The political forces simmering under Prop. B 

click to enlarge Proposition B would require voter approval of waterfront development proposals that exceed current height limits. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Proposition B would require voter approval of waterfront development proposals that exceed current height limits.

The future of development on San Francisco's waterfront -- Proposition B -- will go before voters in about a month, and all sides are throwing their weight into persuading voters which way to go.

Just this week, the Giants -- on the heels of the Warriors' abandonment of their preferred waterfront arena -- announced they are taking their waterfront development south of the ballpark back to the drawing board and dropping their opposition to Prop. B. On Wednesday, a study of the impact of the proposition was released by The City, pointing out the mostly negative impact of the initiative on the waterfront.

Meanwhile, both sides are pouring on the pressure to push their cases. Prop. B seeks to require voter approval for all development projects that exceed building height limits along the waterfront.

Proponents -- among them former Mayor Art Agnos as well as some unions and others -- argue that The City's planning process has been hijacked by political appointees and deep-pocketed developers. They say the only way to save The City's showcase waterfront from developers who might try to build above height limits is by putting such decisions into the hands of voters.

Opponents, from the building trades to the Chamber of Commerce to the Democratic Party, say Prop. B will only further politicize land-use decisions and run roughshod over an already open planning process.

But political insiders on both sides of the debate agree on one thing: this fight is about more than just the waterfront. It's linked to a wider fight over who runs The City.

Depending upon whom you talk to, it's part and parcel of a broader dissatisfaction with a City Hall too friendly to big developers, big tech and big sports teams. Or it's a power play by out-of-office progressives using the waterfront as an easy target to galvanize voters to back their future political goals.

"I think that the left has tapped into something," said David Latterman, political consultant and University of San Francisco researcher. "They are using a real issue but they are reaching for more. ... They are trying to use this as a way to get back into power."

Jim Lazarus, the Chamber of Commerce's representative on the No on Prop. B campaign, sees things in a similar light.

"What Prop. B is gonna give us is more politics, not less. It's gonna create more leverage for a handful of people to dictate outcomes," he said. "It's a continued political power play, that's all it is."

But Jon Golinger, one of the leaders of Yes on B, says that while the waterfront very much needs protecting, the measure has also become a symbol of broader dissatisfaction with City Hall.

"The bigger fight is who gets to decide what San Francisco looks like," said Golinger, who added that Prop. B's list of opponents "exposes an ideological fault line between how land use and development and housing decisions get made."

For Agnos, arguably Prop. B's figurehead, the initiative is simply a way to protect the waterfront. But he admits the politics cannot be pulled apart from the larger tussle over development and governance in San Francisco.

"We are in a loose affiliation," Agnos said about the disparate groups unhappy with City Hall. But, he added, "There is no grand alliance. There is no grand plan or design politically that I am aware of to take advantage of this to unseat [Mayor Ed Lee]."

But, he cautioned, "It will evolve into that if he doesn't get with the people."

Agnos, who has said he has no plans to run for mayor again, called the popular support for Prop. B part of "San Francisco's awakening."

Political consultant Jim Ross, campaign manager for former Mayor Gavin Newsom, doesn't see a Prop. B win impacting citywide politics.

"I think that the only thing that it does, it gives a specific group of folks an issue to organize around. But the question is: Are they going to be able to find another issue or a candidate that they can agree on and organize on moving forward?" Ross said. "I think there are a group of people out there that are looking for the issue that's gonna organize folks or get people galvanized."

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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