How to Fight City Hall and Lose

"I was there..."

--R. G. Davis (R.G. Davis is a founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and long-time resident of Potrero Hill—ed.)

Pothill$pot-commons-ale-party.jpg

Ron Davis and Bob Bradford celebrating the release of Potrero Commons Ale (1990)

Photo: Potrero Hill Archives Project

Every Thursday at 1:30 pm in Rm 282, City Hall in San Francisco, the Planning Commission oversees the incremental destruction of urban culture. Ecologists who advocate saving every piece of pristine open space usually avoid the massacre as they have difficulty with the ugly practices of private property and land exploitation. Whereas environmentalists, those who accept packing the cities (infill housing) hoping for a surrounding greenbelt, merely slow the destruction. They visit occasionally to discuss mitigation statutes.

When I first visited Rm 282 in early 1990, I sat like an open-mouthed tourist surveying the tea-party. The "Mad Hatters" attracted my attention. They were, I learned, the voice of neighborhood concerns. At first I looked upon them as odd-balls. But as I became involved, I too began to sound like one of them -- a wild voice raised in opposition to the vast assortment of developers and their architects, lawyers, bankers and real estate speculators along with the agencies of the municipal government and the Mayor.

The few people who habituate City Hall in the name of protecting the neighborhoods are old guard resistor protectors who have little or no sense of ecology or open space and have become a part of the freak show one encounters at the public trough. These volunteer neighborhood voices who know the machinations of the commission are mostly connected to The Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, composed of 53 local groups, which emphasizes retaining "the character" of the neighborhood while developers pound them into smaller and smaller spaces.

Here follows a prejudicial account of POTRERO COMMONS, a group of San Franciscans living on Potrero Hill who gathered together to try to retain a plot of open space as open space -- right in our own backyard.

I co-founded the organization, became a co-chair and editor of the weekly POTRERO unCOMMON, a "Newslice," and remain in the position of Executive Secretary. My experience in neighborhood socio-political cultural activism has been like that of many spontaneously driven Americans. We tend to learn as we flounder. Somewhere between the point of engagement and the point of failure, we learn to community organize, to politick, and to fight for open space. By the time we understand how the structure works and what might have been done, we have lost.

Potrero Hill, rarely mentioned on maps of San Francisco, rests on a group of hills south of the South of Market district. It hides between freeway 101 and the now half defunct 280. It is defined as 16th Street to Army Street and Potrero Avenue to the Bay. The sunny, once working class neighborhood is now gentrified with a residue of liberal left elements.

The particular 65,000 sq. ft. of "distressed" (not pristine) open space we wanted (and still want) to save is in the Mission Creek watershed, that side of the hill sliding towards Mission Bay.

January 1990 -- A flyer announces that a developer is going to put 91 units down on the hillside of the old Western Pacific Railroad tunnel site. About three years earlier a resident living on Arkansas Street opposite the lot cleaned it up. For sundry bizarre reasons he carted away truckloads of trash. Then with a commercial photographer's aesthetic he planted pine trees, pampas grass and daffodils. Later, when friendly ecologists joined Potrero Commons, they came sharpening their machetes to rid the land of the invasive and native-plant-killing pampas grass he had so unknowingly planted. Although the property was zoned M1 (light industry), after a fire in 1962 closed the tunnel, the land had been left as open space for 30 years and was essentially defined by neighborhood footpaths.

January 30, 1990 -- Potrero Hill Boosters meeting: The developer Rick Holliday, with his University of California Berkeley graduate smile, presents his plans and introduces his fashionable architect. Sixty or more people show up to oppose the project and pass around a Petition to organize POTRERO COMMONS.

