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Home News + Politics Newsom’s lawyer says SF voters are stupid

Newsom’s lawyer says SF voters are stupid

State Lands Commission argues that San Franciscans aren't smart enough to understand land-use issues; former city attorney Renne calls that position 'elitist in the extreme.'

In a lawsuit challenging whether voters can reject commercial developments on the San Francisco waterfront, attorneys for the State of California called an expert witness this week who questioned the voters’ cognitive ability to make decisions about complex real estate projects.

The California State Lands Commission, on which Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom sits, filed the lawsuit against his former hometown in 2014 aft­er San Francisco voters passed Proposition B, requiring every each new construction project requesting a height limit increase seek approval directly from the voters.  The commission claimed state law delegates oversight of the waterfront to the Port of San Francisco alone, and specifically does not allow ballot initiatives to influence the Port’s governance.

Former City Attorney Louise Renne says Newsom’s argument is ‘elitist in the extreme.’

After opening statements Wednesday, the state’s expert witness, Jim Chappell, suggested voters aren’t equipped to evaluate the complexities of real estate deals comprised of investor term sheets hundreds of pages long.

“I was frankly appalled with the state’s case and the testimony yesterday, saying voters of San Francisco are not smart enough or informed enough to know what they are voting on,” said Louise Renne, a former city attorney. “In effect, what the witness was saying was that only public officials know best. Is that really what our democracy is founded on?”

Renne’s law firm filed amicus briefs against the state on behalf of the Sierra Club and California State Assemblyman John Burton, who authored the Burton Act—the very law the State Lands Commission is citing, which delegates oversight to local officials. Burton said he never intended the law to prevent the voters of San Francisco from exercising jurisdiction over the waterfront.

“There was a lot of cynicism on the part of Mr. Chappell on the public’s ability to participate in the electoral process,” said Becky Evans, of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Drawing a contrast to the ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana, Chappell said legalizing marijuana was a simple “yes/no” question.  It did not have the kinds of complexities that a real estate project has, he said, and ballot measures are not an appropriate way to gauge the intricacies of real estate issues.

As Renne put it, “I thought it was elitist in the extreme.”

Jon Golinger, a supporter of Prop. B, said most commissioners who are political appointees are no more thoughtful than voters. “I would argue generally less, because they are often told exactly how to vote,” he said.

Asking the plaintiff questions about their approach at trial proved difficult. Chappell declined comment while the trial is underway, out of respect for the process, he said. The attorney for the state, Deputy Attorney General Joel Jacobs, referred questions to the Attorney General’s press office, which did not respond to requests for comment.  Sheri Pemberton, chief of external affairs for the State Lands Commission, said they do not comment on pending litigation.

A second witness for the state, an expert on the financial aspects of Port developments, also testified on Thursday. Karen Weymann said that because real estate projects under Prop. B risk being rejected by voters, it may persuade some developers to abandon projects rather than move forward and place more capital at risk. Because construction on a waterfront is more complicated and involves working with more regulatory agencies than projects farther inland, the pool of qualified developers is small to start with, she said. If direct approval from the voters is required for each project requesting a height increase, it will be even smaller.

Weymann also tried to make the point that without Prop. B, developers would normally engage in a dialogue with the community and accommodate feedback as a proposal is refined.

Under Prop. B, however, developers just end up with a straight up-or-down vote without community input, she said.

But this argument didn’t make much sense to Golinger, who didn’t understand why Prop B. is mutually exclusive with community input.  “Do both,” he said.

Golinger also said that the group of people who attend these community meetings is entirely self-selected or hand-picked by developers, and not a representative cross-section of the voting population. “They never are,” he said. “Go to any meeting for a developer project. They don’t invite everyone, they invite the people they want.”

Weymann argued another drawback of Prop. B was that because the threat of voter rejection could sink a project, developers would choose to put project proposals on the ballot early in their development process, and projects which passed voter approval may be met with less scrutiny when they come up for evaluation by other agencies further down the overall approval process.  “Even though theoretically the only thing being approved at the ballot box is the height, the ballot measures may outline other aspects of the buildings,” she said.

