City Journal Spring 2014

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Spring 2014
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California

Scott Beyer
Missing the Forest for the Trees
By opposing density, San Francisco’s Sierra Club hinders environmental progress.
23 January 2014

Since 2006, developer Simon Snellgrove has fought to build a 12-story, mixed-use tower on a downtown lot near San Francisco Bay. The project cleared a major hurdle in 2012, when the city’s board of supervisors exempted it from an 84-foot-height limit, following extensive environmental review. But after a negative petition garnered 31,000 signatures, the project was put to the ballot in November’s election, and city voters rejected it by nearly two-to-one, forcing Snellgrove to go back to the drawing board. In many ways, the opposition to Snellgrove’s 8 Washington project represents everything that’s wrong with the anti-growth movement in U.S. cities today.

The very groups one might think would support a vertical and centrally located project such as 8 Washington opposed the plan ferociously. Affordability advocates called it a mere “luxury” condo, ignoring the $11 million the residence is expected to generate for the city’s affordable-housing fund. Neighborhood groups criticized the design by famed architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which would have fit in with surrounding towers. Nearby residents opposed the added foot traffic, despite having long decried the downtown business district’s deserted nighttime atmosphere.

The strangest opposition, though, came from San Francisco’s Sierra Club chapter, which helped fund the “No Wall on the Waterfront” coalition, ultimately killing a project that the environmental group might reasonably have endorsed. The Sierra Club, after all, regularly lobbies California’s state legislature to draw boundaries to stop housing sprawl in the Bay Area. Now, it seems, the club opposes even “smart” development projects that promote density. In addition to 8 Washington, it has protested the redevelopment of Treasure Island, a land plot near the Bay Bridge now used mostly for military purposes. It opposed a plan that would encourage mixed-use development in Berkeley, even though the city has rail connections and thus would be better able to handle the added foot traffic and density mixed use brings. And it withheld support from a project in nearby Alameda that other environmental groups celebrated for its sustainable design and materials.

Earlier this month, activists against 8 Washington proposed a new measure that would require voter approval for buildings that exceed height limits on waterfront properties. Currently, buildings that exceed these 40–105-foot limits must win approval from both the city planning commission and the board of supervisors. Plans also must go to a vote if opponents gather at least 9,702 signatures. But the proposed new measure would automatically require voter approval for such structures, likely relegating them all to 8 Washington’s fate. Though the Sierra Club chapter has yet to come out for the proposal, its chairwoman, Rebecca Evans, is the measure’s leading proponent. And the club has already criticized other potential development projects, including one near the Giants’ AT&T Park as well as the proposed new Golden State Warriors’ basketball arena. The new arena would help fill the empty, decaying piers leading up to the Embarcadero market, completing a near-miraculous transformation of the city’s northeastern shoreline.

So why does the local Sierra Club oppose these projects? Evans warns that new construction could block views, add traffic, pollute the air, and minimize open space. “I’m all for density,” she said. “But it has to come with certain livability standards—like being able to walk in your neighborhood.”

As is often the case, the Sierra Club’s opposition here is not really about the effects of development. It reflects resentment, sadly typical of America’s far Left, of what development represents—capitalism and the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is getting rich. The club never fails to criticize developments being built for “luxury” purposes or to “create profits.” Developing the waterfront will produce a “wall of gold” built, says Evans, by “rich developers.”

This anti-growth sentiment has made it difficult for San Francisco to address issues that the Sierra Club claims to care about. Evans complains that 8 Washington’s “least expensive condominium is going to go for $2 million,” but she has little to say about the housing shortage and other factors that have made San Francisco the nation’s least affordable city. By November, Snellgrove had spent nearly $2 million on lobbying and campaigning, and he’ll surely pay more after reworking his plans. These costs will be passed onto 8 Washington’s eventual residents (should there be any). San Francisco is proud to be one of the nation’s most frugal carbon emitters per capita—owing not only to its mild climate, but also to its density. But the city’s high cost of living forces many to live in outlying areas with more sprawling, energy-intensive development patterns. Their larger footprint can be blamed, at least in part, on the misplaced priorities of certain San Francisco “environmentalists.”

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