Will affordable housing be enough to let the Giants build on Mission Rock?

Oct 15, 2015

 

On November 3rd, the San Francisco Giants will ask voters to support Proposition D for permission to build a neighborhood of high-rises, homes, restaurants and shops on the parking lot across from McCovey Cove.

But if you put a building near a bay, you can bet someone’s going to be angry. Environmentalists have a long history of rising up against bayfront projects -- from the plan to build 12,000 homes on former salt ponds in Redwood City to the proposed Warriors stadium along the Embarcadero. And the neighborhood the Giants want to build, called Mission Rock, has enough tall buildings -- some rising to 240 feet -- to cause some concern. But the Giant’s plan for Mission Rock includes more affordable housing than any other private development in San Francisco history. Could affordable housing be enough to convince San Francisco voters?

The Yard

On a recent evening, dozens of Giants fans in orange and black head to the empty parking lot behind AT&T Park a few hours before one of the last Giant’s games of the season. The Giants may not have made it to the playoffs, but the team is still shooting for a different type of victory this fall -- Proposition D.

This parking lot, nestled in Mission Bay between South Beach and China Basin, is where the Giants plan to build apartments, public parks, and offices in a brand new neighborhood called Mission Rock. They’ve converted shipping containers into hot dog stands and coffee shops. There’s a biergarten, and tonight, a band plays in the background. The space is called “The Yard.”

“As you can see, there’s not much food and beverage options, which is what The Yard seeks to help with,” says Laura Nichol, operations manager at The Yard.

 

“This whole parking lot you see here is going to be completely re­developed into green space, affordable housing, and a waterfront park...just an entirely new neighborhood in San Francisco.”

Anchor Brewing would also move in. Beer, parks, and houses? It sounds almost utopian, but it will change the waterfront. It’s up to voters to decide this November to approve, or deny, the height increase that would allow the Giants to build Mission Rock. Some buildings would rise up to 23 stories. Some would be between three and six times higher than what the land’s current height limits allow.

Fans have mixed opinions

Mission Bay resident Siggie Stillman is a Giants fan. I spoke with her in The Yard, before the Giants game. She doesn’t think a new neighborhood is a fair trade-off for losing her waterfront view. She said when she moved to the Mission Bay in 2006, this place was all dirt.

Now the neighborhood is changing. The Warriors want to build a new stadium across from the UCSF hospital, and they plan on bringing in parks, office space, and retail. Mission Rock will bring more of the same.

 

“That kind of broke my heart, because I will no longer be able to see the Bay from my apartment because this will be in the way,” Stillman says.

But Jay Hearst, a software developer who lives in the Dogpatch thinks that’s not a good reason to prevent building more housing.

He’s at The Yard before the game starts too. For Hearst, whether he he gets to see the waterfront isn’t nearly as important as whether or not he can afford to live in San Francisco at all. If Proposition D passes, 40% of the housing units in the Mission Rock development will be affordable for lower and middle income residents.

“We just moved, and when we were looking for housing and a new place to live, rent was so high and just driving everyone farther and farther out of the city. If we don't start to alleviate that, prices are just going to get higher and higher,” Hearst says.

Before the quake

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos cherishes the waterfront, but he’s still a fan of the Mission Rock development plan. These days, when you walk along the big paths, dodging cyclists and dog walkers along the Embarcadero, you don’t think, ‘man, I wish there was a big freeway here.’ But once, there was. Agnos drives me down the Embarcadero, and says that when he was mayor from 1988 to 1992, this glistening waterfront was a different scene.

 

“Nobody went there. The only things that happened there were various crimes and Dirty Harry movies. Or Steve McQueen movies,” Agnos says.

But then the 1989 Earthquake came, and struck down chunks of the freeway, sending them hurling to the ground.

“I made a controversial decision at the time to demolish it and I had some 20,000 people who signed petitions to tear it down,” Agnos says.

There was massive opposition. Neighborhood merchants said it would cause gridlock and hurt their businesses. The decision may even have cost Agnos re-election. But since then, the waterfront has become a San Francisco treasure.

Now any development along the waterfront threatens to ruin the breathtaking postcard the Embarcadero has become. Take 8 Washington -- a massive 136-foot-tall condo project proposed in 2012 near the Ferry Building. The majority of supervisors supported it, and the developers pledged 11 million dollars to go towards the affordable housing fund.

Voters rejected it -- by a 67% landslide. And last summer, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that would let them decide if developers could build above existing waterfront height limits.

“We have to, we just can't let anything happen there. It is so beautiful. It is so attractive, so profitable to be there,” Agnos adds.

Not 8 Washington

Larry Baer, CEO for the Giants, says the plan for Mission Rock is different. It’s not a stadium, or a condo project -- it’s a proposal to build an entirely new neighborhood -- one with parks, a parking garage, a brewing company, and affordable housing.

“The 8 Washington Project was a luxury condo project. This project is all rental housing, and 40% are affordable, and so this is a place where everyone can see themselves coming, enjoying, and living here, as well,” Baer says.

The number of affordable housing units the Giants planned to build went up after Supervisor Jane Kim proposed an alternative ballot measure. The Giants didn’t want to risk losing voters support.  And they had seen what voters in San Francisco could do to proposals they didn’t like -- like 8 Washington. Some of 8 Washington’s critics, like former mayor Art Agnos, support this new proposal.

“The Giants are building in a different part of the city that has been an abandoned, industrial area.”

Environmental attorney Jon Gollinger, who campaigned against 8 Washington, isn’t convinced this plan is so different.

“The proposal on the ballot is to build eight towers, five of them taller than 8 Washington, and the concern the Sierra Club and I have is that development along the waterfront with reason is fine, but when you build very tall buildings, they block the Bay for everyone else.”

The sounds of development

But Gollinger says that opposition has been quieter this time around. Agnos is right: Mission Bay is no Financial District, where the 8 Washington condos were proposed. The parking lot is empty -- devoid of residents who might be angry and businesses who might fight back. But people are on their way in. Across from the Mission Rock site, condos are being built. The sound of construction is almost rhythmic.

“They've started pile driving, which is the sound that we will hear soon on this site too if the project goes forward. It's mixing with the sounds of what you would normally be hearing on a peaceful afternoon, which is the Bay, the seagulls, or baseball,” Gollinger says.

I don’t hear any seagulls. It’s too noisy. And you could say all this noise began with an earthquake nearly two decades ago -- with the sounds of a crumbling freeway followed by the sounds of a city rebuilding itself. The waterfront provides some escape from the noise. Now, San Francisco developers, politicians, and residents are still arguing over what to do with the view ­­ -- and who can afford to stick around and see it.

On November 3rd, voters will have the power to decide. They can either approve, or reject Proposition D to increase height limits and allow the Giants to go forward with the Mission Rock neighborhood.