As is often the case, reactionary politics playing lead 

With cutbacks, layoffs and downsizing the economic order of the day, it’s surprising that at least one city agency is still outpacing the national average.

That would be San Francisco’s Department of Bad Ideas (DBI), the one organization we can look to in tough financial times and say, “Huh?”

Elections tend to spur a great deal of activity at the DBI, and this year is no exception. The past few weeks have seen a flurry of motion, most of it in the Board of Supervisors’ Legislative Chamber, aka the land of unintended consequences.

That label would surely apply to one ballot measure that has caught everybody’s eye, in sort of a boot to the temple kind of way: a plan that would prohibit new buildings from shadowing city parks.

The measure, which was tossed onto the June ballot by five supervisors without warning, is this year’s signature move for how to make legislative sausage without the protective casing, a maneuver that has caused many interests to be blinded by the light.

It threatens to stop more than a dozen developments in the planning process, including some of the highest-profile projects in The City, even though it apparently was aimed at one controversial project near the Transamerica Pyramid that has become a personal battle for former Supervisor Aaron Peskin and his antidevelopment posse.

So startled have city planners been by the proposed initiative that last week they issued the equivalent of an all-points bulletin to announce how many projects would be killed by its passage. But that’s just not so, insists the measure’s author, board President David Chiu, who said that its intention is to bring the Planning Department out of the dark on the park-shadow issue.

Chiu told me that the measure was a shot across the bow at planning, which was not responsive to his repeated requests for information on the impact of a number of projects casting shadows on city parks, an element that was included in a voter-approved initiative in 1984 known as Proposition K. He said he asked planning officials several times for data on the proposed developments, and when he got to the point that he felt they were not going to be forthcoming, he pulled back the trigger and ...

Boy howdy.

“It’s my personal belief that the Planning Department has been unduly influenced by the development community,” he said. “We all hold open space very dear in San Francisco, and we have to be respectful of that public resource.”

And under Chiu’s measure, respect comes at a steep price. City planning officials say it would block almost every proposed high-rise project in San Francisco, including the long-planned Transbay Transit Center, a new wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and about a dozen others.

We can certainly appreciate Chiu’s belief in park protection, except that it casts a certain shadow over one undeniable truth about San Francisco’s development future: Our relatively tiny city has scant little room to grow except up, density being a necessary element of the future. That’s why city planners have spent years working with developers on a series of skyscrapers in SoMa that would be linked to a new transportation hub.

In most cities, this reality might have been part of the debate about sunlight and shadows. But in San Francisco, those conversations often take place after two sides have been backed into separate corners.

So would voters pass such an overreaching measure to gain a little more sunlight in parks if they knew that it would potentially derail a high-speed rail system and a number of new museums? As has been proved numerous times in the past decade with district elections, anything is possible.

Yet, there might be a simpler solution in San Francisco — like altering the Earth’s geophysics so we can change our orbit around the sun.

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Ken Garcia

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