Much of Weymann’s direct testimony and all of her cross-examination took place in a closed court session because of a protective order surrounding some of the financial figures she was discussing.

“It was closed because there is ongoing negotiation for these projects,” said Deputy City Attorney Christine Van Aken, who is representing San Francisco at the trial. “In broad terms, the witness was talking about finances.  She looked at court documents and gave her opinion that she believes Port revenue from the projects declined as a result of changes to the projects that were made after Prop B.”

Van Aken said the city has always felt good about its legal position, and nothing in the trial so far has changed that.

The trial is scheduled to resume on Tuesday and Wednesday next week.


  1. … but the water !

    IF you build a big, greasy freeway, you’ll get way more people (people following infrastructure) than if you expand it to a 3-laner (this is an example of infrastructure following people). There are other ways to slow growth (which makes existing stuff more expensive).

  2. I can’t imagine Park Merced will generate much load on 19th street transit, as there are not a lot of Jobs in the Sunset/Richmond. Wouldn’t most residents take the M downtown, or head to Daly city BART?

  3. In the example provided there were people living there and traveling back a forth before the rail lines. It may be somewhat of a chicken and egg question but people cause infrastructure, not the other way around. But may be true that when you improve roads to meet the demand you get more demand.

    I have inherited property in Western Sonoma, I have been going up there for 75 years and have seen a lot of growth. There was a controversy about widening the highway between Novato and Petaluma. People were against because it would encourage more people moving into the area; don’t build it and they won’t come. So it was not built, but they still came. Now it is being built.

  4. How does reducing the amount of housing mean more crowding? How does higher housing costs mean more commuting? Is there an example in the Bay Area where housing prices mean shorter commutes? 80% of the Bay Area workers don’t work in San Francisco. Presumably, if they work in a City with lower housing prices they would commute less far. Where is such a city?

    It is true that more people moving into the Bay Area has meant building more housing on land that was previously open space. You could not fit all those people into San Francisco. Most people don’t want to live in high density. 90% of California is still rural open space so that is not a major problem.

    Up in Western Sonoma, land zoned for agriculture was rezoned as rural residential allowing a house on 2.5 acres. Where there was pasture, chicken coops, or orchards there are now homes surround by trees. There are more trees and wildlife than there was before.

  5. I looked up “ring cities” but could not find a definition. The Bay Area already has a lot of cities and they are connected by roads and transit. The majority, over 80%, of people and jobs are outside of San Francisco. I suppose these cities could have higher population densities. Maybe their citizens don’t want more density. But there are proposals in most of the larger cities outside of SF to build multiunit buildings in some parts of the city. I know Santa Rosa is looking where the can do that.

  6. The issue is linking Park Merced to the Daly City BART? They can’t run a bus? You propose is to keep the current towers and build more housing around them? I am not clear on what you mean by spreading the pain by a connector on Sunset Blvd.

  7. There was no serious efforts for bi-county linkage to Daly City Bart and they ignored the further more costly stretch to Daly City…

    They also ignored an infill phased option which would be less carbon impactful and create a better and more dense solution with reworked unrettofitted existing 11 towers…

    The brotherhood way, alemany fly-over and I-280 roadblocks are the real issues coupled with a reimagined Daly City Bart station for the Westside density proposed….

    Not to mention spreading the pain into some of the home owner areas with possibly a north south connector on sunset Blvd to help with the ocean beach master plan changes and coming infill density pressures of the west side…

    We all gotta bend a little in the scheme of things (public process and needs) but private influence is killing the best options… We could use a more open public selection process on decisions of mass-planning moves….

