On SF’s Waterfront: 5 Questions for Professor Jasper Rubin

For decades, the city’s historic waterfront has been a flash point for controversy, and this election round saw plenty of it. On June 3, a ballot initiative before San Francisco voters that would require voter approval for height increases for development on San Francisco’s waterfront, prevailed by 59% to 41%. We checked in with Associate Professor Jasper Rubin, chair of San Francisco State University’s School of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, for context on this Proposition B, the latest struggle for the future of the waterfront.


San Francisco voters expressed strong support for a ballot initiative that gives them a say in every waterfront project exceeding existing height limits. Why did many voters feel a further check on development was needed?

Photo of SF's waterfront

San Francisco's waterfront

First, it wasn't many voters. Only about 15% turned out -- poor even by June election standards. It's also hard to know what people really think when they vote for something like this. If I were to guess, I'd say that most people who voted for Prop B had it in their minds that the waterfront was being threatened by unconstrained development being pursued in ways that would run around the legitimate public process. If, as I suspect, many people associated the Ferry Building area with the waterfront, they were also imagining that they were voting to save an iconic part of San Francisco from disaster. I doubt most people know where Pier 70 is, for instance, or what the development proposal is for that area.


The city is in the middle of a major housing crisis. Why do some see waterfront projects making the housing problem worse?

It may be because they believe that housing developed on the waterfront would only be market-rate housing. Or it may be that improvements to the waterfront make San Francisco even more desirable, adding yet more pressure on the competition for housing, thus nudging prices up.


Your book on the history of San Francisco's waterfront is called "A Negotiated Landscape." What is being negotiated, and for whose benefit?

Basically, the negotiation is multilayered -- negotiations between outside, top-down forces (technology change and economic cycles) and bottom-up, local powers; among factions at the local level; among different groups of elites; between the Port and citizens groups; and so on. For whose benefit depends on one's associations and allegiances and interests. One could say for the public's benefit, but there are many publics. One of my points was that the process of transformation has resulted in a fair amount of space on the waterfront that is quite democratic/civic in orientation, meaning that one can be there and use it regardless of class, cultural group, etc.


Height limits on the waterfront generally range from 40 to 80 feet. Some residents may want to preserve their water views, but why are heights above 80 feet so controversial?

I think that people just think anything that gets into triple digits for height seems scary. It's a naive kind of reaction, in many cases. For some, it does indeed evoke the notion that the waterfront could be walled off from the city.


What is next for San Francisco's waterfront? Given the latest election results, are projects challenging the limits doomed?

Hard to say. The Forest City project at Pier 70 will probably survive a vote because they can make the development happen with sub-100-feet height limits, and most people don't really think of that area as part of the “iconic” waterfront. Apparently, suggesting 90 feet in an area zoned for 40 feet is OK, but if you propose three-digit heights, then support withers. The San Francisco Giants' Mission Rock proposal will likely have a tougher time given its location.

-- Anthony Lazarus