Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Disentangling Opposition to Residential Developmet in San Francisco



I'm getting a late start on my New Year's resolution of writing four blog posts per month.  Now January is nearly over.  Luckily, I've got a few blog post ideas in the pipeline, so I may not fail at my resolution in the first month after all!

Going back to November 2013, a San Francisco ballot initiative to approve higher building height limits failed. If it passed it would have exempted one development near the waterfront from the height limits in place for that neighborhood.

San Francisco voters have passed numberous height restrictions in the 70s and 80s, and with Kevin Chiu we are studying growth control ballot propositions from 2000 as well.  (I will update this post and include a link here to that paper once we post it online.)  But this last election was the first time building height has been back on the ballot in about a decade.

Why do SF voters seem to oppose building?  One explanation is that they want to preserve the esthetic character of the city.  One developer recently provided an alternative explanation, saying the opposition reflected in this recent ballot initiative is "not just anti-development, it's anti-tech. It's anti-job growth. It's anti-shuttle bus. It's anti-chain stores. It's anti-gentrification. It's anti-anti."

Despite containing a double negative, I think there might be something to this quote.  In particular, many folks here simply seem to feel it is unfair that the rich get luxury condos when all existing residents get is higher rents.  Of course more building generally lowers rents.  But most of them probably assume the downward effect on rents from these types of luxury projects is small (and perhaps zero.)  But voting down these building projects gives voters the chance to prevent "yet another" symbol of perceived inequity, and so even if restricting supply raises housing costs, it is still worth it.

Personally, I supported this project as it didn't seem to me to lower the esthetic character of the waterfront.  I can sympathize with those who disagreed with me, as the memory of the Embarcadero freeway is still fresh for some who have lived in the city since it was torn down after the 1989 earthquake.  The next waterfront development controversy in San Francsico concerns the Warriors basketball arena.  I have not seen enough nor been to that neighborhood recently to deterine whether it will raise or lower the esthetic character of that part of the city.  For now I'll just offer the hypothesis that those in favor of building new arenas and stadiums have a strong tendency to overestimate their value.

Later this year I'll write a post on the proposed A's stadium for downtown San Jose.  Here's to a productive 2014!