The outcome was no surprise. Without a large neighborhood population, or a strong elected official raising objections, most of these projects south of the Ferry Building get rubber-stamped. Commissioners voting against the project included the Hon. Tom Bates (Mayor of Berkeley and former Assemblyman) and other BCDC commissioners who recognized the wholesale planning violations taking place.
BCDC APPARENTLY VIOLATING STATE LAW:
Aside from defying planning common sense by inundating a 2.7-acre park with two “mega-restaurants” ("Chronicle’s" description), most BCDC Commissioners (and staff) also seemed to be defying their obligation under state law to “maximize” views and access.
The BCDC Commission and staff have stonewalled requests for six years that they respond to a legal opinion letter (sent to BCDC by a major west coast law firm in 2000) that outlines the Rincon project’s legal and planning violations. It makes it clear that (under state code sections 66602-4) “BCDC is obligated by law to review projects for consistency with the Bay Plan…and projects inconsistent with the Bay Plan may not be approved.” The seven-page letter then details the Rincon project’s violations of Bay Plan policies on public access, appearance, design, scenic views, and recreation. It also explains how the “project is not consistent with the Total Design Plan for the San Francisco Waterfront.” If BCDC disagreed with these findings, staff should have been able to explain why. They never have. Click here to read the legal opinion letter.
The process is clearly stacked in favor of the developer. The chair of the BCDC Commission, R. Sean Randolph (a Schwarzenegger appointee), openly advocated during the November meeting taking a “straw vote” to see if the developers had the votes to win approval. If they didn’t, he was going to delay the vote until another meeting.
Although there was only one project on the agenda, the commission meeting was held in Oakland in the middle of a workday. This of course made it very difficult for neighbors to attend. The meeting could have been held at BCDC’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco – only a few blocks from Rincon Park – where the commission regularly meets.
Before going to the commission, the project was reviewed several times by BCDC’s Design Review Board (DRB). When writing official overviews of the DRB meetings for the commission, staff routinely omitted concerns expressed by DRB members. Click here to read a summary of the staff overviews.
In one of the most blatant examples of corrupted planning, BCDC staff, Port staff, and the various developers consistently, repeatedly and knowingly misrepresented the size of the buildings to the numerous boards and commissions reviewing the project. They also tried to cover up the violations of the RFP’s height, location and square footage requirements. It is a story that only a Tom Delay would appreciate.
Various developers competed for the opportunity to build a single, one-story restaurant in Rincon Park. According to the project’s official restrictions specified in the Port’s Request for Proposals (RFP), the restaurant could have no more than 12,000 square feet and be no more than 17-feet high. There was a diagram showing an area of the park in which it could be built (above the red line) and which areas had to remain as open space.
After winning the competition over other developers, the successful team decided they wanted to build two, two-story restaurants instead. The square footage would be increased fifty-percent, and they would exceed the height limit. One building would be completely outside the boundary shown in the RFP.
The Port bent over without hesitation and agreed to all these increases in the scope and size of the project. Even so, a Port staff person reported to BCDC that “the project is consistent with the Request for Proposals” (BCDC official minutes 9-12-05).
When questioned off-the-record about the increased height, the development’s project manager said they “interpret” the height limit to mean 17-feet above the park’s grade. The site was flat as a pancake, so their logic had it that if they proposed and built some decorative hills (as high as 8-feet), that would increase the grade, and they could therefore build higher buildings. Under this ridiculous logic, there would be no limit on the height of the hills…or the buildings. The Port not only went along with this scheme, but started defending it.
Let’s be clear: no mounds of any kind were contemplated when the Port wrote its RFP. The RFP was also very clear in stating there would be a 17-foot height limit on the building (singular). In case someone didn’t understand the limit, the RFP restated that “a design concept which includes a building taller than the 17’ height limit would be unacceptable.”
The overall problem with all this expansion of buildings and mounds is that they act as barriers between the city and the bay. The mound under the Cupid’s Span sculpture blocks views and limits access for an entire block now (left).
The area west of Rincon Park is about to be inundated with high-rise residential buildings (two are under construction now just one block from the park), and the area seriously needs open space. There are enough fancy restaurants in the area already (including the Steuart Street restaurant row).
The biggest problem with the restaurants may actually be the way they are laid out. They will stretch out end-to-end, their long sides parallel to the waterfront (see diagram above right). That maximizes views for restaurant patrons only. The size requirements should not have been exceeded (and that makes the problem worse), but even with the increased height and square footage, the restaurants could easily have been situated better to allow more visual and physical access for the thousands of people who now enjoy the view (from across the street, on the N-Judah streetcar, from the bike lane, or from the 12-Folsom bus stop, among others).
Apparently the developers thought the bigger buildings and mounds – along with the RFP violations – might cause them problems during the approval process, so they worked hard to deceive decision-makers about the changes. For example, as the project went before various boards and commissions, contour maps were passed out showing a prominent “6” on top of the largest mound. That served to give decision-makers the impression that the mound would be six-feet high. What no one seemed to notice is that the streets and sidewalks surrounding the hill were shown to be at a minus one-foot. That would make it a seven-foot high hill. This deception worked – even BCDC staff reported to its commission that the hill would be six-feet high.
