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Editorial: Mayor Ed Lee should veto the Parkmerced development agreement

by Bruce BrugmanSan Francisco Bay Guardian
June 7th, 2011

Mayor Ed Lee got his start as a lawyer working on tenant issues. He understands the city's rent laws and the shortage of affordable housing. He also knows — or ought to know — that when the city's tenant groups are unanimously opposed to a project, elected officials who care about tenant rights should pay attention.

The Parkmerced project will be a clear test: Does he follow his activist roots, stick with the people he started with and show his independence — or side with the big out-of-town developer and allow the project to move forward?

The supervisors approved the project by the narrowest of margins, 6-5. All of the progressives voted to reject the development agreement and rezoning — and for good reason. The deal would lead to the demolition of 1,500 units of rent-controlled housing. And while the developer says it will abide by the rent laws for the newly built replacement units, that's a shaky legal guarantee. The larger point, tenant advocates say, is that demolishing existing affordable housing is always a bad idea.

In the end, 1,500 people will have to leave the homes they've lived in for years — in some cases, many years. They will be offered replacement units in a high-rise — very different from the garden apartments (with, yes, gardens) that they've occupied. And if the developer decides that there's more money to be made by jacking up the rents on those units, it's a safe bet that an army of lawyers will arrive attempting to undermine the questionable guarantees now in the deal.

There's also the problem of transportation and traffic. The project will include a new parking space for every new unit, meaning 6,000 new cars in an area already overwhelmingly congested. Since the vast majority of the units will be market-rate (the developer will provide 15 percent affordable units, under city law, which means 85 will be sold or rented to rich people) the development will transform what is now still something of a working-class neighborhood into another enclave for the wealthy.

When we talked to Mayor Lee, he was noncommittal on the deal. At the same time, he noted that the garden apartments are old and will have to be replaced at some point. We don't dispute that there are ways to add more density at Parkmerced. But wholesale demolition of affordable housing isn't the answer.

This deal is bad for tenants and bad for the city. Mayor Lee ought to recognize that the tenant groups opposing this have analyzed it carefully and come to an entirely reasonable conclusion.

Sup. David Chiu, the swing vote in favor of the project, did serious damage to his reputation as a progressive and lost thousands of tenant votes by siding with the developer. Lee, who insists he isn't running in November, ought to demonstrate that he hasn't forgotten his roots, that he listens to activists, and doesn't simply go along with poorly conceived development projects. He should veto the development agreement and zoning changes and send this thing back to the drawing board.

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