Hello 2019: The death and life of the blog

I’m starting this post not knowing if it will be the story of how we got here or where I think we’re going. This (hopefully) marks a return to blogging, spurred on by my friend Kazys Varnelis who recently posted about the demise of communication facilitated by Facebook and points to blogging as a way to resist managed content. So, here I am.

So many things have changed in my own life, not to mention in the world, in the eight or so years since I was regularly blogging that it feels like starting over. Much of the last year has been spent with my nearly 11-month old daughter, and most of the rest of my time is spent running my business, OpenScope Studio. There are ten of us in the office now and it’s a very different experience than it was five years ago when it was just my partner and I doing a few projects renting desks in a scrappy garage.

The death of Google Reader in 2013 marked the end of an era as it hastened the move from consuming media from a list of sources and authors to skimming news and updates in smaller portions from curated feeds on social media platforms. This post from Wired points to Google’s cancellation of Reader as being in response to this shift away from a structured approach to reading news, but the platforms they intended to move people to (Now and Google+) have both also been cancelled. When Reader died I ported all my subscriptions over to Feedly but I never used it. It’s mostly a graveyard of dead blogs.

I’ve been writing, but mostly longer pieces and they’ve all been published elsewhere. Since the great Shipping Container Post of 2015 it’s been hard to find anything that can top that in terms of reach (I went to a meeting in a different city and one of the officials, who I’d never met before, cracked a shipping container joke 5 minutes in). But clicks are not the point, having a public discussion is the point (although please note I have turned the comments off).

In spite of dreadful news about the future of our climate and a nonfunctional (and currently shut down federal government), welcome to 2019! I’m hopefully going to be back writing in the space in a semi-regular way. It’s hard to know where to start- architecture isn’t particularly interesting, politics are all anyone talks about on Twitter now so I hesitate to rehash that here and staying on brand by being cynical about people who want to reinvent housing can only go so far.

Monograph or Manifesto? Fernau + Hartman’s Improvisations on the Land

I’m always a little surprised when my free issue of Architectural Record arrives, seeing as I haven’t subscribed to it since I stopped getting it with my AIA membership a few years ago. The final issue of 2015 arrived recently and I flipped through the a short guide to new publications (Monographs in Disguise) penned by New York-based architect Alexander Gorlin. In it, he takes a swipe at the idea of a monograph, calling it a “a ‘must have’ accessory for every ambitious practitioner and a valuable marketing tool.” He goes on to describe “the camouflaged monograph,” which in Gorlin’s eyes is a monograph with a “theoretical premise” that exists as a way for publishers to sell more copies.  

It’s hard for me to believe that anyone thinks that making a monograph more topical and theoretical is some kind of clever slight of hand that will trick the book-buying public into buying more of them. But would a monograph with a theoretical premise really be such a new thing? What is the difference between the two categories in the first place? This is a topic that architect and professor Richard Fernau dealt with for many years in a seminar at UC Berkeley titled Monographs and Manifestoes where students read and discussed key architectural works from the early 20th century forward. The class was about the limits of theory as much as it was about how to write about architecture.

Fernau’s own new book Improvisations on the Land: Houses of Fernau + Hartman was part of Gorlin’s monographs list, and his take on it was less than positive. The review closes with the line “the baroque efflorescence of sheds and gables devolves into a cartoon of a farmyard, and the later high-budget projects suffer from a self-awareness that muffles the exuberant invention of the earlier buildings” while also referring to the F+H work as “playful riffs” on the vernacular via Hejduk, Gehry and Moore.

Improvisations on the Land: Houses of Fernau + Hartman

Rather than looking towards the work of Gehry and Hejduk, it makes more sense to look at the history of the Bay Area and Northern California (but when has a New Yorker ever done that?). Charles Moore is solidly a part of the Third Bay Tradition, which included his firm M/L/T/W and Joseph Esherick’s firm EHDD (more the the Third Bay Tradition here). The Third Bay Tradition built on foundation laid by Second Bay Tradition architects like William Wurster, and infused it with greater informality.