  8. Problem is they did not do anything worthwhile for transit and allowed a developer to dictate terms for the public transit solution currently plans for 19th Ave are insufficient

  9. The only solution when the bucket is overflowing is to get another bucket and see if you can collect the overflow… Ring cities are seen in many planning images it’s not rocket science and would help alleviate SF’s overgrowth… Transit should be the main collection system and you can build a “Parkmerced” in every adjacent city … As long as transit is linked.. The suburbs are full of single story strip malls begging for redevelopment density but lacking transit options… (See the California valley)

  10. Interurban street cars were a big deal 100 yrs ago. Ever wonder why S Scott Fitzgerald’s character ends up broke – having all his inheritence in Street Car Bonds! A boom idea before the advent of the automobile. By the 30s’ they were near worthless.

    But those streetcars were near universal in American urban landscape. And they fueled what were called ‘street car suburbs’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streetcar_suburb – like parts of Oakland, Albany, Richmond served by the Key System, and peninsula towns like Burlingame. Tracks extended down Mission Rd and El Camino to Palo Alto and beyond. Of course, they were all but abandoned in the 40s and ripped up for scrap.

    Of course there was expansion of existing roads. But generally easier to expand to put in something new. Its funny that although there used to be street cars on the Bay Bridge and duel lines into SF from SP in the peninsula, changes (like the new Bay Bridge, and ‘modernization’ of Caltrain track (overpasses, etc) have resulted in eliminating that capacity for transit; often in favor of cars, but also to limit transit utilization).

  11. Don,

    In rural areas housing comes first. Don’t developers in places like SF have to pay for roads and sewers and water hook-ups and fire hydrants?


  12. I recall the Exodus from the City to the Peninsula. There were major traffic jams before they built the Freeway. Westlake came before they widened John Daly Blvd and the Skyline. They generally widen roads to accommodate traffic already there. I don’t recall trolleys on El Camino Real. In the late 40’s and early 50’s we took that route all the time to visit friends I think the Bay-shore was a two lane road back then.

  13. Switching to hyperbole? Or I guess that’s what it was from the start.

    I’m still scratching my head over your ‘poor people as decorations’ comment.

  14. He can’t make that decision because it’s illegal for a developer to buy his garage and put badly needed homes on it instead.

  15. Well, how did Suburbia come into being then? I remember our first home was newly built, on a former farm, with the ‘freeway’ at the end of the street. It was still rural, so that one day, we awoke to dozens of cows looking in our picture window! because they had gotten out of the corral somehow.

    I’ve seen old pictures (1920?) of Oakland, with a trolley knickering out 14th past acres of pastures. You know, all those pastures in San Antonio and Fruitvale districts? The trolleys were actually throw-aways for real estate development. I suspect that’s how Daly City and South City grew up too; spurred by the trolleys heading down El Camino.

    Its a lot cheaper to put in the infrastructure first (purchasing pastures, instead of demo-ing already built homes). Nor sure if I can imagine Manhattan sprouting skyscrapers w/o the subways that were put in years earlier.

  16. My rule of thumb is that if I don’t understand it I vote no. It is true that many of these propositions are difficult to understand.

  17. There is a reverse trend in other metro areas where Millennial’s are moving out of the central cities. That is part of a normal trend just like the Boomers. Millennial’s are aging, having children, and moving to the suburbs where they can find more affordable single family homes.

    What is the point about I’ve got mine homeowners? In my single-family owner-occupied neighborhood Millennial’s are starting to move in. Anyone can have what I have. There is turnover. Old people don’t live forever and younger people move out for a variety of reasons. The problem is the shortage of single-family homes in the City.

    Also isn’t being ensconced in rent controlled apartments a good thing? That is probably why SF has less of a housing crisis than other Bay Area counties.

  18. I think it has always been the case that traffic infrastructure follows the demand. Housing generally comes first.

  19. I think a lot of policy around SF housing has the idea that we need to worry about preserving a small number of current poor residents in neighborhoods instead of asking how we provide adequate affordable housing to everyone. That’s what I mean by decorations.

  20. The other day you mocked rent control. When I replied ‘good to know where you stand’ you deleted the comment. When I noted you’d deleted the comment, you went and modified it a third time.

    If what you say is true, you should be able to cruise in as D6 supervisor. Time will tell.

