Art Agnos stands sentry atop Piers 30–32, the potential site of an arena project that he vociferously opposes.
It’s been 22 years since Art Agnos left office as mayor of San Francisco. But his legacy—protégé of George Moscone, defender of the homeless, vanquisher of the Embarcadero freeway—is still being shaped. While he hasn’t maintained the notoriety of a Feinstein, Brown, or Newsom, he hasn’t slunk off into retirement either. To the contrary, Agnos, 76, the son of a Greek shoeshiner from Springfield, Massachusetts, has become one of the city’s most strident and well-armed opponents of waterfront development. What started with last year’s campaign to block the 8 Washington condominium project has continued with a media and community-meeting blitz against the Golden State Warriors’ proposed arena on Piers 30–32. His efforts will culminate in an initiative on this June’s ballot that mandates voter approval anytime a developer wants to exceed height limitations on land owned by the Port of San Francisco.
This last ploy—a brilliant piece of electoral gamesmanship if not an efficient means of city planning—would circumvent approvals given by the Board of Supervisors and hand the people, as opposed to their elected representatives, veto powers over what gets built on their shoreline. The measure, paired with escalating costs for rehabbing the piers, has reportedly forced the Warriors to consider moving the arena elsewhere. It has also sparked a lawsuit on behalf of the San Francisco Giants, who have long harbored plans for a soaring complex on one of their parking lots. Caught in the crossfire is another developer, Forest City, which seeks to build a sprawling, multiuse development on Pier 70 near Dogpatch. As Agnos tells San Francisco editor-in-chief Jon Steinberg during a combative, at times emotional conversation in mid-February at the mayor’s Potrero Hill home, this crusade isn’t about stopping these developments in their tracks. It’s about something bigger: turning back the city’s clock to a more equitable and affordable past. And if that means dealing a blow to the current mayor—a man to whom Agnos gave his first government job a quarter century ago—well, that’s just politics.
San Francisco: Let’s start with the basic premise of what you are arguing. Why do you have such vehement objections to developments along the waterfront?
Art Agnos: Well, for the first time, middle-class people are ineligible to buy a house in this city. We’re the least affordable city in America. What that means now is that middle-class people who make between $60,000 and $160,000 a year—that’s two teachers living together—can’t afford to live in this city. How do we address this issue? Our number-one priority for public land should be to establish affordable and middle-class housing. We need programs that would write down the cost of housing, be it rented or owned. And what have we been getting instead? Public land sold to the highest bidder and condominiums that sell for $5 million to $10 million apiece. That reflects a certain policy, a certain attitude that I am working to try to change, because we are all threatened by this.
And you think that the Warriors’ arena on Piers 30–32 is the most egregious example of this attitude?
Yes, the Warriors are an example of it. The piece of land across the street [Seawall Lot 330] is really what that project is all about; that’s where the profit is going to come from. They’re proposing to build more luxury high-rise housing, higher than 8 Washington—that was 13 stories; the Warriors are talking 17. In both of these cases, they’re busting through long-established height limits and building a wall around the waterfront for the exclusive use of super-rich people.
So what sticks in your craw really isn’t the arena; it’s those buildings proposed across from the arena?
It’s the use of public land while violating height limits. That’s what sticks in my craw.
Now what if, in a fantasy world, the Warriors were to come to you and say, “We’re going to go above and beyond what’s demanded by law and set aside more than 20 percent of these buildings for affordable housing.” Would you call off the dogs then?
No. The argument then shifts to the primary one, which is the inappropriate use of a publicly owned pier. Is this the best use? Here’s what’s proposed: three and a half 8 Washingtons, plus a 500 car garage for their exclusive use and a shopping area that is approximately 92,000 square feet—which is a third bigger than the Ferry Building. They’re going to have to pour tons of concrete into the bay, which is a holy place for the Bay Area, not just San Francisco, in order to build a super-size, gold-plated pier that’s strong enough to hold it all. So this is an inappropriate use, especially when state laws say, “You shouldn’t be building over and in the water that which can be built on land.”
I take it you’re not much of a basketball fan.
As a matter of fact [chuckling, walks across the living room to his office; emerges carrying a blue, late-’80s-era Golden State Warriors windbreaker]. Look at this: It’s 25 years old. When I was mayor in 1989, the then owners gave it to me as a gift because I was a Warriors guy.
So you’re saying that you’re still a Warriors guy.
What I’m saying is that it’s not about the Warriors; it is about the location, and those piers are the wrong location. It is a vanity address. Just the mere fact that you change the name from Golden State Warriors to San Francisco Warriors adds half a billion dollars to the value of the [franchise], OK? Now that’s their right if they want, and in the right location I’m ready to support it. But this is not the right location.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The port estimates that Piers 30–32 could literally crumble into the bay within the next 10 years. I walked past there the other day, and it is truly a giant, dilapidated, asphalt nothing. The Warriors are talking about spending hundreds of millions of their own dollars to revitalize a public space that is currently an eyesore. So what if they get richer as a result? What’s so wrong with that?
