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Uncategorized When is growth too expensive?

When is growth too expensive?


SF Planning Commission ducks the biggest issue in passing along a new transit-impact fee

The SF Planning Commission asked good questions, but couldn't get get beyond the idea that growth is king
The SF Planning Commission asked good questions, but couldn’t get get beyond the idea that growth is king

By Tim Redmond

SEPTEMBER 11, 2015 –The debate at the San Francisco Planning Commission this week left me wondering if anyone at City Hall is willing to stop worshiping at the Altar of Growth. No matter what the cost.

The issue, as lawyer Sue Hestor noted, was “very big legislation” – a proposal to overhaul the fees that the city charges developers to offset the transit impacts of their buildings.

The idea, Hestor testified, went back to the era right after Prop. 13 passed, when it was clear that, lacking property-tax revenue, Muni was going to completely fall apart.

So the city implemented a Transit-Impact Development Fee that charged the developers of office buildings for the costs of adding Muni buses and workers to serve the populations of their buildings.

At the time, studies showed it would cost about $10 a square foot to mitigate the impacts. The city went with half of that – the fee was set at $5. So the rest of us – Muni riders, drivers, taxpayers – subsidized the rest.

But at least we only paid half. The commission voted Thursday to recommend that future developers pay no more than a third of the cost they dump on the city.

There were the usual surreal moments: Commissioner Michael Antonini announced that nonprofit affordable housing developers should also pay the fee (despite the fact that most of their money comes from the city anyway, so it would be transferring cash from one city department to another) and that parking areas should be exempt because “there will be fewer people using public transportation if they have cars.”

But moving back to reality, the gist of what everyone – from the planning staff to the speakers in public comment to the commission members – said was this:

The fee that the city is about to charge is far, far below the actual impact that new development has on the city’s transit system. At best – at the very best – the city might charge developers one-third of what they will cost the local transportation system.

There are other issues. The mayor’s proposal would grandfather in everyone who is currently in the planning pipeline, even the ones who applied for permits well after it became clear that the city was changing the impact fees.

The proposal doesn’t count garage space in the tally of how many square feet a building includes – meaning it’s cheaper to cut housing space and make more room for cars.

But the biggest question is the price, and while several commissioners raised some important and valid questions, only Dennis Richards even mentioned the defining issue:

“In a world-class city, growth has to pay for growth.”

Richards mentioned Sup. Scott Wiener’s ambitious subway plan. He talked about the $3.3 billion in unfunded Muni maintenance liabilities (and that’s assuming that the impact fee is approved, and the city raises the Vehicle License Fee, and a few other things).

He said that in some parts of town, the return on development is so high that nobody should worry about fees discouraging new projects. “I talk to developers and they tell me that they don’t worry about inflation in construction costs, because inflation in revenue [from new buildings] is rising faster,” he said.

Commissioner Hope Johnson said that choosing the right level for the fee was like “making sausage.” (Commissioner Kathrin Moore noted, though, that the commission was indeed making sausage, and ought to do it right.) Johnson said she didn’t know the right level, but maybe the supervisors could figure it out.

The study that showed developers would be unlikely to build if they are charged higher rates assumed a high level of return – 20.5 percent – which is way above what most investors get these days. “Is that sacrosanct?” Richards asked.

Maybe not. Moore suggested that right now, “we are in a robust economy” and that the fee should be much higher – because if the economy slows, “it will go down anyway.”

But in the end, the discussion came back to: Gee, if we charge too much for transit impacts, the developers won’t build anything.

Which means: If you and me, the taxpayers and Muni riders, are unwilling to subsidize billionaire investors and developers, then development won’t happen.

And … what’s wrong with that?

Seriously: If growth should pay for growth, there may come a time where we as a city have to say that the costs are higher than the benefits, and we’ve grown too fast, and it’s time to slow down.

The commission voted unanimously to send the plan to the Board of Supes with the suggestion that the rate should be increased to as much as 33 percent of the actual cost (with the rest of us subsidizing 66 percent of the cost of Muni service for developers) and a few changes in the grandfathering.

But still: If growth costs the current residents of this city more than they are getting in return, why is that a good deal? What if we said to developers, hey – pay the full cost of the impact you create, or don’t build here, and they decided to go build somewhere else? Would that be so awful?

Just asking.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. Note to the editor: The photo used in this article is out of date. Last year Commissioner Sugaya [to the left] sadly was ousted (not reappointed). His seat was filled by Dennis Richards.

  2. not sure where you get that figure… but let’s say it’s true. Without the billions flowing thru the tech section the FIRE industries aren’t flush as they are with the billions being tossed about…

  3. You appear to be assigning a motivation to people you haven’t even talked to. I’m saying that high-end development is moving too quickly in the Mission and there needs to be a pause to figure out where the Mission is heading and what it should be.

  4. That’s silly. About 12 months will have passed between when the moratorium was proposed by Campos and the earliest that the moratorium could possibly go into effect. Yet Campos’ original proposal was for a 45 day moratorium with a possible extension of 10 months!

    Let’s just pretend the moratorium has been in effect and do the planning anyway! Or are you claiming the only way such planning can be done is when a moratorium is in effect?

    I refer to my above statement that assigning the motivation of wanting to create a crisis that drives tech out of the city is the least objectionable in terms of impugning advocates intelligence and ethical motivation.

  5. You’ve made some incredible leaps of fact (documentation?) and logic to get to your assumption. I’ve not seen anywhere an assertion that the Mission Moratorium is going to “pop the tech bubble.” I consider it a pause in the race by developers to upzone the Mission to allow for some long overdue planning.

  6. Only 10% of all jobs in San Francisco are in Tech. There are more in FIRE (Finance Insurance and Real Estate).

  7. Is it? Proponents of the Mission Moratorium have never even tried to make sense. At first it was to give the city time to ‘study’ the problem. Then it was prevent the last few parcels of land in the Mission from being bought up before the city could bid on them. But above all it its proponents have always been clear that its purpose is to ‘send a message’ i.e. throw a wrench in the works and provoke a crisis.

    It’s also quite easy to find any number of SF atavists who take credit for having fought back the techie encroachment of the early 2000s, i.e. take credit for popping of the tech bubble or the techie out-migration that occurred afterwards.

    Likewise, opposing major infrastructure improvements to mass transit in a city that’s already, in just the last five years, grown by 50,000 people under the transparently bogus claim that that such initiatives must be funded by new development — bogus because it totally ignoring the disproportionate share new development already contributes to the SF general fund — is so silly as to not be worthy of a response. The only possible justification for it is that it will make things so bad that it will provoke some crisis. Assigning the motivation to a fanciful desire to precipitate a popping of a tech bubble actually gives proponents the benefit of the doubt. The other alternatives is blatant (and wilful) stupidity or nihilistic political gesture.

  8. That’s not your scenario $am. You postulated a population of 1 million in SF, then upped it to 1.5. Besides, planners have to have something to go on.

    One does not, as Ed Lee has, build till the cows come home and then try to figure how the infracstructure catches up. They go hand-in-hand.

    That means development fees to fund transportation infrastructure. If developers don’t like it, let them build in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

  9. Wow, a new idea if a bizarre one: the Mission Moratorium provokes a crisis that forces the tech bubble to pop? You’re right about questioning its plauasability. But your assertion that it is an unstated goal of the moratorium advocates has plausability problems as well.

  10. $am, this Spartacus thing is getty pretty thin. And no, we are not all $am. You are unique in your greed, prejudice and avarice.

  11. That’s absurd. Most San Franciscans like THOUGHTFUL change… not just change because the billionaires offer bribes for their projects to be green lighted. I resent that I pay huge taxes and volunteer in this City and my voice is drowned out by billionaires who see SF as a good investment for them and their cronies. Willie, Gruesome and Lee have sold our city to the highest bidder, behind closed doors and for their own personal gain. Disgusting and illegal!

  12. In addition to having increased fees to developers, SF should also sue communities that burden SF by building workspaces/office, often huge campuses, and not allowing new housing, such as Mountain View. Until we have regional regulations that mandate x number of housing units be built for x number of workspaces/offices developed, we will always be in this mess. This is the equivalent of other cities dumping their dog shit in San Francisco.

