In his May 12 SF Chronicle article, “ Bayside Planning at Critical Juncture,” John King decries City Hall's “ominous lack of interest in proactive large-scale planning.” He claims that “instead of mapping out how the next frontiers of growth should be filled in,” Mayor Ed Lee “is letting developers frame the debate.” But King’s idyllic history of a San Francisco where planners, not developers, called the shots is pure fantasy. While he says Lee’s approach differs from “efforts a decade or so ago” in which “the Planning Department took the lead on the form that growth should take,” King is describing an era in which a private developer drove a massive upzoning of Rincon Hill in order to build an out of scale luxury tower. Private developers have long driven the city’s land use process, and voters have regularly backed “pro-development” mayoral candidates. Unlike King, San Franciscans prefer a mayor’s office that “wants to make things happen” and support Mayor Lee’s measuring progress by jobs created and housing built.

John King sees plans for the new Warriors arena, a proposed Forest City development at Pier 70, and the Giants plans for a project on the south side of China Basin as showing that Mayor Lee is ignoring public planning and turning the city’s waterfront over to private developers. But what is never clear from his article is how San Francisco’s current land use process differs from the past, other than the far from secret fact that Ed Lee is unusually committed to creating jobs and getting things done.

A San Francisco Fantasy

What “planning driven” land use decisions does King cite in positive contrast to Lee’s approach? He includes the Transbay Terminal, a state-mandated process that virtually guaranteed a massive privately developed highrise on the site. King also cites the widely-praised Octavia Boulevard process dictated by the unique circumstance of the freeway demolition, and credits planners for setting the debate “along Market Street.” While he cryptically praises planning processes of “a decade or so ago,” this period covers both the developer driven rezoning of Rincon Hill that resulted in the Rincon Tower and the nearly eight year “Eastern Neighborhood” rezoning process; neither support his thesis that the city's land use process was better then than today.

King's citation of positive planning along Market Street is curious, because some would argue that it proves exactly the opposite of what King suggests. The area’s transformation into a high-tech hub was driven by Twitter’s desire to relocate and the city's push to make it happen, not by a public planning process that sought to turn Mid-Market into a bastion of high tech (in fact, several years of city-initiated planning for Market's future accomplished absolutely nothing, but that's a separate story).

San Francisco voters have had many opportunities to rein in excessive private development. But they defeated a series of slow growth initiatives from the late 1970’s through the mid-1980’s, and consistently elected pro-development mayors. Mayor Art Agnos was supposed to be the exception, but it was his Planning Commission that approved the massive Underwater World at Pier 39 that was completely driven by a New Zealand developer.

Pier 39 was itself the money making scheme of a private developer (Warren Simmons) rather than a public land use process. It was approved despite criticism over its increased commercialization of the waterfront. Yet this did not stop the Agnos Administration from intensifying the waterfront's commercial use by approving Underwater World--a private aquarium that would compete for business with the city's own Steinhart Aquarium.

The Agnos Planning Commission never turned down a major development project, and Agnos pushed a new ballpark for the Giants opposed by many progressives on the grounds it put private interests ahead of the city's.

Mayor Feinstein Planning Director Dean Macris best fits the King ideal. But while his 1985 “Downtown Plan” won media plaudits from across the nation, it was promptly rejected by San Francisco voters when they passed Prop M on the November 1986 ballot.

If he wanted to prove Mayor Lee is the exception, King needed to provide examples of other mayors turning down private development projects. He fails to do so. Nor does he explain why the public is better off vesting power over land use decisions to unelected and unaccountable planners rather than to politicians who they can vote out of office if they disagree with their policies.

King’s critical description of what he sees as Mayor Lee’s view of “progress”---measured in “terms of construction jobs, housing units and new buildings that might lure the likes of Google up north”--- reflects his differing views from most San Franciscans. Mayor Lee ran for election in 2011 promising jobs, new development, and to keep the city moving, and won handily. Had Lee campaigned on a platform of turning more control of land use decisions to the Planning Department, he would not have won that race.

Welcome to Capitalism

Ultimately, King’s critique is more directed at the U.S. capitalist system than to Mayor Lee, his predecessors, or other urban mayors. Private developers have long called the shots in urban America because the government does not go into the lucrative business of building and operating office buildings, luxury housing or tourist hotels.

In the absence of government development, private interests determine what gets built. And when planners decide, under King’s favored approach, to dictate land use policies for a certain area, success is dependent on attracting private investment.

Consider what occurred in San Francisco in the 1980’s when Planning Director Macris enacted a rezoning plan to enourage massive housing development along Van Ness Boulevard. He predicted Van Ness would soon become the city’s Champs-Elysées, but private housing developers---whose investment was necessary for this transformation---were not interested. And so it did not happen, despite city planners best efforts to encourage such development.

King has been around long enough to know that the San Francisco planning process is not insulated from developer influence. In the case of the Macris Downtown Plan, the earlier urban renewal of SOMA and the Fillmore, or the revitalization of Bayview-Hunters Point, private development interests, not city planners, primarily “framed the debate.”

As much as I share King’s desire to romanticize the pre-Manhattanization San Francisco of the 1950’s---the most recent decade in which the Tenderloin thrived--- the era’s planners feared for San Francisco’s economy and saw increased private development as essential to the city’s future. Every mayor since that time has sought to attract private investment to San Francisco, yet King and others now criticize Mayor Lee for being too his successful in meeting this goal.

Perhaps King could do a follow-up on Forest City’s role in “framing the debate” over its proposed development at 5th and Mission in tandem with the Chronicle’s publisher, the Hearst Corporation. This private developer-driven project seems like a positive for the city, but it is a textbook case of what King opposes elsewhere.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron.