Last week, owners in San Francisco’s luxurious Four Seasons residences on Market Street sued to block an approved luxury condo tower at 706 Mission St. According to the “Friends of Yerba Buena Gardens,” the Four Seasons resident group opposing the 510 foot high tower, “it would drop shadows on the southeast corner of Union Square during part of the morning,” and “You can’t keep shadowing Union Square.” The group is also considering a ballot measure to protect parks from increased shade.

Wealthy opponents of a condo project at 8 Washington have already gone to the ballot. Their referendum, primarily funded by Boston Properties (owner of the Embarcadero Center) and Golden Gateway condo owners, claims that the project, which, like 706 Mission was rezoned to increase height, will create a “Wall on the Waterfront.” In both cases, wealthy interests insist they are protecting the public interest---unshaded parks and waterfront access—rather than their own real estate values and views.

The single biggest factor in the outcome of state and local ballot measures in California is whether the initiative appeals to the self-interest of a significant portion of the electorate. This does not mean solely economic self-interest; rather, winning initiatives require that a sufficiently large sector of voters feel they will gain some benefit from passage.

Opponents of the above condo projects understand this. They know that stopping projects that block their views requires a ballot measure that also benefits the vast majority of voters who live nowhere near the sites. That’s why they are framing their struggles as a battle for unshaded parks and waterfront access rather than private views and real estate values.

On the Waterfront?

The 8 Washington opposition masterfully framed the issue as involving not simply a project, but “the waterfront.” This was a brilliant move because 8 Washington is not on “the waterfront” but is separated from the water by multi-lane highways.

If you reserved a “waterfront” or “oceanfront” hotel room, or a table in a “waterfront” restaurant and found yourself separated from the water by two highways, you would be outraged; you would also accuse the business of false advertising. Everyone knows that a hotel room or restaurant separated from the beach by a road is not “oceanfront,” but is instead “ocean view.”

Yet those promoting the referendum on 8 Washington successfully defined the project as “on the waterfront,” forcing opponents to battle on this terrain.

706 Mission

Because project proponents also have savvy strategists, they responded by raising the ante: their campaign insists that 8 Washington will actually “Open up the waterfront.” This will occur by its “replacing a toxic asphalt parking lot, a ‘members only’ club and an obstructing 1,735 foot fence that stretches five football fields” with public trails to the water.

Now voters will have to choose between campaigns that both claim to improve the waterfront. And because the referendum requires project backers to get the harder “yes” vote, these backers wisely qualified their own initiative to force voters to think more carefully about the entire issue (Props B and C on the city’s November ballot).

Originally, it seemed that project backers would have trouble getting much of the electorate to see building the project as in their own self-interest. That’s because 8 Washington was seen as involving a unique set of facts.

But 706 Mission may have changed this. Now, project backers can make the case to voters whose livelihood is connected to new housing developments, or those happy to be living in such projects, that the defeat of 8 Washington puts future new housing opportunities at risk.

There is a long way to go on 8 Washington, and the electoral dynamics remain in flux. But the private interests funding both sides realize that getting voters to feel they have their own stake in the outcome is the key to victory.

Stop Shading Parks!

In 1984, San Francisco voters passed Prop K to stop the city’s new wave of highrise towers from shading parks. Since that time the issue has been hotly debated, as many projects win approval despite providing some additional shade and new technologies have found shade impacts that were not foreseen when the measure passed.

What’s striking about the challenge to 706 Mission is that the people most affected by its alleged Union Square shading---the Union Square business and merchants associations---are not opposing the project. If they had, it likely would not have been approved.

Former Supervisor Bill Maher led the drive for Prop K, and has long complained about lack of enforcement of its intent. It seems a revisiting of the issue is long overdue, but connecting Prop K’s future to opposition of wealthy condo owners to an adjacent view-blocking project is not the way to win reform.

Opponents of 706 Mission are only talking about a ballot measure, first hoping the project can be stopped in court. But if they go to the ballot they may be surprised at the level of opposition, despite public distaste for shading parks.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He offers his “Five Rules for Successful Initiatives” in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.