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.