There Goes the Neighborhood in San Francisco, with Down-and-Dirty Dealings Borrowed from Berkeley in Play

By Becky O'Malley
Friday October 11, 2013 - 05:27:00 PM

A friend who’s lived in San Francisco’s North Beach since, well, the old days, called me last night all in a swivet. She’d stopped in at Tosca, a longtime neighborhood hangout especially for arty types, which had just been re-opened after new owners from New York took over and made some changes.

She was fine with the modest décor upgrades, fine with the addition of real food, but she was outraged that the signature House Cappuchino, featuring chocolate, booze and no coffee, had doubled in price, from $6 to $12. Yes, yes, all the ingredients are now listed with high-end brand names, but still…who needs a $12 drink? So much for hanging out at Tosca with the old crowd.

It’s just one more example of the “there goes the neighborhood” phenomenon, in which big money, usually from out of town, comes in and destroys cities and their artifacts in order to save them. As the distribution of wealth continues to migrate into dumbbell-shaped graphs, global capital is gobbling up formerly pleasant places to live and turning them into rich-guys’ preserves.

This is not a new story. It’s what ruined Greenwich Village, and indeed most of Manhattan, not to mention a lot of London, and many other places. But the pace at which it’s proceeding, and the number and variety of urban settings which are being cannibalized all over the world are accelerating. 

My San Francisco friend, who’s lived for many years in the same rent-controlled apartment on Telegraph Hill, could be the poster child for the displaced residents. She’s a retired performer who’s reached social security age, but still needs to work pick-up jobs in order to pay the rent. 

As of now, she’s safe where she is, but a rich new owner could move in and move her out in short order with an Ellis Act eviction. And the city that she loves is under siege. Always a politically active citizen, she’s now doing what she can to save it, but it’s hard to fight the developers who’d like to gobble it up. 

The current battle she’s working on is to defeat San Francisco ballot measures B and C, a confusingly paired initiative and referendum which if passed would permanently spot-zone a choice parcel on the Embarcadero to rise above the city’s height limits from 84 to 136 feet. The Yes campaign is sponsored by Australian-born global developer Simon Snellgrove (yes, that’s his real name, though he doesn’t twirl a handlebar moustache) and his cronies, to the tune of $1.23 million as of this week and counting. 

His proposed building consists of 134 super-luxe $5 million condos for the super-rich. Backers are expected to clear about $400 million. 

They have promised to put $11 million of the take into affordable housing somewhere else in the city (some say Chinatown, in return for endorsement by politicians in that community like Mayor Ed Lee and Rose Pak). Eleven million dollars is a tidy little mess of pottage, in return for which those employed in the public housing industry were expected to sell their San Francisco birthrights. But not many were fooled, because that sum won’t build very many affordable units, just a drop in the bucket compared with the number of affordable rent-controlled units which are now being taken out of the market all over San Francisco by the new rich techies. 

Opponents say allowing this project would set a bad precedent which would ruin the Embarcadero area, now in recovery from the demolished freeway which used to block the views there—the campaign is called “No Wall on the Waterfront”. Former San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, now engaged in trying to launch an independent news venture, has done a great job of explaining it on his blog, but otherwise the contest is largely below media radar. (Tim parted company with the Guardian’s new corporate masters soon after he exposed the many problems with developer-backed Plan Bay Area, which might or might not have been a coincidence.) 

The measures are on the November 5 ballot, but the absentees have already gone out, so opposing teams are in full cry, aiming to corral the mail-in vote. There’s a war of videos online and on TV. 

The Snellgrove set have produced one which spotlights Mayor Lee (as warm and fuzzy as my lapdog Larry Potter and often seen snuggling up to developers) and ex-Mayor Gavin Newsome (he of the trademark greasy hair and oily smirk). They’re fronting claims that all the developers are up to is replacing a parking lot with a park. It looks slick, but at least to me just a tad too slick to be credible. 

No Wall on the Waterfront has its own pair of videos. The latest one features a set of representatives of key San Francisco constituencies, carefully balanced both on issues and ethnicity, and its own ex-Mayor, Art Agnos (to my eye much more attractive than either Lee or Newsome.) Its goal is to refute pro-B&C claims that the project will be good either for tenants or for the waterfront’s public face. 

The Yes campaign has been particularly nasty. Citizens opposed to the Board of Supervisors’ decision to allow 8 Washington needed to gather many signatures to put C, the referendum, on the ballot. When my North Beach friend was circulating a petition in a shopping center, she was surrounding by developers’ shills, pushing and shoving and trying to prevent her from asking voters to sign. 

And there’s the link to the “there goes the neighborhood” mafia now trying to devour our cities. Some of us who live in Berkeley are familiar with these tactics. The late Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, may she rest in peace, recounted similar down-and-dirty tactics from harassers in 2009, when she was circulating petitions for a referendum opposing the Berkeley City Council’s pro-highrise pro-developer Downtown Plan—which she told Planet reporter Richard Brenneman amounted to “thuggery”

That plan was the bastard child of Berkeley’s Downtown Area Planning Advisory Committee, which was set up to create the downtown plan that Mayor Tom Bates and the University of California at Berkeley wanted. The DAPAC, however, rebelled, and produced a draft plan which was a careful compromise aimed at protecting the city’s fabric from inappropriate exploitation. Not deterred, the Council’s Bates-controlled majority passed its own plan instead, but when the referendum qualified for the ballot it was dropped. 

And here’s where it gets interesting. The Mayor’s appointee as DAPAC chair, who tried unsuccessfully to promote the developers’ agenda, was a guy named Will Travis, a professional planner and a resident of a single family home in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Later Patti Dacey identified him as one of what she called “blockers”, the people who tried to intimidate referendum signature gatherers. 

On the Yes on B&C web site is another video with an assortment of talking heads promoting the measures. And who’s the leading spokesperson for this project for “our” waterfront? That’s right, you guessed it, Berkeley’s Will Travis. 


If I were a San Francisco resident I’d be mighty suspicious of where the recent anti-referendum thuggery originated, and mighty annoyed that this guy from Berkeley is portrayed shilling for this bad idea. Just sayin’. 

One of the greenspeak buzzwords prominently featured in the pro-project videos is “park”. It’s true that the condo tower will have a tiny greenspace, mostly enclosed, and who doesn’t like parks? 

But San Francisco voters, whose neighborhoods and parks matter a great deal to them, might do well to remember what Jane Jacobs warned in The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“…there is no point in bringing parks to where the people are, if in the process the reasons that the people are there are wiped out and the park substituted for them. This is one of the basic errors in housing-project… design. Neighborhood parks fail to substitute in any way for plentiful city diversity. Those that are successful never serve as barriers or as interruptions to the intricate functioning of the city around them... 'Artist's conceptions' and persuasive renderings can put pictures of life into proposed neighborhood parks...and verbal rationalizations can conjure up users who ought to appreciate them, but in real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use....only a genuine content of economic and social diversity...has meaning to the park and the power to confer the boon of life upon it."
They can be sure that the one-percenters who can be expected to buy the 8 Washington $5 million condos won’t be picnicking on the lawn with the Telegraph Hill dwellers in the park that’s so prominently featured in the project promotions . Instead, the massive building will function as a barrier to neighborhood enjoyment of the waterfront and its views. 

There Goes the Neighborhood, for sure. That’s why my North Beach friend and other real San Franciscans like her will be voting No Wall on the Waterfront, No on B&C. If you know any San Francisco voters, tell them not to sit out this election. 

P.S. A correspondent just sent me Will Travis's Linked-In profile, which calls him a "sea level rise consultant". Among his clients: the Golden State Warriors.