The controversial 8 Washington Street condominium development that is now the subject of a fierce political campaign in San Francisco boils down to this question: What’s the best thing to do with the 3.2 acres of waterfront land now occupied by a parking lot and a private fitness club with tennis courts and a pool?
Supporters of Propositions B and C say the 8 Washington Street developers held more than a hundred public meetings and got public approvals from the Port and Planning Commissions and the Board of Supervisors. They emphasize the $11 million developers will pay into the City’s affordable housing fund along with public amenities like open space that’s not there now.
De-emphasized by the Yes on B side is the fact most cited by opponents: The project won an exemption from current height limits allowing some of the new condos to rise 136 feet (about 12 stories), twice the height of the old Embarcadero Freeway that was torn down in 1991 (in fairness the tallest parts of the development are set back a bit off the waterfront near Drumm Street).
The slogan for the No on B and C campaigns (opposing the condos) is “No Wall on the Waterfront.” Former Mayor Art Agnos, a leading opponent of 8 Washington, calls the development “the first brick” in a wall of development along the waterfront that will occur if this project moves forward. Agnos sees the No on Props B and C campaign as a battle to build more middle class housing (8 Washington will be luxury condos) and also to protect a fight he waged more than two decades ago – to tear down the double decked Embarcadero Freeway and open up the waterfront.
I remember that battle well. At the time, I was a 32-year-old press secretary working for Mayor Agnos. When the freeway was severely damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, there were loud calls – led by Chinatown dynamo Rose Pak – to repair the freeway.
To her and other Chinatown merchants, the Embarcadero Freeway resembled a long snake – a symbol of luck and good fortune in Chinese tradition. That snake also brought tons of traffic and business into Chinatown. They wanted it rebuilt.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the time was closely divided on the matter. In fact, when the time came to vote on rebuilding or demolishing the freeway, the supervisors were split 5-5. Only after heavy (and I mean heavy) lobbying from the Mayor’s Office did Supervisor Willie B. Kennedy cast her vote in support of demolition.
Supporters of the freeway threatened a ballot measure calling for it to be rebuilt. Instead, it became a contentious issue in the 1991 mayoral campaign – a campaign Mayor Agnos lost in part due to loss of support from Chinatown. Now, of course, no one would say the Embarcadero Freeway should have been rebuilt. The waterfront, with the magnificently restored Ferry Building and historic street cars gliding up and down, is a model for urban renewal.
Props. B and C – and the 8 Washington Street project – provide a kind of political Rorschach test: Does the development look like the start of another waterfront wall or a reasonable use of public land with public benefits? We’ll find out on Tuesday.
But one thing is for sure: Props. B and C are but a warm up act for a much bigger battle – over plans to build a new Warriors arena over the Bay at Piers 30-32, along with a shopping mall and more high rise condos on the other side of the Embarcadero.
Mayor Ed Lee and the Warriors’ owners portray the arena as kind of a “done deal.” In fact, it’s anything but. And Tuesday’s outcome will provide a hint at San Francisco voters’ appetite for large waterfront developments.
KQED’s Scott Shafer is reporting on the upcoming election for KQED NEWSROOM, a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Tune in to KQED Public Television 9 on Friday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. to see the entire program. Listen to a rebroadcast at KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM on Sunday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m.