Who should decide what gets built on San Francisco's waterfront: the people or the Mayor's Office and its political appointees? That's the question that has been raised by a series of high-profile development proposals that exceed current zoning restrictions, as well as by a new initiative campaign that has just begun gathering signatures.
Officially known as the Voter Approval to Waterfront Development Height Increases initiative, the proposal grew out of the No Wall on the Waterfront campaign that defeated Propositions B and C in November, stopping the controversial 8 Washington luxury condo tower in the process.
"The idea was to have a public process around what we're going to do with the waterfront," campaign consultant Jim Stearns told the Guardian.
San Franciscans have been here before. When developers and the Mayor's Office proposed big hotel projects on the city's waterfront, voters in 1990 reacted by approving Proposition H. It created a temporary moratorium on new hotels and required the city to create a Waterfront Land Use Plan to regulate new development, which was approved in 1997 and hasn't been updated since.
It was an important transition point for the city's iconic waterfront, which was still dominated by industrial and maritime uses when the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 led to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and opening up of shoreline property controlled by the Port of San Francisco.
Ironically, then-Mayor Art Agnos supported a luxury hotel project at Seawall Lot 330 (which is now part of the proposed Warriors Arena project at Piers 30-32) that helped trigger Prop. H. Agnos stayed neutral on that measure and says he was supportive of setting clear development standards for the waterfront.
Today, Agnos is one of the more vocal critics of the Warriors Arena and how the city is managing its waterfront.
"What's happened in the last three to four years is all those height limits have been abrogated," Agnos said of the standards set by the WLUP. "With the sudden availability of big money for investment purposes, there is now funding for these mega-developments projects."
The trio of high-profile projects that would be most directly affected by the initiative are the proposed Warriors Arena, hotel, and condos at Piers 30-32/Seawall Lot 330; a large housing and retail project proposed by the San Francisco Giants at Pier 48/Seawall Lot 337; and a sprawling office, residential, and retail project that Forest City wants to build at Pier 70. Each project violates parts of the WLUP.
"We need to let the people protect the waterfront and current height limits," Agnos said, "because clearly there is no protection at City Hall."
On a drizzly Saturday, Jan. 11, a few dozen activists crowded into the office at 15 Columbus Avenue, preparing to go collect signatures for the new waterfront initiative. It was a space that was already familiar to many of them from their fall campaign against height increases on the 8 Washington project.
"What we're doing today is launching the next phase of that campaign," campaign manager Jon Golinger told the assembled volunteers, calling this space "the center of the fight for San Francisco's future."
The campaign must collect at least 9,702 valid signatures by Feb. 3 to qualify for the June election, but Golinger said those involved in the campaign actually have six months to gather signatures if they want to wait for the November election.
Golinger said they would prefer June in order to build off of the momentum of the fall campaign and not get caught up in the more crowded November ballot. "There's a lot of enthusiasm from the last election to ensure the waterfront gets the protection it needs," he told us.