  21. On the one hand we have people who own million dollar homes. On the other we have someone who owns a garage, who might want to put several affordable homes on top of it to maximize the value of his investment. What exactly is wrong with small apartment buildings on commercial sites?

  22. “The yimby movement isn’t here to stay. It’s a trend.”

    YIMBYism is definitely a youth-led movement of both renters and those aspiring to one day own their own home.

    NIMBYism, on the other hand, is led by “I’ve-got-mine” homeowners (and perhaps a smattering of others who comfortably ensconced in rent controlled apartments) who are, by and large, older persons, i.e., “Baby Boomers”.

    Accordingly, YIMBYism, by definition, is the future and it is definitely “here to stay”.

    As older home-owning Boomers die off, Millennials — as the largest demographic since the Boomers — are taking over the political reins.

    It’s (thankfully) inevitable.

  23. What’s a hub-perimeter area? Why spread the pain? To some density is not a pain, but to others it is.

  24. Have you asked him? Or is it more important for you to have poor people around as decorations then to improve their lives.

  25. Isn’t better grounds for overturning the decision the fact that only 5% of voters voted in the election?

  26. And John Rodriguez could get filthy rich as a reward for a lifetime of hard work if he was allowed to put homes on top of that shop.

  27. I don’t know, ‘takeover’ was your word. I called it a hijack. Coup would be most appropriate.

    Tell Dewsnup I say hi.

  28. I guess you could call placing one YIMBY on the board of the Sierra Club a takeover. If YIMBYs took over the Sierra Club, and set the club on a more environmentally sound path that was more consistent with the mission of the club, is that a takeover? Especially since the club has already been co-opted? Seems not so cut and dried.

    Anyway, I understand there is value in these neighborhood institutions, but that doesn’t mean protecting them is best for everyone, or best for the environment, or consistent with the mission of the Sierra Club.

  29. The idea that we need infrastructure before development or (concurrent with development) would be valid, except for the fact that there’s no shortage of NIMBYs opposing infrastructure improvements as well. Fear of development prevented a subway line along Geary in the 1970s, and also prevented BART from running to Marin. It’s just an excuse, and after 50 years of excuses the housing is going to have to come first. Then we’ll suffer and little, and then we’ll make meaningful improvements to our infrastructure.

    Re spreading out development, this is what SB827 does. Instead of one giant project like Park Merced, we’ll have lots of small projects on small parcels spread out all over the place.

  30. The yimby movement isn’t here to stay. It’s a trend. Amy Farrah Weiss ran as the yimby mayoral candidate last election, but I haven’t seen her attach the word yimby to herself anywhere for this election.

    The Alouis garage is historic.

  31. You mean the ‘takeover’ wasn’t an attempt to take it over? Just a warning shot?

    The Alouis garage is historic, thanks for including that fact. The Harding Theater two doors down almost got taken out as well. We’ve had to rally in the neighborhood to make sure the Independent stays secure.

    Divisadero was repair garages by day (+ other working class businesses) and jazz clubs by night. Yimby’s want us to ‘get over ourselves’ and show no resistance.

    Kitty corner to the former Alouis garage is Precision Auto. The old man, John Rodriguez, has been going to that corner for over 65 years. You can see him in the garage office — with his uniform on — when you walk by. He owns the whole corner (bbq joint, pot club, auto garage, house behind pot club) and his three sons run the shop.

    This type of history might not be important to you, but it is to me. Next time you see Donald Dewsnup take a good look at the schmuck. John Rodriguez has more integrity in his little finger.

  32. We can always argue extremes, the garage historic item, is one, similar to the mcdonalds on height and density should occur. But the major lacking areas of density are outside the SF perimeter, where major transit lines need to be created, and redesigning of the suburbs especially re-engineered to improve the connectivity and transit connections of hub-perimeter areas. We cannot just keep shoveling housing down the throats of neighborhoods without a true and equitable balance of transit, ammenities, and essential facilities being built… (Take Libraries, Public Pools, Parks, Playgrounds, and Schools…) Transit and Housing are the biggie items, and unfortunately they have lagged (BOTH) in terms of adequate and up-front approvals and completion.