The Third Bay Tradition had nearly run its course by the time Fernau + Hartman were starting to build in the early 1980s, and their work picks up where it left off while also taking on the eclecticism and contextualism of Postmodernism. Importantly, the work is always deeply related to its site and this is a theme that is reflected in the title of the monograph and in the text. The word “improvisation” comes up again and again, and with good reason. There are no predefined solutions, and in many cases individual projects came together over a long period time as the architects got to know both the clients and the site.

Caperton House (Shepherdstown, WV 1998)

Fernau and Hartman’s satellite office (known as the “Bucket of Blood”) in small town Montana makes it in the book and is one of the stronger examples of their improvisational style, even though it doesn’t quite fit in with the larger rural residential projects that dominate the volume.  It does what the writing says it should be doing: it is a bit rough around the edges, works remarkably well in its location on a small-town retail strip, and is sustainable in a number of ways, including reusing demolition materials to build out the interior. It’s a Montana building done with a California sensibility on a reasonable budget.

A collection of short essays by Daniel P. Gregory, Beth Dunlop and others help to set the context for the built work. The bulk of the content is studies of individual projects spanning from the mid-1980s to the present. The earlier houses are simpler and more eccentric, while the later homes near the end of the book are more polished and expensive but all show the same determined focus on connecting the buildings with their occupants and their sites.

The line between a Monograph (often thought of as a glossy coffee table picture book) and a Manifesto (something ranty, possibly photocopied and hand-stapled and distributed on street corners) is often blurred in the architectural world. Fernau + Hartman haven’t set out a grand theory on how architecture must be done. That’s Patrik Schumacher’s territory. Nor have they simply compiled a collection of pretty photos, rather it is a collection of stories and the story of a how a firm thoughtfully evolved not only their own work but the project of California modernism over several decades’ time. The buildings are imbued with the philosophy of the authors, but are not rigidly defined by it. 

In the end, if you’re interested in West Coast Architecture and understanding one of the key California firms that has been working here day in and out for the past three-plus decades, pick up a copy. If I had to suggest there is an omission, it would be Richard’s first built project, a postmodern hot dog shop I believe was called “Franks for the Memories.” I guess they can save that one for the next book.

Santa Ynez house (Photo by Richard Barnes, 2012)

What’s not wrong with shipping containers

That last post received far more traffic than I ever expected (What’s wrong with shipping container architecture? Everything), and continues to generate requests for quotes on shipping container projects in other cities. It has also received a thoughtful reply from architect Colleen Lashuk. In her reply she says :

There aren’t so very many things in the world of design that engage the general public to think about space in a creative and engaged way. Architecture has to work, but it also has to make us dream.

I couldn’t agree more, and I certainly don’t have a problem if someone wants to go out into the world and build his or her own home out of containers (or office or business). As I mentioned in the first post, there are instances where it might make a lot of sense to build something this way, and there may be cases where someone wants to spend a bit extra to get the shipping container aesthetic. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not going to be building a $5,000 home, but you might get something unique that doesn’t look like your neighbor’s place and you might have fun doing it.

My main criticisms were of the idea that shipping containers are a practical and cheap solution to housing large numbers people around the world (when I use the world “housing” I mean large multifamily housing, not one-off shipping container homes but these are rarely cheap either).  This is a trope that is decades old and is trotted out again and again, in support of projects usually entered into competitions. Even Tempohousing, a large company in the Netherlands that manufactures shipping container housing modules at scale states on their home page:

When we can reach you by road in Europe, modular units of 3 meter wide and up to 14 meter long may fit your needs better. These modules are not bound by strict transatlantic shipping standards and can be tailored exactly to your needs, as long as they fit on a truck.

The other issue is that speculative architecture should be interesting, thought-provoking, and not necessarily buildable. I get that part. It should make people ask questions, and probe issues without having to answer to the realities of architectural practice. However, shipping containers have been a recurring theme for several decades now, and it’s not exactly a ground-breaking idea. Lot Ek has done some very interesting work for a long time, as have others.

