A suburban-style tennis club and an asphalt parking lot don't belong on 3 prime acres along San Francisco's Embarcadero. Yet this woeful underuse could continue for years is a promising redevelopment plan is shot down by vigilant neighbors worried about lost views and change in the neighborhood.
City leaders, if they can summon the will, have a chance to move the waterfront forward. A plan calling for 165 condo apartments, a small-scale sports club, public walkways and retail stores makes far more sense than the limited and walled-off operation now in place. But this project will stall if localized protests dominate the debate.
Few corners of San Francisco come with more tangled history and intense politics. Once a dockside produce district in the 1950s, the area morphed into tall apartments and low-slung townhouses. The Embarcadero Freeway, finally torn down in 1991, curved through the streets, casting shadows and chilling development.
Since then, a triangular lot on the waterfront has awaited a transformation that's never come. Residents on the inland side eyed building plans between their homes and the bay. But this standstill shouldn't continue as the rest of the Embarcadero finds new uses for old piers and inland lots. Nearby, a cruise terminal is taking shape. The Exploratorium science museum is moving in, and two years of America's Cup sailing races will begin this summer. San Francisco's bayside edge needs a chance to evolve, not remain frozen in the past.
The project, known as 8 Washington, has gone through the public-process wringer for six years. It's been redrawn and scaled back in ways that make it better, though unlikely to win over its determined opponents. The land was earmarked for updated use after not one but two public studies of the northern waterfront.
Instead of a uniform wall along the Embarcadero frontage, the proposed buildings run from a 136-foot high point near the downtown border down to a 35-foot roofline for a health club. Sightlines along city streets - now blocked by the green-fenced tennis courts - will be restored, as will public access to the locale through walkways.
There are other aspects that are drawing fire. The condos - no surprise - will be costly and possibly second homes for wealthy buyers, just as many nearby apartments already are. The thriving and popular businesses in the Ferry Building will lose convenient surface parking. The tall end of the project will require a height variance, a request that critics fear will open the door to other development plans looking to bust the rules.
But these objections come with answers. The housing project will spin off funds for 33 subsidized housing units to be built elsewhere, no small thing now that redevelopment financing tools are gone. In addition, the port will collect $16.5 million in land sales and $1 million more in fees and property taxes in future years.
The project will replace 90 surface parking slots with 255 underground spaces. And the project's 12-story high point will be at the backside of the project, not directly on the Embarcadero.
The battle over 8 Washington comes with its own melodrama. That's because the brusque Chinatown leader Rose Pak is an ally of its developer, Simon Snellgrove, who restored piers 1 1/2 and 5 across from the project.
In the opposite corner is Democratic Party head Aaron Peskin, a former supervisor and bitter critic of Pak. Also, district Supervisor David Chiu, who cast a deciding vote in favor of the much bigger Parkmerced project last year, is now against this plan in his backyard as he faces re-election.
These objections could be politically significant. But because of the needed height change and scale of the deal, both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will need to approve the plan. This process could begin next month and run into April.
After years of study and inaction, neighbors of 8 Washington may think nothing much will change on the disputed property. That's understandable, given the city's slow pace of decision-making. But it denies reality and the very real need to update underused land that partially belongs to the public.
Nothing about this plan was sudden or poorly understood. There was ample citizen review that led to significant redesign work. That's an outcome that advocates of San Francisco's painstaking public review process should like.
The city's waterfront is already shifting as new uses and imaginative ideas come forward. This project can play a role in that needed changeover. It should be approved.