Publisher’s View: Jump Ball

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Tussles over land use changes are nothing new in San Francisco.  Protests erupt over removing a diseased street tree, or building a backyard deck.  Larger projects are periodically blocked. The Whole Foods on Rhode Island Street was supposed to be Macromedia; community advocates surgically removed Kaiser Permanente from opening an outlet at the Corovan site.   It’s no surprise that on a seven by seven mile peninsula inhabited by libertines attached to their views proposed changes to the cityscape are often met with long stares, low mutters, and sharp knives.

From this perspective the smack-down between wealthy members of the medical industrial complex and the Golden State Warriors is just another day in paradise.  The main differences between this land use conflict, and, for example, arguments over a proposed 300-plus unit apartment complex at 1601 Mariposa Street, are the tinge of glamour brought by a Big Science versus Big Sports debate and the number of zeroes in the protagonists’ bank accounts.  A murder case is a murder case, unless it involves OJ Simpson.

The odds that a San Franciscan will visit a Warrior’s arena – for a basketball game or concert – are probably about as low as the chance that they’d go to whatever health care facility was eventually built in its place.  No doubt both would benefit the City, by creating jobs and demand for local services.  

But even if a resident never watches a single dribble – the bouncy kind, not one from a University of California patient – siting of a Golden State stadium would add another jewel in San Francisco’s very shiny crown.  Major sports teams beget televised images of our bevvy of beauties – the Bay, Twin and other peaks, Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower – that deeply embed in the world’s cerebral cortex that this is a bucket list city.  That brings the tourists, and contributes to the techies’ and entrepreneurs’ desire to be here now, in turn creating demand for multiple high-priced eateries, fancy lodging, and massive tax revenues.  It’s no wonder that the mayor, presiding over a shocking – if San Franciscans could be shocked – nine billion dollar municipal budget has put his war paint on – in his case, a frowny face – on behalf of the Warriors.

The conflict centers on something much closer to residents’ hearts, though:  transportation.  Despite the sophisticated traffic plan outlined in the arena’s environmental impact report (EIR), there’s no doubt that on many afternoons and evenings the area around the facility – perhaps spilling over to all of Mission Bay and much of Dogpatch and South-of-Market – will resemble New York’s Time Square.  Emergency vehicles and hospital patients will likely be able to get where they need to go, courtesy of special pathways reflected in the EIR. Everyone else will need to be uber patient, as they sit in their Ubers waiting for traffic to dissolve.  Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t tried to catch a J- or T-Line train after an AT&T event, driven to or from Downtown between roughly 3 and 7 p.m. just about any weekday, or experienced the Interstate-280 Mariposa interchange on a Thursday evening.  Nor have they been paying attention to the fact that the San Francisco Giants are on deck to build another massive complex just north of the proposed arena, effectively stuffing commercial and residential cotton into an already narrow bottleneck.

Whether the prospect of a gigantic traffic hairball is enough to sink the arena depends on ones’ perspective.  It would certainly annoy Dogpatch, Mission Bay and SoMa residents and workers, and further dampen biotechnology companies’ already lukewarm enthusiasm to move to the area.   It would reinforce poor air quality conditions in the Southside neighborhoods.  And when the next economic downturn hits it could induce spiking commercial vacancy rates, as enterprises shift to less expensive, less hassly places, like South San Francisco.  While it likely wouldn’t kill UC’s bio-engineered golden goose, it could notably reduce its egg production.  

However, a large slug of the political class views traffic congestion as a solution, not a problem.  Under this perspective, a symphony of honking hours is music to the ears of bicyclists, pedestrians, and public transit enthusiasts, who believe that they can glide by the noise mostly unmolested.  Said differently, stock –land – is more valuable than flow – transportation – in dense, desirable San Francisco.  That’s why the mayor is eager to tear down Interstate 280’s northern spur, unveiling additional acres of developable land – after the toxins have been expensively removed – and has made a fuss about installing automatic speeding ticket cameras, as if speed, rather than congestion and the street chaos caused by a diverse mix of peddlers, walkers, and a variety of motorized vehicles, is the primary problem. 

Given predominate politics it seems likely that the Warriors will in the end have their arena.  And when they do they’ll no doubt encounter their former adversaries at the Battery or the Olympic Club, or perhaps even in a stadium skybox.  They may even become friends.  After all, UC San Francisco-Mission Bay has a highly prized helipad, which could be useful to transport Big Science or Big Game worthies out of the area when traffic gets really bad. 

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