Looking back to the 1960s, Archigram worked on a project called Plug-In City that proposed megastructures with moving pieces that could be rearranged with cranes. In their own words:

The Plug-in City as a total project was the combination of a series of ideas that were worked upon between 1962 and 1964. The Metal Cabin Housing was a prototype in the sense that it placed removable house elements into a ‘megastructure’ of concrete. The discussions of Archigram 2 and 3 built up a pressure of argument in favour of expendable buildings: and it was then inevitable that we should investigate what happens if the whole urban environment can be programmed and structured for change.


Plug In City Section, via the Archigram Archive

These projects went on to inspire other architects, and continue to until this day. It was a years long creative project that tied into an entire body of speculative work, and was investigated in a variety of media, but Archigram didn’t spend a lot of time telling people how practical their idea was, or how it was going to save the world. Places Journal has a fantastic piece about the emergence of container urbanism that ties the 1960s to the present and investigates the differences between the two eras. 

Yes, you can build things out of shipping containers.  It may save you 15% off your construction costs (or it may cost a lot more in some cases), it has trade-offs and some benefits, and no, it’s not always eco-friendly (it’s actually down-cycling a lot of valuable steel). It can be a good way to build a movable temporary building.

Most importantly, I don’t actually want to tear down container buildings despite what the CBC might have you believe.


What’s wrong with shipping container housing? Everything.

What’s wrong with shipping container buildings? Nothing, if they’re used for the right purpose. For a temporary facility, where an owner desires the shipping container aesthetic, they can be a good fit (look, I’ve even done a container project!). For sites where on-site construction is not feasible or desirable, fitting a container out in the factory can be a sensible option, even though you’ll still have to do things like pour foundations on site. It probably won’t save you any money over conventional construction (and very well might cost more), but it can solve some other problems.

The place where containers really don’t make any sense is housing. I know you’ve seen all the proposals, often done with an humanitarian angle (building slum housing, housing for refugees etc) that promise a factory-built “solution” to the housing “problem” but often positioned as a luxury product as well.

This post on ArchDaily got me started on a Twitter rant about the unsuitability of containers for these projects, and the larger trend of online design publications not bothering to ask any questions and run these press releases as “news”. Not to mention the architects themselves presenting this idea as a feasible solution to a major problem.

This is the project that got me started, a recent competition winner by GA Designs, which proposes it as a solution to slum housing conditions in India. There are a number of glaring problems with this idea (some of which Llyod Alter takes on in a post on Treehugger) :

© Ganti + Associates, via Treehugger

This is a particularly colorful version from OVA Studio (this is for a hotel):

Hotel proposal by OVA Studio via Laughing Squid

Another slum housing “solution” reported in Dezeen:

CRG Architects container skyscraper proposal via Dezeen

A short list of why shipping containers are not a “solution” for mass housing:

  1. Housing is usually not a technology problem. All parts of the world have vernacular housing, and it usually works quite well for the local climate. There are certainly places with material shortages, or situations where factory built housing might be appropriate- especially when an area is recovering from a disaster. In this case prefab buildings would make sense- but doing them in containers does not.

  2. If you are going through the trouble of building in factory, why not build to a dimension that is appropriate for human habitation? With only 7’ clear (2.1 m) inside a built-out container, you are left with the building code minimum room width as your typical condition. It’s hardly an ideal width, and it is not difficult to ship wider modular units: modular home builders do it all the time.

  3. Insulation. All surfaces of the container need to be insulated, and this means either building a new set of walls on the inside or outside of the container. If walls are furred out on the interior, this is convenient for plumbing and electrical lines but it narrows the usable space of an already small box. It also allows for a huge amount of thermal bridging unless the floor is built up with insulation on the inside (which brings up a host of other problems).  If the exterior is insulated it no longer looks like a container, and then you have to pay to clad the entire thing over the insulation. In either scenario you’re duplicating all of the walls that you started with. Improper insulation will result in heavy condensation on the inside of the metal exterior walls.

