2001 A San Francisco public power agency could buy out Pacific Gas and Electric Co., cut residential electricity rates by 20 percent, dramatically reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels – and still operate with a $18 million annual surplus, a Bay Guardian analysis shows. Our study’s figures directly contradict the argument that’s at the heart of PG&E’s campaign against public power: they show that a municipal electrical system can be bought and run at no cost to the taxpayers – with plenty of money left over. Our figures are all taken from public sources and are consistent with the financial reports of other major public power agencies in the state. In fact, if anything, our figures are conservative; the real benefits are almost certainly higher. The financial issues are essentially the same for a municipal utility district and for a city power agency, so our figures would apply to either the MUD, which would be created under Measure I, or the Water and Power Agency, which would be created under Proposition F. Calcuutf8g the financial feasibility of a municipal utility district or city power agency in detail is a complex process. Consultants typically charge upward of $1 million for detailed feasibility studies that use all sorts of models and assumptions to come up with the sorts of figures you can take to the bank (or to Wall Street to sell bonds). So our analysis isn’t anywhere near as detailed as what the MUD or the WPA will eventually have to produce. But we’ve covered all of the major revenues and costs; if we’re missing anything, it won’t radically change the bottom line. And it’s safe to say that we haven’t over<\h>estimated the financial viability of public power. The questions on the minds of most voters this fall are relatively simple: Can public power pay for itself? Will the MUD or the Water and Power Agency be a financial success? And our research shows that the answer is a resounding yes. We’ve run through two scenarios, a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario. In each case, we’ve found, a San Francisco public power agency is more than financially viable. Our study is the rough equivalent of what a MUD’s or WPA’s annual energy report to the public would look like once the agency was up and running. In fact, we’ve pretty much followed the model of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and we’ve relied on those two agencies’ figures to estimate some of what the city’s comparable costs would be. We’ve discussed our study with Ed Smeloff, the city’s top energy expert, and while he couldn’t verify our conclusions (since he hasn’t run the numbers himself), he said that there were no major costs that we had ignored. The results are summarized in the two accompanying charts. Where’s the money? Based on how other MUDs have been set up, the process in San Francisco would look something like this: The elected MUD (or WPA) directors would commission a detailed feasibility study outlining the financial future of the agency. Then they would begin negotiations with PG&E to buy the company’s local transmission and distribution system. If PG&E wouldn’t sell, the MUD or WPA would seize the system through the power of eminent domain. The agency would then issue revenue bonds to cover the cost of the acquisition and start-up, hire a staff, and go into the retail power business. Sales of electricity would bring in revenue that would cover operating costs and pay off the revenue bonds; any money left over at the end could be turned back to the city’s General Fund, used to reduce rates, or used for conservation and environmental projects. So the first step in analyzing the finances of a MUD is to figure out how much revenue would be available each year. That’s a relatively simple calculation. According to the California Energy Commission, PG&E currently sells about 5.4 billion kilowatt-<\h>hours of electricity to customers in San Francisco. (This figure doesn’t include energy used by the city government, since government agencies use power from the city’s Hetch Hetchy dam.) Residential, commercial, and industrial customers all pay different rates. If a MUD sold power at current PG&E rates (as provided to us by PG&E spokesperson Ron Low), it would bring in $562 million in revenue (enough to create a big annual surplus – roughly $36 million.) But a MUD or power agency almost certainly wouldn’t sell power at PG&E’s high rates – one major attraction of public power is that it offers cheaper electricity. So in both of our scenarios, we assumed that the rates would be at least 10 percent below PG&E’s rates. In fact, as our study shows, rates could drop as much as 20 percent without harming the MUD or WPA’s viability. What’s it cost? There are three basic categories of costs that the agency would have to cover. The first is payments on the bonds, the second is generating or buying power, and the third is basic operations and maintenance (paying the staff to keep the system up and running, to send out bills, to read meters, as well as operating the repair trucks, etc.). Electricity can’t just be delivered to the doorsteps of customers like canned ham in a UPS box. It has to be distributed through a network of transformers, substations, wires, and poles and measured with individual meters. And until the public power agency owns that distribution network, it can’t sell a single kilowatt. Unfortunately, the system that’s now in place in San Francisco is owned by PG&E – and almost everyone involved agrees that it would be cheaper, easier, and quicker for the city to take over that system than to build a new one from scratch. That’s what SMUD did and what most other public agencies that have gotten into the power business in the past half century have done. A MUD or a city power agency would have the right to seize PG&E’s property by eminent domain. But PG&E would be entitled under law to fair compensation for the taking of its property, and one of the most complex, bitter – and crucial – issues involved in establishing public power will be the price tag. “This is not an easy case at all,” Richard Epstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a national expert on eminent domain, told us. “I can guarantee you that nobody, but nobody, has any idea right now what fair compensation would be.” The issue will almost certainly be settled in court. PG&E insists that its San Francisco property is worth a small fortune – as much as $1.4 billion. In a 1996 study the Economic and Technical Analysis Group suggested that the price could be anywhere from $315 million to $1.2 billion. The ETAG study, which was highly favorable to PG&E, suggested that the most likely figure was around $795 million. The reason those figures are so widely divergent is that there are numerous ways of evaluating what a utility’s property is worth. The simplest is to establish what PG&E originally paid for the property, then factor in depreciation. That’s how insurance companies decide what they have to pay you if your car is stolen. The process generally leads to a low figure favorable to the city. But courts have recently been somewhat more friendly to an analysis that recognizes that utility property is more valuable than, say, a private car, because the utility property produces income. One way to address that is by valuing the property at its replacement cost and factoring in the value of a “going concern” – which, of course, leads to a much higher price. Real market value But there’s another way to look at the issue, and that involves going to the state agency that appraises the actual market value of PG&E’s property for tax purposes: the Board of Equalization. Every year the board’s appraisers evaluate exactly what PG&E’s property is worth – and the agency’s record is pretty good. When California’s private utilities sold 22 power plants under deregulation, the board checked its appraisals against actual market prices, and while sale prices for some plants varied from estimates, the board was accurate to within 1 percent overall, chief appraiser Harold Hale told us. The Board of Equalization estimated that as of January 2001, all of PG&E’s property in San Francisco was worth $962,140,298. That includes property that isn’t at all relevant to running an electric utility. The value of the property actually used in the electricity business, the board says, is $753,978,471. But that figure includes PG&E’s huge 77 Beale St. headquarters office complex, which the city almost certainly wouldn’t want or need to buy in an eminent domain action. If you subtract 77 Beale St. (which one real estate expert we contacted said was worth about $225 million as of Jan. 1), then the value of the property the city might actually buy is about $528 million. It may be even less than that: the real estate market has fallen almost 15 percent since Jan. 1, according to our expert, a senior executive at one of the city’s biggest firms, who asked not to be identified by name. However, to be conservative, we’re sticking with the Jan. 1 figure. Epstein, who has worked as a consultant fighting municipalization efforts and thus isn’t inclined to be biased in favor of a public buyout, agreed that using the Board of Equalization figures is “certainly a good place to start.” There’s no guarantee that the courts will accept this approach (although, with PG&E in bankruptcy court right now, it’s also entirely possible, experts say, that PG&E might be forced to accept a much lower value for its property and sell it without a fight, in order to pay off some creditors with cash). So we also analyzed a worst-case scenario, essentially accepting the figures of ETAG’s much maligned report and assuming that, under a replacement cost-<\d>plus-<\d>”going concern” analysis, the city would have to spend $795 million to take over the system. (Even ETAG concluded that it’s unlikely the final price would be as high as PG&E’s estimate; nobody whose property is up for seizure starts off by quoting a realistic price.) No matter what the price, the bond sale will have to include some money for contingencies – the actual cost of the bond sale, start-up cash, etc. We’ve added $50 million for those costs. Paying the staff, buying power PG&E doesn’t publicly reveal its operating costs for San Francisco (or any other specific service area). And it’s difficult to use the company’s system-<\h>wide operating costs as a basis for estimating San Francisco costs, since the population of San Francisco is so much denser than in most of the company’s northern California territory. The denser the population, the cheaper it is to serve; the distance between customers is smaller, so you need less transmission line per customer. Reading meters is faster, since the employee doing that work doesn’t have to drive long distances between each house. Repairs and maintenance are cheaper for the same reason. And PG&E’s costs aren’t a fair comparison for a public power agency anyway: PG&E pays huge executive salaries (see “Public Power vs. PG&E,” page 24), which are included in the operations overhead. So we based our cost estimate on LADWP, which is about as close a comparison to San Francisco as we could find. Los Angeles is not quite as dense as San Francisco, so the L.A. figures are almost certainly higher than what San Francisco would pay, but they provide a reasonable, if conservative, estimate. LADWP’s cost per customer is $383; multiplied by the number of customers in San Francisco, that cost is $131 million a year. Then there’s the question of generating or buying the electricity. Here San Francisco has a huge advantage over other public power agencies: The city owns a large hydro<\h>electric dam that can generate enough to cover some of the local power needs – and it’s already paid for. Power from the Hetch Hetchy dam is cheap: the cost of operating the system is only about 2¢ a kilowatt-<\h>hour. Unfortunately, the city also has to pay PG&E to ship the power over its lines to the city borders, since the city has no complete transmission line to carry the power here; San Francisco pays PG&E $9.6 million a year in what’s known as “wheeling fees.” San Francisco currently sells most of the available Hetch Hetchy power to the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts. Our analysis assumes that those contracts will be broken and that much of the power – 425 million kilowatt-<\h>hours’ worth – will be available to the MUD or WPA. The city also has a very expensive contract with Calpine to provide backup energy when water is low at the dam. The wheeling fees and Calpine deal boost the actual cost of Hetch Hetchy power to about 4¢ a kilowatt-hour. But the Calpine deal ends in five years, at which point Hetch Hetchy power will be far less expensive – and the MUD’s costs will go down. Green power Our analysis is based on the assumption that San Francisco will move as rapidly as possible to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels (see “Green City,” 9/26/01). Not all of the alternative-<\h>energy sources that should ultimately be part of the city’s mix are likely to be online when the MUD starts operating, so we’ve again been conservative, assuming in our worst-case scenario only a modest amount of solar power to supplement Hetch Hetchy power. In our best-case scenario we assume that the city will be able to develop 200 megawatts of solar and wind power – five times as much as projected in the solar bond measure, Proposition B, and enough to power 200,000 homes. The cost of solar and wind is easy to determine: it’s the cost of the interest on the bonds needed to buy and install the windmills and panels. Once they’re up and running, they cost very little to operate – and the fuel, of course, is free. Based on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission staff’s analysis of Prop. B), 40 megawatts of solar, wind, and efficiency programs – the equivalent of 98 million annual kilowatt-<\h>hours – will cost about $7.5 million a year. Our ambitious plan – for five times that much solar and wind power- would cost $38 million a year. (Again, the actual costs will probably be lower; once a big agency orders a large amount of solar- or wind-<\h>generating facilities, the price goes down substantially.) The rest of the power the city needs will have to be bought on the open market. Because the market is so volatile, it’s hard to say exactly what that cost would be. But futures contracts for power are listed on the New York Mercantile Exchange Web site, and they’re currently running at less than 4¢ a kilowatt-hour. That price is expected to decline in the future. Again, we’ve stuck to conservative numbers, assuming the MUD or WPA would have to pay 6.9¢ a kilowatt-<\h>hour for power generated locally, by Mirant Corp.’s Potrero Hill power plant (one energy expert told us that Mirant is unlikely to accept less than the 6.9¢ the state is now paying for power), and 5.5¢ a kilowatt-<\h>hour for power bought from out-of-town sources. We assumed that the Potrero plant would operate at its capacity. The power the city would import can’t exceed the amount that can be carried along the one transmission line leading into San Francisco, and our projection meets that criterion. PG&E pays a substantial amount of taxes to the city, and almost all of the San Francisco-<\d>Brisbane MUD Board candidates have pledged to make sure that, at the very least, the city’s General Fund doesn’t lose any money if the private utility is replaced with a public agency. So part of the MUD’s expense would be the payment of a fee to replace what PG&E paid in taxes. The utility pays three major taxes: property taxes, a franchise fee, and business taxes. Based on the Board of Equalization’s assessed value for PG&E ($962 million) and the city’s property tax rate, PG&E’s property taxes are about $1 million. The franchise fee – 1.5 percent of sales – adds another $8.4 million. It’s impossible to say how much PG&E pays San Francisco in business taxes, since that figure is not public, but even at several million dollars a year, it wouldn’t significantly change our bottom line. Unanswered questions There are plenty of questions our analysis doesn’t – and can’t – answer, factors that are impossible at this point to predict with any accuracy. PG&E customers, for example, have to pay a substantial surcharge on their electric bills for what’s known as the CTC, or competitive transition charge. In essence, that’s the money ratepayers have been forced to cough up to cover the cost of PG&E’s bad investments in nuclear power. It’s possible that a San Francisco power agency would have to include some of those charges in its bills – but according to Mindy Spatt, media director at TURN, it’s unlikely. The CTC is expected to end next year and probably wouldn’t be a factor by the time the MUD or WPA was up and running. It’s also unclear whether the MUD or WPA would have to pay a share of the costs of the expensive long-term power contracts that the state Department of Water Resources has signed to buy power for the bankrupt PG&E. There would almost certainly be some substantial legal fees, possibly in the millions of dollars, that would reduce the surplus during the first few years (but not once the eminent domain issues were settled). Most of the MUD candidates have voted to shut down PG&E’s Hunters Point plant, and it’s unclear how much it will cost to decommission that facility. The MUD or WPA could also buy the Potrero plant (it recently sold for $330 million) and pay less for the power generated there. And, of course, it’s uncertain how much electricity will cost on the open market in the next few years. That’s why the MUD or WPA would probably want to move aggressively to increase its own generating capacity. But if power prices go up, one thing is clear: PG&E’s prices will go up higher, and faster, than the prices of a public power agency. Voters won’t have to take our word alone on the subject. The public will have more information on San Francisco’s energy plans in the coming weeks. The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission is planning to bring in experts on public power and energy for hearings, and Smeloff is hiring Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute to assess the city’s energy alternatives. Both reports are expected before the Nov. 6 election. Our analysis isn’t that radical or unusual; it just confirms the experience of every other major public power agency in the state. We’ve found what just about everyone who’s gotten out from under the private utilities already knows: public power is cheaper. It’s that simple. Public power in San Francisco: Best-case scenario (Low rates, extensive renewable energy) Revenue1 Residential sales 1.481 billion kwh @ 11.5¢ per kwh $170 million Commercial/industrial sales 3.942 billion kwh @ 9.5¢ per kwh $374 million TOTAL $544 million Expenses Payment on revenue bonds $578.9 million @ 8 percent2 $50.9 million Cost of power * <\i>Hetch Hetchy 425 million kwh @ 4¢ per kwh3 $17 million * <\i>Solar, wind, efficiencies 500 million kwh4 $38 million * <\i>Potrero Hill plant 1.6 billion kwh @ 6.9¢ per kwh $110 million * <\i>Contract purchases 2.90 billion kwh @ 5.5¢ per kwh5 $160 million Operations and maintenance6 $131 million Replace PG&E’s city taxes7 $9.4 million Public benefits8 $10 million TOTAL $526 million Surplus $18 million This chart shows how a San Francisco public power agency could take over Pacific Gas and Electric Co., reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels, provide all of the electricity the city needs, and still have money left over. The analysis would apply to either a municipal utility district or a city water and power agency. Proposals for both are on the November ballot. (The MUD proposal would include both San Francisco and Brisbane, but since Brisbane is a very small area – only about 4,000 residents – and since it’s difficult to get accurate data on Brisbane’s current usage, our numbers include only San Francisco. The cost of providing service to Brisbane and the revenue from that jurisdiction would not significantly change the analysis.) The scenario presented here is an optimistic one – although, based on our research, the figures are quite realistic. All of the figures we’ve used are conservative – if anything, our analysis underestimates the financial viability of the MUD or a city WPA. The bottom line: Even with residential rates 20 percent below what PG&E currently charges, and with a huge investment in solar and wind power (five times the size of what the city is currently planning), the MUD or WPA would run a large surplus. This study reflects what a MUD or WPA would be facing several years into its existence. In the first few years, the agency would probably have to buy more power on the open market and would generate less from solar and wind (which take time to set up). But on balance that probably lowers the cost of power (solar is comparatively expensive). There are certain to be factors that we missed – although our cost and revenue projections are very similar to what we found in the annual reports of other large public power agencies such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). But we’ve accounted for every foreseeable big-ticket item, and the projected surplus is large enough to cover unexpected costs. 1Revenue is based on sales of 5.4 billion kilowatt-hours: the amount PG&E currently sells in San Francisco, according to the state Energy Commission. A MUD or WPA could set rates at any level it wanted; for this analysis, we set residential rates at 20 percent below PG&E’s current rate of 14¢ a kilowatt-hour rate (which is projected to rise sharply). We assumed that commercial and industrial rates would be at the low end of PG&E’s scale. 2This assumes the MUD or WPA can buy PG&E’s assets at current market value, as assessed by the state Board of Equalization as of Jan. 1, 2001 (see story for details). Ken Bruce of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analysts Office told the Bay Guardian that 8 percent would be a reasonable projection for the interest on revenue bonds. 3Hetch Hetchy currently generates about 1.7 billion kilowatt-hours a year, and half of that goes for city government needs – Muni, the lights at City Hall, etc. We assumed that the city would pay the MUD what it pays now – the actual cost of generating the power – so the power sold to the city would be a financial wash. Thus it’s not in our analysis as either a cost or a revenue item. The cost we project for Hetch Hetchy power is high – it includes unfavorable contracts that will expire in five years (see story). The actual future cost would be closer to 2¢ a kilowatt-hour. 4The cost of solar and wind is based on financial estimates for Prop. B. 5It’s impossible to determine exactly what it would cost the MUD or WPA to purchase power in the future, but future contracts currently listed on the New York Mercantile Exchange are going for less than 4¢ a kilowatt-hour, and that price is expected to drop. Again, we took a conservative estimate; actual costs might be lower. 6Based on the cost per customer of operations and maintenance at LADWP (see story). 7The MUD would have no obligation to pay city taxes, but almost all of the candidates for MUD director have pledged to make sure the city doesn’t lose money – in other words, the MUD would almost certainly pay fees equivalent to what PG&E was paying in taxes (see story). 8The state mandates that power companies or agencies spend 2 percent of revenues on “public benefits” – conservation, environmental programs, and the like. Public power in San Francisco: Worst-case scenario (Moderate rates, less renewable energy) Revenue Residential sales 1.481 billion kwh @ 12.6¢ per kwh1 $186 million Commercial/industrial sales 3.942 billion kwh @ 9.5¢ per kwh2 $374 million TOTAL $560 million Expenses Payment on revenue bonds $850 million @ 8 percent3 $74.4 million Cost of power * <\i>Hetch Hetchy 425 million kwh @ 4¢ per kwh $17 million (includes wheeling and backup)4 * <\i>Solar, wind, efficiencies 98 million kwh5 $7.5 million Purchased power6 * <\i>Potrero Hill plant 1.752 billion kwh @ 6.9¢ per kwh $120 million * <\i>Contract purchases 3.098 billion kwh @ 5.5¢ $170 million Operations and maintenance7 $131 million Replace PG&E’s city taxes8 $9.4 million Public benefits9 $10 million TOTAL $539 million Surplus $21 million This chart shows how a public power system in San Francisco would operate if some of the worst-case assumptions are true: if, for example, the municipal utility district or power agency had to spend $800 million to buy out PG&E’s system (the highest likely figure, even according to pro-PG&E studies) and if the MUD was unable to fund and site affordable renewable-energy systems and was thus forced to rely on buying a large amount of its power from the Potrero Hill plant (owned by Mirant Corporation) and from other generators through long-term contracts. Even under those circumstances, the chart shows, the MUD could cut residential rates by 10 percent, keep commercial and industrial rates at the low end of PG&E’s rates, and still end the year with a surplus. As in all of our calculations, the numbers are very conservative; expenses would probably be considerably lower. 1The MUD could set rates at any level it wanted; for this scenario, we’ve set residential rates at 10 percent below PG&E’s current rates. 2The commercial/industrial rate is at the low end of PG&E’s equivalent rate. 3See story for details on the $850 million figure. The bond rate of 8 percent is based on an estimate from Ken Bruce of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analyst’s Office. 4See story and “Public Power in San Francisco: Best-Case Scenario” for details. 5This is the amount of solar and wind power projected in the city’s report on the solar bond measure, Proposition B. 6See story and “Best-Case Scenario” for details. 7Based on comparable costs per customer at LADWP. 8See story. 9See story.

