Bay Area housing project fight may go statewide (Opinion) |

Bay Area housing project fight may go statewide (Opinion)

Dan Walters / Guest column
Dan Walters

A department store parking lot in downtown San Francisco is the battleground for a titanic political struggle between rival factions of the city’s dominant Democratic Party.

The lot at 469 Stevenson Street, just off Market Street, would become a 27-story residential high-rise, if Mayor London Breed and other housing advocates have their way. But San Francisco’s legislative body, the Board of Supervisors, refused last year to approve the project, siding with those who oppose packing more housing and people into the densely populated city.

It was a win for Tenants and Owners Development Corporation (TODCO), a coalition of project opponents. But the action angered Lou Vazquez, one of the project’s developers, who said, “This is the right project for the right place. It’s close to jobs and transit, it’s providing transit for residents at all levels of income in the middle of a greater center.”

The board’s 8-3 action touched off intense legal and political skirmishing whose outcome could impact not only on San Francisco but statewide efforts to increase construction and overcome California’s chronic, and ever-worsening, housing shortage.

It immediately became a dominant issue in the special election battle between Supervisor Matt Haney and former Supervisor David Campos over a vacant state Assembly seat.

Haney supported the project, tweeting, “We need to build housing, including affordable housing, throughout the city, especially near transit.” Pro-housing development forces backed him while Campos drew backing from the project’s opponents, who argued that it would be disruptive and seismically unsafe.

Haney won the election and Yes in My Backyard, a pro-development group, sued the Board of Supervisors, contending that it had violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Housing Accountability Act, a law aimed at preventing arbitrary rejection of housing projects.

The competing factions also turned to voters. Mayor Breed, housing advocates and business groups placed Proposition D on this month’s ballot. Voter approval would limit the ability of the Board of Supervisors to block housing projects, and the board itself countered with Proposition E, which would bolster the board’s authority over projects.

Last week, on the one-year anniversary of the Stevenson Street project’s rejection, the pro-housing faction staged a rally at city hall, complete with gravestones, to mark its demise and beat the drums for Proposition D.

“No matter what you propose, no matter how good a project … you might still get shot down because of politics,” state Sen. Scott Wiener told the rally. “Let’s make lemonade out of lemons.”

“Enough is enough,” Breed said. “It’s still a parking lot because organizations like TODCO didn’t get their cut so they killed it at the Board of Supervisors.”

However, project proponents apparently didn’t know that two days earlier, very quietly, a Superior Court judge had ruled against them in the Yes in My Backyard lawsuit. Judge Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee declared, in essence, that none of the violations alleged in the suit can be applied until the Board of Supervisors “completes adequate environmental review under CEQA.”

Pro-housing groups see her ruling as an invitation to local bodies such as the Board of Supervisors to stall CEQA reviews of projects they oppose and thereby stall legal action to push projects forward.

“This CEQA ruling on the Stevenson St. housing project is every bit as outrageous as the UC Berkeley ‘students-are-pollution’ CEQA ruling,” Senator Wiener tweeted. “We must clarify CEQA doesn’t give cities the power to ignore state housing law. Better yet, let’s remove infill housing from CEQA entirely.”

A bill to counteract what the supervisors did to stall the project died in the Legislature this year. But the court’s decision and Wiener’s remarks indicate that the conflict over 469 Stevenson Street may become a statewide issue when the Legislature reconvenes.

Dan Walters is a journalist and author who writes for, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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