Fight over waterfront condo height goes to San Francisco voters

SAN FRANCISCO — On its face it doesn’t look menacing: a proposed waterfront development of upscale condominiums that step down from 12 stories to five near San Francisco’s towering financial district.

Cafes and stores on the ground floor. Public pathways and a small park with stunning views of San Francisco Bay and the Ferry Building.


But against the backdrop of a loved-and-loathed technology boom, the project known as 8 Washington has become nothing short of a referendum on the kind of city San Francisco is and shall become.

Nearly $3 million has been pumped into campaigns on dual ballot measures that on Tuesday will determine the fate of the development, which secured an exemption from waterfront height limits.


Critics say it would lead to more high-rise waterfront projects, Miami-style, and further cede to the wealthy a city already rated the nation’s least affordable.

“What we’re really talking about with this project is a kind of economic segregation in the city,” said former Mayor Art Agnos, who in 1990 oversaw demolition of the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway and helped transform the waterfront from a “slum where ‘Dirty Harry’ movies were made” into a civic gem.

“We’ll have a billionaires’ row and middle-class housing to be built somewhere else, some other time,” said Agnos, who has campaigned for the “No Wall on the Waterfront” referendum along with environmental, affordable housing and neighborhood groups.

Those backing a developer-sponsored initiative to green-light construction call the 134-unit project modest and say the only way San Francisco can solve its severe housing crisis is to build more housing.


“Every neighborhood on a hill in San Francisco has been hyper-gentrified and it’s not because of new development, it’s because of a lack of new development,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, a nonprofit regional planning organization. “If you keep the housing stock constrained, then people just buy up the existing housing stock.”

The developer plans no on-site subsidized housing but would contribute $11 million to a city affordable housing fund; deliver $14 million to the Port of San Francisco in exchange for a public parking lot, enabling repairs to crumbling piers; and generate millions in annual city tax revenue.

The project also would replace a private tennis and swim club with another private club — along with landscaped public walkways, sidewalk seating, a rooftop cafe and a small park.

Critics have decried the public benefits as inadequate, but Mayor Ed Lee, a booster of the city’s tech and development boom, hailed them as a win for a waterfront undergoing a renaissance.


“I’ve seen over the years where we’ve tripped over our own success,” said Lee, who recently joked that the crane should be designated the official city bird. “When you stop development, you stop people from getting jobs, you stop people from paying their mortgages.”

San Francisco has a long history of waterfront development battles.

Former City Atty. Louise Renne recalled the outcry over the twin 17-story Fontana Towers near Fisherman’s Wharf, which in 1964 prompted a 40-foot height limit on the northern waterfront. The site of the current controversy abuts a residential tower more than double 8 Washington’s maximum proposed height of 136 feet.

More towers were planned there too, Renne said, but when residents took a look at the completed one, an 84-foot height limit was put in place. It is that limit that developers have managed to skirt.

While U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has remained silent on 8 Washington, she opposed previous efforts at condo development on the site in 1984 while she was mayor and again in 2003, noting that the area’s redevelopment plan had set it aside “for open space and recreation.” A tower, she wrote to planning officials, would create shade and traffic and “drastically change the picturesque panorama of the bay.”

Other proposed waterfront projects are already waiting on height exemptions, Renne said, and approval of this one “is going to set a precedent.”

Developer Simon Snellgrove’s vision has been seven years in the making. The subject of countless community meetings, the project passed muster with the city Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and state agencies with waterfront jurisdiction.

But opponents contend that the public land involved and the civic mandate of an accessible waterfront call for a project that serves a broader cross-section of San Franciscans and preserves views of the hills.

Agnos conceded that the project had cleared myriad local hurdles but said, “Every now and then a monstrosity is proposed or built, and the people take it into their own hands to correct mistakes.”

The referendum seeks an up-or-down vote on the board’s height determination. At risk of being forced back to the drawing board, Snellgrove countered the referendum with the “Open Up the Waterfront” ballot initiative, which puts the entire development as approved by local officials to the voters.

The No Wall on the Waterfront campaign needs “no” votes on both to kill the project. The developer needs only a “yes” vote on either to prevail and begin construction.

The measures go to voters as the tech boom alters the city’s housing landscape.

Evictions have skyrocketed as rentals have been put up for sale. Average monthly rents recently broke the $3,000 mark, and the median home price is more than $800,000. Hulking Google buses prompt resentment. And among longtime residents, a conversation loops over the potential loss of San Francisco’s funky — and purportedly inclusive — soul.

Tenant advocates say the 8 Washington project would only spur more developer speculation — and end up making the city more expensive for all.

“We have to take a stand, and if not on our public land, then where?” asked Jon Golinger, manager for the No Wall on the Waterfront campaign.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, a project backer, has helped create a housing trust fund and wrote city legislation to allow micro-units, require student housing and, most recently, permit in-law units in the Castro district, where aging gay activists who helped turn the city into a haven of tolerance are being priced out.

“We need to be building more housing, and we’re finally starting to do that,” Wiener said. “The last thing we need is to start tarring all housing development that’s market-rate as bad.”

The 8 Washington project is “shorter than all the buildings around it” and would enliven a “dead zone on the Embarcadero,” he said, adding that anyone who thinks height exemptions will “start sliding through” for other projects “doesn’t know a lot about San Francisco’s planning process.”

Even those soundly behind 8 Washington, however, acknowledge that it has struck a nerve.

“I have to confess, I didn’t appreciate at the beginning how much this really is becoming a meta-discussion about the city,” said Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, which promotes housing construction.

“I have common ground with a lot of the opponents on the question of who gets to live in San Francisco. I am deeply alarmed and somewhat pessimistic about [the city’s] future,” he said. “But no one has been able to explain to me how turning down 8 Washington makes the city more affordable.”