Port staff hid another foot of elevation by using inappropriate rounding methods. Detailed surveyors’ documents obtained from the Port (that were never shown to those voting on the project) indicate the height would actually be as high as eight-feet. The numbers “6.3” and “1.74” (which when added together give the total elevation) were both rounded down to conceal another foot of elevation. When commissioners and board members were discussing the size of the hill, not only were they were clearly under the impression it would be six-feet high, but some said six-feet was too high. Staff members at the numerous meetings should have clarified that board members and commissioners would actually be voting to allow mounds one-third higher. Instead, staff members (and the developers) always remained silent, and higher mounds and buildings were unknowingly approved.
The relationship between the height of the mounds and the height of the buildings was never explained to decision-makers. The developers and port staff routinely referred to the buildings’ 17-foot elevation and the 12,000 square-feet without explaining that both were being exceeded. For their part, decision-makers never seemed to question the buildings’ locations or their elongated dimensions.
Heavy planting is now necessary to keep people off the hill’s steep slopes and away from the Cupid’s Span sculpture. Along with the commercial buildings, this means over half of Rincon Park’s 2.7 acres will be inaccessible to the public. (The checkerboard pattern, above, shows areas off limits to people.)
WHO VOTED FOR THE RESTAURANT COMPLEX?:
It used to be that commissioners could vote for projects like this without much accountability. No longer, thanks in large part to the Internet. A complete list of those who voted for this project is being compiled. Mr. John Leonard of Mill Valley was particularly vocal in his support for filling a San Francisco park with commercial buildings. (He is an alternate to Betsey Cutler appointed to BCDC by the Senate Rules Committee.) Clifford Waldeck (of Waldeck's Office Supplies) voted for the restaurant complex. So did the supervisor representing district 3 in San Francisco (see Lessons Learned? below). The full list will be completed soon.
• Just before leaving office, the previous president of the board of Supervisors gave an interview on the city channel’s “News Hour.” He noted all the corruption that seems to infect our city hall and called on prosecutors to stop looking the other way and start cleaning house. A lot of money is made on development projects, including those along the waterfront, and it is the District Attorney, Kamala Harris, who makes the decision whether to investigate planning irregularities like these. She has declined. (The state attorney general serves as BCDC’s attorney, so he is no help.) It is time that government employees are held accountable when they knowingly, repeatedly, and consistently deceive public officials and misrepresent projects.
• Another problem is that the news media gives these projects little attention before they are approved and built. For example, Muni’s 125-year-old transit terminal in front of the Ferry Building was recently sacrificed for one more boutique hotel. The "Chronicle" called it “the city’s most disappointing new building” – but only after it opened. Don’t the editors think the public would like to know about these developments while something can still be done to improve projects in such critical areas? After all, there doesn’t seem to be any official watchdogs over these projects.
It is clear that the opportunity to develop a really outstanding waterfront, after the Embarcadero Freeway, is not going to happen. Projects that serve as barriers between the city and the bay will return. These developments (such as the massive cruise terminal retail project) are considered individually, and the overall loss of views and access to the Bay are never considered. The Rincon developer argued at one hearing that, while thousands of passersby on the Embarcadero will indeed lose site of the Bay, it will only be for a few seconds. Of course this logic will be used at all the other projects too.
A secret meeting was held on site. Poles were set up briefly to indicate the location and height of the proposed buildings. Palomino’s people were there. The poles were moved around until everyone was satisfied that their own special interests were taken care of. This exclusive group basically decided, at this private meeting, where the buildings in this public park would be located.
Pinnacle Fitness and local residents were not invited to the meeting. The public had no input into the significant decisions made at this invitation-only meeting.
One member monitored votes, and for two years the CAC rubber-stamped every project that came before it-—often unanimously. Not one project had more than two negative votes in two years.
At a recent meeting (1/12/04), a CAC member asked how high the Rincon Park restaurant buildings would be. The project manager looked at a representative from the city and said, “How are we answering that?” She knows how tall they are because you cannot build two stories within the 17-foot limit. The official told the group, “Seventeen-feet.” Period. A misleading answer (at best) to a straightforward question. The buildings are over 17-feet high as measured from the sidewalk to the top of the roof.
The CAC sent a letter to the S.F. Board of Supervisors in January expressing its support for the restaurant complex. The letter stated that no member of the CAC voted against the project. That was false information given the Board of Supervisors.
While most CAC members voted for the restaurant complex (as usual), it is significant that the chair of the CAC's Rincon Park Subcommittee was one of those who could not vote for it.
Click here to read investigative reporter Chuck Finnie's article about the $18 million dollars the city gave away to the Gap Corp. to acquire its headquarters property across from Rincon Park. In addition to this giveaway, the chairman of the Gap was allowed to personally choose what may be San Francisco's largest sculpture (Cupid's Span) and place it in Rincon Park. Click here to see the sculpture's installation and the unintended uses of a 60-foot sculpture (including slide, half-pipe, and toilet).