Read the fine print on 8 Washington St. 

The devil is in the details on 8 Washington St.

Over the next several weeks, San Franciscans will see dozens of paid petition-gatherers in front of grocery stores and on city streets asking them to sign a petition for a ballot initiative to “open up the waterfront.” Titled the 8 Washington Parks, Public Access and Housing Initiative, it excitedly proclaims it will transform an asphalt parking lot and chain-link fence into wonderful amenities such as “new housing, new waterfront public parks and open space.”

Throughout my eight years as San Francisco’s planning director, I learned time and time again that in any plan the details matter most after the promises fade. The proposal contains some 13,000-plus words. Here are a few of the details about the proposal that really matter:

  • Raises waterfront height limits

Words that matter most in the 8 Washington St. initiative are hidden deep inside the text and are nearly impossible to decipher. Section 4(a) makes amendments to the San Francisco general plan that revise the height and bulk classifications for Block 0201, Lot 012 from 84-E to 136-E. That would raise existing waterfront height limits from 84 feet to 136 feet to enable the construction of a tall condo tower that would be more than 50 feet higher than the torn-down Embarcadero Freeway that walled off this section of San Francisco’s waterfront for decades. By employing special-use district zoning to change the law and increase waterfront height limits for this project, the measure will open the door to proposals for tall towers on the waterfront from the Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf.

San Francisco’s now-famous urban design plan addressed issues of height and bulk of buildings citywide, very much including the waterfront. Those matters became law. The piecemeal game playing that is central to what we are being asked to approve is a terrible way to make public policy — all the more so because it benefits a few high-end developers.

  • Reduces public open space and recreation

The 8 Washington St. proponents claim that “more than half of the land in the proposed 8 Washington St. plan is dedicated to recreation and public open space.” A careful reading of the text reveals that most of that space would not be open to the general public but would be available only to residents of the condo complex or to members of a new high-end health club.
Thousands of square feet of “open space” would actually come in the form of decks, terraces and common usable space for condo owners, and would be accessible only to them.

To add insult to injury, in their counting, they claim they are giving us walkways that are already public open space.

  • Creates zero affordable-housing units on-site

The initiative says it “will create much needed affordable housing in San Francisco.” The actual plan builds zero affordable-housing units at 8 Washington St. or on the waterfront while providing for 134 luxury housing units that will cost fortunes: not for you or me. The developer would have to contribute to The City’s affordable-housing fund. But voters should wonder why affordable-housing units were entirely left out of a plan that now purports to be a “housing initiative.”

It is more than the details of the 8 Washington St. initiative that are disturbing; it is basic substance. The Sierra Club, Affordable Housing Alliance and Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods are all urging a “no” vote on the 8 Washington St. height-limit increase that is already on the November ballot.

There’s much more to this measure than meets the eye. For sure, it’s time to revisit The City’s urban design plan, to see if it can be made better, but not through ballot-box planning in this terrible, piecemeal way that benefits one developer at the expense of all of us.

Allan B. Jacobs is a professor emeritus in the department of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley and the former director of the Planning Department.

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