Tale of two parties: Was the 8 Washington defeat a referendum on City Hall?

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Sups. David Campos (at mic) and David Chiu address the No on Props. B&C party.
Steven T. Jones

From tonight’s victory party for opponents of the 8 Washington waterfront luxury condo project, the overwhelming defeat of developer-backed Propositions B&C seemed to go beyond just this project. It sounded and felt like a blow against Mayor Ed Lee’s economic policies, the gentrification of the city, and the dominion that developers and power brokers have at City Hall. 

“What started as a referendum on height limits on the waterfront has become a referendum on the mayor and City Hall,” former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin told the large and buoyant crowd, a message repeated again and again tonight.

Former Mayor Art Agnos also cast the victory over 8 Washington as the people standing up against narrow economic and political interests that want to dictate what gets built on public land on the waterfront, driven by larger concerns about who controls San Francisco and who gets to live here.

“This is not the end, this is the beginning and it feels like a movement,” Agnos told the crowd. “We’ll have to tell the mayor that his legacy,” a term Lee has used to describe the Warriors Arena he wants to build on Piers 30-32,” is not going to be on our waterfront.”

Campaign Manager Jon Golinger also described the victory in terms of a political awakening and turning point: “We are San Francisco and you just heard us roar!”

Campaign consultant Jim Stearns told the Guardian that he thought the measures would be defeated, but everyone was surprised by the wide margin – the initiative B lost by 25 points, the referendum C was 33 points down – which he attributed to the “perfect storm” of opposition.

Stearns cited three factors that triggered the overwhelming defeat: recent populist outrage over the city’s affordability crisis, concerns about waterfront height crossing ideological lines, and “a tone deaf City Hall that didn’t want to hear there were any problems with the project.”.

Among the key project opponents who have sometimes stood in opposition to the city's progressives was former City Attorney Louise Renne, who blasted City Hall and called the Planning Department “utterly disgraceful,” telling the crowd, “Get your rest, more to come, San Francisco.”

Both progressive and political moderates often share a distrust of the close connections between powerful developers and the Mayor’s Office, and that seemed to play out in this campaign and at the polls.

“San Francisco, this victory is for you. And to all those developers out there: Do not mess with our waterfront. We’re not going to stand for it,” Renne said.

Two supervisors who opposed 8 Washington – David Chiu and Davis Campos – also spoke at the event, with the latter starting to define their political differences as they each run for the Assembly seat being vacated after next year by Tom Ammiano.

“Tonight, San Francisco said we stand for affordable housing and not luxury condos,” said Chiu, who played a pivotal role in appointing Lee as mayor and ending the progressive dominance on the Board of Supervisors.

Campos followed by noting, “I’ve been criticized for saying we’re seeing a tale of two San Franciscos, but that’s what we have here,” referencing a theme that echoes (as Chiu’s campaign operatives have critically noted) that of progressive Bill de Blasio, who also won a resounding victory tonight in the New York City mayor’s race.

“We have a City Hall that, quite frankly, doesn’t get it,” Campos continued, referencing the redevelopment of Parkmerced’s rent control housing and today’s board vote to close city parks at night, both of which Chiu was the swing vote in approving. “When City Hall doesn’t get it right, the people of San Francisco step in.”

Peskin also stoked the class warfare fires by saying, “Your voices are being heard loud and clear in Simon Snellgrove's penthouse,” referencing the 8 Washington developer who spent nearly $2 million on this unsuccessful campaign. And Peskin said he had a message directly for Mayor Lee: “Wake up, San Francisco is talking!”

Judge Quentin Kopp, who fought downtown’s aggressive push for more high-rise development as a Westside supervisor back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, called tonight’s victory “history repeating itself,” mentioning the work that the Bay Guardian did in opposition to “the Manhattanization of San Francisco.”

Kopp also took a swipe at Mayor Lee, the protégé of Kopp’s old nemesis, former Mayor Willie Brown, when he said, “This is the beginning of the end of five more years of Willie Brown’s administration.”

Indeed, the current political moment is beginning to feel a little like 1999, when Brown won a narrow re-election victory against the upstart write-in campaign of progressive hero Tom Ammiano and a movement stirred by the evictions and gentrification of the last dot-com bubble. The next year, progressive candidates won a majority on the Board of Supervisors and held it for almost a decade.

One of those supervisors was Chris Daly, now political director of SEIU Local 1021, who was at the North Beach party and told the Guardian that while Mayor Lee has been trying to defend bad policies like his Twitter tax break and support for 8 Washington, the voters tonight really had their fingers on the pulse of the city: “I’d call this a referendum on Ed Lee’s policies in San Francisco.”

Meanwhile, it was a very different scene over at the Yes on B&C party:

The party was held at Coqueta, an upscale waterfront establishment just a stone's throw from the 8 Washington project site. Despite the trays of gourmet hors d'oeuvres and frothy mojitos floating past, the guests were subdued and the mood was not celebratory.

Developer Simon Snellgrove, whose 8 Washington project was essentially being flushed down the tubes tonight, was in no mood to comment. "I'm having a little private party tonight," he told us, "and I don't want to talk to the press."

Rose Pak, a consultant for the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce who is well-known for her ties to powerful interests in the city, had a small circle of guests around her throughout the night and spent some time catching up with Snellgrove. Asked to comment, Pak said, "I don't know the Bay Guardian," and stopped making eye contact. At previous events, Pak has lectured Guardian reporters about what she sees as the paper's shortcomings.

Other notables included Jim Lazarus, who works on public policy for the Chamber of Commerce, P.J. Johnston, a former communications director for Willie Brown, and of course Tim Colen of the Housing Action Coalition and former planner Alec Bash, both of whom campaigned publicly for the project.

Mayor Ed Lee was expected to make an appearance but if he did, it was after the party's prime and after the Guardian had already left the scene.

After the first round of results came in, Colen addressed the crowd. "The returns are coming in and I have to tell you they don’t look good," he said. "It's pretty likely we're not going to prevail tonight." Then went onto recognize "some really magnificent warriors" in the room, including Snellgrove and Alicia Esterkamp Allbin, a Principal at development firm Pacific Waterfront Partners.

"We ran a wonderful campaign we can all be proud of,” he added. “It was going to be a wonderful activation for the waterfront. I think what we didn't see coming was how .. it somehow morphed into something much larger and was defined in different ways."

Lazarus told the Guardian, "I'm not optimistic," when asked early on in the night what he thought about the outcome. He added, "I think this project got caught up in a lot of other things."

"If it loses ... There was a lot of I think mistaken concern about the impact.”

Noting that the project went through months of approval but then was subject to a referendum and finally wound up on the ballot, he criticized the focus on building heights and the idea that it was about something more than just a waterfront development project. But this was the outcome, he said, because "An unholy alliance of people got together to oppose the project."

Perhaps “unholy alliance” is in the eyes of the beholder, but tonight, the voters of San Francisco seemed to prefer the alliance that opposed 8 Washington and all that it has come to represent in San Francisco.

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