It’s what you’re going to replace it with that’s wrong with it. Should we put oil derricks out there? No, we shouldn’t. We can find a better place for an arena, one that doesn’t do this kind of destructive environmental damage and add to the congestion downtown the way this does. Yes, we do need to replace those piers. But we need to be very fussy and careful about what we put there, because it’s hard to correct.
I’m going to bring up one of the ghosts in your closet. You have a history with those piers.
Yeah, sure do.
As mayor in 1988, you wanted to build a $120 million cruise ship terminal there along with hotels. Luxury hotels. Correct?
All within the height limit. Four stories.
And because a cruise ship terminal and hotels were for the public use, that to you was appropriate.
Of course it was. Of course. State law says that waterfront land has to have a maritime use. What’s more maritime than a cruise ship being tied up? San Francisco needed an attractive, modern cruise ship terminal for people whom we hoped to develop as a core business for the port. And the Embarcadero was a slum back then. Everybody said so.
But the voters disagreed with you at the end of the day. They passed Proposition H in 1990, which called for a moratorium on hotels along the shoreline, among other things.
Oh, yeah. The activists and the preservationists and all the rest of them objected to a hotel on the water, on the pier. I moved it over to the other side of the street [where the Warriors currently want to build their towers], and they had no objections. But they were fearful of future projects that would try to do that, so Prop. H was created.
Doesn’t that irony strike you as rich? Back then, you were a development-friendly mayor thwarted by slow-growth activists. Now, twenty-something years later, you’ve got a mayor who’s a booster for development, and you’re the activist doing the thwarting.
It is sort of ironic. But what I say to that is, I learn from my mistakes.
And what was your mistake then?
Not consulting with the public more carefully to understand, truly, what they felt was important along the waterfront. I don’t want to repeat that mistake. What I’m trying to do is inform the public so that they can truly understand what is at stake in this particular proposal and others. Clearly, at 8 Washington they understood what was at stake, and rejected it. I’m expecting they will do the same thing here.
Is there not some danger lurking in this, though? The initiative that you’ve proposed would necessitate a public vote anytime a project wants to exceed zoning heights, even if the project has already been approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Isn’t this the definition of ballot box planning?
I don’t see any danger in involving the public in this decision. The public has protected the waterfront with their vocal opposition and activism before. The port has been seen and continues to be seen, especially in this day, as the new Gold Coast, where millions of dollars can be made by private developers. The Warriors want to use public land so that they can increase their profits, their revenue— and for what? For what?
But the public does get something out of this, doesn’t it? It gets a privately funded arena for sports and concerts and whatnot in a location that’s central, that’s within walking distance of public transportation, that doesn’t displace existing residents or businesses. It seems like a pretty good use of land from that standpoint.
But they need to add these luxury high-rises, the parking lot, the retail in order to make it all work.
Don’t the owners have the right to maximize their investment?
Not if it’s at my city’s expense. I don’t want to rip up the city and deny public access so we can pay a professional basketball player $20 million instead of $15 million and net a higher return on investment for the owners. That’s what happening with the Giants, too. They have maxed out the revenues for their ballpark, they can’t charge any more for hotdogs and sodas and all the rest, and so what have they got to do? They’ve got to build a village—a 37-story proposed building.
And what are your objections to that?
The Giants are seeking to go high—as has every developer that has come along in the past 10 years if not longer, because that’s where the value is, that’s where the multimillions are. And so the question becomes: Who’s benefiting? The multi-billionaires or the public?
There is a component, though, that you’re not talking about, and that’s the direct impact that these projects have on affordable housing. According to their most recent proposals, the three waterfront projects that would immediately be impacted by your initiative— we’re talking about the arena, the Giants’ Lot A (aka Seawall Lot 337), and Pier 70—would collectively add around 2,700 housing units. Of those, a minimum of 15 percent, or 400 units, would have to be affordable, and the number could well go above that. So when you’re talking about the ills of building up, you’re ignoring that the higher we go, the more affordable housing we have. What’s wrong with that?
If it were viable, there’s nothing wrong with it. Today, we have seen the formula for affordable housing greatly diminished, because the state and federal funding has dried up. The city’s affordable housing fund is impotent, to put it mildly, because it doesn’t have the capacity to leverage money with the state and federal funds. So in lieu of that, I would use the land as the leverage to build housing. The land is precious because it’s far more valuable than the paltry contribution that will be made by the developers to the housing fund.
What objections do you have to the Giants’ plans for Lot A and Forest City’s mixed-use complex at Pier 70?
Well, we don’t know enough yet. They’re still sort of being formed.
But you know enough to know that you don’t like them.
