The message of 555 Washington


The San Francisco supervisors not only rejected the environmental impact report for the condo tower next to the Transamerica building; they did it unanimously. And although the developer could still go back and write a new EIR -- one that takes into account all the many, many issues this one ignored -- that seems unlikely:

The developer, Andrew Segal, said he does not plan to go forward. "If we have to recirculate the EIR, I think we're done," Segal said.

There are a couple of important lessons here.

For starters, I hope the folks at the Planning Department who allowed this steaming turd of a project to go forward, and the commissioners who voted to certify the EIR, got the message: Just because a developer wants to do something, and the mayor thinks it's a dandy idea, doesn't mean that it's good planning policy. The 555 Washington project was more than twice the size that current zoning allows on the site, and internal emails from frontline planning staffers showed that the folks who did the actual analysis of the thing were pretty darn dubious. But Planning Director John Rahim pushed it for approval anyway.

I think the supervisors made clear that the days of developer-driven planning on this scale, with this magnitude of arrogance and absurdity, are over. Let's hope Planning Dept. management is paying attention.

Then there's the wonderful fact that, after insisting for years that this project would only work if the city allowed the developer to build a 430-foot tower in a slot with a 200-foot height limit, the project sponsor suddenly backed down at the last minute and said, hey, 200 feet would actually be fine. That's something that city officials too often forget: Developers lie, and demand concessions and say that they can't build anything unless we give them tax breaks, and waive fees, and allow spot zoning, and offer all sorts of other goodies. But when you tell them no, they often seem to have a sudden moment of clarity -- and announce that, hey, we didn't really need all that.

Back in the late 1980s, Southern Pacific Railroad's land development subsidiary insisted that nothing could be built at Mission Bay unless the city allowed multiple 50-story office towers and mandated only limited affordable housing. Then-mayor Art Agnos told the voters that he'd cut the best deal the city could ever get, and the future of the southeast neighborhoods was at stake. Then the proposal lost at the ballot -- and immediately, SP came back with a much better option.

How many times did the San Francisco Giants tell us they couldn't build a ballpark without public money? Guess what -- when the city said no, the team came back with a privately financed plan. 

As the lawyers say, so too here. If a 200-foot tower was a viable option, why didn't the developer offer that from the start? Here's why -- you get richer if you build taller. But that's not a particularly good reason for the city to make planning decisions.


Strictly speaking, the message was only that the environmental findings in the EIR weren't adequately analyzed. It had nothing to do with whether the project itself was a good idea, or if spot zoning was warranted, etc.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

That's absolutely correct -- but the political message is that the project as originally proposed is dead. And the supervisors who voted on it knew what they were voting to do, because the developer said in advance that if they voted to reject the EIR, he would abandon the project.

Posted by tim on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

Truth be told alot of people probably don't need education past 8th grade, why don't those people stop there? Oh that's right because must people aspire to better and bigger things and are not "poverty pimps" like your good self.

Posted by Unreal on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

Had the EIR accurately disclosed the full impacts of the project, Rahaim would have been hard pressed to support this monstrosity.

It remains to be seen whether developers will feel the pinch for projects outside the sphere of influence of Peskin and the THD, because some pretty sketchy EIRs have been approved and dubious projects have sailed through when they've not threatened to impact well to do white people.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

As usual, the current issue of the Bay Guardian belongs on the fiction shelf at the library. When the facts don't fit their story, they simply change the facts. The 400 foot building and the 200 foot version WERE THE SAME SIZE! Well educated planners felt that the square footage should be housed in a tall-thin structure. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers wanted it housed in a short-squat structure. Nobody (read: David Chiu) had the leadership to bring the parties together. The developer "caved" to the vacuum of leadership. Now the City loses a new park, 40+ units of affordable housing, tons of union jobs, and a model green development. The good news is that now Chiu has his very own Pagoda Theater. We should all feel better knowing the City is in such good hands.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

Sad to see this one go down. Perfect place for residential density, and it was an attractive design.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

To correct [slightly] a previous poster, Chiu already has the original Pagoda Theater in his district. Now the people unfortunate enough to live within the view of Telegraph Hill have two eyesores and indignities to face in their daily life.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

Actually, the educated planners who were on the front lines didn't like this at all. The political appointees at the top were pushing this. And the EIR was deeply flawed.

Posted by Tim Redmond on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

The career bureaucrats waiting for their pensions didn't like it because anything creative might make them have to work. The educated (i.e. MA) Planning Director tried to foster creativity. Much better to follow the rules from under your desk. Safer in an earthquake too. Has San Francisco's audacity been gummed to death by hall monitors?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

The owners of the Pyramid are required to maintain Redwood Park next to the pyramid, and to open it to the people of San Francisco in perpetuity.
They are required to do this by an agreement that was made with the city when the pyramid was first built.
What the City "lost" was the "gift" of having financial responsibility for the park handed over and paid for by taxpayers instead of the property owners.
The developers also offered to expand the park by a few hundred square feet if the City sold them an adjacent alley at a below market rate price.
It was a screwjob wrapped in pretty paper.

To learn more about Privately Owned Public Open Spaces:

Posted by Sodler on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

Please don't be bothered by the facts - they might detract from your story. Read the sign on the gate. Redwood Park is a private space - it aint no public park. The block owners would have paid for maintenance. Hope they don't close it to the public like Chevron did on Market. Maybe Chiu will be locked in when they do and we can find someone with a ounce of common sense to take his place.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

Tim was spot on. The planners who worked on the project were opposed. "Upper Management" made the decisions. Where was upper management at the BOS hearing? Absent. That alone speaks volumes. Come on folks, the vote was unanimous! Do you think Alioto-Pier, Chu, or Elsbernd would have rolled for David Chiu? Heck no.

Posted by Chris on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

Rahaim's partner died this weekend. Cut him some slack.....

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

That's sad, but the business of the City is not dependent upon any individual.

Rahaim should have sent a subordinate to make the case, and might not have because there was no case to be made in any way that would save face.

Perhaps we should all mourn by setting mattresses on fire and lobbing ripe tomatoes onto walls, assuming that we can still grow tomatoes in our gardens in the shade of Rahaim's encroaching high rises.

Posted by so sad on Apr. 22, 2010 @ 8:52 am

Sorry, Tim, but the reworked plan on Mission Bay dropped thousands of housing units that were in Agnos' plan, including over 1000 units of affordable housing. It remains one of the all-time worst examples of Calvin Welch's decision to cut deals with downtown developers because his ego wasn't stroked. He co-chaired the effort to kill the Mission Bay plan and then signed off on sharply reduced affordable housing. Take a look -- you like what you see? Looks like a damn office park.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 22, 2010 @ 5:31 am

Planning department people and commissioners see their jobs as aiding development. They are appointed by mayors, except for cities with weak mayor governments, where they are appointed by city managers. To expect these people to get a "lesson" or even care what the Board of Supervisors does is overly optimistic. They serve at the behest of the mayor, not the board, and couldn't care less what anyone but the mayor thinks.

Posted by Jeff Hoffman on Apr. 23, 2010 @ 11:21 pm