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"This Is My Last Public Service"
Jon Steinberg | Photo: Courtesy Dan Escobar | March 15, 2014
When and if former mayor Art Agnos finally exits the political scene, he’ll do so the same way he entered it: brawling.
It’s been 22 years since Art Agnos left office as mayor of San Francisco. But his legacy—protégé of George Moscone, defender of the homeless, vanquisher of the Embarcadero freeway—is still being shaped. While he hasn’t maintained the notoriety of a Feinstein, Brown, or Newsom, he hasn’t slunk off into retirement either. To the contrary, Agnos, 76, the son of a Greek shoeshiner from Springfield, Massachusetts, has become one of the city’s most strident and well-armed opponents of waterfront development. What started with last year’s campaign to block the 8 Washington condominium project has continued with a media and community-meeting blitz against the Golden State Warriors’ proposed arena on Piers 30–32. His efforts will culminate in an initiative on this June’s ballot that mandates voter approval anytime a developer wants to exceed height limitations on land owned by the Port of San Francisco.
This last ploy—a brilliant piece of electoral gamesmanship if not an efficient means of city planning—would circumvent approvals given by the Board of Supervisors and hand the people, as opposed to their elected representatives, veto powers over what gets built on their shoreline. The measure, paired with escalating costs for rehabbing the piers, has reportedly forced the Warriors to consider moving the arena elsewhere. It has also sparked a lawsuit on behalf of the San Francisco Giants, who have long harbored plans for a soaring complex on one of their parking lots. Caught in the crossfire is another developer, Forest City, which seeks to build a sprawling, multiuse development on Pier 70 near Dogpatch. As Agnos tells San Francisco editor-in-chief Jon Steinberg during a combative, at times emotional conversation in mid-February at the mayor’s Potrero Hill home, this crusade isn’t about stopping these developments in their tracks. It’s about something bigger: turning back the city’s clock to a more equitable and affordable past. And if that means dealing a blow to the current mayor—a man to whom Agnos gave his first government job a quarter century ago—well, that’s just politics.
San Francisco: Let’s start with the basic premise of what you are arguing. Why do you have such vehement objections to developments along the waterfront?
Art Agnos: Well, for the first time, middle-class people are ineligible to buy a house in this city. We’re the least affordable city in America. What that means now is that middle-class people who make between $60,000 and $160,000 a year—that’s two teachers living together—can’t afford to live in this city. How do we address this issue? Our number-one priority for public land should be to establish affordable and middle-class housing. We need programs that would write down the cost of housing, be it rented or owned. And what have we been getting instead? Public land sold to the highest bidder and condominiums that sell for $5 million to $10 million apiece. That reflects a certain policy, a certain attitude that I am working to try to change, because we are all threatened by this.
And you think that the Warriors’ arena on Piers 30–32 is the most egregious example of this attitude?
Yes, the Warriors are an example of it. The piece of land across the street [Seawall Lot 330] is really what that project is all about; that’s where the profit is going to come from. They’re proposing to build more luxury high-rise housing, higher than 8 Washington—that was 13 stories; the Warriors are talking 17. In both of these cases, they’re busting through long-established height limits and building a wall around the waterfront for the exclusive use of super-rich people.
So what sticks in your craw really isn’t the arena; it’s those buildings proposed across from the arena?
It’s the use of public land while violating height limits. That’s what sticks in my craw.
Now what if, in a fantasy world, the Warriors were to come to you and say, “We’re going to go above and beyond what’s demanded by law and set aside more than 20 percent of these buildings for affordable housing.” Would you call off the dogs then?
No. The argument then shifts to the primary one, which is the inappropriate use of a publicly owned pier. Is this the best use? Here’s what’s proposed: three and a half 8 Washingtons, plus a 500 car garage for their exclusive use and a shopping area that is approximately 92,000 square feet—which is a third bigger than the Ferry Building. They’re going to have to pour tons of concrete into the bay, which is a holy place for the Bay Area, not just San Francisco, in order to build a super-size, gold-plated pier that’s strong enough to hold it all. So this is an inappropriate use, especially when state laws say, “You shouldn’t be building over and in the water that which can be built on land.”
I take it you’re not much of a basketball fan.
