Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR.
This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Name: Gabriel Metcalf
Job: Executive director of SPUR, the influential regional planning nonprofit
Residence: The Mission
San Francisco: For someone who prides himself on being a centrist with no political agenda, you and SPUR sure take a lot of heat. Why is that?
Gabriel Metcalf: I know some of the lefties think we’re too close to business, and definitely some of the business leaders think we’re a communist front group. What’s hard for political partisans to understand is that we’re not a base organization; that is, we don't represent a constituency. We’re values driven, and the people who support us are the people who share our values. If you’re used to working in an interest-group context, you’re always looking for the people to whom you are accountable. We don’t fit within that framework.
What about the criticism, coming from the left, that SPUR is a stalking horse for developers and has acted as a catalyst for gentrification?
It’s one thing to complain about gentrification, but we’re actually figuring out what to do about it. People are so willing to take action, but their fear and anger can be harnessed for good or for evil. The irony is that so many of the things that people do to fight gentrification are actually making the problem worse—like opposing the addition of new housing supply.
But isn’t the question really about the kind of housing that we should be building? You’ve been pretty vocal about advocating for housing that may not be affordable for many people.
There’s this kind of tragedy playing out right now. All of the official affordable housing programs and middle-income housing programs that can be dreamed up will help only a small number of people, relatively speaking. The only way we’re going to help the vast majority of people, the only way we’re going to actually make it possible for this city to offer a diverse set of options for living here, is to fix the housing market and make it much, much easier to add housing supply in the city.
What about the defeat of the 8 Washington project in last November’s election? Doesn’t that indicate that San Franciscans don’t share your enthusiasm about development?
Everybody knew what was going to happen from the second 8 Washington went on the ballot. In lots of cities in America, if you asked people, “Do you want to see a building built that rich people will live in?” most people would vote no. It’s just that most cities don’t ask. A good counterargument is found in Upper Market, which to me is San Francisco planning at its best. The city spent 10, 12 years doing this super-careful neighborhood plan for Hayes Valley and Upper Market, and if you look today, it’s incredible what you see: All these apartment buildings are going up on what used to be gas stations or parking lots, and I think everybody’s fine with it. And any one of those buildings contains more units than 8 Washington would have had.
What’s your long-term vision for the role that SPUR plays in the Bay Area?
For a lot of SPUR’s history, our goal was to get people to remember how great cities are. I think that’s been largely achieved. Now, our goal is to help invent a form of city life that is better than cities have ever been. We’re putting together an engine of economic growth, along with a model of social inclusion that allows everybody to be part of that prosperity and is also actually ecologically sustainable. That’s never been done. The carbon footprint of the Bay Area is essentially the same as that of the rest of the country, because we built it wrong, and all our lifestyle choices are the same here as elsewhere: We drive the same amount, fly the same amount, eat the same amount of meat. We have a long way to go. So if you ask, what’s our big, insane goal, that’s it. We want to create a new kind of urbanism that builds on the strengths of traditional urbanism, but gets the equity right and the ecology right.
You talk like a politician. Do you have any political ambitions?
Is this not a question you get a lot?
No. I’ve never been asked this in my life.
Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco