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May 23, 2008


A tale of two shipyards

Somebody — I think it was Jon Carroll — said once that a good column contained an idea and a half. Here’s the idea.

Sometime, just once, it would be nice if this city decided to do something because it was the right thing to do, and not because it was profitable.

Yesterday’s Chronicle carried a front-page story about Lennar’s proposed development of Candlestick Point and the Hunters Point Shipyard,

the biggest single redevelopment project in San Francisco since World War II, a transformation of a neighborhood that has languished for decades as renewal plans have come and gone.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in San Francisco doesn’t know what’s at issue here. It’s a huge mixed-use project that the League of Women Voter Pros & Cons Guide describes as

300 acres of public parks and public open space; 8,500-10,000 units of new affordable and market rate housing including rental and for-sale units; 700,000 square feet of retail space; and 2,150,000 square feet of green office space, research space, technology, or other industrial uses.

The project is on a collision course because of two competing ballot measures that will determine how much of the housing is affordable. Proposition F requires 50 percent; Proposition G offers 25 percent as “a guiding principal,” but recent negotiations between Lennar and the San Francisco Labor Council have upped the affordable units to 32 percent. Lennar insists that a 50 percent goal is unworkable. It’s a David-and-Goliath fight: the Miami-based developer has spent $3 million so far to get its plan approved; supporters of Proposition F have spent about $4,000.

Three million dollars is a lot of money. It’s a good indicator of how much Lennar hopes to profit from the project. While the company has its fingers in a number of local development pies, it’s not a charitable organization. It’s here to make money. Any improvement of local folks’ living conditions is incidental. Its website makes this clear:

Lennar offers a wide selection of new homes throughout the Bay Area. Our communities are centrally located to spectacular destinations including San Francisco, Wine Country in Sonoma and Napa Valley, Mount Diablo State Park, Monterey, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. The cultural, scenic, and recreational venues across the area are unparalleled, making the Bay Area lifestyle an exciting and rewarding experience. Lennar, one of America’s leading builders of quality homes since 1954, offers single-family and condominium homes in some of the most desired Bay Area locations with easy access to all points throughout the area including San Francisco, the East Bay, Marin County, the Peninsula, and San Jose.

But Proposition G is also being presented to the voters as support for a plan

unifying the Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point, and the Bayview neighborhood which would protect the character of the neighborhood.

As such, it

encourages [italics mine] rebuilding and renovation of the Alice Griffiths Housing Development with a one-for-one replacement for existing residents.

On the other hand, Proposition F stipulates that

any rebuilding plan for Alice Griffith Public Housing would provide one-to-one replacement units targeted to the same income levels of existing residents and prevent displacement of current housing residents.

Back to idea Number One:

The question underlying the fight between Proposition F and Proposition G is the old one that governs every whodunit: Cui bono? Who benefits? If the city of San Francisco really cares about the welfare of the people who now live in Bayview/Hunters Point — as opposed to those hardy pioneers who will move into Lennar’s “affordable and market-rate housing” — it will do a little creative financing and make Proposition F work. If not, no abundance of “cultural, scenic, and recreational venues” will be able to compensate for what it has lost.

Now here’s the half-idea.

Proposition G also provides a site in Hunters Point Shipyard for

a new stadium for the San Francisco 49er’s and improvements in transportation and other infrastructure.

Or not.

If not, there will be more “housing, parks, and green office space.”

Development in San Francisco is on a very bland diet. Housing, parks, and office space. They’re like steak, mashed potatoes, and peas — lovely but not at every meal, for Pete’s sake.

Take a look at another shipyard, on the other side of the continent, in Brooklyn. In 1966, when the federal government closed down the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the site seemed slated for the usual boring menu: demolition followed by housing, parks, and office space. Today

its old machine shops and warehouses hum with small entrepreneurs — makers of furniture, clothing, industrial equipment, theatrical sets, and computer software — as well as medical suppliers, fashion designers, printers, carpenters, and artists, altogether employing 5,000 people.

Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., a not-for-profit that manages the city-owned site, said current plans call for spending $250 million in public and private money to add 1.3 million square feet of space and 1,500 more jobs by 2009. In a decade, he said, there should be 5,000 more jobs.

Last August a commercial real estate broker said in the New York Times,

Every five years, the city is losing approximately 15 percent of its industrial space, because it is being converted into residences, offices, retail. That is why the Navy Yard is so helpful.

Just a thought. Just a half an idea. But sometimes a half is better than a whole.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Tuesday.

        — Coppyright Betsey Culp 2008