Chiu could meet political waterloo in shipyard plans 

When he ascended to the presidency of the board 17 months ago, Supervisor David Chiu was largely unknown and was the only San Francisco supervisor able to scrabble six votes from his colleagues.

Today, Chiu is only slightly better-known, operating a key role at a critical juncture in The City’s history, when his reputation will be staked on his ability to put together six more votes.

That’s the minimum number needed for supervisors to approve the biggest land-use project in San Francisco in more than 20 years, a development that has gone through one of the most rigorous planning reviews in memory and promises to finally transform the long-neglected Hunters Point area.

The shipyard redevelopment proposed by Lennar offers huge benefits to The City — thousands of jobs, billions in revenue and more affordable housing than any project in decades — yet it’s still being resisted by some members of the Board of Supervisors.

Why exactly? Well, this being San Francisco, you hardly need to ask.

Most of the attention in this big land scuffle is rightly focused on Chiu, the quiet and crafty supervisor whose demeanor hides what his friends say is a burning aspiration for future political heights.

He’s been mentioned as a possible interim mayor if Gavin Newsom succeeds in his campaign to become the state’s lieutenant governor. And it’s widely rumored that he has designs on running for district attorney if Kamala Harris somehow wins her race to be attorney general.

But in the unlikely event that Chiu is part of a group that votes down one of the largest building projects in The City’s modern history, future advancement in San Francisco would be tricky at best. While he has been a firm part of the so-called progressive majority on the board, citywide office remains a long shot for any district supervisor, especially one who has been behind wildly controversial laws like those changing the sanctuary-city policy to help shield undocumented youths accused of felony crimes from immigration authorities.

Chiu has been a ringleader on the board to put several tax measures on the November ballot, even though there appears to be no civic appetite for new taxes and in recent years similar measures have been rejected by voters. He’s been supportive of plans to transfer the appointment power to several city commissions from the mayor to the supervisors, an idea generally viewed as an unneeded power grab and one that city voters gave a thumbs-down to in June.

Typically cautious, Chiu has declined to officially say how he feels about the shipyard project, instead issuing cryptic statements about how he and his colleagues are engaged in “due diligence” on the massive environmental report and that he’s working with those on record opposing it.

“Every member of the Board of Supervisors is united in the critical need of cleaning up and developing the shipyard, but we need to make sure that this is the right project for the future of San Francisco,” Chiu told me.

It is, and as a trained lawyer, the proper response to Chiu would be “asked and answered.”

Lennar’s planned 3.6 million-square-foot project is estimated to generate more than $2 billion annually in business revenue and provide more than 10,000 jobs, and it would create more than 10,000 new homes, with more than one-third affordable.

The plan has been scrutinized by multiple boards and gone through more than a decade of planning reviews. Only ideological barriers now separate the most-extreme supervisors from rallying behind the plan, because only a true believer would oppose something that will bring money, jobs and housing.

But Chiu’s natural constituencies would benefit most from his support. He’s the first Chinese-American to head the board, and the Bayview district’s population is now mostly Asian. The trade unions, which have generally supported the board’s liberal majority, are pushing mightily for the project. And The City’s voters already voiced their support for the plan when they
dumped a legislative poison pill to kill the project by Supervisor Chris Daly.

Chiu’s future is now tied to San Francisco’s. We’re wishing him — and us — all the best.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. Check out his blog at sfexaminer.com/opinion or e-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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Ken Garcia

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