    “Google housing axed in city’s general plan”

  13. > We can put more people in this town but need to
    think more about how/when/why.

    This in my opinion is part of where SF has gone drastically wrong. SF has 50,000 additional residents since 2010, net (i.e. not counting the displacement of people who’ve been forced out of the city) The city can’t stop people from moving here. The unfortunate lesson that SF progressives learned from the dotcom era you can cause the bubble to pop, and SF can be saved.

    SF housing costs had nothing to do with the tech bubble popping ( though it may or may not have played a role with those people moving out after the crash.)

    Nothing progressives do now are going to transform, what is probably a normal cyclical upturn in a rapidly advancing field into a bubble. Nor, is anything that they do going dictate when it pops even if it were a bubble.

    The current agitation for wrecking everything and hoping that it hastens the revolution is an amoral and foolish tactic out of the New Left’s playbook ,of which SF progressives are an aging revanchist fragment.

    The best that we can do is try accommodate the growth that’s already occurred and attempt to prudently plan for future growth, which entail a gigantic upgrade to our existing mass transit infrastructure and an enormous increase in the market rate housing supply.

  14. I don’t like smog, traffic, crowding, litter, noise, $4 toast, trotters, mac n’ cheese, cracker-box architecture, skinny jeans on men, “face-down” gadget users, crime, dogs (in a City), and paying $30 to go to a museum that used to be free.

  15. I am “pro-growth”. But it should mean growth in culture, better schools, housing for the homeless. Anyway, when the earthquake hits, the glass facade of the new buildings will come falling down even if the buildings stay up.

  16. This is an odd, parochial argument. Odd because it’s based on the false premise that the cost of city services aren’t already disproportionate shifted to new construction. Proposition 13 ensures that in an environment like SF, where property value have been escalating for decades, that those who’ve purchased recently share a disproportionate burden of from property tax. One can argue whether that is good or fair, but claiming that’s not the case is counter factual.

    Second, it’s parochial, because in cities with world class mass transit ‘growth’ is most certainly not paid for with ‘growth’. It is paid for with major outlays of capital expenditure, often at the national level.

    As an example, Singapor’s MTR system is arguably the most successful in the world. With a daily rider-ship of 4.8 million people and sufficient box-office recovery to turn a large profit (though it’s government owned and operated). Yet, construction on the entire system was only started in the late 60s only little before the time when the Bart system came on line. Or put another way the preeminate mass transit system in the world was only started after the point when SF’s major transit initiatives were over.

    Obviously SFs current problems are the result of a lack of vision and leadership, both at the city level and at the state and national level.

    One has to conclude that the reluctance of progressive forces to strongly support aggressive mass-transit expansion is unstated, and similar to the unstated goals of the Mission Moratorium: a desire to provoke a crisis that forces forces the tech bubble to pop and a corresponding mass exodus of techies, hopefully leaving enough of the remnants of old San Francisco to be able to reassemble a semblance of what the city was like in the mid 2000s or even better mid 1990s. Of all the arguments put forward, that’s actually the most cogent, or at least, least irrational. But it obviously has some defects with respect to plausibility or the morality of its objectives.

  17. I doubt that Tim was taking that subtle or sophisticated a view of ROI. I took him to mean a cost of a million and a return of 1.2 million.

    And even though the investment is phased, as you note, the developer still has to come with all of that million before he gets any of that 1.2 million.

    The situation is further complicated by leverage, which means the returns are higher, but so is the risk.

    A rule of thumb I have heard in the past is that the split is one third for the land, one third for the construction and one third for the profit. The more of that one third profit goes to the city, the less the project pencils out. which is why calls for 50% for BMR’s or for impact fees are so regressive

  18. Why start here? Because of the educated and creative workforce, the coolness factor, but mostly because they are drunk with VC money.

    Outsourcing doesn’t mean that a company’s HQ moves. It does means that the work that can be done by others in less costly regions or countries will be doing the work, and that will reduce the worker base here.