No, no. I have no opinion yet. I have no opinion. I know from personal experience that the Giants are a much different organization than the Warriors—they understand the values of San Francisco’s community planning process. They live in the city, so they understand how you do things in San Francisco, which means the careful involvement of the public. And so I have confidence in them, except for the height that they’re proposing, which is astronomical—37 stories. [Days after this conversation, news emerged that the Giants were backing a lawsuit challenging the legality of the June ballot measure. Agnos phoned to register his discontent. “This lawsuit that they’re funding is a major disappointment to all of us who thought they were different from other developers,” he said.]
It’s funny because I don’t get the sense that building height—or, to use an old four-letter word in San Francisco, Manhattanization—is such a concern in this city anymore.
Who says so?
I do, Mayor!
It does seem as if there has been an attitude shift. For instance, we’re currently building a skyscraper, the Transbay Tower, that will be 217 feet taller than the Transamerica Pyramid. We’re not afraid of heights anymore.
It depends on where.
Height matters on the waterfront more than it does elsewhere.
Yes. Historically, this city has always said, “We put the tall buildings on the tall hills. And then we step down as we get closer to the water so that everybody has access to the water and we don’t create a Hong Kong–style wall along the waterfront. Maybe the height limits in the middle of the city and in the business areas will go higher. I don’t have a lot of objection to that. But we can’t put high-rise buildings along the waterfront. Bottom line. Imagine if we had a bunch of high-rises all along the waterfront, all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf—what would that do to the city?
You don’t just place the blame on rapacious developers and billionaires for what’s being proposed, right? You’re also fiercely critical of Ed Lee.
When you are the mayor, the room—and this is Room 200 in City Hall—is filled with people who are proponents of projects. The lobbyists, the consultants, the developers, the contributors—all of these people are in the room. Who’s not in the room? It’s the average guy out there, the family guy, the single mother, the ordinary citizen. And it’s the mayor’s job to remember who’s not in the room. I think, unfortunately, the mayor has been starstruck by the attention from the Warriors, that he was dazzled two years ago when they came to him and said, “We want to do this.” What we got was just a big press conference with the owners and all the rest. That was a major mistake because it left out a lot of people who should have been in the room. Now the people are putting themselves in the room through the initiative process, which is a very historical, legal, democratic tool to correct mistakes or to prevent them.
Some of your critics say it’s you who wants to be in the room with Ed Lee.
It’s not about Ed Lee. It is a fundamental belief in community empowerment. That has been my whole life—I haven’t changed.
That’s a good segue to the last thing I want to ask you. You’re 76 years old, you’ve been out of office for two decades, and here you are hauling giant poster boards around town, speaking out against these projects at literally dozens of community meetings, when you probably should be kicking your feet up and playing golf. Why are you spending so much time and energy on this crusade? What’s in it for Art Agnos?
Well, first of all, let me say that I’m not getting paid. I don’t want anybody accusing me of using what are now 25-year-old contacts to make money at the city’s expense. And secondly, I’m not running for mayor, and I will not run for mayor under any circumstances.
I think that this issue, for me, is so important that I do not want anyone to marginalize it by saying that he’s just doing that to run for office; he’s using it as a platform, a springboard, for his own personal ambition. I love this city. This is my last public service to the city for what it gave me, which is an extraordinary life that I couldn’t have had in my own hometown. And so… [begins to tear up]. I get emotional about it… and so that’s why I’m doing it. And, uh [wiping away a tear], I’ve always believed in empowering people. I think that the powers that be are trying to overwhelm the people of this city with this project and others like it.
Well, if this is your last public service, as you say…
I mean, I’m not gonna die.
No, we’ll probably be back here in five years arguing about something else. But, back to the question: If you really only have one public service left in you, why make it this one? Because as far as the priorities of the city are concerned, affordability is paramount—housing, evictions, income inequality. Not preservation of the waterfront or capping height limits on development. Why not focus your attentions on building or preserving housing rather than on stopping and obstructing development?
Well, that is not the characterization I would put on what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to protect and preserve the precious parts of San Francisco in the same fashion that Nancy Bechtle and her Presidio Trust protected a precious part of San Francisco from George Lucas. Why was there no public outcry when she said no to his museum? Because we understand what the Presidio means. And we are coming to understand what the waterfront means to this city and how important it is for all of us. This issue’s not going away. I have likened what’s going on right now, when you look at 8 Washington, when you look at this high-rise initiative, when you look at the Presidio…
You’ve called it the Arab Spring.
It is. It is people revolting through democratic processes, which is what the Arab Spring was.
Isn’t that a bit hyperbolic?
Well, that’s what politicians do.
You’re saying that the 8 Washington vote, with its 22 percent turnout, was a popular uprising...
I’m saying it’s the San Francisco version of the Arab Spring. People are revolting—on some levels it’s blocking Google buses; on others it is saying no to George Lucas, or creating an initiative that says we are going to require you to come to us if you’re going to go above height limits. There’s more to come, just watch. Because people are not happy.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of San Francisco