By Gerry Shih
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The plans for the 8 Washington condominium project show 134 luxury units rising from San Francisco's famed waterfront — a gleaming testament to a local economy in roaring good health.
But not everyone in this booming tech hub is cheering.
San Francisco voters on Tuesday will decide whether to proceed with 8 Washington, the focus of a bitter, two-year-long political tussle that has been framed, accurately or not, as a proxy fight between the growing camps of the haves versus the have-nots.
Although several city agencies and elected officials have given their blessings to the project, a coalition of neighborhood residents, low-income tenant activists and rival developers are hoping to strike it down by defeating a pair of ballot initiatives that would grant a critical waiver on height limits for waterfront development.
A no vote would effectively kill 8 Washington, and also send a chill over the city's red-hot pace of development.
"This project is for the super wealthy, for when Twitter goes public and we have an instant number of millionaires who have cash to go drop on a $5 million place," said Art Agnos, the former mayor who has held dozens of neighborhood meetings across the city.
"There's a middle class housing crisis and we're building luxury high-rises," Agnos said. "The message to teachers, the musicians, the carpenters, the shoemakers, the people who provide the backbone of this city, is: 'This place is not for you.'"
Both sides of the issue have linked the outcome of the vote to other projects proposed for the waterfront, most notably an arena for the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors team that Mayor Ed Lee has vowed to make the centerpiece of his legacy.
While development battles have long been a civic bloodsport in San Francisco, a compact city with a strong preservationist current, the fight over 8 Washington has touched a nerve in the midst of a tech industry boom that has been blamed for ushering in a wave of well-paid newcomers and the highest housing prices in the United States.
PROTESTS PLANNED AT TWITTER
Protesters at an anti-gentrification rally this year in the Mission district, home to the city's oldest building, took baseball bats to piñatas shaped like Google Inc's private buses. Several labor and neighborhood groups planned rallies outside the headquarters of Twitter Inc on Thursday, when the micro-messaging social media company is expected to raise $2 billion in an initial public offering.
Ted Gullickson, the director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, which opposes 8 Washington, said eviction rates have more than doubled in the past 12 months and are on track to surpass the record rate set during the tech bubble of 1999-2000. He has called for a moratorium on all market-rate development.
While 8 Washington will undoubtedly cater to the rich — the most desirable units, with sumptuous views of the Bay, will command $10 million — its supporters say there is a flaw in the argument that a new housing project could make San Francisco even pricier.
"Growth causes development; development doesn't cause growth," said Jim Chappell, the former longtime director of SPUR, a nonprofit organization promoting urban development. "The reason housing is so expensive is precisely that we have an imbalance of supply and demand. It's terribly unfortunate that people who should know better are really capitalizing on class warfare."
Aside from the living units, the development will include a small park open to the public on a 3.2-acre stretch that is now occupied by a parking lot and private athletic club. The developers also hope to add retail space to enliven what has been a relatively dormant area compared to the Ferry Building to the south and Fisherman's Wharf, which is also nearby.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING FUND
As part of a deal with the city, the developer Simon Snellgrove has promised to put $11 million into an affordable housing fund, while the city controller estimated a $350 million tax windfall if the project is completed.
In mid-2012, Snellgrove won the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' final approval for the project, but its opponents immediately moved to nix it by a direct popular vote.
Jon Golinger, leader of the "No Wall on the Waterfront" campaign, rallied to obtain 30,000 signatures opposing the project within 30 days to put a referendum on the ballot.
Since then, the dueling sides have spent nearly $3 million to flood the city with TV ads and direct mail pieces. Most of the money against 8 Washington has come from Boston Properties, owner of several commercial towers whose views would be blocked, and a couple who live in the neighborhood.
But Golinger said he has received over a thousand donations from small contributors.
"This has tapped into a real concern with the direction San Francisco is headed," Golinger said.
But even those who oppose the idea of the condo project say the prospect of a popular campaign derailing a development approved by layers of elected officials makes them uneasy.
"What makes this one unusual is the idea of planning by ballot box," said Jason McDaniel, a professor of politics at San Francisco State University. "It scares me that we would set a precedent that you can gin up people's emotions to stop projects and override the representative process."
The outcome has been difficult to predict, political consultants on both sides say, largely because they expect a voter turnout of just 30 percent, or 120,000 people.
A defeat of 8 Washington would deal a blow to Ed Lee, the popular mayor of San Francisco who has appeared in ads supporting the project and supports more development.
The California State Teachers' Retirement System pension fund, which made a hefty return five years ago in partnership with Snellgrove to transform several crumbling piers into a popular retail and office destination, has sunk more than $40 million into 8 Washington.
P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for Snellgrove, deferred questions to a spokesman for the ballot measure campaigns.
Scott Wiener, a city supervisor who backed 8 Washington, said there has been a "housing affordability crisis" in San Francisco, but the underlying debate over how to solve it has been obfuscated by overblown disputes over specific buildings.
"For decades we've entertained this notion that everybody can live in a single family home or a big spacious flat and we can keep doing things the way we always have," Wiener said. "But that's not true. There are long-term, deep problems with how we approach housing and it's not because of one small project."
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Grant McCool)