Can SF get ahead of new technology? Maybe …

Plus the last bogus Question Time, and the future of Soma -- that's The Agenda for April 9-15

San Francisco is not good at figuring out how to handle new technology. When Uber and Lyft began breaking the law and operating taxis without permits, City Hall could see what was going on; in fact, the head of the Taxi Commission complained to me repeatedly that these companies were out of control.

But the supes and the mayor did nothing to crack down until Uber was big enough to get the state to legalize its activities, preventing any local oversight.

Nazeer Sadiq, a cab driver for 21 years, says Uber “is killing us.” That happened while the city ignored the illegal industry; maybe we can do better

Airbnb was hardly a secret either; the company operated in the open, promoted its services – and every single listing violated city law, with impunity, for years, until the company had enough money and clout to win over the likes of Mayor Ed Lee, then-Sup. David Chiu and five other board members who retroactively legalized the company’s activities without even demanding back taxes.

We were going down the same road with self-driving cars, butnow that an Uber vehicle has killed a woman,that’s on hold everywhere. And now there are delivery robots headed for the sidewalks. Soon, we will see Amazon drones dropping off packages.

Always, always, San Francisco – the city that is home to so many innovative companies – is way behind the curve when it comes to regulations.

We have all these departments that encourage development, that encourage growth, that encourage new businesses – but we have nobody who is tasked with making sure that the next round of technology isn’t going to lead to evictions, traffic jams, displacement, and death.

Sup. Norman Yee, who is worried about delivery robots(and so am I), is now suggesting, very gently, that the city administrator convene and “Emerging Technology Task Force” to “inform and adopt future legislation regulating businesses that use emerging technologies.”

The measure comes up at the Rules Committee Wednesday/11. It’s a start; there’s no guarantee that the city administrator will do anything, or that a task force will be effective. But the resolution puts on the agenda an idea that ultimately might have to become law. Someone needs to be paying attention before the next Airbnb wrecks the city’s housing stock, or the new Uber destroys the cab industry and puts tens of thousands more cars on the streets. Or the next robot runs over someone on the sidewalk.

Mayor Mark Farrell will appear before the board Tuesday/10 for what may be the last Question Time governed by the old rules, which pretty much made these monthly events a farce.

No supervisor has submitted a written question in advance. That was the past requirement. Under new guidelines written by Sup. Aaron Peskin, the supes in the future will only have to give the Mayor’s Office a general idea of the topics to be discussed, and there will be a chance for a real policy discussion, not a set of rote remarks.

The Peskin measure is up for final passage at the same board meeting. Sups. London Breed, who is running for mayor, joined Katy Tang and Catherine Stefani as the only dissenting votes April 3; unless something changes, the measure will become law after this week.

The Central Soma Plan comes before the Planning Commission Thursday/12, and it puts into focus some of the most pressing issues facing San Francisco.

For one thing, the plan would allow office space for some 40,000 new jobs – and allow space for only 7,000 new housing units. And it’s not easy to change: The environmental impact report on the plan is already done, and it only analyzed the office-heavy proposal. So anything that mandates a lot more housing (like, three times as much) would have to go back to the starting point.

Where will all those people live? How will they get to work?

San Francisco, the Yimbys like to say, has historically not allowed enough housing. That’s not actually true (more on that to come), in recent years, the city has allowed a lot more office space, attracting tech companies with lots of jobs – but has never kept pace on the housing side.

I would argue that we allowed too much office and tech development, too fast. The Yimbys would like to say that we now need to catch up by letting the free market build lots of housing, which doesn’t work. But my Hippocratic Oath of Housing Policy is: First, do no harm. That is, don’t make things any worse than they already are, and adding a lot of new office space without housing – particularly affordable housing – makes no sense.

TODCO has its own plan, calling for 50 percent affordable housing – and extensive community benefits.That’s important because if there’s one axiom we all ought to be able to agree on, it’s that in a Prop. 13 world, growth doesn’t pay for growth. The additional tax revenue the city will get from all this new office space and (luxury) housing won’t cover the cost of the city services needed to support it and mitigate its impacts. Never has, never will. Not without massive, stringent community benefits agreements that go far beyond anything the city has ever seen.

Planning has to approve this, but in the end, all of the implementing legislation has to go to the supes. So this is Step One. And some commissioners have already said they aren’t happy.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Right now, San Francisco has an opportunity to get ahead of a new “technology.” If one can call it that. We have three companies flooding our sidewalks with scooters that can be rented with a smart phone app. The people riding these things are ignoring rules, and creating serious hazards for themselves and others. They are riding on sidewalks (which is illegal), not wearing helmets, and are allowed to leave the scooters wherever suits them (including blocking doors, and wheelchair cutouts on sidewalks. The companies are employing the “Uber” model, flood the market while ignoring the law, and hope they are too popular to be put out of business. San Francisco should end this immediately.

  2. Yes, this. The plan is unpopular. I don’t know anyone who thinks that it is. I don’t think I’ve even read a positive comment on it. Yet all the conspiracy theories surround SB827, Breed, and Weiner and yet not a peep about this stupid plan which is apparently really close to coming to fruition.

  3. Really? No mention of Jane Kim, one of the primary advocates of the Central SoMa Plan. It will be her biggest legacy in District 6. Not a lot of activists, Yimby, Progressive, or otherwise in favor of the plan. Not everyday you see Sonja Trauss and John Elberling testifying against the same plan.

  4. One of the worst things Ed Lee did as mayor was allowing Airbnb, Uber and Lyft to violate the law without interference. Uber and Lyft managed to get the state to, uh, “regulate” them (i.e. let them run loose) and Airbnb bought themselves David Chiu and five others. Now, the “robot” companies are trying to pull the same sort of stunt. We very much need change, starting at the top and going down to the Board.

  5. The “golden goose” of urban prosperity has always been new investment and highly paid jobs. The “goose” lays increased tax revenue eggs to rebuild aging infrastructure and provide political patronage. New investment funds development projects that employ lesser skilled labor(always in excess supply) with livable wages. And if the investment pays off with large profits, newly wealthy individuals are minted who can become civic leaders and give philanthropy to cultural activities of their choosing that invigorate(or maintain) the urban ethos, attracting more investment. So the process continues.

    Looking at new investment as a threat is a luxury only places that can survive stasis can afford. Those include rural areas with no population growth and little infrastructure to maintain. And wealthy exurbs and enclaves that can maintain their infrastructure with internal funding.

    Yes, SF welcomed disruptive technologies as the goose. Now, SF can afford a $10 Billion public budget. Infrastructure, some of it 100 years old, is being replaced and public projects once dismissed as too costly, like climate change mitigation, are being funded. Private building owners have the means and incentives to invest in modernization renovations and extraordinary earthquake strengthening.

    Is “the goose” fair? I don’t have a lock on defining what fair is. But it seems to me that seniority and “first come first served” aren’t usually the best standard for determining fairness. Look no further than California’s water rights laws as proof of that.

  6. The TODCO plan and the city plan are amazingly different. I hope you do a more in-depth coverage of it. Just to give an idea, the TODCO plan has 2.5 times more residential-zoned area than the city plan, 3 times more service+light industrial, but half the office-zoned area. It has 30% more affordable housing. A lot of thought went into that plan.