  19. But the investment is done over time as well.

    So, on an eight year project, there is the initial investment of land parentheses and if I was the city, I’d spend $250,000 to build a $900,000 “Affordable” initial investment looks like 20% let’s say, And add another 10% for planning, Etc. The bulk of the investment is in construction, maybe two thirds and that’s spent at the end of the development . So it’s really not three or 4% a year it’s much higher.

    Anyway, what happened to 35% ROI, like Rincon Hill?

  20. Yes, I understand your point. I’m just not sure that I agree. Would the ‘one-two punch’ of Uber having to revamp because of court rulings that say their workers are employees combined with a collapse of Twitter have a ripple effect on other tech sectors that rely upon the same VC monies? Would investors flee? I don’t know.

    As Fazal wrote above, we do have biotech as well which is government funded, so there is some diversity in revenues that support industries within these sectors, many of which still have not turned a profit.

  21. If it is so easy to outsource, why do you think so many startups are created in a ultra high-cost location like SF? Many countries or regions have tried to replicate Silicon Valley (which now extends into SF) and failed.
    SF also has a nascent biotech sector in Mission Bay to diversify from Information Technology.

  22. “We need to look at the city as being the Bay Area and not just SF. Not everyone who works in SF needs to live in SF.”

    Oh sure, let them drive here on already-clogged roads, or commute here on nonexistent subways.

  23. This entire website loses when you show up, and a quality debate degrades into stupid one-line insults.

    You must really hate Tim

  24. If that helps you deal with being our-debated, then that’s OK with me.

    How’s those new development at SVN and 15th and 16th coming along? Loving them, loser?

  25. Because they understand that 1/3 operates on gross numbers, not net. And because it allows for the trickle down benefits of new revenue streams

    Some cities give tax cuts to inward investment. You should be grateful for that 1/3. It’s free money

  26. The voters do not seem that interested in funding dysfunctional transport entities. Most people I know prefer private shuttles

  27. I still win every debate with you here. And the city is more the way I want it than the way you want it. Either way, I win

  28. No, the Planning Department and MTA are not programming to meet the growth and they’ve limited themselves to identifying and programming 1/3 of funding needed at a minimum to do that.

  29. My point is that tech isn’t an industry anymore – it’s a platform for much of the world’s economic activity. If you’re putting rideshare companies, food manufacturing/delivery companies, social media companies, robotics companies, and smart appliance manufacturers all in the same “tech” basket, your basket is still pretty diversified by any reasonable definition.

  30. The MTA has to provide real services now as well as be planning and implementing to handle new passenger loads. The MTA is doing none of this under conservative, pro-business mayors.

  31. The worst case is having no increase in the tax base.

    Other cities give tax BREAKS to attract investment because they better understand the trickle-down benefits.

  32. To your definition I would add “and easily outsourced.”

    And what you say is true. In the next 10 years or so, we will shift from valuing the technology that serves us content to valuing the content, and companies like Apple are heavily investing in content for that reason.

    All to say that one way or another, the future isn’t so great for ‘tech.’ It will always be needed, but the “glamour” and high salaries aren’t going to be sustained.

  33. And the people have no faith in Muni and so are unwilling to fund it further

    Fix Muni and THEN we talk about giving them more money

  34. No. Suppose a new building creates 1,000 new jobs. Is that 1,000 new residents and new transit trips. No, of course not. But the impact fee assumes that it is.

    Impact fees should work off net increases not gross increases

  35. It doesn’t even make sense to speak of “tech” as one industry anymore – the companies you call tech companies in 2015 operate in a many different markets. At this point, “tech” just means “relatively new and possibly makes use of online transactions, or an app”. There’s plenty of diversity there.

  36. Hestor is probably the least objective person in the room. She hates all growth so her opinions are biased and useless

    I believe lower fees are being considered appropriate because it is now recognized that the prior computations of impact were exaggerated. They missed various revenue streams and didn’t count compensating losses of jobs.

  37. That is just an idiotic argument. The net impact is an increase in the population and increase demand for services and infrastructure, regardless if the people moving into a new development “are already here” or not.