During the following months we learned that the developer had connected with the remaining Goodman Building people to make an unbeatable public relations package of low income housing with condos. The ex-Goodman Building (now Arts Deco Corporation), was the magic wand for the developer. In 1984, 27 artists and studio dwellers had been evicted by the Redevelopment Agency from an office/hotel on Geary Street. After receiving $500,000 as compensation towards finding another place to rehab for the artists, the remaining four turned themselves into a non-profit development corporation called Arts Deco. The President of Arts Deco, later appointed an Art Agnos Deputy Mayor, probably worked out the Package with the developer, to the envy of many others. The developer had also gotten a special deal from Western Pacific Railroad to purchase a choice location paying $1 million for what brokers on the Hill said was worth $4 million. Arts Deco came in with its $500,000 from the new Feinstein administration along with the clout of the Mayor's Office of Housing (MOH). Wherever the developer went to show his project, so did Special Projects Developer, Tom Jones, from MOH, to explain the role of the live/work artist space and how the city needed housing.

All the newspapers including the so-called liberal independent Bay Guardian and even our local neighborhood newspaper The Potrero View (a 25 year old troika of old old lefties) supported the Agnos-backed package. Their slogan was: WE NEED HOUSING --ARTISTS VS OPEN SPACE. Open space became the enemy trying to kill the artists.

Sometime in the first few months of our struggles I realized that our small group was facing off against the developer and four agencies of the government: 1) Agnos, the Mayor (who was for any building project); 2) the Mayor's Office of Housing (which finds and packages such deals as this one and other Planned Unit Developments); 3) the City Planning Department (which appears to be an objective manager of property but is actually a shepherd for Corporate developers); and 4) the Planning Commission, all of whose members are appointed by the Mayor to oversee the Planning Department (which aids and abets --rubber stamps and kid gloves -- any building project proposed).

The Planning Commission meeting provides a public arena, where citizens can testify. Under the leadership of Mayor Art Agnos, the President of the Commission was a real estate appraiser of Chinese descent and the rest of the commission was suitably multi-cultural to satisfy all superficial liberal objections. There was one Black developer, one white stock options trader (did business with both sides at any time,) one Latino low-income housing lawyer, and two ex-officio reps from the Chief Administrative Officer and the Public Utilities Commissioner, both of whom were (and are still) conservative. One, a Black woman, is secretary to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) head, and the other is a white Jewish Architect from the County Administrative's office (CAO). These ex-officios quietly vote for builders. In addition, there was even an old 1960s liberal from the Haight Ashbury, a Moscone appointee on the Central Committee of the Democratic Party. She was forever concerned about people, as she voted for the builders (refit. non-profit, low or high), and winced as she said, "But we need housing." They all believed in expansion. Faced with this enormous cement mixer, I warned our group about following the so-called public and democratic procedures designed to aid the developer.

Potrero Commons' important progressive, even historical, position, we all agreed upon at the outset, was a neighborhood group to opt for the open space to remain open space, no mitigation, no compromise. "Save the Space. Buy the Land, Restore the Habitat" was the motto we put on organization stationery. I say "we," but actually I put it there to see if it would imprint in the minds on the group's Steering Council. Open space is an anathema to liberals who would build low income, densely packed housing for the poor darker skins since they (like their victims) believe housing jammed together is better (for those others) than breathing. It is like the argument that the unions made against environmentalists who wanted to stop external factory pollution. "No we want to save our jobs. We don't care if the pollution is twice, or three times as bad inside the factory as outside. We support the Corporations." Cement Junkies are no less dangerous to themselves and society than other kinds of junkies.

As the developer's obligatory public meetings turned into rehearsals for the Planning Commission, the Potrero Commons group organized town meetings, a Potrero Commons Ale Sale, had art-events on the property and clean-ups. We obtained a vote of support from two immediate neighborhood organizations. The conservative Boosters voted for open space as did the so-called liberal group, The Potrero Hill League of Active Neighbors (PLAN). PLAN voted for open space because of the members' anger at the President of the organization for having been hired by the developer to be his neighborhood activist. The newly paid lobbyist infuriated the liberals in the organization whereas the old line lefties (his friends) also in PLAN, who ran the local newspaper, were barely dismayed.

An Audubon executive who lives in the neighborhood observed: "Local politics is the pits." I responded: "It is evidently easier to agitate in Washington DC where you don't live across the street from such people."