The commissioner’s conflicts



Before the June 5 special meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission got underway, Michael Antonini had an announcement.

Dressed in a charcoal suit and red-checked tie, with his white hair combed back over his skull, the longtime commissioner disclosed that he was a part owner of a condominium in the eastern neighborhoods, where a years-long rezoning effort is nearly complete. That means Antonini is among the people who could benefit from increased land values due to zoning upgrades.

As a result, Antonini begrudgingly declared that he would have to recuse himself from hearings involving the eastern neighborhoods until the potential conflict is dealt with.

"Hopefully this can be resolved in the next few weeks and I’ll be able to participate at later hearings," Antonini said at the meeting.

But it was a bit late to be complying with the state’s conflict-of-interest laws: Antonini had already actively taken part in meetings in which the plan was discussed. And Antonini also neglected to mention that after he and his son purchased the condo, he voted on two other projects that appear to be within steps of it.

Public records show that Antonini bought the $515,000 condo at 200 Townsend Street in 2003 with his real estate agent son, John. Commissioner Antonini and his wife own a 25 percent stake in the property through a family trust the couple created in 1997. His son holds the majority interest.

Antonini worked hard to play down his stake in the condo at the June 5 meeting. It’s not an investment property, he made clear to the commissioners. There’s no rent generated from it. He’s a mere minority holder in a family trust that controls the condo, and it was purchased as a residence for his son and his wife.

"Because I did not believe our fractional interest in John’s condo represented a conflict, I did not consider reclusing [sic] myself from projects near the condo," Antonini wrote to the Guardian.

But the laws on this are pretty clear. The state’s Political Reform Act of 1974 prohibits public officials from participating in decisions that will have a "foreseeable material financial effect on one or more of his/her economic interests." It also states that any "direct or indirect interest" worth more than $2,000 poses a potential conflict, for which a 25 percent stake in a half-million dollar condo would seem to qualify.


Other public officials in similar situations have recused themselves long before the issue became a potential political liability.

Sup. Bevan Dufty bought into a three-unit residential property on Waller Street with two co-tenants in December 2006. He immediately sought advice from the city attorney, who told him he no longer could vote on the Market-Octavia Plan, a series of land-use changes in Hayes Valley, Duboce Triangle, and elsewhere that was similar in scope to the current rezoning efforts in the eastern neighborhoods. The supervisor also couldn’t vote on a major Laguna Street redevelopment project or on legislation making it easier for seniors to convert rental units to condos.

Antonini told us that "only in the last month" did the city attorney warn some officials involved with plans for the eastern neighborhoods that if they held property in the area, there could be a conflict of interest.

"We’ve been working on [the eastern neighborhoods] for the whole six years I’ve been on the planning commission," he said at the meeting. "It’s a little troubling that this issue of conflict is raised now rather than at the very beginning."

The law does make an exception when the economic interests of the "public generally" could also be enhanced by a government decision such as those that have an impact on a large section of the city like the eastern neighborhoods. But the city attorney’s office concluded for now that the condo indeed may pose a conflict. And in the meantime, Antonini told us that the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento, which helps enforce the state’s Political Reform Act, is being consulted to determine "whether our fractional interest in the condo truly represents a conflict of interest."

The eastern neighborhoods planning process isn’t the only legislation that created a potential conflict for Antonini. The commissioner voted in January 2007 to approve construction of 26 new single-room occupancy units at 25 Lusk Alley, not far from his property at 200 Townsend. The project’s sponsor, Michael Yarne, is a land-use attorney who today works for the mayor’s economic development office. The project was approved, according to meeting minutes.

The project itself relied on a contentious legal loophole in which developers claim their units are "single-room occupancy," a necessity because the area permits residential efficiency hotels where the poor and working-class used to live. Allowing such SRO hotels in areas zoned for light industrial uses enabled the city to preserve some forms of affordable housing. But builders can turn around and lease the opulently large units such as the ones at 25 Lusk, which bear little resemblance to genuine SRO rooms, to well-heeled clients.

"They are allowed where normal residential units are not allowed, because historically SROs were always extremely affordable housing," community organizer Calvin Welch said. "The whole notion of market-rate SROs is a new invention, and that’s why they’re controversial. They’re basically the new version of live-work lofts."

In November 2006, Antonini also voted to approve a liquor license for a new full-service restaurant and wine bar at 216 Townsend, even closer to his son’s condo.


State ethics laws say that a public official has a conflict if his or her property comes within 500 feet of a project the official will be scrutinizing and voting on.

Conservatively measuring from the furthest corners of each property, Google Earth puts both the proposed restaurant and SRO within 500 feet.

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles–based Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the state’s Political Reform Act, said a public official could face $5,000 in civil penalties for each conflict-of-interest violation. But it’s not common for the chronically under-resourced FPPC to go after local officials, he said.

Mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard wrote in an e-mail that "we take any allegations of conflicts of interest seriously" but added there is a disagreement over whether the "public generally" exception applied to the eastern neighborhoods and that the City Attorney’s Office was seeking additional input from the FPPC.

As for the two projects he voted on near the condo, Antonini apparently told the mayor’s office he had looked into whether 25 Lusk fell inside 500 feet. "Based on his understanding at the time," Ballard wrote, "they didn’t."

That’s a stretch, at best. The projects are in the same block. We walked them off and found that Antonini would have to be splitting hairs to argue that they are outside the boundary — and even in that case, it would be only by a few feet. The rusty red paint job, black trim, and stylish, outsize windows of 200 Townsend are easily viewable from the backside of 25 Lusk.

"If there is a legitimate argument that they did fall within the 500-foot radius, this should be clarified," Ballard stated. "However, given the relative insignificance of the two projects cited in your e-mail and Antonini’s long-standing reputation as an ethical and hard-working commissioner, we don’t have any reason to believe that he would have knowingly and/or willingly violated the state’s Fair Political Practices Act."

But the Lusk Street project was by no means insignificant. "They are highly regulated," Welch said of SROs. "You cannot convert them to tourist hotels without going through a very long and cumbersome process. They are valued for affordable housing so highly that the city regulates their conversion to tourist uses." So instead, the "corporate suites," as Welch calls them, masquerade as SROs. The project was approved in the end, but two commissioners — Christina Olague and Sugaya Hisashi — voted against it.

Antonini told us that he believes 25 Lusk is more than 500 feet away, and as for the restaurant, planning staff recommended approval.

The commissioner told us, "I was the one who brought public attention to the issue of my possible conflict. I believe it is a small issue when compared to my body of work on behalf of San Francisco over the last six years."

The June 5 meeting where Antonini made the disclosure about his son’s condo was part of a long and detailed process that will determine the fate of vast sections of Potrero Hill, SoMa, the Mission District, and Dogpatch. The official planning process for the targeted 2,200-acre area began back in 2001, and the commissioners could approve new zoning plans next month before sending the proposal to the Board of Supervisors.

For much of San Francisco’s history, the city sections poised for rezoning have been home to light industry and blue-collar jobs. But housing has encroached over the last 15 years, and the planning commission is prepared to allow between 8,000 and 10,000 new units over the next 20 years. That will almost certainly increase the value of land in the area.

Residential developers built thousands of pricey condos in the SoMa District during the 1990s, exploiting another divisive zoning loophole that created waves of animosity across the city and aided in a takeover of the Board of Supervisors by a progressive bloc of candidates.

Live/work lofts, as developers called them, were built in areas zoned for light industrial commercial purposes. Wealthy buyers would ostensibly operate businesses out of their homes or live in them as working artists as the zoning required, but few have complied with the letter or — having found ways to narrowly abide by it — the spirit of the law.

"The city turned its head," housing attorney Sue Hestor said. "We have 3,000 units that are supposed to be occupied by artists and probably 90 percent of them are not occupied by artists at all. It’s blatantly illegal."

Antonini has managed to maintain friendships with local moderate Democrats over the years despite being an elected member of San Francisco’s Republican Party County Central Committee. Willie Brown first appointed him to the powerful planning commission in 2002, and he’s been a reliable vote for developers and other large business interests. Mayor Gavin Newsom reappointed him in 2004 and earlier this year tried to engineer Antonini’s election as president of the commission.

Editor’s Notes



Ask any elected Democrat in San Francisco about the governor’s budget, and you’ll get an instant answer: it’s awful. It’s brutal. It sucks. Education, housing, the environment … everything we care about is being gutted because the governor and the Republicans in Sacramento won’t raise taxes.

Which is absolutely correct.

Now ask those same Democrats what they think about Mayor Gavin Newsom’s budget. In too many cases, the answer’s a little slower, and a little softer. Gee, it’s too bad that the economy, and Washington and Sacramento and all of these other forces out of our control leave us no choice but to tighten our belts and do things that none of us really wants to do. Gee, Gavin doesn’t like cutting either, but he has to balance the books. Gee, it’s certainly not the mayor’s fault.

Which is absolutely wrong.

The governor of California is not the only chief executive who can look for revenue solutions to a budget shortfall. The mayor of San Francisco can do that too. In fact, Newsom wouldn’t have to look far: Supervisor Aaron Peskin has introduced two measures that together could bring in a minimum of $30 million per year and, in good years, $80 million or more. That’s about a quarter of the budget deficit, enough to save a whole lot of city services, city jobs, and city resources for the needy.