  4. Structure. You’ve seen the proposals with cantilevers everywhere. Containers stacked like Lego building blocks, or with one layer perpendicular to the next. Architects love stuff like this, just like they throw around usually misleading/meaningless phrases like “kit of parts.” Guess what- the second you don’t stack the containers on their corners, the structure that is built into the containers needs to be duplicated with heavy steel reinforcing. The rails at the top and the roof of the container are not structural at all (the roof of a container is light gauge steel, and will dent easily if you step on it). If you cut openings in the container walls, the entire structure starts to deflect and needs to be reinforced because the corrugated sides act like the flange of beam and once big pieces are removed, the beam stops working. All of this steel reinforcing is very expensive, and it’s the only way you can build a “double-wide.”

  5. Stacking. One recent competition boasted that because containers can be stacked 9-high, concrete floors could be provided every 9th floor with stacks of containers in between. That load still needs to travel down through the building, and still then requires columns. Those floors every ninth floor need to hold the entire weight of 9-stories of building above, which makes it dubious that you’d really be saving much on structure. The foundation also needs to be built similarly to a “regular” site-built building, and this is one of the most expensive pieces. Stacking also requires a large crane and an area for staging the prefabricated container modules, which can be hard to arrange on a dense urban infill site.

  6. Utilities and Mechanical Systems. In a large building, you’ll still need a lot of space to run utilities. Because of the problems with insulation mentioned above, you will need to install a very robust HVAC system to heat and cool the building (that Mumbai tower shown above would literally be a deathtrap without cooling). You will have a hard time taking advantage of passive strategies like thermal mass if you maintain the container aesthetic. You’ll also end up with low ceilings, as even high cube containers are only 9-’6” (2.9 m) in overall exterior height, so any ductwork or utilities start cutting in to headroom.

  7. Recycling. Part of the container narrative is that it’s “green” because we have a surplus of containers that can be reused. This is somewhat true, but in reality many existing container projects use brand new containers from China (which are still very cheap to buy). Used containers need to be thoroughly cleaned because there is a risk they may have been used to transport something toxic in the past.

What you get with a container is cheap structure, if you can use the box-basically as-is. As soon as you remove anything (including the ends) you need to hire welders and buy steel. Architecture is more than structure though and structure on its own is not particularly expensive- especially when you are building a space as small as a shipping container, so the savings here are minimal. Relatively untrained people can build a room that size of simple wood framing in a day without needing to rent a crane or learning how to weld for about the same cost (or less) than buying a used container.


Are San Francisco’s “famed progressive politics” really to blame for the housing crisis?

Perhaps you have read Gabe Metcalf’s piece for CityLab titled ‘What’s the Matter With San Francisco? The city’s devastating affordability crisis has an unlikely villain—its famed progressive politics.’ It goes into depth about how policies in San Francisco have lead to the current situation where one bedroom apartments are renting for $82,000 per year. Yes, policies in San Francisco and the surrounding area have lead to very high housing prices. Who is to blame? I have a hard time blaming Progressives (whatever that means these days).

I would argue that in the Bay Area, wealthy single family homeowners have had FAR more sway on maintaining exclusionary zoning and blocking new housing than San Francisco’s progressive politicians. This piece dramatically understates the role of other towns and cities in the region, many of which are located on transit lines, to provide increased density. Yes, it’s not NYC, but BART and Caltrain are better than what most of the country has to work with. Many of the stations on the peninsula are surrounded by one and two story buildings. Even within the City of San Francisco, the majority of residential land is zoned for single family homes. Look at the map my firm worked on with CCA’s Urban Works Agency for a show at SPUR a few months ago, the large light gray areas that dominate the southern and western portion of the city are essentially suburban:

Zoning in San Francisco by Jeffrey Maeshiro and Cesar Lopez of The Urban Works Agency at CCA

Chris Daly (arguably one of the most “Progressive” politicians San Francisco has had in recent years) helped pave the way for the massive number of new units in SOMA by brokering a community impact deal in 2005, and these units are the majority of the housing that has been created in the last 10 years. The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which upzoned large areas on the east side of the City, was approved by a Progressive-majority Board of Supervisors. It should also be noted that most of the areas that have been upzoned are less wealthy and more dominated by renters than the areas that are primarily single family.

