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03.18.2014
Editorial> Pitfalls of Democracy
Sam Lubell questions ballot box planning in San Francisco.
San Francisco voters scuttled the waterfront 8 Washington development.
Courtesy SOM

A couple months ago, San Francisco voters turned back 8 Washington, SOM’s 134-unit condominium project along the Embarcadero, ending a seven-year battle. This month politics were again front and center in the city’s planning process, as a group led by former mayor Art Agnos made waves to get the planned Warriors’ arena at Pier 30-32 on the upcoming June Ballot. The arena, argues the group, could be moved to the spot where Candlestick Park will soon be demolished. Finally, the Sierra Club is threatening to fight other projects that will alter the waterfront heights, including 75 Howard, a 31-story condominium, and Seawall Lot 337, a mixed-use development near AT&T Park.

On the surface it seems logical that voters should be able to vote on large projects. The will of the public should decide the fate of the urban realm, right? But when you start to drill down it is not that simple.

The ballot, it turns out, can be used by developers and the wealthy and powerful to stop projects just like any other mechanism. And since voting levels are so depressingly low and issues so complex, the people that usually come out to vote are those in opposition. It is especially a problem in a city where the itch to keep things the way they are often gets in the way of progress.

“Unfortunately the ballot is a tool that is readily available to wealthy homeowners and special interests in California,” said Gabe Metcalf of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “They can hire lawyers and pay for signature gathering.” He added that this kind of approach will inevitably slow the city’s new architecture to a crawl. “Every project in the city is treated as discretionary. I think the general direction we need to be moving in is to make the zoning matter so that projects that conform with zoning are welcomed and permitted.”

Speaking even louder on the topic is local architect Anne Fougeron.

“It’s completely out of control,” said Fougeron. “You can’t run a city if there’s always a possibility that the decisions your elected officials and planners have made can be curtailed by special interests.” Speaking to blanket opposition, Fougeron said, “What does the Sierra Club know about height legislation and planning? It trivializes what our planners do; people who spend a lot of time studying these issues.”

I don’t recommend approving every major development that goes up; certainly not ones in sensitive areas like the waterfront. But when projects go through years of neighborhood and planning review to meet the specific needs of the community then they should generally be given a better chance to stand. Especially when large shares of their revenues go towards infrastructure and affordable housing funds. Just as California’s statewide referendum process gets corrupted by special interests, so does its local one. The language and information in these initiatives needs to be more tightly regulated to avoid misleading the public, the processes that allow these items to get on the ballot need to be much more tightly scrutinized, and there needs to be more outreach to the public about the consequences of each measure. Until that changes the ballot measure in California, while seeming like a democratic process, will always be susceptible to the maneuverings of the powerful.

Sam Lubell