Both tax measures are aimed at the wealthier end of the spectrum. One would raise the transfer tax on real estate sales of more than $2 million. Few first-time homebuyers would see any impact at all, and the ones who do … well, if you can afford a $2 million house, you can pay a reasonable transfer tax. The biggest revenue would come from major downtown commercial property sales: when the Bank of America Building is sold for $1 billion, none of the investors are paupers and the corporations, real estate investment trusts, and financiers involved have all done quite well under the George W. Bush administration’s tax cuts. This is, for the most part, a tax on the rich.

The second measure would eliminate a loophole in the business tax law that allows some partnerships, like law firms, to avoid payroll taxes. See, if you’re a partner in a firm and you earn "profits" in the form of a partnership payout as opposed to a "salary," then the money you make doesn’t get taxed by the city. Most of these outfits are big firms that can afford to pay the city’s business tax. It’s only fair: companies that don’t operate on the partnership model have to pay taxes, and so should everyone else.

The two measures need a vote of the people, and passing any tax is hard. It would help immensely if the mayor endorsed these progressive taxes — and I guarantee that if a Democratic legislator in Sacramento introduced a statewide tax bill hitting the exact same group of people for the exact same amount of money, Newsom and all his Democratic allies would support it (and if the governor vetoed the bill, those same Democrats would denounce him).

The measures would take effect in the middle of the next budget year, and the income could make Newsom’s river of red ink a good bit smaller. He could, in theory, endorse the measures, work for them, and include the revenue in his proposed budget. But so far Peskin hasn’t heard a word from Newsom’s office on this. Neither have I.

Gavin? Hello? *

A heart once nourished



Community court, every second Thursday at 10 a.m. Narcotics Anonymous on Wednesday. Apprenticeships for construction workers, Monday, bright and early.

The ancient letter board just inside the entrance of the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center tells much of the story of this neighborhood institution. Since 1981 it’s been a crucial hub for the Western Addition, a mostly level stretch of terrain west of downtown that rivals the Mission District and Bayview–Hunters Point as the source of the most despair from senseless gun violence.

For decades Ella Hill was a safe haven, a place where kids and seniors felt comfortable, where people could learn and teach and talk and work together, a little oasis in the world of urban hurt.

A placard affixed to one wall of the entryway honors Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African American US Supreme Court justice. In a small office nearby, a tutor assists a young girl with the multiplication table. Elsewhere, a list of rules forbids profanity, play-fighting, and put-downs.

There’s also a poster of Ella Hill Hutch, the first black woman elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, where she served from 1978-81.

But in 2006, a man was murdered during daylight hours in the center’s gymnasium before dozens of witnesses. That slaying was one of at least five brutal incidents that took place in the shadow of Ella Hill between 2006 and 2007; three more murders occurred within blocks. Many remain open cases today.

And now the center is having serious problems — troubles that reflect those of the city’s African American population, which has been plagued by violence and socioeconomic changes that are closing opportunities and forcing longtime residents out the city.

Several census tracts in the neighborhood that at one time contained between 3,000 and 6,000 black residents are down to 1,000 or far less, according to a San Francisco State University study commissioned by the city last year. The report showed that between 1995 and 2000 San Francisco lost more of its black population than 18 other major US cities.

Ironically, the city is now preparing to close the final dark chapter on 50 years of federally subsidized redevelopment in the Western Addition. But the displacement that the bulldozers set off half a century ago continues today, unabated.

That exodus has compounded structural problems at the center just when its remaining clients need it most. The nonprofit late last year underwent an organizational shake up and brief takeover by the Mayor’s Office to save it from imminent financial collapse. The center’s executive director of two years, George Smith III, was fired with little public explanation last year, and a permanent head was named only recently.

As with many aspects of this troubled community, it was unaddressed violence that fed the fire. Simply subsisting in the heart of a violent neighborhood was strain enough for Ella Hill. But suffering an attack from within seemed too much to bear for an institution some call "San Francisco’s Black City Hall."

The 2006 killing took one man’s life, but Ella Hill itself — still facing an uncertain financial future — felt the searing rounds too. Now some wonder if the nonprofit can survive the very violence and poverty it was created to help end in a neighborhood that’s changing forever.

In Ella Hill’s noisy gymnasium at the building’s east end, two teams of middle schoolers practice basketball.

"My job is to be in the best position to box him out for a rebound," their coach says as they crowd around the free throw line.

The kids are radiant and attentive now. But from this same basketball court on April 27, 2006, the Western Addition briefly edged ahead of the rest of the city in extreme bloodshed.

Donte White, 22, was working part-time at the center. As he supervised a basketball game, two unidentified males entered Ella Hill. One brandished a firearm and shot White at least eight times in the face, neck, and chest as several kids looked on in utter horror. Among them was White’s young daughter.

Police arrested 25-year-old Esau Ferdinand for the attack five months after White’s murder. But within two weeks prosecutors decided they could no longer hold him and declined to press charges when a key witness disappeared on the eve of grand jury proceedings.

Even with other witnesses filling the gym, police gathered few additional leads, an all-too-common story in a neighborhood where residents often prefer to avoid both law enforcement and vengeful criminal suspects.

The center installed cameras and an alarm. A buzzer was placed on the front door. But the new security measures cut against Ella Hill’s image as a demilitarized zone, and the center remains shaken by White’s murder. Some parents began barring their children from going there.

"Can you imagine something like that, someone coming into a rec center in the middle of the day with a firearm and shooting and killing a guy?" asks Deven Richardson, who resigned from Ella Hill’s board in 2007 to focus on his real estate business. "That really set us back big time in terms of morale. It really was a dark moment for the center."

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Ella Hill, says that after he took office in 2004, he learned that the police weren’t stationed at the center during prime hours and had never created a strategy for attaching themselves to the center the way they had at other safe-haven institutions in the city, like schools. He told us he’s had to "really work" to get the nearby Northern Station more integrated into Ella Hill.

"Before the murder of Donte White, there had also been a series of incidences inside Ella Hill Hutch," Mirkarimi said over drinks at a Hayes Valley bar. "Nothing that resulted in anybody getting killed, but certainly enough indicators that really should have been taken more seriously by the mayor."

In June 2006, shortly after White’s shooting, the San Francisco Police Commission and the Board of Supervisors held a tense public meeting at the center. Residents, enraged over the wave of violence that summer in the Western Addition, shouted down public officials, including Chief Heather Fong, who was forced to cut short a presentation on the city’s crime rate.

That same month, the supervisors put a measure on the ballot to allocate $30 million over three years for violence-prevention efforts like ex-offender services and witness relocation. But Mayor Gavin Newsom, following a policy of fortifying law enforcement over community-based alternatives, opposed the measure because it excluded the police department. Prop. A, designed to finance groups like Ella Hill with connections to the neighborhood that the police will never have, lost by less than a single percentage point.

Meanwhile, four homicides in the neighborhood that year joined frequent anarchic shootouts in the Western Addition, including many that never made headlines because no one was killed. The fatalities led to promises by City Hall that the area would be saturated with improved security, including additional security cameras that have mostly proved useless in helping the police solve violent crimes.

On June 3, 2006, 19-year-old Antoine Green was standing on McAllister Street near Ella Hill early in the morning when he was shot to death in the head and back. On Aug. 16, 38-year-old Johnny Jackson’s chest was filled with bullets as he sat in the front seat of a Honda Passport on Turk Street not far behind Ella Hill. A woman next to him in the car suffered a critical gunshot wound to the head.

Two more killings occurred further east at Larch Way, a popular location for murder in the neighborhood.

Burnett "Booski" Raven, a 32-year-old alleged member of the Eddy Rock street gang, was found bleeding at 618 Larch Way early Oct. 7, his body laying halfway in the street and containing at least 10 gunshot wounds. On July 22, police found 23-year-old John Brown, another purported Eddy Rock member, wedged under a Chevy pickup truck, dead from up to seven gunshots.

Brown had reportedly survived two prior shootings, but the Western Addition’s cultural condemnation of "snitching" to police has so infected the neighborhood that he allegedly told police not to bother investigating either of the attacks.

Loïc Wacquant, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says neighborhoods like the Western Addition that once contained stable black institutions — schools, churches, and community centers that glued residents together — have been overwhelmed by the rise of a white-collar, service-based economy, the decline of unions, and the withdrawal of meaningful social safety nets.

Cities have responded to the resulting marginalization with more police officers, more courts, and more prisons. But the failure of those institutions to cure rising violence "serves as the justification for [their] continued expansion," Wacquant quoted Michel Foucault, the famous late UC Berkeley sociologist, in the academic journal Thesis Eleven earlier this year.

The roots of the Western Addition’s tragedy go back to the early post-World War II era. In 1949, Congress enacted laws giving cities extraordinary powers to clear out land defined as "blighted." In San Francisco, that meant neighborhoods where low income people of color lived.

The Western Addition was devastated. Huge blocks of houses were bulldozed. Clubs, stores, restaurants — the heart of the black neighborhood — were wiped out. Many residents were forced out of the neighborhood and sometimes the city forever; others lost their property and their livelihoods (see "A half-century of lies," 3/21/2007).

By the 1970s, neighborhood activists were hoping that at the very least the Redevelopment Agency would pay for a recreation facility for kids. But city officials wouldn’t put up the money, recalls the Rev. Arnold Townsend, a longtime political fixture in the city and associate pastor of the Rhema Word Christian Fellowship.

Townsend said activist Mary Rogers — whom he calls "the greatest champion kids ever had in this community" and a famous critic of redevelopment — gave up on City Hall and went to Washington DC, where she sat in at a meeting that happened to include Patricia Harris, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter. Rogers, joined by a group of colleagues from San Francisco, bumped into Harris afterward.

"[Harris] shook Mary’s hand like politicians do, and Mary wouldn’t let her hand go until she had a meeting," Townsend said. "They were having a tug-of-war over her hand."

Rogers’ determination paid off, and enough political channels opened up that money for the center became available. Then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein cut the ribbon for the $2.3 million Ella Hill Hutch Community Center four months after the supervisor’s death, complete with outdoor seating for seniors, a gymnasium, tennis courts, and child-care facilities.

A young counselor named Leonard "Lefty" Gordon who worked at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, one of the city’s oldest black institutions — it was founded in 1919 on Presidio Avenue, where it remains today — was named executive director of Ella Hill three years later and led the center to wide acclaim for 17 years.

A recreation coordinator at Ella Hill started a reading program for young athletes after discovering that a local high school football star wasn’t aware he’d been named the city’s player of the year: the teenaged boy couldn’t read the newspaper to find out. Other programs for tutoring and job training targeting young and old residents were likewise started under Gordon.

Many of the people we interviewed recalled the "kitchen cabinet" meetings convened by Lefty Gordon at Ella Hill as among their fondest memories. Everyone from the "gangbangers to police" attended Gordon’s meetings, Townsend said, and made them a repository of complaints about what was happening in the neighborhood.

Alphonso Pines, a former Ella Hill board member and organizer for the Unite Here! Local 2 union, eagerly showed up at the meetings for months after attending 1995’s Million Man March in Washington.

"I hate to see brothers die, regardless of whether it’s at Ella Hill," Pines said of Donte White’s 2006 killing. "But that was personal for me, because that was the place where I had sat on the board for years. That was real shocking."

Lefty’s son, Greg Gordon, said that his legendary father — who died of a heart attack in May of 2000 — worked so hard for the center that he allowed his own health to deteriorate.

Most beneficiaries of Ella Hill’s social services now live in the southeast section of the 94115 ZIP code, roughly bordered by McAllister and Geary streets to the south and north, and Divisadero and Laguna streets to the west and east.

The majority of Ella Hill’s approximately $1.4 million annual budget comes from government sources, either through grants or nonprofit contracts.

Newsom, through his community development and housing offices, has given $860,000 over the past three years to Ella Hill to help job-ready applicants obtain construction work and other general employment in the neighborhood. The center launched its JOBZ program in 2006, targeting formerly incarcerated young adults and others with a "hard-to-employ" status.

Caseworkers must convince some participants to leave gangs, deal with outstanding warrants, pay back child support, expunge criminal records, or eliminate new offenses, all of which can exacerbate a desire to give up. Sometimes the center has to buy people alarm clocks.

"None of these other programs that are being funded in this community want to deal with the kinds of kids or people who come to Ella Hill…. [It] is the last stop for everybody," said London Breed, head of the African American Art and Culture Complex on Fulton Street and a Western Addition native. "That’s where people go who have no place else to go, which is why it’s so important."

Most nonprofits working for the city must regularly report their operational costs or show how program funds are being spent on graduation ceremonies and trips to university campuses. The required forms are mind-numbingly bureaucratic and reveal little about what a place like Ella Hill might face on a practical level each day. But last year, former executive director George Smith betrayed a crack in Ella Hill’s veneer.

"Once again violence has impacted the community with three incidents in close proximity to the complex this month alone," he wrote to the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, which supports the center with college preparation grants. "One of the victims was a young man scheduled to graduate from high school in June."

On May 25, 2007, 19-year-old Jamar Lake was leaving a store on Laguna and Eddy streets, northeast of Ella Hill, when a teen suspect opened fire on him. Paramedics were so worried about security in the neighborhood that they fled before attempting resuscitation, according to a report from the San Francisco Medical Examiner. Lake died at General Hospital that day.

Weeks later, a manic 12-hour long feud erupted between several gunmen on McAllister Street. Seven people were wounded during two daytime shootings that took place in the Friendship Village Apartments, across the street from Ella Hill.

Then in July, a suspect randomly and fatally stabbed 54-year-old Kenneth Taylor in the neck as he sat on a park bench near sundown at Turk and Fillmore streets, within easy view of the SFPD’s Northern Station. Police didn’t respond until Taylor stumbled to the sidewalk and collapsed; a witness had to flag down a patrol car.

Following the Lake shooting, the mayor and police department promised, as they had the year before, that foot patrols would be increased in the 193-unit Plaza East Housing Development and other public housing projects in the Western Addition.

But the city’s most visible response has bypassed Ella Hill — which has some street credibility — altogether. Instead, City Attorney Dennis Herrera went to court to get injunctions against street gangs in June 2007.

Herrera’s initial filing came days after the wild shootout on McAllister Street, but the timing was coincidental. The city attorney also had been preparing injunctions against gangs in the Mission and Bayview-Hunter’s Point for months. For the Western Addition, the city attorney noted a "recent rise in violent crimes perpetrated by the defendants," and asked that the members of three gangs be banned from associating with one another inside two "safety zones" marked along the contours of their respective territories, a 14-square-block area that straddles Fillmore Street and rests just north of Ella Hill.

"The conditions within the two safety zones have become particularly intolerable in 2007 as the deadly rivalry between the Uptown alliance and defendant Eddy Rock has intensified," Herrera’s office told the court. "In 2007 alone, this rivalry is the suspected cause of at least three homicides and numerous shootings within the two safety zones."

Some critics viewed barring people from congregating with one another a civil rights violation. And worse, they feared it would merely shove more African Americans and Latinos out of the Western Addition, which would benefit the city’s wealthiest white residents.

"All of this stuff about gang injunctions is a bunch of malarkey," said Franzo King, archbishop of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Fillmore Street. "You don’t really have gangs here…. [In San Francisco] they’re a big club."