  38. We can have a diverse economy without stopping growth.

    We need to look at the city as being the Bay Area and not just SF. Not everyone who works in SF needs to live in SF

  39. Those who argue for zero growth and zero development want us to be more like Detroit than we are now.

    The voters reject that

  40. But again, you are making no allowance for the fact that many of the people taking that job are already here, or replace others who are here.

    In which case, the net impact is zero.

  41. The developers can always refuse any offer that doesn’t pencil out. There are many other cities that would welcome then.

    The city needs the money more than the money needs the city

  42. Yeah, it is that they are not getting the message, they are completely clueless as to the fact that they’re pulling a colossal scam job on San Franciscans.

    What is not getting done is creating a political coalition capable of making developers an offer that they cannot refuse because the people who whine about this the most are dependent upon the Mayor for their funding and are inhibited from acting politically.

  43. Ya mean Sue Hestor was unable to convince the Planning Commission that they were not doing the math? Hopefully, if she attends more Planning Commission meetings and more stridently makes her case, perhaps one day they will snap to and get it if only they had more information!

  44. By favoring one industry – tech – and facilitating the exodus of residents and businesses that are not associated with tech, we are indeed eroding our fiscal diversity and yes, a correction could devastate San Francisco. In that regard we are becoming Detroit.

    That’s is why any competent fiscal adviser tells us to diversify our personal portfolios. And it is the same for any city – economic diversity of the revenue base is like having insurance.

  45. I never implied negative or positive regarding creating new jobs or homes.

    I was only speaking to a revenue mechanism to pay for additional infrastructure costs that are directly linked to development.

    But a developer of buildings that are future homes or offices is doing so to make a profit. It isn’t some type of benevolent activity.

  46. There might just be an argument for developers to help to contribute to the net increase and impact that they create, as long as their returns are higher as well.

    But my point was that there is no offset for jobs and people that we lose. The fee works on the gross additional impact but take no account of the saving the city gets from displacement.

    If 10,000 arrive and 5,000 leave, the et impact is 5,000 not 10,000

    And those 10,000 probably pa a lot in taxes while the 5,000 pay less tax and consume more services.

    And what if the numbers arriving and leaving end up being the same? Zero impact, so there should be no fee

  47. We can already see what a city is like when all the money men leave. It’s called Detroit, and Tim would evidently prefer that.

    So why doesn’t he move there?

  48. So you are saying that there is zero benefit to the city of creating new homes and jobs? It’s all a negative to you?

  49. This is true. In fact there is fierce competition to attract development and inward investment between cities, counties and countries precisely because of the massive trickle-down benefits of having well-paid jobs created in a jurisdiction.

    It is not unreasonable for cities to partner with developers because of the mutual benefit. But killing the goose that lays the golden eggs is self-defeating. the reality is that the city needs developers more than developers need the city. They can go anywhere. We cannot.

  50. >”Sorry, you corporate welfare-queen types need to get the message. ”

    Absolutely the funniest thing that I’ve ever read at 48 Hills.

    Yes, the welfare queens in this city are clearly the people who are adding to the tax base instead of living off of it.

    They should just go away; the city will be just fine if it is 100% non profits and subsidized housing.

  51. So when the apartment complex in progress near ATT park burned to the ground, in part – according to the fire department – because the proper type of hydrant was too far from the complex, who should pay for that hydrant that was not needed until the development of the apartment complex? It wasn’t needed until the development.

    In a world of real urban planning and realistic fees, that hydrant and all other infrastructure needed for that development and then for the residents of that development would have been paid-for and implemented before any work began.

    Sorry, you corporate welfare-queen types need to get the message. Start paying your actual share or go away.

  52. Progressive theology is based on selective supply and demand, so, yes, removing a unit lowers revenue but adding one does not put that revenue back.

    A corollary involves market rate units. Adding one via construction hurts overall affordability. Removing one via AirBnb also hurts overall affordability.

    You can have it both ways. Ignoring logic is the key.

  53. How many times is Tim going to write about this subject without even mentioning that these new buildings and most of the people who work in them pay huge RE tax bills and make other contributions to the economy. This is the basis of our economy (along with tourism) and you can’t just ignore the fact that these buildings create huge revenue streams that just didn’t exist before.