    Take the DTX downtown, nice article in the SF Examiner, on Central Subway and DTX… All those towers were supposedly to be built with the DTX completion in mind….

    Why should Parkmerced get to move forward when real transit planning is super lagging behind, and the modus-operandi of the agreements was based on “green-sustainable” TOD type housing which already exists there… Infill is usually the best alternative, and building up is something all neighborhoods must now “absorb” in order for us to play fair with where and in what ways density occurs.

    I spoke to the WOTPCC, and CSFN prior, and noted that density is a balance, it includes ALL neighborhoods, you cannot place it all in one corner of the city, that leads to a tipped boat… You gotta spread the pain.

    This also includes Bi-County growth options, to lessen impacts on one district/city vs. spreading it across the board and into other non-developing areas (Example Brisbane, SSF, and other cities adjacent like Daly City which has from top of the hill down to colma a huge number of single story buildings, and ZERO proposal for a light-rail solution or shuttle system to alleviate traffice.

    Brisbane and SSF can also link better to do a shorter trolley line possibly from Brisbane Development to Candlestick and around to Pier 70 or Warriors Arena, and down south to Millbrae and the airport… or perhaps cross bay.

    We need definitely the impetus of the sierra club, and a more congenial atmosphere between Nimby’s and Yimby’s to solve this and taking over organizations to prove a point is not the method. Better to attend and speak as another seperate organization and ask to sit down to discuss “planks” where we meet up and agree, and areas we need to compromise better.

  33. The Sierra Club has already been co-opted by anti-housing interests (eg Calvin Welch) who are actively engaged in policy that runs counter to the mission of the club, like preserving parking ratios and historic car repair garages. It’s like the EPA now that Scott Pruitt is in charge: an environmental organization on the outside, but the real agenda is often personal and counter to the club’s stated goals and spirit. It’s especially insidious because the club has a good reputation and people don’t question their motives.

    YIMBYs are pissed because the Sierra Club opposition not only runs counter to YIMBY goals, but also the Sierra Club’s own stated environmental goals. The “takeover” was meant to bring attention to/ prevent the bad behavior of the club.

  34. Views are just one aspect of quality of life. E.g. residents of San Quentin have some of the best views in the Bay Area, but I wouldn’t say their overall quality of life is particularly good.

    Imagine we hired a unbiased 3rd party to create a policy that balances the quality of life for all residents of the Bay Area, while minimizing adverse impacts on the environment such as destruction of natural habitat and generation of CO2. What do you think that would look like? Would they prioritize the views of a small group of affluent people overlooking Port of San Francisco land? How about fighting to protect a historic car repair garage?

    When the Sierra Club fights to lower the height of buildings and save car repair garages, they are reducing the amount of housing created. That means reduced quality of life for many residents in the form of crowding, higher housing costs, long commute times, etc. It also means more CO2 generated commuting and more pressure to create housing in other places, like undeveloped natural habitat.

  35. I expected 60 comments by now! What happened to all the self-interested real estate trolls usually so fast to attack the majority of San Francisco voters?

  36. The current state housing bills are doing away with environmental review, even for shoreline projects. The yimby’s tried to hijack the Sierra Club board. It’s all well documented.

    Doing away with environmental reviews is the trademark of bully capitalism. This is how DAPL secured their pipeline. It is crucial the Sierra Club take a multi-faceted approach to protecting the environment.

  37. If you live anywhere in SF, you would understand that the views of the bay are disappearing from numerous points in the city…. The blockade of towers is slowly but surely infilling the views out…. This affects the city and its inhabitants daily, and the public should decide especially as it is a waterfront issue and concern.

  38. I dare anyone to read the true text of virtually any State of City Proposition (without the summary) and understand what they are voting on.

  39. I don’t understand why the Sierra Club is filing this lawsuit. Shouldn’t they be protecting wetlands and open space, not the views of the telegraph hill dwellers?

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