Herrera nonetheless convinced a Superior Court judge to issue the injunctions after filing 1,200 pages of evidence arguing that the three "clubs," which include only about 65 people named by the city, are endless public nuisances and force organizations like Ella Hill to battle with them for the affections of Western Addition youth.

Police admit that the injunctions since last year have, in fact, led people to simply leave the neighborhood. Still, they insist the injunctions have reduced trouble in the Western Addition. The Knock Out Posse, for instance, is evaporating, they say.

Paris Moffett, a 30-year-old alleged Eddy Rock leader, told the Guardian in a separate story on the gang injunctions last November that he and others were organizing to quell violence in the neighborhood and would do so in defiance of the gang injunctions (see "Defying the injunction," 11/28/07).

But on the day that story ran, Moffett hampered his new cause when, according to a March 27 federal indictment, police arrested him in Novato for possessing a large quantity of crack and MDMA, as well as a Colt .45 semiautomatic.

After Lefty Gordon died, the center went through a couple of directors in relatively short order. Robert Hector, a second-in-command to Lefty Gordon, helmed the center briefly; he was replaced with George Smith III, who left in 2007.

Meanwhile, problems at Ella Hill grew.

"The seniors just stopped their participation," Anita Grier, a former Ella Hill board member who first ran for the San Francisco City College Board of Trustees in 1998 at Gordon’s encouragement, told us. "Things were never excellent, but they just got much worse once [Gordon] was no longer director."

The center, a standalone nonprofit, had long struggled financially in part because it relied so much on contracts and grants from the city rather than pursuing funds from private donors. Mirkarimi says Ella Hill’s structure is unlike any other community center in the city. Many other centers are directly maintained by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

Contract revenue from one Ella Hill program, such as providing emergency shelter to the homeless, was often diverted to keep another on life support or to simply cover the center’s utility bills.

By early 2007, the center faced a financial catastrophe. Donald Frazier joined Ella Hill’s board as president in January 2007 and embarked on a reform effort to turn the center around. He commissioned what came to be a blistering audit that revealed the nonprofit owed over $200,000 in state and federal payroll taxes. As a result, the center faced $63,000 more in penalties and accrued interest.

Mirkarimi blames community leaders in his district for refusing to acknowledge a crisis at the center and for not turning to City Hall for help when Ella Hill appeared to be slowly rotting from the inside out.

The mayor’s staff, he adds, wanted to believe Ella Hill was working on its own and should’ve continued to do so because, despite its financial reliance on the city, it was technically an independent nonprofit. In reality, Mirkarimi said, "They were afraid to piss off black people, is what it comes down to. They were afraid to tell it like it is — that things weren’t working."

Sending delinquent invoices to the city, failing to institute reasonable accounting standards, and falling far behind on its payroll taxes all threatened the government contracts and grants that kept San Francisco’s Black City Hall afloat. By extension, the audit concluded, that meant Western Addition residents who relied on Ella Hill were "victimized" by the center’s improper use of its limited resources.

Aside from the audit, which Ella Hill instigated itself, there’s no indication in the records of agencies funding the center that any problems were occurring, which implies the city wasn’t paying attention.

"As far as I’m concerned," Mirkarimi said, "we had a renegade institution, and the only reason it wasn’t renegade in an illegal sense was because the lease allowed them to have a parallel governance structure. But it was renegade in the sense that the city neglected to supervise properly."

In November 2007, just after residents hijacked a chaotic board meeting with an extended public comment period, Frazier told the directors in closed session that the Redevelopment Agency was planning to restrict future funding for the center due to its management problems.

One month later, the mayor dispatched an aide, Dwayne Jones, along with redevelopment agency director Fred Blackwell, to a meeting at Ella Hill with an ultimatum. Jones told the assembled that new interim appointees would be taking over the center’s bank books, recreating its bylaws, and electing a new board and executive director. The old board would essentially be dissolved. According to observers at the meeting, Jones told them that if they resisted the plan, funds received by Ella Hill from various city agencies would be jeopardized, as would its low-cost lease of city property.

Two defiant board members viewed the move as a "hostile takeover" of a private nonprofit organization by the mayor and voted against it, but the rest of the board agreed to the restructuring. Mirkarimi says there was simply no alternative.

"Right now it needs to be shrunk to what it can do really well, instead of doing what they had to do in the last five years, an incremental sloppy way of programming," he said.

The interim board in April named a former Ella Hill employee and Park and Rec administrator, Howard Smith — unrelated to George Smith — to be the center’s new executive director. But after all the changes Ella Hill made to fix its leadership problems, there are no assurances the city won’t leave Ella Hill without the money it needs to keep the doors open next year.

It’s noon on a recent Friday and Ella Hill’s new executive director is scrambling to keep things together. An employee wants him to glance at a form. Another man wants to come in and play basketball. Smith has a board meeting minutes from now, but he’s scheduled an interview with the Guardian at the same time.

Smith’s a well-built man dressed in a pressed suit, polished shoes, and a sharply-knotted tie. He’d mostly avoided our calls for weeks. Word spread in the neighborhood that the Guardian was planning some sort of hit piece on Ella Hill.

But it won’t be a newspaper that capsizes the center.

A significant portion of the center’s funding will be threatened over the next year. The redevelopment agency is scheduled to end its 45-year reign in the Western Addition by then, a blessing of sorts since so many people in the neighborhood feel it’s done nothing but upend the lives of black residents. But the end of the agency means that redevelopment funds for Ella Hill’s job placement programs, about $400,000 annually, will disappear.

In addition, about $300,000 more a year will dry up since the San Francisco Human Services Agency hasn’t renewed an emergency homeless shelter contract with the center. Mirkarimi believes the mayor, too, will try to stop providing Ella Hill with funding through his community development office next year.

If Newsom does back away, Mirkarimi warns, there will be "a very loud showdown."

"What I’m worried about is that the Newsom administration is basically cutting and running on this, and I’m not going to allow that to happen, at least not without a fight," he said.

The alternative is for Rec and Park to take over managing Ella Hill’s facilities with DCYF continuing to fund youth programs there while the Redevelopment Agency commits community benefits dollars from a legacy fund to the center — the least it can do after a half-century of transforming the neighborhood, locals be damned.

An interagency council made up of the center’s primary funders could collectively watchdog its performance, Mirkarimi says. Once Ella Hill’s leaders prove that the center has fully returned to its original mission, it can consider expanding to serve other populations in the neighborhood, or even seek a plan to detach further from the city.

The mayor’s spokesperson, Nathan Ballard, did not respond to an e-mail containing detailed questions, and his aide, Dwayne Jones, did not return several phone calls. But Smith said during a later lunch interview at the Fillmore Café that he agrees with Mirkarimi’s idea.

"There are so many programs out there that say they’re doing something on paper, but they’re really not doing it," Smith said. "They’re running ghost programs. So what I’ve been saying at Ella Hill since I got there is, ‘We will do exactly what we said we were going to do.’<0x2009>"

In the meantime, Smith is determined to prove that Ella Hill’s history has only just begun. The mural of Lefty Gordon outside the center received a fresh coat of paint recently, and the color pops. The sidewalk is being repaved and new handrails installed. The walls inside are clear of the aging posters and letter board that hung there a few months ago.

Before heading off to his board meeting, Smith teasingly asks an adolescent boy meandering in the center’s entryway for 75 cents. The boy’s always hitting him up for pocket change.

"I don’t got any," the boy responds.

"You don’t have any," Smith corrects.

Smith suddenly realizes what time it is.

"Hey, why isn’t this guy in school?" he wonders aloud.

At that moment, only the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center was asking the question. *

Beyond the budget spin


OPINION Local government is frozen. The mayor’s office and the Board of Supervisors have been engaged in open warfare for months. This week, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that in order to balance San Francisco’s budget, city services and community-based organizations will have to undergo draconian cuts.

In a preemptive move against embarrassing protests, the mayor’s press office did not reveal the location of the annual budget presentation to the news media until late Friday afternoon. Even the supervisors, who will be debating and voting on the budget during the month of June, were left in the dark until then.

While the mayor didn’t blame city workers for the financial crisis, he did suggest that Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents the low-wage, frontline, service-providing city workers, should "help out."

Well, we have. SEIU members stepped up to "help out" in fiscal years 2003–04 and 2004–05 by agreeing to wage freezes and self-funding our pensions. All the recent midyear cuts were in public health agencies and among SEIU-represented nonprofits.

Most recently we stepped up by helping draft and vigorously campaigning to pass Proposition B, which freezes city workers wages for two years and tightens eligibility for retiree health care benefits in exchange for a modest increase in city pension benefits.

The mayor’s budget director repeatedly has said that this is a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Talk about spin.

Moreover, in his June 2 budget presentation, the mayor made no mention of raising revenue as an answer to our fiscal problems. You could almost hear Gov. Schwarzenegger’s voice as Newsom presented a slash-services budget with a "no-new-taxes" slogan waiting in the wings for his next campaign.

Everyone knows it’s expensive to live in San Francisco. Paying city employees a wage that allows them to stay in the community they serve isn’t a budget "problem." It ought to be a basic part of what City Hall does and cares about. And if that means looking at bringing in new sources of money, we should have that conversation.

We believe there are various revenue sources that make more sense to explore than some of these service cuts, including a real estate transfer tax increase for high-level properties.

Fortunately, the mayor’s proposal is just a starting point. Soon we will be proposing specific alternatives.

Toward that end, the San Francisco Human Services Network and Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth have organized a citywide forum on the mayor’s proposed budget cuts. SEIU 1021 is cosponsoring this event. The San Francisco budget and revenue town-hall meeting will be held June 9 from 2-4 p.m. in the San Francisco Main Library’s Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin (at Grove)

Don’t get angry. Get organized.

Robert Haaland

Robert Haaland is a longtime San Francisco activist who works for Local 1021.

Editor’s Notes



I think it’s safe to say that most people in the real estate business tend to oppose raising taxes on real estate. And generally speaking, you don’t find the industry well represented at dinners for urban environmental groups. But John Barry is different. He’s a Sunset District Realtor who is full of ideas about how to get the city more revenue, and after I ran into him at the San Francisco Tomorrow dinner May 21, he sent me a proposal he says would bring in more than $5 million a year.

Barry was digging around in property records recently and learned that a parcel out on 19th Avenue sold a year ago, in June 2007, for $2.5 million — and the new owners still hadn’t received a property tax bill. The owner "most likely won’t be getting the bill until July or later," Barry wrote. "He will then have another 30 to 90 days to come up with his payment."

Although the city will eventually get the money, the late property tax bill means that cash is sitting in a property owner’s bank account, earning interest that ought to go to the city. At the current tax rate of 1.141 percent of market value, which is typically the sale price, the lost interest on this one property is about $2,800. Multiply that times all the commercial and residential sales in the city, and Barry estimates San Francisco is losing some $5 million in interest every single year.

"Who is to blame? All of us," he wrote. "If taxpayers had been raising a fuss, the city would have found ways to do this all quicker."

When property changes hands, it typically goes through a title company and an escrow procedure and, at closing, a bunch of money changes hands. The buyer pays a whole list of fees — to the title company, the broker, the mortgage company, etc. Why can’t the city be in the mix?

Here’s how it could work, Barry suggests: "The title company calls the tax collector and says, ‘We are closing a sale in two days. The sale price is $1 million. Send us an interim estimated tax bill.’ The tax collector multiplies .01141 [the property tax rate] against $1 million and instantly prints an interim bill of $11,410 and e-mails it to the escrow officer."

Makes sense to me.

So the day I got Barry’s e-mail, I called Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and left him a message saying I’d found him $5 million. He called back right away. I ran Barry’s idea by him, and he told me it was worth pursuing.

It’s a bit more complicated than it seems, he said, particularly with commercial property — which is where the big money is, anyway. In many cases the city doesn’t accept the sales prices as the actual value, and under Proposition 13, you can’t raise a tax bill once you set it. But I have great faith that City Attorney’s Office can figure a way around that.

Of course, Ting has another problem: he doesn’t have the staff to catch up on the existing backlog — and Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to cut his budget. "Nobody wants to stand up and fight to fund the tax man," he told me. That, of course, is lunacy. If you’re short of money, you don’t cut the folks who are bringing it in.

It’s hard to talk about taxing anyone, even in San Francisco. "I write this," Barry said, "because I am a founding member of the How a Realtor Can Commit Professional Suicide Club." But you know he’s right.

Mayor uses Shipyard to announce budget, Monday


It’s 4 PM on a Friday afternoon, that hour when most employees are counting the seconds to the weekend—and wishing that Monday morning wasn’t only 65 hours away.

But does the Mayor’s Office know what time it is?

And if so, why have we only just found out that Mayor Gavin Newsom is planning to make his Monday morning budget announcement, at 10: 30 am, June 2, at the Hunters Point Shipyard?

The announcement will be made at
View Larger Map“>606 Hunter’s Point Shipyard.
(Unless, Newsom is planning a repeat of his disappearing Olympic Torch stunt.)

The location happens to be the San Francisco Police Department’s Tactical Operations center. Press are being asked to present press credentials for entry.

Could it be that this announcement is being made at the very last minute because the choice of location gives Newsom the appearance of impropriety? Newsom backing Prop.G on the June 3 ballot, the measure that developer Lennar has spent over $3.5 million in an effort to grab even more of San Francisco’s waterfront real estate, adding highly desirable land at Candlestick Point to the shipyard’s wastelands, so it can develop even more luxury condos?

Or could it be because he didn’t want to tip of supporters of Prop. F, the competing measure on the June 3 ballot that requires that 50 percent of development in the Bayview is affordable to people who actually live there—households that tend to make $68,000 and under and can’t afford to buy $500,000 condos and million-dollar townhouses?

Whatever the reasons, the running dogs of the press weren’t the only ones left in the dark about the budget locale.

No one on the Board of Supervisors was informed until 4PM, Friday afternoon, either. That’s when a mayoral aide came by the office of Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who sits on the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee, to deliver the news of this hitherto top secret location.

Normally, Board members get an invitation at least 10-14 days beforehand.

Mirkarimi calls the move “highly unorthodox and outrageous.”

“What’s really unforgivable is that we are facing the worst budget deficit in San Francisco’s history,” Mirkarimi said. “The Mayor needs to be fostering collaboration, and enlisting the support of everyone he can, especially those who have influence on the budget process. It’s unfortunate that the casualty in all this is our desire to work together.”

Hellarity burns



"The angels in the summertime are ashes in the fall. As Eden fell so heaven shall. I will burn them all."

The sign, written in gothic letters on weatherworn plywood with faded red flames, is nailed to the side gate of a two-story duplex off Martin Luther King Jr. Way in north Oakland. Today, the old sign’s words carry a chilling new meaning, greeting visitors to a house whose insides were scorched by an unidentified arsonist.

The charred house has been a cauldron of contention for more than 10 years. It has been the product of two anticapitalist housing experiments, one started by an environmentalist landlord who sought to create an ecotopia, and the other by a group of anarchists who intended to make it their home. In the process, it became a hub for traveling activists and aspiring hobos, and a headquarters for antiestablishment endeavors such as Berkeley Liberation Radio.