July 1990 -- "Fritz" our neighbor, owner of Anchor Steam Brewery, labels a special brew POTRERO COMMONS ALE intending to support the neighborhood group. After a community event on July 22, celebrating the opening of the ale we were to receive the proceeds from the sale of 648 cases. We never got the money; Fritz changed his mind.

August 1990 -- A couple of the older backroom business boys of Potrero Commons join beer baron Frederick Maytag III to help defend his interests. Fritz and friends hold a luncheon for the business community and discuss the project. Anchor Brewery is near the site, and Maytag wants to avoid expensive residential housing close to his non-union hop stench plant. Wealthy residents would complain effectively about the pollution and have enough clout and loot to cause him trouble. In North Beach a wealthy condominium owner caused the San Francisco Cable Car managers to seek noise abatement solutions to their rattling and screeching cables. On Potrero Hill, surrounding complaining neighbors are so far not wealthy enough to hire lawyers to bring the 24 hour hop smeller and noise maker to court.

Open space becomes a fading idea as compromise sets in. This is the first significant rupture in our organization.

December 1990 -- The Planning Department produces a Negative Declaration (Neg Dec) proving that the project will have no serious environmental impact. We collect data to appeal the review and request a full impact report

February 1991 -- As we are about to appeal the Environmental Review and to challenge the Conditional Use Permit, the majority of the group goes for a compromise: half live/work structures and half open space, the Maytag proposal. I was left defending and arguing for open space FOREVER! along with my spouse, a small child, eight newsletter distributors and a few friends who sent encouragement from afar.

March 1991 -- The Planning Department schedules the appeal of the Neg Dec on the same day and immediately before the Conditional Use Permit motion. Our lawyer (I say "our" because at the point of Negative Declaration we were all in the same group) represented our case at the appeal and used a word that excited one of the Commissioners when he said that the environmental impact of all the factors was "cumulative." Most often traffic, air, noise, population, housing density and water usage are considered separately -- thereby looking at the total ecological damage in the wrong way. One Commissioner said he had never heard that idea or word used before and that it was an interesting concept, but voted anyway with the others against a full environmental review. A full EIR would have required three seasons (nine months) of research -- a certain delay for the %15 million project which would have cost the developer more money, Precisely what we had hoped would happen.

March 17, 1991 -- One hundred and fifty people show up at the Planning Commission meeting to argue for the Maytag plan (a sketchy design for half live/work and half open space) and a few to speak for retaining total open space. Arts Deco and the developer had their own 150. Their speakers were, and still are, significant members of the cement lobby. Green Belt Alliance Director (Mr. Infill Housing), Lany Orman; Buck Baggot, Executive Director of The Redevelopment Agency; Don Terner, President of Bridge (a hotshot non-profit, low income building operation, which combines corporate money and city influence), along with arts organization representatives, and real live artists. The developer is a young rising star in the commercial building trades as are his friends, having moved from their do-good low/income, black-yellow-brown days along with Mayor Art Agnos to the deeper pockets. The Maytag faction presents "the big gorilla," Jimmy Herman of ILWU and the Mayor's friend -- "Save the woiker's jobs." Herman is followed by Maytag. the non-union shop man, whose quickly drawn live/work plans sound weak. Then an assortment of neighborhood People cry, plead, and honestly testify that they are for a compromise.

The Planning Commission's real estate appraiser President states he will only consider building projects, though I insist forthrightly to him, that we can, under Conditional Use, discuss open space since there are sections in the statutes (Prop M and other sections of the Master Plan) that supposedly protect the environment. Balancing green and gray, flora and fauna, yadda yadda. He smiles as he gavels me down.

After two public meetings -- to hear all the testimony -- Maytag's compromise is voted down. The public charade is not entirely over, we organize an appeal to the Supervisors.

June 1991 -- We request that the Supervisors investigate the procedures of the Planning Commission, the conflict of interest, the potential illegal activity of Arts Deco. We ask for time to prove our case. The Chair/President of the Supervisors, African-American Doris Ward, is very close to Agnos and the developer. She pushes for instant rejectionof the appeal. The vote is ten to one against us.


(Thanks to Jill Hannum, Robin Acker, Jamie Stobie, and Peter Berg for editing assistance.)


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