Democratic party rejects bid to make waterfront development more democratic (UPDATED)

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Board of Supervisors President David Chiu opposed developer Simon Snellgrove's 8 Washington project, has no position on Prop B.

Note: This story has been updated (see below).

The governing body of the San Francisco Democratic Party voted Wed/12 to oppose a controversial June ballot measure concerning waterfront height limits, despite voting last year to support a strikingly similar measure on the November ballot.

By a slim 13-to-12 vote, the Democratic County Central Committee voted to oppose Proposition B, which would require city officials to get voter approval before approving new building projects that are taller than what’s legally sanctioned under a comprehensive waterfront plan.

The vote breakdown was surprising to some because until recently, the DCCC was known as a progressive stronghold in San Francisco politics. Its slate cards are distributed to Democrats throughout San Francisco, and Democrats make up the vast majority of city voters.

Now, under the leadership of a chair who is employed as a lobbyist for the San Francisco Association of Realtors, the DCCC has aligned itself with powerful real-estate developers hoping to build along the city’s waterfront. 

District 8 Sup. Scott Wiener came under scrutiny recently because he called for a formal evaluation on the impact of Prop. B after developers who oppose the measure sent emails urging him to do so. Wiener, who emphasized at the time that he merely sought an “impartial analysis” of the measure, voted against Prop. B.

Also opposing Prop. B were Assmeblymember Phil Ting, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and Bevan Dufty, a former District 8 supervisor who now leads the mayor’s initiatives on homelessness. 

Twelve members voted to endorse the measure, including Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, and Malia Cohen, as well as California Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano. 

But the threshold for this vote to pass or fail was much lower than usual, because so many DCCC members simply refused to take a stand one way or the other.

Prop. B comes on the heels of voters’ rejection last November of Props. B and C, dueling initiatives which concerned the fate of a controversial luxury high-rise tower, the 8 Washington project. 

Although that project won Board of Supervisors approval, opponents brought a referendum to the ballot to ask voters to decide whether to uphold or reject a building height increase that went above the established limit.

The rejection of 8 Washington at the ballot was interpreted as a politically significant turning point, because voters flushed a luxury condo tower down the tubes at a time when the housing affordability crisis was getting into full swing. Soon after that victory, 8 Washington opponents returned to file paperwork for a new referendum on the ballot, to require voter approval for all waterfront height-limit increases.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu – who not only opposed 8 Washington but helped gather signatures for the referendum to challenge it – did not take a position on the waterfront height limit measure. Chiu’s decision to abstain sets him apart from Campos, his opponent in the upcoming Assembly race. Had Chiu voted to endorse Prop. B, its opponents would not have had the votes to get the upper hand.

UPDATE: Chiu said he still hasn't formed an opinion on the measure, and that he's waiting on a pending city analysis and the outcome of a lawsuit challenging it. 

"There's been very little analysis and it could take money away from affordable housing and cost the city money fighting a lawsuit," he said, citing the money that developers would be spending on political campaigns as the potential source of affordable housing money. 

"I am open to supporting the measure, as someone who passionate about waterfront development," he added, citing the lead role he took in opposing the 8 Washington project. (End of update.)

Others who abstained (or did so by proxy) included Alix Rosenthal (who is working as a consultant on the waterfront Warriors arena project), Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Jackie Speier, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. California Sen. Leland Yee – whose representative at the meeting, John Rizzo, reportedly did not show up to cast Yee’s vote – was reportedly also planning to abstain.

Jon Golinger, who is leading the Prop. B campaign to require voter approval for waterfront height-limit increases, said he wasn’t terribly concerned about the DCCC vote, since early polling was favorable to his campaign. But he found it telling that the same cast of characters who had opposed 8 Washington were now voting to oppose a measure that would have extended voters’ will on 8 Washington to all waterfront development proposals.

“The key difference,” between Prop. B and last November's 8 Washington vote, he told the Bay Guardian, “is that there are more big money interests that have something to lose here.”

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