"People would hear about it through the grapevine, hop off a freight train, and show up on our doorstep with a backpack, a banjo, and a Woody Guthrie song," says Steve DiCaprio, a tenant who moved into the house in 2001 with his wife after living in a van out front. "We had an open-door policy. Anyone could come in, no questions asked. They just had to abide by certain rules: no hard drugs, no racism, no homophobia, and no violence. We wanted to emphasize equality — it was a reaction to the closed, materialistic, competitive, dog-eat-dog society we live in."

The house originally was part of the green property owner’s attempt to create a network of sustainable, affordable housing. When his project floundered, the residence was slowly taken over by his tenants, a group of people who one-upped his radicalism. Both sides claimed to be avowed anticapitalists, but their strategies were at odds; his was to produce an alternative to the local housing market by creating a nonprofit that would help tenants own their homes as a collective. Theirs was to make space for themselves in a rent-based housing market by seizing property from investors and absentee landlords.

The owner eventually went bankrupt — drowned in the early stages of the current defutf8g housing market — and the property fell into the hands of a small-time real estate investor, despite the tenants’ attempts to buy it themselves. The tenants refused to leave, transforming themselves into squatters, and fought it out with the buyer in court for three years. As the court case bogged down, housing values plummeted, making the landlord’s investment lose value by the day.

On Feb. 28, when one of many hearings was set to take place, the squatters showed up in court but the landlord hadn’t filed the paperwork needed to move the conflict closer to a resolution. The following night, in the early hours of March 1, someone lit three fires in the empty upper apartment, setting the house ablaze as people slept inside.


For years the house has been known as "Hellarity," although its original owner never called it that. In fact, he refuses to. To recognize that name would be to legitimize the people who adorned it with the title — a group he sees as thieves, squatters who disrupted a legitimate project he thought would have a small but tangible impact on a profit-driven housing market.

Born on the Sunrise Free School in northeastern Washington State, Sennet Williams — known by most as "Sand" — spent his early years bouncing between Spokane and "environmental and pacifist intentional communities" in the area. A year after moving to Berkeley in 1990, he graduated from UC Berkeley’s Hass School of Business. With a degree in urban land economics, he wanted to do his part to turn the tide of environmental degradation by developing "nonprofit car-free housing" in Berkeley.

Williams didn’t see attending business school or investing in property as contradictions of his ideals. For Williams, they were strategic moves. He thought that anticapitalist projects lacked an important element — money — and wanted to be a benefactor for alternative forms of housing.

One week after graduating, his dreamy aspirations came to a crashing halt when an SUV plowed into his compact car while he was on a ski trip at Lake Tahoe, badly injuring him and causing brain damage. His goals would have been quickly destroyed, but Williams sued the driver and convinced the court that the accident interfered with his budding career, winning a settlement in 1993 that he says was "almost a million dollars."

While his money was tucked away in mutual funds and he was living briefly at a student co-op in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1994, Williams solidified his ideas into an ambitious project called the "Green Plan" with some of his housemates. The plan was an elaborate scheme to "end homelessness" by creating "an urban nonprofit dedicated to self-governing and radical environmentalism" that would fund "rural sustainable ecovillages in Hawaii and elsewhere."

That summer, Williams bought five houses on credit in what he calls Berkeley’s "’80s drug-war zones" and brought his Ann Arbor friends to California to turn his rundown properties into co-op material. Over the summer, the Green Plan became an official organization and Williams let its members live in his houses without paying rent. Instead, they were expected to pay monthly dues to their organization — roughly the equivalent of fair market rent — to put toward buying rural land or repurchasing the houses from Williams at cost. Those who couldn’t afford to contribute were allowed to stay free in exchange for working on the houses, doing extra work for the Green Plan, or volunteering in its Little Planet café.

"Sennet (Williams) tried to be clear that he wasn’t a landlord," says former Green Plan member Dianna Tibbs, but relations between Williams and the members quickly disintegrated. Three years after its formation, the Green Plan remained unincorporated as a nonprofit. A former member also said it was still too centered on Williams’ ideas. Williams’ relationship with the tenants soured. "Ultimately there was a rebellion among the people against Sennet," Tibbs says. In 1997 the project disbanded, transferring all of the money they had raised — about $50,000 — to the Little Planet café.

The Green Plan fell apart, but Williams was caught up in the fervor of the mid-90s real estate market. In 1997, he bought the house that would later be named Hellarity for $114,000, with the goal of "making it into a demonstration of an eco-house that would be an educational resource for the city." He says he chose that property in part so it "could be a tribute to the Black Panthers’ goals of providing food in the inner-city," as it was on the same block as the home of Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale.

But shortly after Williams bought Hellarity, he says he became "overextended in real estate." By the time he made his first mortgage payments, he says there were "over 60 people" living in his houses. He owned eight in Berkeley, two in Oakland, and was planning to buy farmland in Hawaii. With Williams tied up in too many projects to fix up Hellarity, he moved in some people to "house sit" in exchange for free rent.

Shortly after people moved in, Williams stopped coming around the house. The housesitters gradually brought in their friends, the walls were slowly painted to suit the eccentric tastes of the occupants, and more people started calling the house theirs. Williams said he didn’t invite them, but admits that he never asked them to leave. He had little contact with the occupants as years passed. "He was just a theoretical person that owned the house," DiCaprio says.

Hellarity took on a distinctly anarchist flavor in Williams’ absence. "People with alternative lifestyles and alternative family arrangements could live without having to dedicate their lives to making money, giving them more time to invest in their homes and their communities," says long-term resident Robert "Eggplant" Burnett, Bay Area punk rock legend, publisher of the zine Absolutely Zippo, and editor of Slingshot newspaper. Hellarity hosted the pirate radio station Berkeley Liberation Radio, a do-it-yourself bike shop, and cooked meals for Food Not Bombs.

It seemed like an anarchist paradise, but it wouldn’t last.


By 2004, mortgage payments were driving Williams deep into debt, and Hellarity became a burden. The house was being pulled away from him from two sides: by anarchists who increasingly challenged the legitimacy of his ownership, and by creditors who placed liens against his properties.

When Hellarity was eventually sold by the court in a bankruptcy sale, the tenants say the man who would buy the house, Pradeep Pal, had never set foot in it. Pal, who refused to be interviewed for this article, lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Hercules and owned two businesses, Charlie’s Garage in Berkeley and European Motor Works in Albany. He wasn’t exactly a freewheeling real estate flipper — he was a South Asian immigrant who, according to Guardian research of property records, never owned real estate in the area other than his own home.

But to the tenants, Pal was a capitalist trying to buy them out of their home. In a recorded meeting with tenants, Pal admitted he hadn’t been inside the house before he bought it, and Williams tells us the real estate agent who arranged the sale also never toured the house before Pal bought it. "He obviously had no interest in moving into the place or contributing to the community if he didn’t even look at it," future occupant Jake Sternberg says. "This was someone who just wanted to make a profit."

The tenants made it clear to Pal that they didn’t want him to buy the house and would make life difficult for him. As soon as it became apparent that Williams would lose the house, Crystal Haviland and a few other occupants started searching for someone to help them buy the house. In the summer of 2004, the house was slated to go up on foreclosure auction, but the tenants hadn’t found a sympathetic donor.

The auction was set to occur on the steps of the René C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse, and the occupants showed up banging drums and bellowing chants to warn off prospective buyers. "We wanted anyone interested in buying the house to know that the people who had been living at the house for 10 years wanted to buy it," says Haviland, who is now raising a child, studying psychology at San Francisco State University, and volunteering as a peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic. "We didn’t want people to buy it and turn it into an expensive gentrified thing." While people gathered, Williams showed up and announced bankruptcy, a legal move that cancelled the auction.

With more time to search for financial support, Haviland started talking with Cooperative Roots, an organization that bought a couple of Williams’ other houses — now known as "Fort Awesome" and "Fort Radical" — in foreclosure auctions. Cooperative Roots is a Berkeley-based nonprofit organized in 2003 by members of the University Students Cooperative Association. They received money from progressive donors — mainly the Parker Street Foundation — to buy houses that they turned into "cooperative, affordable housing," says Cooperative Roots member Zach Norwood. Anyone who lives in their houses is an automatic member of the cooperative and makes monthly mortgage payments to the foundation.

For Hellarity, Cooperative Roots was a godsend. "Other people would walk into that house and say, "This place is disgusting," DiCaprio says. "But they said, ‘Wow, this is a work of art.’<0x2009>" The Parker Street Foundation was willing to put down whatever was needed to buy the house, Norwood says, but the occupants were limited by the monthly payments they could afford. On Nov. 4, 2004, the house went up for bankruptcy sale, and Cooperative Roots was prepared to bid up to $420,000. "It was exciting to be there with a bunch of crazy Hellarity people, putting out bids for hundreds of thousands of dollars," Haviland says.

No one expected them to show up at the sale. Williams says they had previously offered to buy the house from him but he "didn’t think they were serious." By the time they had the money, Williams no longer had control of the sale. At the courthouse, the anarchists were playing by the rules, bidding with money up front. The only other party interested in the house was Pal and his brother-in-law Charanjit Rihal, who were placing bids against the occupants. The two sides bid against each other, driving up the price until the occupants reached their limit. Pal and Rihal took the property for $432,000.


"This sale was symptomatic of a housing market gone haywire," says DiCaprio. "People like Pal and Rihal thought they could just throw a bunch of money into real estate and it would always be a good investment. I’m glad the market finally crashed, because that kind of behavior hurts a lot of people. It ended up driving the price of housing to the point that normal people can’t buy anymore — and that’s absurd."

Pal soon discovered he owned the property on paper only. The occupants didn’t recognize the sale or his authority to tell them to leave. Three months after the sale, the occupants were still there, refusing to go. Pal took the case to court in an "action to quiet title," demanding that they be ejected from the property and that the title be freed from any future claims against it. He claimed the people in the house were squatters, living on his property without permission. But before the police could drag out the occupants, they countersued, holding themselves up in court without a lawyer for three years and living in the house the whole time.

One of the first cross-complaints came from Robert Burnett who — with his contempt for the computerized, cell phone-saturated consumer culture — wrote his cross-complaint on the back of a flyer on an ancient typewriter. When the document appeared in court, one side advertised a benefit for a pirate radio station at the anarchist info shop at the Long Haul with an image of tiny people being thrown out of an upside-down Statue of Liberty. On the other side, Burnett claims that he is a co-owner of the house, which he acquired through "adverse possession." Two other defendants made the same claim.

"Adverse possession transfers the ownership of a piece of real estate to people occupying the house without payment," says Oakland attorney Ellis Brown, an expert in property law. "In the state of California, you have to be openly living in a place for five years without the titleholder trying to make you leave to win an adverse possession case."

"Adverse possession originated to prevent Native Americans from taking back land from homesteaders, but squatters turned it around, using it to protect people who take possession of unused property," says Iain Boal, a historian of the commons who teaches in the community studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the author of the forthcoming book, The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure. Boal emphasizes the large numbers of squatters in the world, a figure Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World (Routledge, 2004), pegs at 1 billion. "It is only here that squatters are seen as bizarre leftovers from the ’60s," Boal says. "We are in a crisis of shelter, and people need to fill their housing needs."

DiCaprio concurs. Along with Burnett, DiCaprio was the main backer of the occupants’ legal case. As we talk in a dark, live-in warehouse, he sips coffee out of a Mason jar and looks over the court case on his laptop. He says he wants to be a lawyer, but he has never been interested in making lots of money — he says he wants to "fight for housing rights." DiCaprio learned squatter law while cycling through family law court, criminal court, and federal court over a Berkeley house he was squatting and trying to win through adverse possession. The city threw him in jail, and he was released just after Pal sued the occupants of Hellarity.

He says Hellarity was different from other situations he’s dealt with as a squatter. "We never thought of ourselves as squatters [at Hellarity] per se until Pal sued us and start using that language in court," he says. "Before he bought the house, no one was challenging our presence on the property. Sennet [Williams] was either actively or passively letting us stay there. By filing a claim to quiet title, Pal made it apparent the title was in question. By calling us squatters instead of tenants, they lost some claim to the property. So we took the ball and ran with it."

Their use of adverse possession was strategic, DiCaprio says, but they didn’t intend to win the house that way. "We were never under any illusion that we would win ownership of the house in court," he says. "We wanted to use the court as a forum to enable us to buy the house. We were just treading water until Pal got tired and agreed to sell." The occupants say they offered him $360,000 for the house, the price it was originally listed for, but he refused to take a loss on his investment.

DiCaprio says the courts generally aren’t sympathetic to squatters’ cases. "Pro pers tend to be poor, so there is a class bias against them," he says, referring to people who represent themselves without a lawyer. DiCaprio says judges have rejected documents for having dirt on them and refused to give fee waivers to people with no income. "The courts do not like squatters. If you mix pro per and adverse possession, you could not have a more hostile environment against us."

For more than two years, Pal and the occupants played a cat-and-mouse game, dragging out the case and trying to complicate it in hopes the other side would just give up. Pal’s lawyer, Richard Harms (who did not return Guardian calls seeking comment), objected to the terms "documents," "property," and "identify" when asked to produce evidence related to his claim. "Instead of trying to prove their case, they were just waiting for us to trip up and not file something before a deadline," says DiCaprio.

The occupants didn’t slip, but as the case wore on, he and Burnett grew tired of upholding their side in court. By fall 2007, the two cut side deals with Pal. Burnett settled for $2,000 and DiCaprio for an undisclosed amount. "I realized I couldn’t save it alone," DiCaprio says. "I told them to sink or swim."


When Burnett and DiCaprio settled with Pal, the subprime housing crisis was splashing the headlines. Pal’s investment was starting to seem more like a loss, but for the first time since he bought the property, it looked like it would finally be his. By November 2007, the remaining squatters dropped the battle for ownership and began bargaining with him for concessions.

By mid-February, Pal was ready to start renovations, and all but two of the squatters had moved out. They made their final plea and Pal gave his last compromise: two more weeks, then they had to go. "He was sure he was going to get the house, so he agreed to let us stay," says a squatter called Frank, who asked not to be named because of his immigration status.

What Pal may not have understood was that he was not the only party still interested in the house. The house was becoming a point of contention among the larger community of squatters and anarchists in the East Bay. Fissures broke around a central question: was it up to those living there to decide the fate of the notorious squat, or did the larger community of radical activists have a say in the property?

As Pal was getting rid of the last people occupying the house, the squatters’ conflict came to Hellarity’s doorstep. A new group of people came to the North Oakland house, among them a few who had previously stayed at Hellarity, ready to renew the struggle against Pal. Frank, who had been living in the house for seven months, was unhappy about the new arrivals.

"I told them that this kind of action would make problems for me," he says. "I already made an agreement with this guy [Pal] to leave by the end of the month." The new group saw things differently. "We own this place," says Jake Sternberg, the new de facto caretaker of Hellarity, who has since been pushing for the squatters to renew their court case. The discord between the squatters split up the duplex: the two old squatters stayed upstairs while the recent arrivals occupied the lower half.