    Tim Redmond deserves all of the ridicule that he gets. Yes, we should talk about direct impact fees but do so within a complete framework of revenues and costs. Don’t just talk about all costs and leave out the biggest revenue source that the city has.

    But I guess that Tim Redmond is the best that the progressives have to offer.

  54. This is an odd argument for someone who has beating the drums for growth and has speculated that SF could accommodate a population of 1.5 million. It doesn’t matter if people move away so long as they are replaced, and then some, by others. In fact, given your comments in the past, you think it would be a good thing if lower income people and/or minorities move out of SF.

    Given all the curcumstances Redmond has posed the question correctly. Are developers going to pay for the growth they anticipate?

  55. A 20% ROI on a project sounds good until we realize that that is spread over many years. So the annual return might be as low as 3% or 4% – much the same as you can get on relatively risk-free muni bonds.

    We can have a low fee on high growth or a high fee on low growth. But overall it won’t make much difference to how much money the city collects.

  56. Yes. But of course nobody here is suggesting that the impact fee be offset by jobs that vanish, homes that are removed or people who relocate out of town.

    Tim wants a one-way street. He wants $$$ for each new job or home, but no reduction in $$$ for those we lose.

    We could build for 10,000 mew homes and jobs, and yet another 10,000 people leave. net impact? Zero.

  57. There is no “cost to the city of allowing development”. There is only the alleged cost of the impact of the development. The fees are for improvements and not a shakedown for merely allowing a project.

    I question the impact estimates. A new job does not necessarily cause a new transit journey. It may just involve a different transit journey. Many jobs go to local residents who quit another job. Net impact? Zero.

    And why is no offsetting reduction in fee allowed for all the jobs that vanish, thereby reducing transit demand?

  58. All of those taxes paid by the ‘new residents’ pay for on-going costs. What is needed is a revenue stream to cover the cost to the city of allowing development.
    Those who profit from the development need to pay for their impact on the infrastructure.

  59. Tim,

    I’m sympathetic to the general issues & concerns raised in the article but isn’t it fair to assume that the various additional revenue sources from “new residents” also contribute to fill the two-thirds gap?

    I’m thinking of things like economic activity (sales taxes), employment related (payroll taxes, though granted not all new folks will work in SF), property taxes n’stuff.

    Not sure if any studies exist to quantify any of these things – and it’s probably as much art as science if it does – but just wanted to raise the topic.

    FWIW I’m personally generally pro-growth (24yr resident here) but am becoming real uneasy about the current pace vs. lack of accompanying infrastructure considerations, and the impact on the less than financially well-off. We can put more people in this town but need to think more about how/when/why.

    Thanks for doing what you do to keep 48 Hills alive – I’m sure it’s not all fun…

  60. Another issue is the nasty habit Planning has of coming up with “in lieu” fee projects that turn Muni Transportation fees into complete streets projects, including bulbouts, public seating, and plantings. If all the transportation fees were paid before the project inhabitants moved in and were spent on increased Muni operating costs directly effected by the increased population, (instead of going into non-Muni “property enhancements”) the amount of the fees would be less of an issue. As it is now, only a small portion of the fees are collected and most of that is collected after the properties are sold or leased out, so there is no time for Muni to add service to cover the needs of the new residents. The nexus studies are designed to impress anyone who isn’t paying attention to the lack of follow-through.

    My first realization of how the Transit fees get diverted came in March 1913, at a hearing on an in lieu project for the Whole Foods on Market and Dolores. See details:

  61. It all goes back to Willie Brown and his “pay to play” methods that he passed on to Newsom and then to Lee. Willie still runs this town, only now, more than ever, he does it from a white linen table cloth at some 5 star eatery. Everyone knows if you want your big projects approved by the City, you need to get Willie’s nod. One way or the other he has placed, referred or encouraged most of the commissioner assignments in various departments. I hope the latest Willie scum that floated up: Willie helped Silicon Valley scumbag, Gurbaksh Chahal get out of domestic violence charges (accused of hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times in less than a half hour…. will come back to haunt Willie and help expose all the corruption he’s been involved in….

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