SAN FRANCISCO -- A controversial luxury waterfront development project was soundly defeated Tuesday, an apparent victim of skyrocketing housing prices that have generated anxiety over just who gets to live in a city long identified with tolerance and diversity.
The project that would have risen from a port-owned parking lot and the site of a private tennis and swimming club near the city’s towering financial district -- across from the iconic Ferry Building -- had won approvals from the Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors and state entities that oversee waterfront development.
It had been granted an allowance to exceed the waterfront height limits of 84 feet: The tallest of the luxury condo buildings at the project known as 8 Washington would have risen to 136 feet.
But opponents gathered enough signatures to put the consensus of elected officials to a voter referendum. In a vigorous campaign, they contended that the exemption would trigger more of the same and lead to a Miami Beach-style waterfront that granted the wealthy access that average San Franciscans could not afford.
Developer Simon Snellgrove countered with his own initiative, which, if approved, would have greenlighted the project once and for all after seven years of planning.
Tuesday, voters soundly rejected the height exemptions and the developer’s measure, apparently swayed by a broad coalition of environmental, good-government and affordable housing groups that had decried it as a bad deal for the non-rich.
"We’re pretty happy," said Jon Golinger, who managed the "No Wall on the Waterfront" campaign to defeat the project. "It’s over. It’s way over. The voters saw through all the fiction and looked at the facts."
"This is clearly going to have broader implications for waterfront development but also for land use and housing going forward," he said. "I’m sure there are more fights to come. We’re fired up and ready to go."
Planning organizations, Mayor Ed Lee, his predecessor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and a number of supervisors actively campaigned for the development, which would have channeled $11 million into an affordable housing fund, created two public walkways, sidewalk seating, a rooftop cafe and small park accessible to all.
They argued that the project was a beautification upgrade with public space to boot. Market rate housing is also needed if the city is to become more affordable, they stressed.
Tuesday night, Supervisor Scott Wiener, among the measure’s backers, conceded the conversation had become dominated by fears over San Francisco’s affordability crisis, driving the final nail in the project. (The city was recently deemed the nation’s least affordable, when median incomes were compared with median housing costs.)
“There is very understandable anxiety right now over the cost of housing in the city and some of the changes that are happening, and this project unfortunately got caught up in that situation,” Wiener said.
“We do have a housing affordability crisis,” said Wiener, who has pushed for a wide range of solutions, including microunits and a new measure to allow in-law units in the Castro. “I do not think this project impacted that. I think it’s a good project. But the voters have a final say. And the voters have to be respected."
Wiener said it’s unclear if another developer will have “the stomach” to pursue another project at the site or if Snellgrove will propose a modified version, since this one underwent seven years of reviews and approvals before voters quashed it.
But, he said, “now we just move on.”
While the development was presented by opponents as a bad deal for average San Franciscans, backers were quick to note that a good chunk of the funding to kill the project came from a wealthy couple in an adjacent residential high-rise and a developer of a nearby business tower whose views would have been blocked. (Backers of private tennis courts that would have been removed were also fierce opponents.)
Said Derek Jansen, campaign manager for the developer-backed initiative: “We tried doing the right thing for the city. Instead we got taken down by Boston Properties and a bunch of wealthy neighbors who didn’t want to lose their tennis courts.”
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