Two weeks after the new crew moved in, a fire was lit in the upper apartment that burned through the ceiling and the floor. But who did it? Was it a disgruntled squatter who would rather destroy the house than hand it back to Pal? Or was Pal connected to the arson, losing his nerve as a newly energized group of squatters took over and the value of his investment crashed?

If not for the squatters, Pal might have been less affected by the subprime crisis than most property owners. He had no mortgage on the house — he bought it outright — so he wasn’t under threat of foreclosure, unlike tens of thousands of other California homeowners. But Pal faced a different threat. It seems likely he bought the house as an investment, and as the market crashed, he was stuck with a house he could neither renovate nor sell, and was left to watch its value tank as he slogged through court proceedings.

For an investor like Pal, the numbers weren’t looking good. In March, median housing prices had fallen 16.1 percent compared with those of March 2007, according to DataQuick Information Systems, and home sales declined 36.7 percent from the previous year. In April — for the seventh consecutive month — Bay Area home sales were at their lowest level in two decades, DataQuick reported. And according to Business Week, national home prices will plummet an additional 25 percent over the next two to three years.

On Feb. 17, the day after the new group of squatters moved in, Pal made an appearance at the house. In early March, Sternberg showed me a video he recorded during Pal’s visit. On the screen, Pal is sitting on a couch in the downstairs living room of Hellarity. At the door, a well-built man who looks to be in his 30s and calls himself Tony leans against the wall with two younger men who call themselves Salvador and Ryan. Sternberg tells me that Pal came to the house demanding they leave his property. Sternberg called the police, accusing Pal of trespassing. As they waited for the OPD to arrive, which took more than 25 minutes, they discuss their conflict over the house.

At the beginning of the video, Sternberg tells Pal why he and his friends refuse to give up the property: "People came over here from Europe and they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to take this place.’ Now they sell land to each other. And how did they get it? They took it…. And just because somebody pays for something doesn’t mean that they get it. And just because somebody sells something doesn’t mean they have a right to sell that."

A few minutes into Sternberg’s video, Pal told the squatters he was ready to take matters into his own hands. "You just have to deal with me now because what I’m saying is, it’s person to person…. And you know what? If it’s gonna get dirty, it’s gonna get dirty. I don’t care. Because you know what? That’s the way it’s gonna be, because this is what I need. I need to have it. I don’t have any lawyer. I can’t afford a damn lawyer. So it’s gonna be me and you. One to one. Man to man."

Pal eventually left the property after the police arrived, but the two younger men, Salvador and Ryan, spent the night upstairs. "[Pal] had them stay there because they thought the people downstairs would squat the upstairs," Frank says. "He wanted to protect the house." Frank, who says he was concerned that Pal would try to evict him with everyone else, initially didn’t protest the presence of the two young men.

The next day, at Frank’s request, Pal told Salvador and Ryan to leave, and for the two weeks that followed, Pal didn’t return to the house. The new group of squatters expected to see him Feb. 28, the date set for a case hearing called by Pal’s lawyer prior to the re-occupation of the house. If the defendants didn’t show up, a default judgment could have been entered, granting Pal his request to have the squatters removed and ordered to pay $2,000 per month in back rent. The squatters showed up for court, but Pal’s side hadn’t filed the necessary paperwork to hold the hearing.

Once again the house hung in legal limbo and the day after the hearing, the remaining people upstairs moved out as agreed. Frank says Pal called him while he was at work that afternoon to make sure they were gone. For the first time in 11 years, the upper apartment was empty, waiting for either Pal or the other squatters to seize it.

But someone was committed to preventing that from happening. The night after the people upstairs moved out, at around 3:15 a.m., the squatters downstairs awoke to fire creeping through the floorboards above them.

"Both of the doors upstairs were locked," Sternberg says. "We broke through one of the doors and threw buckets of water on the flames."

After the fire department extinguished the blaze, the squatters called the police to have an investigator search the scene. "It appears that unknown suspects entered the house through unknown means, and then set three fires in an attempt to burn the house," the police report states. According to the report, all three fires were set in the upstairs apartment; two burned out before the fire department arrived. Officer Vincent Chen found two used matches in the bathroom, where the wood around the sink had been burned, and a gas can hidden in the bushes on the east side of the house.

When I first met Sternberg, he told me the Oakland Police Department’s arson investigator, Barry Donelan, was helpful. Two and a half months after the fire, however, Sternberg says: "I regret having talked to the police."

Initially, Donelan didn’t know they were squatters — Sternberg had told him they owned the house. "Once he found flyers for a fundraiser to defend the squat, he became angry," says Sternberg. "He said he submitted the case to the district attorney, and didn’t expect anyone would be arrested."

Sternberg says Donelan also threatened to have him arrested for a traffic-related warrant and that he would turn Sternberg’s name over to the Federal Communications Commission, which had an open investigation on the house for hosting Berkeley Liberation Radio. In March, Donelan told us he wouldn’t comment on the case and at press time, he hadn’t return Guardian calls about the status of the investigation.


Although the arson may never be solved, the squatters have strong suspicions about who was behind the fire. But they have a hard time deciding who, ultimately, is most culpable for the blaze. "No one involved in Hellarity is innocent, and no one is completely guilty," says DiCaprio. The one point of view everyone seems to share is that Hellarity has long been a tinderbox of contention, in which property owners struggling in a beleaguered housing market faced off against a group of people who reject the market outright for its inaccessibility to low-income people. Eventually, it all literally — burst into flames.

When I visit after the fire, people are sitting outside playing guitar, smoking rolled cigarettes, and singing the timeless hobo ballad, "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The sounds drift over the budding vegetable gardens and into the downstairs living room, where a message written on a big green chalkboard suggests that if the fire was intended to drive people out, it was unsuccessful: "WELCOME BACK TO HELL(ARITY). Because bosses, landlords, and capitalists suck, the house has lots of repairs that need to be done before it becomes fully livable."

Upstairs, Sternberg looks up at a charred, gaping hole in the ceiling. "We have to make lemonade out of lemons," he tells me, explaining that they just got a skylight to fill the cavity. "We’re going to continue fighting just like we’ve been fighting. This guy [Pal] has been in court with us for three years. He’s got no case." *

San Francisco, meet Joe Nation


OPINION How would you like to be represented by someone who flacks for the insurance industry, serves real estate developers and landlords with zeal, opposes consumer privacy, and is a role model for corporate Democrats with a firm allegiance to big business?

You wouldn’t know it from the vague aura of his slick ads, but Joe Nation is hoping to be that someone in the state Senate. He’s the third candidate in the hotly contested race that includes two stalwart progressive politicians — incumbent Senator Carole Migden and Assemblymember Mark Leno.

Nation jumped into the Senate race in the 3rd District just three months ago. He’s trying to win in a sprawling district that includes half of San Francisco along with all of Marin and parts of Sonoma County. And he could pull it off.

The real danger of a Nation victory hasn’t been apparent to many San Francisco voters. Eyes have been mostly focused on the Leno-Migden battle, and Nation has never been on the ballot in the city before. But those of us who live in North Bay are all too familiar with Joe Nation.

When Nation’s campaign Web site trumpets him as an "advocate for universal health care," the phrasing is typical of his evasive PR approach. While in the state Assembly, Nation pushed for legislation that would force consumers and taxpayers to subsidize the health insurance industry. Meanwhile, he continues to oppose a single-payer system that would guarantee publicly financed health care for all in California.

Likewise, Nation leaves out key information when he calls himself an "international expert on climate change" for an "environmental consulting firm," ENVIRON International. He’s not eager to disclose that much of his work at the firm is for Coca-Cola, which excels at greenwashing its image to obscure its dubious environmental record.

In the Legislature, where he supported charter schools, Nation was problematic on public education. He earned distrust from the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, both of which endorsed Leno in the Senate race.

When lawmaker Jackie Speier put forward a tough bill to safeguard consumer information rather than allowing financial institutions to sell it to the likes of telemarketers, Nation worked to undermine the legislation.

In 2006, nearing the end of his six corporate-friendly years in the state Assembly, Nation launched a Democratic primary challenge to US Rep. Lynn Woolsey — who has strong support in the North Bay congressional district because of her courageous leadership against the Iraq war and for a wide range of progressive causes. Nation attacked her from the right. She trounced him on Election Day.

Nation’s long record of siding with powerful economic players inspired the San Francisco Apartment Association and other landlord groups to throw a big fundraiser for his Senate campaign a couple of weeks ago. To big-check donors with an anti-renter agenda, plunking down money for Nation is a smart investment.

Independent polls now show a close race between Nation and Leno, with Migden a distant third. As a practical matter, the way for progressive voters to prevent Joe Nation from winning the state Senate seat is to vote for Mark Leno. *

Norman Solomon is the author of many books, including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (Wiley, 2005).

Joe Nation’s friends are bad news II


joenation.jpg pg&e.jpg landlord1.jpg

More on why Joe Nation’s friends are bad news:

The Mark Leno campaign has done an analysis of the independent expenditure campaigns supporting Nation, and there are some truly nasty bad guys in there. Many of them (for example, our old friends PG&E) gave campoaign cash directly to Nation, then gave more money through the IEs.

Check out the list, taken from a Leno press release:

Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC) $342,544

A group of big oil, insurance, banking, chemical, pharmaceutical companies as well as companies involved in the subprime mortgage meltdown. They were co-sponsors of Proposition 64, which was opposed by consumer and environmental advocates and weakened the general public’s ability to pursue lawsuits over unfair business practices and environmental violations. CJAC works to limit their member’s liability when lawsuits are brought against them from consumers, patients, workers or environmental advocates.

* Joe Nation took $1,000 from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., CJAC member

* Joe Nation took $3,600 from California Apartment Association, CJAC member

* Joe Nation took $1,000 from the CA Hospital Association, CJAC member

* Joe Nation took $3,600 from MEDPAC of the CA Association of Physician Groups, sponsored by the CA Association of Physicians Organizations Los Angeles, CJAC member

* Joe Nation took $3,200 from the San Francisco Apartment Association, California Apartment Association is a CJAC member

* Joe Nation took $7,200 from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee, CJAC member

Cooperative of American Physicians $100,000

A group that provides liability insurance for it’s member physicians and advocates to maintain the liability caps up-held in the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), which capped their liability in malpractice lawsuits at 1975 levels.

* Joe Nation took $3,600 from Cooperative of American Physicians

Californians Allied for Patient Protection (CAPP) $50,000

A group of corporate hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and others in the medical industry whose priority is to maintain the liability caps up-held in the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), which capped their liability in malpractice lawsuits at 1975 levels.

* Joe Nation took $3,600 from Californians Allied for Patient Protection

* Joe Nation took $3,600 from MICRA California PAC of NorCal Mutual Insurance Company, member of CAPP

Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy $3,277

A group of insurance companies, financial-services firms, developers, card clubs and biotechnology companies

I still think it’s a two-person race now, with Carole Migden far behind. And I think the best way to stop Nation is to vote for Leno. But whoever you support, don’t vote for Nation.

Cow tipping in Daly City



Daly City’s desperate campaign to shut down the famous Cow Palace and sell the land it’s located on to developers continues.

In the newest twist, promoters of shows and conventions that have long been held at the Cow Palace are being approached by officials from an expo center in San Mateo County about moving their events, which could increasingly drain the Cow Palace’s income and kill efforts to stop Daly City and its allies in Sacramento from selling it.

Some promoters also contacted the San Mateo County Event Center about a possible move, worried that efforts to demolish the Cow Palace will make it difficult for them to schedule future events. Chris Carpenter, general manager of the San Mateo center, refused to name the shows because the promoters have asked him not to say anything.

"We are very interested in filling as many dates as we can for the Event Center," Carpenter told the Guardian. "We have a very active sales department."

Carpenter denied that Daly City officials encouraged him to steal business from the Cow Palace, saying no one from the city had contacted him. But Daly City manager Pat Martel eagerly promoted the alternative venue on the KQED radio show Forum March 28.

"Today we have state-of-the-art facilities throughout the Bay Area where a number of events currently at the Cow Palace can continue…. The San Mateo County Expo Center would welcome the opportunity to keep that kind of business in the county," Martel said.

The San Francisco Flower and Garden show announced in late April that it was leaving the Cow Palace after 12 years and heading to San Mateo, where flower show proprietor Duane Kelly signed a five-year agreement. Kelly said he made the move because the state had long ago promised certain renovations and improvements would occur at the Cow Palace, but they never happened.

In the meantime, the San Mateo center received a $3 million renovation that included fresh paint and new carpet and draperies. It was simply a better situation for a show that relies on aesthetics, Kelly said.

Kelly added he wasn’t impressed with how Daly City officials and state senator Leland Yee have handled the discussions about the proposed sale by trying to exclude Cow Palace officials from deliberations about the venue’s future. He said it looked more to him like a land grab, and despite the construction of new, glitzy convention centers elsewhere, the Bay Area remains underserved.

"Particularly [San Francisco’s Moscone Center] does not lend itself to public shows because of the parking issue, and it’s a very expensive building to work in," Kelly said.

Following a March public meeting on the Cow Palace’s fate, officials at the San Mateo center approached the organizer of the Great Dickens Christmas Faire about moving that event. Kevin Patterson, who runs the fair and has since helped lead a campaign to save the Cow Palace, said the San Mateo center isn’t suitable because of the amount of space he needs and the cost required to alter his event logistically. Besides, he said, he likes the Cow Palace.

"Daly City just got greedy and pushed too hard and tried to get too much," Patterson said.

In December, Daly City officials voted to dispatch their lobbyist for a chat with Yee about developing the land after complaining that two years of lease negotiations over a 13-acre plot of Cow Palace property had gone nowhere. The lobbyist, Bill Duplissea, is a former Republican member of the State Assembly whose firm, Cline and Duplissea, has earned $266,000 from Daly City since 2001, according to state records, to "monitor budget issues" and hit up lawmakers like Yee.

Weeks after Daly City sent Duplissea after Yee, the senator introduced Senate Bill 1527, originally designating as "surplus" all 67 acres of state-owned property the Cow Palace sits on so that Daly City could purchase it, flip the valuable real estate to a developer, and await the local boost in tax revenue coming from new condos, storefronts, and a retail grocer.

Daly City was so determined to circumvent the Cow Palace on the issue that when the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees the property, tried to convene peace talks between the Cow Palace and Daly City, Duplissea sent a letter to the state declaring that his client would prefer to deal only with Sacramento.

After the bill was introduced, Yee and Daly City officials embarked on a media blitz condemning the Cow Palace as a decrepit relic with event income that couldn’t sustain it. Many of the events Cow Palace hosts, Daly City complains, are offensive to the sensibilities of locals or don’t match the neighborhood fabric, like an annual gun show and the San Francisco–centric Exotic Erotic Ball, "a celebration of flesh, fetish, and fantasy," according to the ball’s Web site.

"Every single neighborhood association surrounding the Cow Palace asked the senator to carry this legislation," Yee spokesperson Adam Keigwin told us. "This was always about revitalizing the neighborhood."

After Cow Palace supporters mounted a resistance campaign, Yee came up with a mid-April "compromise" bill that would result in the sell-off of the 13-acre parking lot adjacent to the Cow Palace while appearing to protect the historic venue for now.

