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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.
There is a component, though, that you’re not talking about, and that’s the direct impact that these projects have on affordable housing. According to their most recent proposals, the three waterfront projects that would immediately be impacted by your initiative— we’re talking about the arena, the Giants’ Lot A (aka Seawall Lot 337), and Pier 70—would collectively add around 2,700 housing units. Of those, a minimum of 15 percent, or 400 units, would have to be affordable, and the number could well go above that. So when you’re talking about the ills of building up, you’re ignoring that the higher we go, the more affordable housing we have. What’s wrong with that?
If it were viable, there’s nothing wrong with it. Today, we have seen the formula for affordable housing greatly diminished, because the state and federal funding has dried up. The city’s affordable housing fund is impotent, to put it mildly, because it doesn’t have the capacity to leverage money with the state and federal funds. So in lieu of that, I would use the land as the leverage to build housing. The land is precious because it’s far more valuable than the paltry contribution that will be made by the developers to the housing fund.
What objections do you have to the Giants’ plans for Lot A and Forest City’s mixed-use complex at Pier 70?
Well, we don’t know enough yet. They’re still sort of being formed.
But you know enough to know that you don’t like them.
No, no. I have no opinion yet. I have no opinion. I know from personal experience that the Giants are a much different organization than the Warriors—they understand the values of San Francisco’s community planning process. They live in the city, so they understand how you do things in San Francisco, which means the careful involvement of the public. And so I have confidence in them, except for the height that they’re proposing, which is astronomical—37 stories. [Days after this conversation, news emerged that the Giants were backing a lawsuit challenging the legality of the June ballot measure. Agnos phoned to register his discontent. “This lawsuit that they’re funding is a major disappointment to all of us who thought they were different from other developers,” he said.]
It’s funny because I don’t get the sense that building height—or, to use an old four-letter word in San Francisco, Manhattanization—is such a concern in this city anymore.
Who says so?
I do, Mayor!
It does seem as if there has been an attitude shift. For instance, we’re currently building a skyscraper, the Transbay Tower, that will be 217 feet taller than the Transamerica Pyramid. We’re not afraid of heights anymore.
It depends on where.
Height matters on the waterfront more than it does elsewhere.
Yes. Historically, this city has always said, “We put the tall buildings on the tall hills. And then we step down as we get closer to the water so that everybody has access to the water and we don’t create a Hong Kong–style wall along the waterfront. Maybe the height limits in the middle of the city and in the business areas will go higher. I don’t have a lot of objection to that. But we can’t put high-rise buildings along the waterfront. Bottom line. Imagine if we had a bunch of high-rises all along the waterfront, all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf—what would that do to the city?
You don’t just place the blame on rapacious developers and billionaires for what’s being proposed, right? You’re also fiercely critical of Ed Lee.
When you are the mayor, the room—and this is Room 200 in City Hall—is filled with people who are proponents of projects. The lobbyists, the consultants, the developers, the contributors—all of these people are in the room. Who’s not in the room? It’s the average guy out there, the family guy, the single mother, the ordinary citizen. And it’s the mayor’s job to remember who’s not in the room. I think, unfortunately, the mayor has been starstruck by the attention from the Warriors, that he was dazzled two years ago when they came to him and said, “We want to do this.” What we got was just a big press conference with the owners and all the rest. That was a major mistake because it left out a lot of people who should have been in the room. Now the people are putting themselves in the room through the initiative process, which is a very historical, legal, democratic tool to correct mistakes or to prevent them.
Some of your critics say it’s you who wants to be in the room with Ed Lee.
It’s not about Ed Lee. It is a fundamental belief in community empowerment. That has been my whole life—I haven’t changed.
That’s a good segue to the last thing I want to ask you. You’re 76 years old, you’ve been out of office for two decades, and here you are hauling giant poster boards around town, speaking out against these projects at literally dozens of community meetings, when you probably should be kicking your feet up and playing golf. Why are you spending so much time and energy on this crusade? What’s in it for Art Agnos?
Well, first of all, let me say that I’m not getting paid. I don’t want anybody accusing me of using what are now 25-year-old contacts to make money at the city’s expense. And secondly, I’m not running for mayor, and I will not run for mayor under any circumstances.
I think that this issue, for me, is so important that I do not want anyone to marginalize it by saying that he’s just doing that to run for office; he’s using it as a platform, a springboard, for his own personal ambition. I love this city. This is my last public service to the city for what it gave me, which is an extraordinary life that I couldn’t have had in my own hometown. And so… [begins to tear up]. I get emotional about it… and so that’s why I’m doing it. And, uh [wiping away a tear], I’ve always believed in empowering people. I think that the powers that be are trying to overwhelm the people of this city with this project and others like it.
Well, if this is your last public service, as you say…
I mean, I’m not gonna die.
No, we’ll probably be back here in five years arguing about something else. But, back to the question: If you really only have one public service left in you, why make it this one? Because as far as the priorities of the city are concerned, affordability is paramount—housing, evictions, income inequality. Not preservation of the waterfront or capping height limits on development. Why not focus your attentions on building or preserving housing rather than on stopping and obstructing development?
Well, that is not the characterization I would put on what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to protect and preserve the precious parts of San Francisco in the same fashion that Nancy Bechtle and her Presidio Trust protected a precious part of San Francisco from George Lucas. Why was there no public outcry when she said no to his museum? Because we understand what the Presidio means. And we are coming to understand what the waterfront means to this city and how important it is for all of us. This issue’s not going away. I have likened what’s going on right now, when you look at 8 Washington, when you look at this high-rise initiative, when you look at the Presidio…
You’ve called it the Arab Spring.
It is. It is people revolting through democratic processes, which is what the Arab Spring was.
Isn’t that a bit hyperbolic?
Well, that’s what politicians do.
You’re saying that the 8 Washington vote, with its 22 percent turnout, was a popular uprising...
I’m saying it’s the San Francisco version of the Arab Spring. People are revolting—on some levels it’s blocking Google buses; on others it is saying no to George Lucas, or creating an initiative that says we are going to require you to come to us if you’re going to go above height limits. There’s more to come, just watch. Because people are not happy.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of San Francisco