How the Bay Area's Waterfront Height Limit Could Be a Disaster for Waterfront Resiliency

San Francisco voters just approved the kind of urban-planning tool that makes resilient design so difficult: direct democracy.

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Robert Galbraith/Reuters

With the vote on San Francisco's waterfront height limit resolved last week, it's time for residents to move on to more pressing waterfront issues: namely, rising sea levels. That's the gist of a column by San Francisco architecture critic John King that aims at looking past the recent political standoff over Proposition B toward new measures to protect the city against rising tides.

King cites estimates for the Bay to rise by roughly 1 foot by 2050 and another 4 feet by 2100, figures he describes as conservative. The costs for ameliorating the changes brought on by rising waters are anything but: The work alone to make San Francisco's seawall seismically stable could cost the city $1 billion. 

But the vote on Proposition B—which gave residents an up-or-down say in any building along a 7.5-mile stretch of waterfront that exceeds existing height limits—is part of the problem facing San Francisco. Climate change is in every respect a political problem, and (while it is of course not a political problem particular to San Francisco) residents' shortsighted vote on Proposition B reveals the politics to which the climate's future is falling prey. 

King knows as much: 

South of Mission Creek, there's an opportunity to use multi-acre projects to improve conditions along the shoreline. Designs could include raised sites that double as berms, and parks that double as detention basins for storm water.

But this requires large-scale planning that accepts the complexity of a volatile future. Compare that to the regularity with which Prop. B leaders looking to scare voters would conjure up images of Fontana Towers—a pair of buildings next to Aquatic Park completed in 1960, 15 years before most of today's San Franciscans were even born.

By an overwhelming margin, supporters of the Waterfront Height Limit Right to Vote Act passed one of the NIMBYist measures in recent memory, protecting views and values for incumbent homeowners at the expense of future residents. And in the long-run, it works against the interests of homeowners looking to protect their viewsheds, their investments, and their way of life. 

Ostensibly, the 59 percent of San Francisco voters who turned out in support of Proposition B were voting to preserve their city from the luxury condo towers arriving in peer cities with increasing frequency. Consider One Thousand Museum, a 62-story ultra-luxury tower designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid that recently broke ground in Miami. With San Francisco's height limits along the waterfront ranging from 40 to 80 feet, generally speaking, this project wouldn't pass muster in the City by the Bay—at least, not without an up-or-down vote from residents. And if there's any confusion about the interest that this is meant to protect, just consider the slogan of the successful campaign to reinforce the height limits: "No Wall on the Waterfront." 

One Thousand Museu, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects (center). This one would face long odds on San Francisco's waterfront. 

Now, arguably, plain views of the ocean are more pleasant than views obstructed by luxury towers. And the bill did have a certain commonsensical logic to it: If voters can prevent luxury developers from building premium luxury towers in places where they don't want these towers being built, then they can preserve San Francisco as the kind of city that attracted residents to it in the first place. This logic earned Proposition B endorsements from the Affordable Housing Alliance, Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, Housing Rights Committee, and other organizations committed to income equality and affordable housing.

But the logic is mistaken: The lack of housing supply is the very thing that's lead to higher housing costs. And the lack of new housing supply prevents filtering, the process whereby building new housing, even those dread luxury condominiums, lowers costs for residents by increasing supply, while also creating opportunities for residents to move on up. Leaving the decision about whether and what to build to voters—many of them home-owners whose investments rise with the restrictions on housing—promises a sharp new tool for constraining housing supply.

So the fact that the Sierra Club would endorse Proposition B does come as a surprise. The planning that King describes as a model, an effort to develop a holistic scheme for the half-mile-long Mission Creek area, is easily thwarted in referendum measures. To enable voters to thump critical planning efforts for the narrow reasons of self interest is a powerful precedent to set before setting out to craft a city policy on resilient design. "If you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system—to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities—you would create climate change," as Ezra Klein puts it. "And then you would stand back and watch the world burn."

From SPUR's June 2014 voter guide

That's not to say that San Francisco voters wouldn't enthusiastically support the kinds of resilient design programs being envisioned for Toronto, New York, and Boston, were they put up to a vote. Maybe Bay Area voters are the type who strike down luxury towers but stand behind their seawalls. I wouldn't put it past them. 

But by limiting the scope of new luxury development along the waterfront, the city loses political leverage vis–à–vis developers and the financial windfalls afforded by new property taxes. Density is itself a resilient design strategy. As the editors of Resilience and Ecology in Urban Design explain, Manhattanites carry a lower ecological footprint per capita than residents of any other city in the nation. PlaNYC is an effort to make up for the negative qualities that have accumulated with density, but promoting density is an important part of that effort. 

With Proposition B, San Francisco residents are looking at a two-fold political problem. They've voted to recognize individual incumbent needs over the collective interest, which only exacerbates the problem it is meant to ameliorate (the high costs of housing). The referendum also restricts the kind of smart development that the city can pursue, especially with regard to density. The law is the same kind of limited thinking that makes climate change such an intractable problem—and worse, could have serious implications for how San Francisco deals with climate change in the future. 

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.