Editorial: Who wins with the Transamerica condos?

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The developers aren't offering to build something that will create permanent jobs for local residents. They want a huge favor from San Francisco: they want the city to ignore its own planning rules, ignore its park-shadow ordinance, and hand over a piece of city street, just to make their project more profitable.

EDITORIAL  As the Planning Commission prepares to vote March 18 on a pointless and overly large condominium complex next to the Transamerica Pyramid, let us take a moment to look at who would benefit from the project's approval.

The project sponsors, Aegon USA and Lowe Enterprises, would get the right to shadow public parkland, turn a city street into a private parking garage, and construct a project far beyond the allowable height for the location. They'd construct 248 luxury condos, which the city doesn't need and will do nothing for the housing crisis. The developers would also make a lot of money on the deal; that's why they want spot zoning to double the allowable height. When it comes to these sorts of projects, taller is more profitable.

And the two companies asking for these civic favors aren't exactly San Francisco outfits that share the city's values.

Aegon is a giant insurance and finance company based in the Netherlands that bought out the local Transamerica Company in 1999. The money Aegon makes on the deal won't stay in San Francisco; even Aegon's American subsidiary doesn't have a home office here.

The company's PAC is a major contributor to Republican causes and candidates (although some Democrats get money, too, particularly the likes of Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, one of Aegon's top-dollar friends, who is among the main reasons the Senate won't pass a public option for health insurance). And over the past 10 years, Aegon PAC has contributed $39,500 to Lifepac, a Columbus, Ohio-based anti-abortion group.

Then there's Lowe Enterprises, based in Los Angeles. The company's chairman, Robert Lowe, and his employees were among Arnold Schwarzenegger's top donors, with a whopping $159,500 in contributions to the Republican governor. Lowe is also a big supporter of Meg Whitman's campaign for governor, and is on her finance committee.

So here we are in Democratic San Francisco, with a mayor who will be running on a Democratic ticket for statewide office (and a mayor, by the way, who loves to talk about supporting small local business and keeping money in the local economy) preparing to give a huge financial gift to a pair out out-of-town companies that share their wealth with right-wing Republicans.

Of course, it's no surprise that a real estate developer would support Republican candidates — and it's no surprise an insurance company would be working against health care reform. And if the city granted or denied building permits based on the politics of the applicant, there'd be serious legal consequences (and there should be). These things ought to be decided on the merits; developers who contribute to Democrats (like the Shorenstein Company) deserve the same scrutiny as the ones who give to Republicans.

But this isn't a typical development deal. Aegon and Lowe aren't asking for a permit for a project that meets the current zoning laws. They aren't offering to build something that will create permanent jobs for local residents. They want a huge favor from San Francisco: they want the city to ignore its own planning rules, ignore its park-shadow ordinance, and hand over a piece of city street, just to make their project more profitable -- and to give them more money that can go to opposing health-care reform and opposing abortion rights and electing right-wing Republicans. And they're offering the city nothing in return.

On the merits, the project richly deserves to be rejected. The only reason to approve it is to grant a civic boon to a bunch of out-of-town corporations that ought to be embarrassed to be asking a favor from San Francisco. And the Planning Commission should be embarrassed to consider granting it.

Comments

Hmmm, 2 times as high as it should be...doesn't that mean 2 times as many union workers making a living for their families? And, wouldn't the 248 "luxury" condos be paying millions of dollars in property taxes, money the city could use to help the housing crisis, and schools, and other things? With an average of 2 occupants each, there would be 500 more people eating, shopping and using services in the immediate area, and paying large amounts of income and sales taxes along the way, just like all of the people employed by providing them with the services, and the other people providing services to the service providers.

Heaven forbid that those nasty corporations actually make a profit; there's no telling what they might do with it. The could even invest it in other ventures to generate MORE economic activity for families and municipalities. No, this is not acceptable. We must kill it before it gets started. Otherwise, this could get carried away and all of California might become a vibrant, cash-rich state full of gainfully employed, financially secure, happy people. Bruce is right; there might be some profit in there somewhere. We'd best not allow the developers to spend tens of millions of their dollars here. It's much better to cut off our nose to spite our face.....

Posted by Questioning Realist on Mar. 16, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

Let's see.

First, that's 248 buyers who won't be out-bidding SF residents on 248 other homes that will surely be more affordable as a result.

Second, given even the minimum affordable housing set-asides, that's another 25 or so below-market housing units.

Third, that's a whole new slew of property tax revenues for the city which, lest you forget, is facing the budget deficit crisis of a lifetime.

Fourth, there is all the sales tax revenue those 500 or so wealthy residents swill spend in North beach etc which otherwise will get spent in places like Marin County that actually welcome investment.

But hey, no, let's nix it because it isn't run by our local Randy Shaw/Debra Walker/Calvin Welch mafia. After all, they already got their condo's, right?

Posted by Tom Foolery on Mar. 16, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

I couldn't help myself....I went to opensecrets.org, a website that tracks PAC donations and looked up AEGON PAC myself. There, on the front page, it notes that AEGON PAC donated $85,000 last year, 63% to Democrats. So, Bruce's "major contributor to Republican causes" doesn't ring all that true. Republican causes could probably get by without the $31k of AEGON PAC money.

Also, just for grins, I tried to locate a reference to Lifepac, the "Columbus, Ohio-based anti-abortion group". Nothing on it at all, but I did find "AOLIC Lifepac" in Columbus. Oddly enough, AOLIC stands for the Association of Ohio Life Insurance Companies. I checked the AEGON website (aegonins.com) and, again on the front page, they state that they own Western Reserve Life Insurance Company of Ohio. So, either Bruce got it right and the Association of Ohio Life Insurance Companies has an anti-abortion PAC, or Bruce was wrong and the $39,500 in donations over the past ten years went to a trade group in a state they do business.

Let's spend five minutes getting the facts straight before spewing out a bunch of garbage, Bruce.

Posted by Questioning Realist on Mar. 16, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

Okay, first of all I want to make a correction: There are, it turns out, two different outfits with the name of "Lifepac" chartered in Columbus Ohio. And the Federal Election Commission website doesn't use the full name for either of them.

And nobody at Aegon USA's PAC would take my phone calls to ask about that contribution.

So yes, it turns out there is an life insurance PAC, as well as an Ohio anti-abortion PAC, and they both have Lifepac in their names, and the commenter is right -- it makes more sense that Aegon was donating to the life insurance PAC than to the anti-abortion PAC.

Now then: As for Democrats v. Republicans -- Aegon gives to both, as I pointed out in the editorial. Over the past 10 years, according to opensecrets and the Federal Elections Commission, Aegon has given $502,000 to Republicans and $388,000 to Democrats. And the Democrats who get this largesse are not, by and large, supporters of government-run health care or of stronger environmental regulations on developers.

There are exceptions, as there always are with giant corporations that want to get influence with whatever party is in power.

But the bottom line is that these are two big out-of-town outfits that use their influence in ways that most San Francisco Democrats wouldn't endorse.

On the larger points: I don't believe for a moment that building new luxury condos in downtown San Francisco takes pressure off the local housing market. There is no shortage of housing for millionaires in this city; in fact, the city's own General Plan states that roughly half of the new housing constructed in San Francisco needs to be below "market rate."

Aegon has every right to construct a building in downtown San Francisco -- and follow the existing zoning rules. But we as a city don't need to give big favors to developers who aren't giving anything back.

Posted by Tim Redmond on Mar. 18, 2010 @ 10:43 am