Edwin Lee, San Francisco’s Planner-Mayor

During my summer spent with the Urban Land Institute‘s headquarters here in Washington, DC, the organization began a series of lectures by “Urban Innovators.” This loose title can include a wide variety of experts from the ULI membership and beyond, including public sector leaders, think tank researchers, policymakers, developers and so on. I consider it a significant advantage that the ULI umbrella includes all of these people. But I think our marketing staff did well with their selection of the series’ first speaker: Mayor Edwin Lee of San Francisco.

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee at the San Francisco Ballet, January 2011

Mayor Lee has worked for the City and County of San Francisco for a long time, including as the director of public works under Mayor Willie Brown and city administrator under Mayor Gavin Newsom. When Newsom was elected as California’s next lieutenant governor, the SF Board of Supervisors chose Lee to serve the year or so remaining before the next mayoral election. He came to ULI to speak about major redevelopment projects underway, as well as attracting and retaining business headquarters in the City. Following are some of my takeaways from his presentation.

The biggest redevelopment project currently occurring in San Francisco is at the former Hunters Point Shipyard in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, where 700 acres in and around a former Superfund site are slated for redevelopment. The vision for this completed neighborhood remake, in the far southeast corner of the city, includes about 12,100 mixed-income residential units in low-, mid- and high-rise configurations, plus retail and office space and over 350 acres of open space along the waterfront and near Candlestick Park. Every part of the development is also planned to be within a ten-minute walking radius of some type of transit, either the new light rail line in the area or bus service. Lennar Corporation is the developer, with apparent prior experience in converting former shipyards and other naval properties into residential developments.

An $80 million community benefits agreement was negotiated with the existing neighborhood (see photo below), which includes efforts to train residents to be a part of construction teams and to prevent the displacement of low-income residents in the area. The CBA is ambitious, but I doubt that it is possible to actually ensure no residents will be displaced; housing demand is very high in San Francisco and keeping housing in the city limits affordable has long been a problem. If any housing is going to be demolished, and if any neighborhood is significantly remade in this way, displacement will be a problem to some extent. Still, the effort is commendable, even if much of it predates Lee’s tenure as mayor. The neighborhood will also include a tax-increment finance district to fund needed infrastructure for an area that currently has far fewer residents and workers than it will when built out. This is key, because the dire straits of the state budget in California led Governor Jerry Brown to remove state funds being directed to redevelopment. I agree with Lee who called the elimination of the state redevelopment authority “a mistake,” but it speaks to the strength of San Francisco that such a large project is still able to be funded and move forward in this environment.

A view of Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco

On that topic, the other focal point of Mayor Lee’s presentation was the work his office has done to retain major employers in its boundaries. The signature major corporations of San Francisco have changed in the last two decades, from Bank of America, PG&E and Wells Fargo to tech and social media companies like Twitter. In particular, Lee mentioned negotiations on a new headquarters for Twitter as an opportunity to prevent them from moving out of the city. The primarily younger workers in Twitter and similar tech-related firms tend to have a high turnover rate, but if companies can provide strong incentives to keep them longer, it will have important implications for their own efficiency and bottom lines. To that end, Lee reports that in recent meetings Twitter workers mentioned the central location of its current HQ at 4th and Folsom Streets in the SoMa neighborhood as a major benefit, allowing easy access to nearby food, drink and shopping and an easy bike or transit ride from their homes. Much of the sprawling Silicon Valley, where rumors indicate Twitter would consider moving, cannot boast these benefits.

The current building housing the company, however convenient and centrally located, is significantly overcrowded, and shopping for a new one has been underway for much of the last year. In order to ensure that would be in San Francisco, Lee negotiated a six-year payroll tax exemption for the company in exchange for the selection of a building on Market Street between 9th and 10th. This location is in the central business district and possesses all of the benefits that its workers reported they valued. This will be the site of a supposed expansion to 3,000 employees; if true, the positive economic effects from that large a footprint should more than make up for proceeds from the waived 1.5% city payroll tax.

Since his presentation in DC, Lee has decided to seek election to a full four-year term as mayor. I think he’s well-positioned to keep up the planning profession’s priorities, of working to create and maintain mixed-use development, robust transit service and livable amenities like affordable housing and open space. Lee clearly values these things and knows how to use them to create the economic activity that every city needs. I’m not well-tuned to whether these are the highest priorities for San Francisco’s voters, so it will be up to him to sell himself as an all-around champion for everyone, not just the advocates of this type of work.

Photo of Mayor Edwin Lee courtesy Flickr user Vivanista1. Photo of Hunters Point courtesy Flickr user s__i. Both are reposted here under Creative Commons licenses. Click through for the full-size versions.

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