As a matter of fact [chuckling, walks across the living room to his office; emerges carrying a blue, late-’80s-era Golden State Warriors windbreaker]. Look at this: It’s 25 years old. When I was mayor in 1989, the then owners gave it to me as a gift because I was a Warriors guy.
So you’re saying that you’re still a Warriors guy.
What I’m saying is that it’s not about the Warriors; it is about the location, and those piers are the wrong location. It is a vanity address. Just the mere fact that you change the name from Golden State Warriors to San Francisco Warriors adds half a billion dollars to the value of the [franchise], OK? Now that’s their right if they want, and in the right location I’m ready to support it. But this is not the right location.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The port estimates that Piers 30–32 could literally crumble into the bay within the next 10 years. I walked past there the other day, and it is truly a giant, dilapidated, asphalt nothing. The Warriors are talking about spending hundreds of millions of their own dollars to revitalize a public space that is currently an eyesore. So what if they get richer as a result? What’s so wrong with that?
It’s what you’re going to replace it with that’s wrong with it. Should we put oil derricks out there? No, we shouldn’t. We can find a better place for an arena, one that doesn’t do this kind of destructive environmental damage and add to the congestion downtown the way this does. Yes, we do need to replace those piers. But we need to be very fussy and careful about what we put there, because it’s hard to correct.
I’m going to bring up one of the ghosts in your closet. You have a history with those piers.
Yeah, sure do.
As mayor in 1988, you wanted to build a $120 million cruise ship terminal there along with hotels. Luxury hotels. Correct?
All within the height limit. Four stories.
And because a cruise ship terminal and hotels were for the public use, that to you was appropriate.
Of course it was. Of course. State law says that waterfront land has to have a maritime use. What’s more maritime than a cruise ship being tied up? San Francisco needed an attractive, modern cruise ship terminal for people whom we hoped to develop as a core business for the port. And the Embarcadero was a slum back then. Everybody said so.
But the voters disagreed with you at the end of the day. They passed Proposition H in 1990, which called for a moratorium on hotels along the shoreline, among other things.
Oh, yeah. The activists and the preservationists and all the rest of them objected to a hotel on the water, on the pier. I moved it over to the other side of the street [where the Warriors currently want to build their towers], and they had no objections. But they were fearful of future projects that would try to do that, so Prop. H was created.
Doesn’t that irony strike you as rich? Back then, you were a development-friendly mayor thwarted by slow-growth activists. Now, twenty-something years later, you’ve got a mayor who’s a booster for development, and you’re the activist doing the thwarting.
It is sort of ironic. But what I say to that is, I learn from my mistakes.
And what was your mistake then?
Not consulting with the public more carefully to understand, truly, what they felt was important along the waterfront. I don’t want to repeat that mistake. What I’m trying to do is inform the public so that they can truly understand what is at stake in this particular proposal and others. Clearly, at 8 Washington they understood what was at stake, and rejected it. I’m expecting they will do the same thing here.
Is there not some danger lurking in this, though? The initiative that you’ve proposed would necessitate a public vote anytime a project wants to exceed zoning heights, even if the project has already been approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Isn’t this the definition of ballot box planning?
I don’t see any danger in involving the public in this decision. The public has protected the waterfront with their vocal opposition and activism before. The port has been seen and continues to be seen, especially in this day, as the new Gold Coast, where millions of dollars can be made by private developers. The Warriors want to use public land so that they can increase their profits, their revenue— and for what? For what?
But the public does get something out of this, doesn’t it? It gets a privately funded arena for sports and concerts and whatnot in a location that’s central, that’s within walking distance of public transportation, that doesn’t displace existing residents or businesses. It seems like a pretty good use of land from that standpoint.
But they need to add these luxury high-rises, the parking lot, the retail in order to make it all work.
Don’t the owners have the right to maximize their investment?
Not if it’s at my city’s expense. I don’t want to rip up the city and deny public access so we can pay a professional basketball player $20 million instead of $15 million and net a higher return on investment for the owners. That’s what happening with the Giants, too. They have maxed out the revenues for their ballpark, they can’t charge any more for hotdogs and sodas and all the rest, and so what have they got to do? They’ve got to build a village—a 37-story proposed building.
And what are your objections to that?
The Giants are seeking to go high—as has every developer that has come along in the past 10 years if not longer, because that’s where the value is, that’s where the multimillions are. And so the question becomes: Who’s benefiting? The multi-billionaires or the public?