The line that keeps getting repeated that we should have been building 5,000 units a year is absurd taking into account the realities of development. The math makes sense in the simplest way possible, but we all know that no developer is going to build those units at the bottom of a recession (and the economy is always cyclical), and nobody 25 years ago would have predicted the level of in-migration and income inequality we have right now- even taking the population boom that started in 1980 into account. Far more units than that have been permitted in each boom and in most cases developers have declined to build them (or deferred them until the next cycle). The fact that they haven’t been built has more to do with economics than obstructionism.

I’m not saying that everything in this piece is wrong- it’s clearly not – but blaming Progressives for our current situation is misdirected. There need to be regional changes to allow additional housing all over the Bay Area if we are ever going to have a serious impact on affordability. There needs to be a change similar to what is being studied in Seattle to re-think single family zoning, and this can’t happen in San Francisco alone.



San Francisco’s Housing Crisis: Let’s try everything

Unless you’re already a property owner, things are not getting any easier in San Francisco.

San Francisco: Not affordable, not many permits.


Why is housing getting so expensive? There are a number of theories floating around out there. A few popular ones:

  • Airbnb is tying up thousands of units as rentals
  • New housing is all being sold purely as investments to Russian and Chinese millionaires/billionaires
  • Our housing is being bought up as pieds-à-terres by out-of-towners

SPUR commissioned a study of these lines of thinking and the results were pretty underwhelming (I know, I know, a lot of people espousing these three beliefs will argue that SPUR is biased but hold on a second). They found that only about 2.4% of San Francisco’s rental stock was being used for “seasonal, occasional and recreational use.”  They found that it was not a significant cause of housing price escalation but came up with the following three policy considerations:

  1. There are pieds-à-terre in both new and old buildings.
  2. New buildings do not create demand for pieds-à-terre.
  3. Recent legislation to limit short-term rentals to units that are someone’s primary residence is going to be important.

Their main conclusion? “San Francisco will need to do a better job collecting this data in the future.” It’s hard to craft policy when the data required is so difficult to collect. This is very important. I would also encourage SPUR and others to look at the effect that platforms have on apartment sharing. Room rentals in shared apartments (historically via newspaper ads, and then Craigslist) make the the biggest pool of affordable housing stock in San Francisco and there is reason to believe Airbnb is having an increasingly large effect on this housing pool. The Chronicle’s research showed that there were about 5,000 rentals available on a given night on Airbnb alone

That all being said, this is still not an enormous part of the housing market, and with so much new housing being built as rental apartments there isn’t even the opportunity for foreign investors to buy them and leave them vacant.

Okay, so if those aren’t the MAIN reasons why it is so expensive to live here, what on Earth else could it be?

San Francisco population

A more staggering statistic: the number of employed people has increased by 25% in just five years.

The city has grown by over 100,000 people in just 20 years, and the rate of growth has jumped dramatically since the end of the recession. It’s as if (almost) everyone from Berkeley moved to San Francisco but we didn’t build anywhere to put them.

As indicated in the data at the beginning, housing construction has not kept up. The roughly 10,000 units being kept off the market that were noted in the SPUR study don’t even come close to having the effect of having 45,000 people move here in the last few years, especially when only a few thousand (less than 2,000 net in 2013 for example) units are being built.  You can call me a  supply-sider if you’d like, but it is pretty obvious that we don’t have enough places for people to live. If there is a beer shortage and it’s really hot outside, people with money are going to be willing to pay A LOT more for the last few cans of Coors.

What types of solutions are being looked at now?

A Housing Bond

There is the housing bond mentioned above. The mayor is proposing a $250 million bond, some people think it should be twice that.  With $500 million, the City of San Francisco would have (from the Examiner piece by Cohen and Marti):

  • $100 million to establish a neighborhood stabilization trust large enough to fund the acquisition of 600 or more units at risk of displacement over the next five years;
  • $200 million to build up to 1,000 additional affordable units to keep pace with the runaway scale of market-rate and “luxury” developments in the neighborhoods most impacted by gentrification;
  • $100 million to “land-bank” up to 15 new sites before they become lost opportunities;
  • $80 million to fill the gap in the HopeSF public housing rebuild;
  • and $20 million to expand the downpayment assistance program for teachers and other first-time homebuyers.

