Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Condo project
headlines SF ballot


The parking lot and green-walled tennis courts in the foreground are the site for the proposed 8 Washington condominium project along the Embarcadero.(Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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A proposed development along San Francisco's waterfront has prompted an expensive ballot fight this fall, but it remains to be seen if the controversial project is enough to drive voters to the polls in a local election year devoid of contested citywide races.

Known as 8 Washington, the mixed-use project would replace an asphalt parking lot owned by the Port of San Francisco and a private tennis club on the Embarcadero run by the Bay Club with 134 luxury condos, new storefronts, new public park space, and a rebuilt members-only recreation club with new swimming pools replacing the tennis courts.

Because it will not include any affordable units on site, the project is expected to pay an $11 million in-lieu fee toward building below-market-rate housing elsewhere in the city.

"It is better for the city than protecting a private tennis club at all costs," PJ Johnston, a spokesman for the project, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent editorial board meeting.

Opponents of the project, however, have decried it as a "wall on the waterfront" due to city leaders granting the local developer, Simon W.R. Snellgrove and his Pacific Waterfront Partners, LLC, a height increase from 84 feet to 136 feet for the site. Pointing to estimates that the units could average $5 million, they also contend the building will add to the city's rising rents and housing prices.

"The city is granting to the developer the space that is there to develop their high-rise condos," said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents the northern waterfront at City Hall and has been a vocal critic of the project for years. "I don't think it is a good deal for the city."

Chiu is part of a coalition of current and former San Francisco elected officials, environmental groups, affordable housing advocates, and neighborhood leaders who are trying to block the development from being built as proposed. They are asking voters to reject two local ballot measures, Propositions B and C, in November and launched their campaign last Wednesday with a press conference at the site.

Among those seeking to torpedo the development are former Mayor Art Agnos; former City Attorney Louise Renne; and gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who is running against Chiu next year in the race for the city's 17th Assembly District seat. The progressive Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club has also endorsed no votes on both B and C.

This scale model of the 8 Washington project shows the two condominium buildings, foreground, against the existing buildings in the area.
(Ratio Design Associates Inc.)

"I think the biggest challenge we face as a city right now is affordability for many people. This is housing for the ultra wealthy," Campos told the B.A.R. "I don't think that is the kind of housing the city needs at this point. The Port should be using that land to create affordable housing for middle-income and low-income folks."

The 8 Washington opponents gathered enough signatures to place Prop C on the ballot so as to allow voters a chance to reject the extra height allowance granted to the developer. A no vote on C would overturn the height limits granted by the Board of Supervisors, which in 2012 twice approved the project on 8-3 votes. Along with Chiu and Campos, District 11 Supervisor John Avalos voted against the project.

"This is not an issue of size. But it is an unprecedented height limit revision," said Chiu. "We put the height limits in place to prevent our city from looking like Manhattan or along the waterfront like Miami Beach."

The project sponsors, in turn, placed their own measure on the ballot, Prop B, that would create a special use district for the 3.2-acre site that would amend city codes to allow for the project's greater height and density and require the developer to build such public amenities as parks, new walkways, and bicycle lanes.

Supporting the project are the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club; gay Small Business Commission President Steve Adams; gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener; and District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang, appointed this year to represent the Outer Sunset and running in November to retain the seat.

"I would agree with the board's decision. I don't see it as a wall on the waterfront," Tang told the B.A.R. during a recent editorial board meeting. "It creates more open space and activates an area that is now a parking lot."

Rejecting claims that the building would block views of the waterfront, the project's backers note that the building site is not on the bayside but across the street. It would consist of two separate buildings, with the one fronting the Embarcadero capped at 70 feet and its northern section stepping down to 54 feet. It would house 50 of the condo units built above ground floor retail space.

The second building would be set back from the first behind a landscaped elliptical courtyard. It would rise 136 feet, with its northernmost section scaling down to 92 feet. Election materials show cafe spaces proposed for the building's corners situated along Drumm Street.

"Their mantra 'No wall on the waterfront' it is an absolute misnomer. It is manipulative, if not fear-mongering," argued Johnston. "The ballot measures are worse than confusing. They are disheartening and it is a shame we are at this point."

North of the housing would be the rebuilt Bay Club facilities and a new restaurant space at grade level, while the new park space would be at the corner nearest the intersection of Broadway and the Embarcadero.

Alicia N. Allbin, a principal with Pacific Waterfront, said the residential buildings were situated at the southern end of the site so as not to block the views of the nearby Golden Gateway Commons condo complex on Davis Street.

"We wanted to protect the views of the lower condos," said Allbin.

As for the decision to not include affordable housing on site, Allbin argued that by paying the in-lieu fee the Mayor's Office of Housing can leverage the funds to construct more units than would be set aside at 8 Washington.

She added that the city would gain a new 4,500 square foot playground and outdoor cafe space, as well as a new 30,000 square foot green space being called the Jackson Commons and Pacific Park.

"We are paying for the park and its upkeep in perpetuity," said Allbin.

The 8 Washington proponents acknowledge they face a harder time driving the yes vote to the polls come Tuesday, November 5.

"It is a challenge for us given we didn't want to be on the ballot," said Johnston. "We don't believe in ballot box planning."

Polling released in early September by the project's opponents bolstered their hopes of defeating both B and C.

The poll of 400 likely voters found Prop B losing with 42 percent voting yes and 44 percent voting no and Prop C losing with 36 percent voting yes and 51 percent voting no. After receiving more information about the measures, the poll found that voters would reject Prop B by 38 percent to 55 percent and reject Prop C by 32 percent to 60 percent.

"Twin Propositions B and C begin the campaign season underwater and their position worsens as voters receive balanced information from the two campaigns," stated the 8 Washington research summary memo from David Binder Research.

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