Gavin Newsom seems to want to be the governor who turned the San Francisco waterfront into Miami Beach.
Newsom, who as Lite Guv chairs the State Lands Commission, is suing his former hometown to try to block the voters from limiting height limits on the waterfront.
He’s joining a pro-development group and the building trades unions in attempting to overturn Prop. B, the 2014 ballot measure that requires voter approval for increases in waterfront height limits. Prop. B won overwhelmingly.
The City Attorney’s Office has tried to reach some sort of settlement that would leave the voters with the authority, which local voters in California have always had, to make land-use decisions. But on Dec. 14, both parties informed Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos that settlement talks had failed.
So now Newsom – while he is running for governor – will be taking San Francisco to court to allow a three-member state agency to take control of the city’s waterfront and allow any kind of development it wants.
“Newsom feels that the state Lands Commission should control all height limits on waterfront development,” Lee Radner, a leader with Friends of Golden Gateway and one of the supporters of Prop. B, told me.
“We think that our local government should decide that. If San Diego wants highrises on the waterfront, that’s fine – but if San Francisco doesn’t, why is Newsom trying to force it on us?”
The highrise question is not just hypothetical. For half a century, San Franciscans have been fighting against giant buildings on property controlled by the Port. The voters have consistently, repeatedly, said they want the waterfront to be open, low-intensity development with maritime and public-access uses given priority.
The Warriors ran into that position when the team tried to site its new stadium on the waterfront – and quickly realized it would never happen.
The legal issue here is technical and complicated. When California became a state, the federal government, as was typical, granted it control over tidelands and submerged lands – which includes, for all practical purposes, much of the state’s waterfront.
In 1968, thanks to John Burton, who was then in the Legislature, the state gave that power back to San Francisco. The city created a Port Commission to manage the land, which includes hugely valuable lots along the seawall.
Newsom is arguing that the Port Commission – appointed by the mayor – is the only entity that can regulate land use, including height limits. That commission, which has consistently been pro-development, was handing out permits for massive projects, including 8 Washington and the Warriors.
That’s why Prop. B wound up on the ballot.
It’s more than an academic exercise. If the voters (and by implication, the district-elected Board of Supervisors, which has the final say on zoning in the city) can’t control the waterfront, then a pro-development mayor can give it away at his or her whim.
That doesn’t work anywhere else in the city. Any major project can be appealed to the supes; if that fails, and the opposition is strong enough, it can go on the ballot.
Now Newsom is essentially saying that the State Lands Commission can decide who controls the San Francisco waterfront. That’s what’s at stake here.
When I asked him about this last year, he shrugged it off, saying he just wanted to enforce state law. But enforcing his vision of state law means a whole lot of inappropriate development – which is the Housing Action Coalition and the building trades, which strongly supported 8 Washington (with its ultra-luxury condos) are siding with Newsom on this case.
I suspect this isn’t the kind of issue that will define the race for governor – but in his hometown, Newsom is going to have to face some questions.