A Moratorium on Market Rate Housing in the Mission

Wait, I thought there was a shortage of housing… don’t we need more?  That’s not what District 9 Supervisor David Campos thinks (read Bernalwood’s coverage here). Despite the fact that very little market rate housing has been built in the Mission, Campos thinks that putting a Moratorium on new development is somehow going to stop gentrification and evictions.  All of those people we hear about getting evicted in the Mission (and believe me, it is a problem) are not living in new buildings. They are living in old buildings, which is where new residents end up living because we’re not building anywhere else to put them.

We can’t stop people from moving to San Francisco, as much as some people would like to, and we can’t stop centrally-located neighborhoods with tons of amenities (like the Mission) from being attractive to newcomers. Especially rich newcomers who can live wherever they’d like to.

What we can do, as a city, is not support policy ideas that do nothing to address a critical shortage of housing affordable to people who already live here while increasing the pressure on the existing housing stock (where people already live) to accommodate a population boom.

A few more ideas

Maybe a market rate development at 16th & Mission would be more palatable if the developer paid to get two nearby affordable buildings built?

San Francisco has risen to huge challenges in the past. The city recovered in a few years from being burned to ground, and managed to house a huge wartime population boom in the 1940s. We need to do anything and everything to solve the housing crisis.

San Francisco rebuilt from the ’06 earthquake faster than we can install a bus turning lane today.

A warm February evening across from the Apple Store


A massive steel I-beam is hammered into the ground like a golf tee or a tent stake, holding up the trolley wires that have run up Market Street since just after the great earthquake in 1906. Before that, horsecars, steam trains and cable cars all took their turn on Market Street’s rails. The beam stands there because the Central Subway is under construction below and there are many moving pieces as workers rearrange everything to make way for the underground concourse.

Beyond the tangle of wires the shiny metal box that is the Apple Store, a reminder that many of the recent developments in city life have nothing to do with the construction of buildings or transport infrastructure but in the way we interact with them.

Ed Lee’s plans for “middle class” home buying & the math

Ed Lee touted San Francisco’s down payment assistance program in his State of the City address this week. How well does it really work in an incredibly expensive real estate market like San Francisco?

  • Assume a couple with no kids is making 120% of the median income, which is the maximum you can make to take advantage of this program.  That is $93,250 for two people.
  • Monthly that works out to $7,771 per month. Let’s go over to bankrate.com and see what they can afford to buy.
  • Let’s assume they can max out the down payment assistance at $200,000 and plug that in as the down payment.
  • I assumed no other debts. This is pretty unlikely as most people have a car payment, credit card bill or a student a loan (or all three).
  • I made assumptions about rates (4%), taxes ($7,000/yr) and homeowners insurance ($1200/yr) that may or not be perfect but are close enough.
  • You can buy a $ 642,773.13 home (in this very simplified calculation). 

Under $650k homes, Jan 15, 2015

How many properties are there in this category? Redfin shows 49. Many are either TICs studio units (good luck getting your financing to work out on that if you are trying to get financial assistance from the city) or vacant land. There are admittedly a few actual homes for that price, but it’s slim pickings.

What are the other catches to this program?

  • You must be a first time home buyer.
  • There is a minimum of 1 person for bedroom, so if I couple can only find a 3 bedroom house that meets their criteria they are out of luck.
  • The buyer must contribute 5% of their own funds to the purchase price ($32,000 for the example above)
  • The buyer must have three months of reserve funds after purchasing.

There are also other problems- it is very difficult to get a mortgage on a property that is considered a “fixer” in San Francisco (which many of the properties in this price range are) and your offer will not be very competitive on a property with multiple bids. That other couple that isn’t getting down payment assistance will most likely be able to offer more money.

This doesn’t seem like a realistic solution to help solve a housing crisis in its current state, but perhaps part of the program to offer more funding could also change the terms?



San Francisco, where urban planning meets the ballot box

I spotted the following headline today on SF Gate: Supervisor wants S.F. to follow state on reforming initiatives and it immediately reminded me that I’d been working on a recap of a number of the planning-related issues that have come up on local ballots recently. Supervisor Wiener’s suggestions make a lot of sense: they both create a clearer process, and help voters make sense of who is funding the campaigns. I think the bar should be raised even higher, but this is a sensible place to start.

A Long History

The ballot in San Francisco is a very special thing. Usually printed on multiple oversized and double-sided sheets of paper, in some election cycles the alphabet has to be started over at AA to fit all of the measures voters are asked to weigh in on. Direct democracy was a result of Progressive-era politics in the late 1800s, lead in part by Governor Hiram Johnson. A special election of the state’s voters in 1911 adopted the initiative, referendum, and recall at both the state and local levels. San Francisco and Vallejo had already adopted the initiative in 1898.

Topics dealt with in these elections range from approval of large bonds to much smaller issues that elicit enough support from a handful of backers (who generally by employ paid signature-gatherers to qualify the measure). If you think an overflowing list of local ballot measures is a recent development, look back almost  a century to November of 1907 when there were twenty-two measures before the voters (compared to only twelve this past Election Day) including five separate measures that dealt with land use and infrastructure development.

Issues that would often be better off dealt with legislatively often reach the ballot box first for a variety of reasons, as the pace of change has accelerated dramatically during the current boom. Many of the measures brought for voters’ consideration are in response to the huge amount of construction that has taken place since 2011 and the increase in housing costs that has pushed many people out of the City (and threatened to do so for many others).

November 2013: The Wall on the Waterfront

The battle over the 8 Washington condominium development on the west side of the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building was a high profile campaign funded in large part by Richard and Barbara Stewart, wealthy condo owners who live across the street from where the proposed project was to be built. Unhappy with the approval of the building, they sought to overturn the City’s decision to allow it to go forward.

The opponents of 8 Washington compared it to the demolished Embarcadero Freeway in their campaign materials, calling it the “Wall on the Waterfront.” They also enlisted the support of the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club, and former politicians like Aaron Peskin and Art Agnos also joined the fight.

The campaign consisted of Referendum C, placed on the ballot to overturn the project’s approval with a “no” vote. As has become common in San Francisco, supporters of the development put Proposition B on the same ballot which would have negated C. Both measures failed, meaning the development was halted. This helped set the stage for the 2014 elections.

June 2014: Proposition B

Opponents of 8 Washington saw the chance to channel anti-development sentiment into a larger effort. Rather than trying to overturn waterfront projects on a case by case basis, Proposition B took advantage of their momentum from the previous election combined with the extremely low turnout of a June election to pass a measure that requires voter approval of any project on Port land that exceeds existing height limits, usually forty feet. Specifically crafted in opposition to a planned arena on Piers 30/32, this measure covered development projects spanning the entire eastern side of the city.

Former Mayor Art Agnos made himself one of the main voices of this effort. He has routinely portrayed himself as a protector of the waterfront in recent years, owing to his resistance to rebuilding the Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake, an issue which most likely cost him re-election in 1991. Agnos himself had battled to get a cruise ship and luxury hotel development built at Piers 30 & 32 that was thrown out by voters with Proposition H in 1990 that created a moratorium on hotels along the Bay, he has a long history with ballot box planning decisions.

Agnos and company succeeded in getting Proposition B passed, but the City of San Francisco was quickly sued by the State Lands Commission. Because Port land is owned by the State of California, the Lands Commission is arguing that the City’s voters have no right to legislate development restrictions on this property. The case is still in the courts now.

November 2014

Following voter approval of Proposition B, the developers of Pier 70 in the Dogpatch put the “Union Iron Works Historic Housing, Waterfront Parks, Jobs and Preservation Initiative” on the ballot  as Measure F. This measure sought to approve a 90-foot height limit on the site.