Patterson of the Great Dickens fair said a lease provision in the bill would be preferable so revenue could go toward giving the Cow Palace an earthquake retrofit and other needed improvements. But Keigwin said that’s not something the senator’s interested in.

The California Senate Government Organizational Committee was debating the bill as we went to press. That committee includes Yee and Sens. Jeff Denham and Mark Wyland, two Republican cosponsors of the bill who represent districts that aren’t affected by the Cow Palace at all.

Denham, whose District 12 contains the cities of Modesto and Salinas, tellingly promoted legislation two years ago asking the state to study transferring control over agricultural fairs to local governments, but it died in the assembly’s Appropriations Committee.

Opponents of Yee’s bill are concerned it could set a precedent for the state to declare other agricultural districts "surplus" and sell them to developers without local supporters and promoters of fairs and expos having a say in the matter, not unlike what the Cow Palace faces now.

A capitol insider also told us that because Yee declared SB 1527 "urgent" in hopes of rushing it through the legislature, it requires a two-thirds vote, hence the cosponsorships from two minority GOP lawmakers.

As for the future of the Cow Palace’s clients, we contacted the Grand National Rodeo, the San Francisco Sport and Boat Show, and the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show, but didn’t hear back from representatives of any of these events.

Baba, a tattoo artist in Los Angeles, said San Francisco’s Body Art Expo, held at the Cow Palace, secured an agreement with the venue for another year, but he wouldn’t offer further details. Mega Productions, which hosts the event, didn’t return our call.

Howard Mauskopf, executive producer of the Exotic Erotic Ball, said he recently looked at other possible venues, but he’s keeping them confidential for now. The Moscone Center is big enough, Mauskopf said, "but they wouldn’t touch an event of this ilk." He added that the ball’s coordinators regularly receive letters from law enforcement commending them on the lack of trouble they cause.

"There are things we really like about the Cow Palace, which includes the fact that they kind of let the event happen the way it needs to happen," Mauskopf said. "It’s big enough. That’s the most important thing. And they have a very high-quality ticket office that really knows how to deal with consumers."

Funkonnection 5


PREVIEW A few months ago, I came across the popular blog Stuff White People Like, and loved it. Finally, there was a piece of online real estate dedicated to dissecting the bizarre interests of white people. I grew up amid the city’s "we’re so liberal!" facade that included Mumia rallies downtown, peace festivals in Golden Gate Park, and rainbow flags in the Castro District. But every facet of this liberal oasis was laced with the irony of a skyrocketing housing market, a growing black exodus, and a media that spoke of poor folks only in terms of symptoms of neglect — drugs, violence, and hopelessness. To come across a blog that explicitly pokes fun at the ironies of white privilege was, like, hella tight. Then I found out it was authored by a white comedian based in Los Angeles who recently inked a book deal with Random House, purportedly for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, I’m all for getting paid, but I’m also pretty sure that some version of Stuff Black People Like has been a part of the American fabric since day one. Yet the makers of cultural icons pre-fad status often don’t get recognized. Funk music and fried chicken also can be included in that category. So for better or worse, Mighty is hosting Funkonnection 5, a night of funk music, dress-up, and free fried chicken.

FUNKONNECTION 5 With Fort Knox 5, Thunderball, Mat the Alien, and Vinyl Ritchie. Fri/16, 10 p.m., $15. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. (415) 626-7001,

Promises and reality



The Lennar-financed "Yes on G" fliers jammed into mailboxes all across San Francisco this month depict a dark-skinned family strolling along a shoreline trail against a backdrop of blue sky, grassy parkland, a smattering of low-rise buildings, and the vague hint of a nearly transparent high-rise condo tower in the corner.

"After 34 years of neglect, it’s time to clean up the Shipyard for tomorrow," states one flier, which promises to create up to 10,000 new homes, "with as many as 25 percent being entry-level affordable units"; 300 acres of new parks; and 8,000 permanent jobs in the city’s sun-soaked southeast sector.

Add to that the green tech research park, a new 49ers stadium, a permanent home for shipyard artists, and a total rebuild of the dilapidated Alice Griffith public housing project, and the whole project looks and sounds simply idyllic. But as with many big-money political campaigns, the reality is quite different from the sales pitch.

What Proposition G’s glossy fliers don’t tell you is that this initiative would make it possible for a controversial Florida-based megadeveloper to build luxury condos on a California state park, take over federal responsibility for the cleanup of toxic sites, construct a bridge over a slough restoration project, and build a new road so Candlestick Point residents won’t have to venture into the Bayview District.

Nor do these shiny images reveal that Prop. G is actually vaguely-worded, open-ended legislation whose final terms won’t be driven by the jobs, housing, or open-space needs of the low-income and predominantly African American Bayview-Hunters Point community, but by the bottom line of the financially troubled Lennar.

And nowhere does it mention that Lennar already broke trust with the BVHP, failing to control asbestos at its Parcel A shipyard development and reneging on promises to build needed rental units at its Parcel A 1,500-unit condo complex (see "Question of intent," 11/28/07).

The campaign is supported by Mayor Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and District 10 Sup. Sophie Maxwell, as well as the Republican and the Democratic parties of San Francisco. But it is funded almost exclusively by Lennar Homes, a statewide independent expenditure committee that typically pours cash into conservative causes like fighting tax hikes and environmental regulations.

In the past six months, Lennar Homes has thrown down more than $1 million to hire Newsom’s chief political strategist, Eric Jaye, and a full spectrum of top lawyers and consultants, from generally progressive campaign manager Jim Stearns to high-powered spinmeister Sam Singer, who recently ran the smear campaign blaming the victims of a fatal Christmas Day tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo.

Together, this political dream team cooked up what it hopes will be an unstoppable campaign full of catchy slogans and irresistible images, distributed by a deep-pocketed corporation that stands to make many millions of dollars off the deal.

But the question for voters is whether this project is good for San Francisco — particularly for residents of the southeast who have been subjected to generations worth of broken promises — or whether it amounts to a risky giveaway of the city’s final frontier for new development.

Standing in front of the Lennar bandwagon is a coalition of community, environmental, and housing activists who this spring launched a last minute, volunteer-based signature-gathering drive that successfully became Proposition F. It would require that 50 percent of the housing built in the BVHP/Candlestick Point project be affordable to those making less than the area median income of $68,000 for a family of four.

Critics such as Lennar executive Kofi Bonner and Michael Cohen of the mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development have called Prop. F a "poison pill" that would doom the Lennar project. But its supporters say the massive scope and vague wording of Prop. G would have exacerbated the city’s affordable housing shortfalls.

Prop. F is endorsed by the Sierra Club, People Organized to Win Employment Rights, the League of Conservation Voters, the Chinese Progressive Association, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, the Grace Tabernacle Community Church, Green Action, Nation of Islam Bay Area, the African Orthodox Church, Jim Queen, and Supervisor Chris Daly.

Cohen criticized the coalition for failing to study whether the 50 percent affordability threshold is feasible. But the fact is that neither measure has been exposed to the same rigors that a measure going through the normal city approval process would undergo. Nonetheless, the Guardian unearthed an evaluation on the impact of Prop. F that Lennar consultant CB Richard Ellis prepared for the mayor’s office.

The document, which contains data not included in the Prop. G ballot initiative, helps illuminate the financial assumptions that underpin the public-private partnership the city is contemputf8g with Lennar, ostensibly in an effort to win community benefits for the BVHP.

CBRE’s analysis states that Lennar’s Prop. G calls for "slightly over 9,500 units," with nearly 2,400 affordable units (12 percent at 80 percent of area median income and 8 percent at 50 percent AMI), and with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency "utilizing additional funding to drive these affordability levels even lower."

Noting that Prop. G. yields a "minimally acceptable return" of 17 to 18 percent in profit, CBRE estimates that Prop. F would means "a loss of $500 million in land sales revenue" thanks to the loss of 2,400 market-rate units from the equation. With subsidies of $125,000 allegedly needed to complete each affordable unit, CBRE predicts there would be a further cost of "$300 million to $400 million" to develop the 2,400 additional units of affordable housing prescribed under Prop. F.

Factoring in an additional $500 million loss in tax increments and Mello-Roos bond financing money, CBRE concludes, "the overall impact from [the Prop. F initiative] is a $1.1 to $1.2 billion loss of project revenues … the very same revenues necessary to fund infrastructure and community improvements."

Yet critics of the Lennar project say that just because it pencils out for the developer doesn’t mean it’s good for the community, which would be fundamentally and permanently changed by a project of this magnitude. Coleman’s Advocates’ organizing director Tom Jackson told us his group decided to oppose Prop. G "because we looked at who is living in Bayview-Hunters Point and their income levels.

"Our primary concern isn’t Lennar’s bottom line," Jackson continued. "Could Prop. F cut into Lennar’s profit margin? Yes, absolutely. But our primary concern is the people who already live in the Bayview."

Data from the 2000 US census shows that BVHP has the highest percentage of African Americans compared to the rest of the city — and that African Americans are three times more likely to leave San Francisco than other ethnic groups, a displacement that critics of the Lennar project say it would exacerbate.

The Bayview also has the third-highest population of children, at a time when San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any major US city and is struggling to both maintain enrollment and keep its schools open. Add to that the emergence of Latino and Chinese immigrant populations in the Bayview, and Jackson says its clear that it’s the city’s last affordable frontier for low-income folks.

The problem gets even more pronounced when one delves into the definition of the word "affordable" and applies it to the socioeconomic status of southeast San Francisco.

In white households, the annual median income was $65,000 in 2000, compared to $29,000 in black households — with black per capita income at $15,000 and with 14 percent of BVHP residents earning even less than $15,000.

The average two-bedroom apartment rents in San Francisco for $1,821, meaning households need an annual AMI of $74,000 to stay in the game. The average condo sells for $700,000, which means that households need $143,000 per year to even enter the market.

In other words, there’s a strong case for building higher percentages of affordable housing in BVHP (where 94 percent of residents are minorities and 21 percent experience significant poverty) than in most other parts of San Francisco. Yet the needs of southeastern residents appear to be clashing with the area’s potential to become the city’s epicenter for new construction.

San Francisco Republican Party chair Howard Epstein told the Guardian that his group opposed Prop. F, believing it will kill all BVHP redevelopment, and supported Prop. G, believing that it has been in the making for a decade and to have been "vetted up and down."

While a BVHP redevelopment plan has been in the works for a decade, the vaguely defined conceptual framework that helped give birth to Prop. G this year was first discussed in public only last year. In reality, it was hastily cobbled together in the wake of the 49ers surprise November 2006 news that it was rejecting Lennar’s plan to build a new stadium at Monster Park and considering moving to Santa Clara.

As the door slammed shut on one opportunity, Lennar tried to swing open another. As an embarrassed Newsom joined forces with Feinstein to find a last-ditch solution to keep the 49ers in town, Lennar suggested a new stadium on the Hunters Point Shipyard, surrounded by a dual use parking lot perfect for tailgating and lots of new housing on Candlestick Point to pay for it all.

There was just one problem: part of the land around the stadium at Candlestick is a state park. Hence the need for Prop. G, which seeks to authorize this land swap along with a repeal of bonds authorized in 1997 for a stadium rebuild. As Cohen told the Guardian, "The only legal reason we are going to the voters is Monster Park."

As it happens, voters still won’t know whether the 49ers are staying or leaving when they vote on Props. F and G this June, since the team is waiting until November to find out if Santa Clara County voters will support the financing of a new 49er stadium near Great America.

Either way, Patrick Rump of Literacy for Environmental Justice has serious environmental concerns about Prop. G’s proposed land swap.

"Lennar’s schematic, which builds a bridge over the Yosemite Slough, would destroy a major restoration effort we’re in the process of embarking on with the state Parks [and Recreation Department]," Rump said. "The integrity of the state park would easily be compromised, because of extra people and roads. And a lot of the proposed replacement parks, the pocket parks … don’t provide adequate habitat."

Rump also expressed doubts about the wisdom of trading parcels of state park for land on the shipyard, especially Parcel E-2, which contains the landfill. Overall, Rump said, "We think Lennar and the city need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something more environmentally sound."

John Rizzo of the Sierra Club believes Prop. G does nothing to clean up the shipyard — which city officials are seeking to take over before the federal government finishes its cleanup work — and notes that the initiative is full of vague and noncommittal words like "encourages" that make it unclear what benefits city residents will actually receive.

"Prop. G’s supporters are pushing the misleading notion that if we don’t give away all this landincluding a state park — to Lennar, then we won’t get any money for the cleanup," Rizzo said. "But you don’t build first and then get federal dollars for clean up! That’s a really backwards statement."

The "Yes on G" campaign claims its initiative will create "thousands of construction jobs," "offer a new economic engine for the Bayview," and "provide new momentum to win additional federal help to clean up the toxins on the shipyard."

Michael Theriault, head of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades, said his union endorsed the measure and has an agreement with Lennar to have "hire goals," with priority given to union contracts in three local zip codes: 94107, 94124, and 94134.

"There will be a great many construction jobs," Theriault said, though he was less sure about Prop. G’s promise of "8,000 permanent jobs following the completion of the project."

"We endorsed primarily from the jobs aspect," Theriault said. The question of whether the project helps the cleanup effort or turns it into a rush job is also an open question. Even the San Francisco Chronicle, in a January editorial, criticized Newsom, Feinstein, and Pelosi for neglecting the cleanup until "when it seemed likely that the city was about to lose the 49ers."

All three denounced the Chronicle‘s claims, but the truth is that the lion’s share of the $82 million federal allocation would be dedicated to cleaning the 27-acre footprint proposed for the stadium. Meanwhile, the US Navy says it needs at least $500 million to clean the entire shipyard.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi said the city should wait for a full cleanup and criticized the Prop. G plan to simply cap contaminated areas on the shipyard, rather than excavate and remove the toxins from the site.

"That’s like putting a sarcophagus over a toxic wasteland," Mirkarimi told us. "It would be San Francisco’s version of a concrete bunker around Chernobyl."

Cohen of the Mayor’s Office downplays the contamination at the site, telling us that on a scale of one to 10 among the nation’s contaminated Superfund sites, the shipyard "is a three." He said, "the city would assume responsibility for completing the remaining environmental remediation, which would be financed through the Navy."

But those who have watched the city and Lennar bungle development of the asbestos-laden Parcel A (see The corporation that ate San Francisco, 3/14/07) don’t have much confidence in their ability to safely manage a much larger project.

"Who is going to take the liability for any shoddy work and negligence once the project is completed?" Mirkarimi asked.

Lennar has yet to settle with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over asbestos dust violations at Parcel A, which could add up to $28 million in fines, and investors have been asking questions about the corporation’s mortgage lending operations as the company’s stock value and bond rating have plummeted.

To secure its numerous San Francisco investments, including projects at Hunters and Candlestick points and Treasure Island, Lennar recently got letters of intent from Scala Real Estate Partners, an Irvine-based investment and development group.

Founded by former executives of the Perot Group’s real estate division, Scala plans to invest up to $200 million — and have equal ownership interests — in the projects, which could total at least 17,000 housing units, 700,000 square feet of retail and entertainment, 350 acres of open space, and a new football stadium if the 49ers decide to stay.

Bonner said that, if completed, the agreement satisfies a city requirement that Lennar secure a partner with the financial wherewithal to ensure the estimated $1.4 billion Candlestick Point project moves forward even if the company’s current problems worsen.

Meanwhile, Cohen has cast the vagaries of Prop. G as a positive, referring to its spreadsheet as "a living document, a moving target." Cohen pointed out that if Lennar had to buy the BVHP land, they’d get it with only a 15 percent affordable housing requirement.

"Our objective is to drive the land value to zero by imposing upon the developer as great a burden as possible," Cohen said. "This developer had to invest $500 million of cash, plus financing, and is required to pay for affordable housing, parks, jobs, etc. — the core benefits — without any risk to the city."

But Cohen said the Prop. F alternative means "nothing will be built — until F is repealed." He also refutes claims that without the 49ers stadium, 50 percent affordability is doable.

"Prop G makes it easier to make public funds available by repealing the Prop D bond measure," Cohen explained. "But Prop. G also provides that there will be no general fund financial backing for the stadium, and that the tax increments generated by the development will be used for affordable housing, jobs, and parks."

But for Lennar critics like the Rev. Christopher Mohammad, who has battled the company since the Islamic school he runs was subjected to toxic dust, even the most ambitious promises won’t overcome his distrust for the entity at the center of Prop. G: Lennar.

In a fiery recent sermon at the Grace Tabernacle Community Church, Mohammad recalled the political will that enabled the building of BART in the 1970s. "But when it comes to poor people, you can’t build 50 percent affordable. That will kill the deal," Mohammad observed.

"Lennar is getting 700 prime waterfront acres for free, and then there’ll be tax increment dollars they’ll tap into for the rebuild," he continued. "But you mean you can’t take some of those millions, after all the damages you’ve done? It would be a way to correct the wrong."

7 places to BYOB


Remember that old college chant, "Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer; you’re in the clear"? I propose we change that to: "Markups on liquor, never been sicker. Bring your own beer; you’re in the clear."

Seriously, San Francisco is a city that likes its liquor with a side of food, and no one knows that more than restaurant owners — from the outright avaricious to those just trying to stay above their astronomical overhead in this real estate-deprived city. Haven’t you been to a dinner where the bar tab doubles that of the food? And did you know that a martini usually costs the restaurant a tenth of what it charges you?

We’ve rarely been a city to sit by and tolerate injustice. But in this case, there’s no need to go on a hunger strike about it: in fact, quite the opposite. Join the BYOB movement with a sit-in demonstration at any of these restaurants. (Interestingly, many are in the Tenderloin, which makes sense considering that the entire TL is pretty much a BYOB zone.) Refuse to pay ridiculous drink prices and sip the sweet nectar of freedom from bar tabs. It tastes kind of like Charles Shaw.

And remember: bring cash along with your booze. These places don’t have liquor licenses — or credit card machines. But you can swing most of these places at around $10 per person, so I trust you’ll work it out.


Shalimar is the Starbucks of the city’s BYOB Indian places, boasting two locations within eight blocks of each other. I prefer the one on Jones Street. The ambiance is group-therapy-room-at-a-public-clinic: wood laminate tables, green and white linoleum checked floor, institutional yellowed-cream walls. The service is fast, though never brusque. The food? Transcendent. The chicken tikka masala consists of plump balls of good-quality white meat chicken swimming in a delightful pool of clarified butter and masala. The garlic naan is heaven — doughy, buttery, and flavorful. Also delectable is the palak paneer — spinach and cheese sweetly spiced with cinnamon, cumin, cloves, and bay leaf. After dinner, cross the street to speakeasy-themed Bourbon and Branch for the ultimate lowbrow/highbrow evening.

Pairing: Try a sparkling wine — like Italian Prosecco or Spanish cava — with the dense multilayered spice of Shalimar’s cuisine. Or bring along any of these Indian beers: Flying Horse Royal Lager Beer, Kingfisher, Himalayan Blue Lager, or Maharaja Lager.

532 Jones, SF. (415) 928-0333;

1409 Polk, SF. (415) 776-4642,


The orange walls of Tajine denote a more cheerful atmosphere than Shalimar, but this Nob Hill gem is tiny … er, cozy. I meant to say cozy. If you do BYOB here, make sure you keep it mellow — no flailing, weaving, or expansive hand gestures in this tight space. As for dinner, start with the chicken bastilla to share — phyllo dough stuffed with chicken and almonds and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. For less than $10, the lamb or kufta kebab dinners come with zalook (eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, and parsley sautéed in olive oil), shalada (tomatoes, green onions, and parsley dressed in olive oil and lemon juice), and Moroccan bread. Or try the eponymous tajines — the name for both a Moroccan clay slow cooker and the stews made inside it — which have the same melt-in-your-mouth meat- and vegetable-infused flavor as your standard Crock-Pot dish. The chicken is cooked with lemon and olive; the lamb stewed with prunes and almonds. Tajine warns that if you BYOB, you must also buy a beverage from them.

Pairing: Morocco’s native beer, Casablanca, is hard to find in the States, so opt for a full-bodied, fruity New World pinot noir instead.

1338 Polk, SF. (415) 440-1718,


I’ll give Pakwan, the ridiculously inexpensive Indian and Pakistani favorite in the Mission, this over Shalimar: it has seating right outside. Which, on a sunny Mission day with a six-pack of beer from the liquor store across the street, has a certain allure. And … sigh … I must give Pakwan its due for having tandoori fish on the menu. (But Shalimar has brains! Brains masala!) Pakwan also does justice to Indian standards like saab gosht (lamb curry), bhengan bartha (eggplant), and aloo palak (spinach and potatoes). And its garlic naan gives Shalimar’s a run for its money. But, I keep reminding myself, it’s not a competition if both are supporting the common cause — cheap food and cheaper liquor.

Pairing: The recommendations for Shalimar will work here, but if you’re going with the tandoori fish, try the citrusy notes of a muscadet.

3180 16th St., SF. (415)215-2440,


Two reasons to take the bus to this Inner Richmond favorite: parking is notoriously sparse and, two bottles of wine in, you probably shouldn’t be driving anyway. Tawan’s Thai is named after the owners’ son, whose childhood drawings decorate its walls. On the front of the menu, Tawan (meaning little sun) warns that his mom’s food is "the best, just be sure not to order it too hot unless you can handle it" — and he’s right. Consider yourself warned. Start with the thung thong appetizer — chicken, potatoes, and spices fried in rice paper. Then share the tom yung gung soup, a spicy, sour chicken soup flavored with lemongrass and lime. The gaeng khiaw-warn — chicken, beef, or pork simmered in green curry and coconut milk with bamboo shoots, bell pepper, and basil — also is divine. And for you insane people who don’t like spicy food, you can never go wrong with pad thai.

Pairing: An Alsatian wine, like a Gewürztraminer or Riesling, goes nicely with Thai food. A reliable alternative is a Thai beer like Singha, Phuket Lager, or Chang Lager.

4403 Geary, SF. (415)751-5175


Don’t come to Cordon Bleu expecting its namesake cuisine. Don’t come expecting French food at all. Instead, expect to gorge on this Vietnamese BBQ joint’s highly touted five-spice chicken. Seven bucks will get you half a chicken (not half a breast or leg, half a bird) rubbed with spice and grilled until its blackened, spicy, crisp skin seals in the juicy, tender meat. That comes with "salad," a deep-fried imperial roll, and another delicious enigma — a meat sauce (ingredients unknown, but who cares when it’s this freaking good?) poured over rice. Suggestions: ask for extra meat sauce and lock your valuables in your trunk.

Pairing: Cordon Bleu’s meat-centric delectability needs beer; wine is just not going to cut through the greasy vittles. Try a regional beer such as Singha, Red Horse Dark or San Miguel Dark from the Philippines, or Singapore’s Tiger Gold Medal Lager.

1574 California, SF. (415)673-5167. Not wheelchair accessible.


The number one reason I could never be a vegetarian: kebabs, those seasoned, juicy, sizzling, glistening, dripping, perfect little skewered morsels of meat rotating hypnotically in restaurant windows, expelling wafts of their spicy, meaty aroma. (Try to wax that poetic about soysages.) If you too hold the kebab in high esteem, count on De Afghanan Kebab House to do it justice. There also are veggie options, like the borani badenjan (eggplant sautéed with tomato, garlic, peppers, and topped with yogurt) — or the borani kadoo (pumpkin sautéed with garlic, peppers, and also topped with yogurt). And De Afghanan Kebab has mantu, those steamed dumplings stuffed with beef and onions topped with (you guessed it) yogurt and a spicy tomato sauce. Yum.

Pairing: The Middle Eastern flavor of De Afghanan Kebab House would do well with the crisp fruitiness of a Sauvignon Blanc or the spiciness of a Zinfandel. An offbeat, oft-ignored, and underrated choice might also be a rosé; its brightness pairs well with yogurt-heavy items and grilled meats.

1303 Polk, SF. (415) 345-9947;

1160 University, Berk. (510) 549-3781;

37405 Fremont, Fremont. (510) 745-9599,


All I’ve heard about Korean food in the Richmond is, "You have to go to Brothers!" Well, here’s why Outer Richmond’s Han Il Kwan might make you want to break free of the siblings’ sovereignty: food so authentic that San Francisco’s Korean Tour Buses make a daily stop here; better ventilation, so you don’t need a dry cleaner to get the funk of smoke and bulgogi out of your jacket; much easier parking than in the Inner Richmond; no wait for a table; and, for the win, you can bring your beverage of choice. It’ll be hard to choose between the wonderful kalbi — marinated short ribs cooked at the table and served with rice, tofu soup, and banchan — and the equally killer bulgogi — tender BBQ beef cooked like the kalbi.

Pairing: Korean food and wine just don’t mix. Maybe it’s the acidity of the kimchi competing with the acidity of the wine; maybe it’s just that the cold bite of a beer is the only thing that’ll make your mouth stop burning. Either way, try the Korean beer, OB Lager, or another East Asian brew — like China’s Tsingtao, Harbin Lager, or Macau Beer.

1802 Balboa, SF. (415) 752-4447 *

Offbeat direction


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When successful actors turn to directing, you can often gauge how long they’ve been immersed in fiction by the degrees of condescension and cliché in their movies. Ethan Hawke is an unfortunate recent example. I’d say John Cassavetes is the classic one … but then people would hunt me down and kill me.

Of course, some actors can think outside themselves behind the camera: George Clooney, Sarah Polley, and Ben Affleck (who knew?) provide recent testimony. Even Mel Gibson might qualify. Though his films reveal a sadomasochistic freak flagelutf8g himself and us for God, they still express something beyond the cumulative wisdom acquired from drama school scene study and that aerial view of society one gets from the top of the entertainment industry heap.

Tom McCarthy isn’t as famous an actor, despite working steadily (on Boston Public, The Wire, and several Clooney movies) for a decade. This low profile may be an asset: while his 2003 writing-directorial debut, The Station Agent, sounded too precious, it turned out to be wonderful. McCarthy’s directorial follow-up, The Visitor, isn’t as successful. Still, it’s an unforced, gracefully crafted, emotionally rewarding (to a point) miniature that suggests he has a reliable second career option.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is an Ivy League economics professor who is as dour as a spreadsheet. He fires his fifth piano teacher in a row (stage great Marian Seldes) because he’s frustrated about poor progress at his chosen hobby. He’s a bone-dry lecturer whose office hours are coldly unwelcoming and lives in a Connecticut house too big for anyone with such a shrunken soul. His department forces him to deliver a paper at a New York University–sponsored conference, and thus he reenters, for the first time in years, his large Manhattan apartment.

Walter is surprised to discover Senegalese émigré Zinab (Danai Gurira) in his bathtub; her screams nearly bring Walter a beat-down from Syrian boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman). Once it’s sorted out that a scam artist has rented Walter’s prime piece of real estate to the couple in his absence, they set off, though they have no immediate berth.

Rousing from emotional slumber, Walter eventually invites the couple to stay. Then he starts to enjoy their company, or at least that of Tarek, a percussionist with an ingratiating personality who starts teaching him how to drum — a better musical option for Walter than the piano, even if he is the stiffest white guy attempting funkiness this side of Jad Fair. Tarek invites the stuffy 60-something to his jazz club gigs and introduces him to Fela Kuti CDs. It’s all good — until the NYPD profiles Tarek one night and he’s thrown into a windowless, characterless, Queens correctional facility, with deportation imminent.

The Visitor is beautifully acted and admirably sculpted. But in the last laps, McCarthy has Walter deliver a big speech to low-level governmental authorities, complete with an ironic fade-out on Old Glory and gives Walter a too-convenient, thwarted romantic interest.

It all leads to a routine, uplifting ending that would play better if Jenkins (of Six Feet Under and myriad supporting roles) had developed some drumming chops. This movie is a respectable follow-up to The Station Agent. But its suit-finds-groove response to globalization and deportation ultimately feels like a formula McCarthy should have already seen beyond.


Opens Fri/18 in San Francisco

See Movie Clock at

A big step for public services


EDITORIAL The battle against privatization of public resources took a big step forward this week when Sup. Ross Mirkarimi introduced a measure to create a Public Services Advisory Board to monitor what he calls the creeping takeover of city government by private outfits.

The new agency would monitor outsourcing of public services and advise the supervisors on whether it makes fiscal and policy sense to turn city programs over to businesses and nonprofits.

It’s also a chance to push forward on public power, the disaster at the zoo, the move to privatize the golf courses and some parks, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s efforts to hand the city’s information technology infrastructure over to private companies, and the Presidio sellout.

The legislation is the first public effort of a new coalition called San Francisco Commons. The group includes labor, public power, neighborhood groups, and environmental activists and was formed to address the growing problem of the loss of public sector services. It’s a crucial new addition to the city’s political scene: the first organization specifically established to protect public services and public property.

The case against privatization is clear. Private entities aren’t required to make their finances public (even if they’re doing public service work with public money). And companies doing work on city contracts are motivated by profits, sometimes at the expense of the public interest. Typically, when private operators take over public services, the prices go up, worker pay goes down, and the quality of the delivery tanks. Just look at the Presidio, a national park that’s been turned into a private real estate development, or the zoo, where privatization has led to misspent funds, poor conditions for animals, and a tragic tiger escape. Or look at Edison School, the failed experiment in education privatization in San Francisco.

San Francisco ought to be in the forefront of the antiprivatization battle nationwide, and this new group and legislation is a good first step. The agenda for the new advisory board is extensive: the panel needs to look at every large and small privatization move at City Hall. It needs to evaluate and report to the supervisors on the flaws in the mayor’s schemes. It also needs to look forward actively at ways the city can bring more essential services under public control. That includes moving forward on community choice aggregation and then developing a plan to create a full-scale, citywide public power system. Public broadband service ought to be on the agenda, too.

The supervisors should approve Mirkarimi’s bill, and the sooner the better, before Newsom finds some more of San Francisco to put on the block.