The measure forwarded a plan that had already been in the works for years, and had substantial support in the neighborhood as it promised to create waterfront access for residents in an area that currently sits fenced off an vacant. Many urban planners were hoping for taller buildings in the area, seeing that there are working cranes on other parcels and docked cruise ships in adjacent ship maintenance facility that are well over 200’ tall. Because the measure had to go out to a public vote, the proposal was tailored to fit what its backers were confident would pass.

And pass it did. With 72% of the vote in the November election, Proposition F sailed to an easy victory. It had the backing of several groups that opposed 8 Washington, including the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club. It showed other developers a path forward to developing waterfront parcels on Port land elsewhere in the city if Proposition B holds up in court. It could provide a template for other long-planned projects on the waterfront.


To voters outside the Bay Area, two ballot measures about an artificial grass soccer field seems like a bizarre misuse of the electoral process. In San Francisco, it’s just another election season. Taking a cue from the “Wall on the Waterfront” battle, this was an attempt by activists to overturn the already-approved plan to install artificial turf and lighting at the western end of Golden Gate Park on what are currently underused grass soccer fields. Unhappy with the outcome of their dealings with the Recreation and Parks Commission, the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Board of Appeals,the California Coastal Commission, and the California Superior Court (who all were ready to let the project move forward), they decided to take the issue to the voters to override the public process in which they had lost. Thus was born Proposition H, “Requiring Certain Golden Gate Park Athletic Fields to Be Kept as Grass With No Artificial Lighting.”

Proposition I was also on the ballot, this measure was designed to invalidate Proposition H and would set new thresholds for future projects by mandating the City move forward with projects if an environmental impact report states that park use would be doubled with improvements. Proposition I passed with 55% of the vote, with a similar number of people voting no on H.


There were multiple transportation-related measures on the November ballot, and the outcome of the election showed a clear preference for improving public transportation. Proposition A was a $500 million bond measure that would pay for infrastructure improvements. Proposition B also sought to increase transportation funding by tying set-asides for Muni to San Francisco’s population growth. Both of these measures passed, Prop A with over 70% and B with over 60%.

Proposition L sought to do the opposite of A & B by reversing San Francisco’s “Transit First” policy through a policy statement. Placed on the ballot by a signature gathering effort, this measure struggled to find support and failed by approximately the same margin that Proposition B won.


While the battle over 8 Washington set the stage for citizens to challenge the outcome of decisions made through a public process at the ballot box, the message since then has been mixed. June 2014’s Proposition B showed that voters do want to weigh in on development projects, but Proposition F in November showed that some waterfront projects can prove quite popular.

The artificial turf measure sought to overturn a process that has dragged on for years, and the outcome showed voters felt the City was right to approve the project in the first place and Proposition L showed the vast majority of San Franciscans feel that our longstanding city policy of prioritizing transit, cycling and walking is on the right track.

Short of a reform of direct democracy in California, the lack of palatable legislative solutions to contentious issues combined with the availability of big money to back signature gathering efforts and elections will lead to more ballot box decision-making. Time will tell if the will of the people is really reflected in these land use election measures, or if sponsors with the biggest bank accounts will be able to overturn the outcomes of years-long public processes to block projects that they disagree with. While many of San Francisco’s far-left progressives saw the battle over 8 Washington as a way to send a message to large developers of market-rate housing, it is just as easy to imagine affordable housing projects being blocked by unenthusiastic neighbors in a future election.

It will be interesting to see how Supervisor Wiener’s legislative changes are received, there are a lot of people who like the status quo.


Leaving San Francisco. What’s your backup plan?

Yesterday on Twitter, I posted the question to San Franciscans of what their backup plans were if they had to leave for financial reasons. As rents and housing prices accelerate it’s something I think about almost every day. Even moving to the East Bay is seeming to be less and less of an option as convenient locations near BART are seeing price increases even higher than those in San Francisco proper. I’ve assembled many of the responses (there were a lot!) in my first attempt at using Storify: