The petition for the proposed Waterfront Height Limit Right to Vote Act which would prohibit increasing the existing building height limits for any parcel along 7-1/2 miles of San Francisco’s waterfront unless explicitly approved by the City’s voters is in the process of being circulated.

The sponsors of the measure to limit building heights have until February 3, 2014 to gather and submit 9,702 valid signatures in order to qualify the measure for the June ballot.

The official summary and background for the measure and what it would prevent/require:

The City and Country of San Francisco, through its Port Commission, owns and controls about 7-1/2 miles of the San Francisco waterfront along the San Francisco Bay. That property includes piers, land near the piers, and land on the west side of The Embarcadero roadway. The City holds most of its waterfront in public trust for the benefit of the State’s people, and this public trust restricts the allowable uses of that property. In 1990 the City’s voters adopted Proposition H, which required the City to prepare a comprehensive waterfront land use plan with maximum feasible public input. Consistent with Proposition H and the public trust requirements, the Port Commission adopted a comprehensive land use plan that governs acceptable waterfront uses. The City’s zoning laws regulate development of buildings and other structures on that property, including the maximum allowed height. Generally, changes in the height limit require approval of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

This measure would prevent any City agency or office from permitting development on the waterfront to exceed the height limit in effect as of January 1, 2014, unless the City’s voters approve the height limit increase. The measure defines “waterfront” as public trust property that the State transferred to the City to be placed under the control of the San Francisco Port Commission, as well as any other property that the Port owns or controls as of January 1, 2014 or later acquires. This measure also would require that the ballot question on a measure to increase height limits on any part of the waterfront specify both the existing and proposed height limits.

If the measure is passed, not only would the proposed 125-foot-tall arena for the Warriors upon San Francisco’s Pier 30-32 need to be approved by voters, but also the development of the Giants’ proposed Mission Rock neighborhood along with a number of other waterfront developments in the works.

44 thoughts on “Measure To Limit Waterfront Building Heights Summarized”
  1. Three petition gatherers were in front of the entrance to the Potrero Center Safeway at noon today, calling out “Save the waterfront” and “Preserve the waterfront” to collect signatures from customers. They were planning to be out there until their replacements come at 4pm.

  2. The one thing this city does not need more of, is public input on private development… especially when some of the height limits are as minimal as they already are.

  3. The Giants don’t already have aproval for their Mission Rock towers? Just asking, I thought they did.
    Anyone have a link to a map of the “public trust property” that’s referenced in this? Is it all land that used to be open water (which would be as far inland as Beale / Battery / Sansome)? Or just specific parcels later specifically deeded to the Port?

  4. Absolutely insane that it takes less than 10k signatures to get something on the ballot. It should be more like 15-20% of registered voters at a minimum (or ideally, we should actually go back to having representative government and get rid of ridiculous ballot box corruption).
    I vote down every initiative, local and state (voting whichever way would be a logical “no”, since they’re almost always written in the most confusing and underhanded way possible), and always have. Someday we’ll return to rational government.

  5. To anyone opposed to this measure,
    Maybe you think that all developers, planning commission members, and board of supervisors are better informed than you, smarter than you, and are always looking out for the public interest. That’s fine. But I certainly don’t feel that way.
    All this measure does is ensure that taxpayers are allowed a voice if developers seek a variance to existing laws. As The Warriors have stated, they are not concerned about this because they believe they can make a compelling case for their project. We’ll see.
    Anyway, let’s pretend that this measure passes. And next year project is proposed, it comes to ballot and 95% of the population votes against it. Are all those people wrong? Sorry but we live in a democratic society. City officials and developers must work for the public interest. Shame on anyone who believes othewise. Might as well move to Beijing and let government decide what’s good for you.

  6. Anon – we live in a representative democracy, not a direct one. If you have an issue that you disagree with you elected official about, you are free to vote them out of office. That’s how it works.

  7. This is ridiculous. The planning department isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than having a huge citywide vote for every stupid development project. It is amusing how many SF residents whine and moan about housing prices but then try to block every new development project which could increase supply. The 8 Washington project was soundly rejected even though it would have directly added to the housing stock AND include an $11 million contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund.

  8. I am able to separate this proposition from other efforts to restrain development. I believe that we need development throughout the City, with residential and commercial towers in the financial district and parts of SOMA, mid-rises along major transit corridors and low-rises elsewhere (provided that adequate infrastructure, particularly transit, is provided concurrently to move new and incumbent residents). With that said, I do not believe that this development has to run directly to the waterfront.
    While cities like Chicago and New York are wonderful, we have opportunity to be unique by preserving the lower, more open waterfront that we accidentally preserved all these years. The effect of the lower waterfront is to step building heights gradually away from the water, mimicking the natural topography of San Francisco. I think this is good thing. Now, if a development of some height comes along that is worth-while, the ballot gives them an avenue to have it approved and developed.
    The port lands are held in trust for the people; I am not convinced that auctioning off development rights to those lands to the highest bidder serves the public’s benefit. I am not convinced that our Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission will adequate serve the public trust on this issue, and while I can vote to remove a representative with which I disagree, I cannot vote to remove a 300 foot building on port property.

  9. “The effect of the lower waterfront is to step building heights gradually away from the water, mimicking the natural topography of San Francisco.”
    – Funny, that’s exactly the way I would have described 8 Washington – yet it went down at the ballot box because of all the sheep who were duped by the “No Wall on the Waterfront” campaign. This is why we have a Planning Dept. and other elected officials make planning decisions; it is also the exact reason we should NOT put every waterfront development project on the ballot box for the voters to decide.

  10. They’re camped outside of the Safeway on Market St. They’re saying that limiting height will help with affordable housing. -__-

  11. Sorry but we live in a democratic society.
    Which is why elect representatives. Why waste the time to elect representatives if we’re going to put everything to a citywide vote anyway? What in the world are we paying them for then?

  12. the problem with sf is a large portion of the population is only here temporarily. there is no long term vested interest in improving the city or voting for ideas that are good for sf long term. these young voters are eventually going to move back to where they came from.

  13. This is lunacy, but it will absolutely pass. By a landslide, even.
    While I think the Warriors Arena will largely scrape by (maybe the hotel aspect will have to be amended), this is the final nail in the coffin for 75 Howard. Are the height variances approved for Mission Rock yet? That will be a huge struggle if not.
    Just so pretentious and outrageous to assume the general public knows more than the planning department.
    I think this is at best misguided, and at worst infuriating, but this is SF. We can’t work ourselves into a tizzy anytime something like this happens, because sadly it’s just par for the course. I am tired of hoping for logical responses and intelligent growth, so why waste the time advocating for it in a city that is content to shoot themselves in the foot. Time to move my energy to something else.

  14. Fischum: Yes, 8 Washington would have achieved that effect. In my opinion, the backers of 8 Washington made a colossal error in writing their own ballot initiative instead of simply working to defeat the initial initiative. That said, just because 8 Washington may have been contextually appropriate, that does not mean that other projects along the waterfront will be. Indeed, we have some evidence (i.e., Giants Parking Lot A; perhaps the Warriors Arena) that they will not be.
    A do-over for development along the waterfront requires a substantial earthquake. That is to say, if we screw it up, we have to live with it. As a result, I think that the hurdle for waterfront development should be high.

  15. “I am not convinced that auctioning off development rights to those lands to the highest bidder serves the public’s benefit. I am not convinced that our Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission will adequate serve the public trust on this issue, and while I can vote to remove a representative with which I disagree, I cannot vote to remove a 300 foot building on port property. ” -Mr. E
    But why would you want to vote down that 300 foot building? There’s no neighborhood character to save, as the site is a giant parking lot surrounded by piers and newly-constructed mid and highrises, with industrial stuff beyond that. 300′ isn’t even that tall as far as high rises go.
    And that tower actually would serve the public, by adding much needed housing and/or office space which is also clearly in demand. What doesn’t serve the public is a bunch of misguided people strangling development/the healthy growth of this city just because they have this weird idea that highrises don’t belong anywhere on the waterfront here. Such ridiculous restrictions on development do nothing but increase the city’s dive into un-affordability for most, and honestly kind of make SF look like a silly provincial town. This is a city that can’t do what’s best for itself just because of a very vocal minority of residents who apparently hate change, see SF as a quaint fishing village, think they know best at all times, and have a lot of money at their disposal for lie-filled anti-development propaganda campaigns, and ballot measures and such. And of course they always vote, while the majority of everyone else sits on their asses. Which means the chances of height limits getting voted upwards in the future for any given development are probably slim, aside from highly popular projects like the warriors arena.
    Allowing a good amount of highrise growth in appropriate areas is the best way to try and meet the housing demand, and to restrict highrise development on a huge empty parcel like seawall lot 337 (the giants development) just because highrises are supposedly “out of character” for any part of SF’s waterfront, is hilariously shortsighted and will not help the city as a whole in any way. But it will help wealthy people on the north side of Potrero Hill keep their views from changing slightly, and will alleviate their exaggerated fears of increased traffic!
    Honestly I wouldn’t have much of a problem with this if the waterfront from downtown through mission bay were exempted, as those are areas where highrises fit in perfectly fine and can be built in good numbers without destroying historic buildings, without destroying existing “character”, and without blocking views (except for a relative few, and they can suck it up. This is a big city, deal with it, or perhaps don’t live so close to downtown).

  16. @Fishchumh
    “Anon – we live in a representative democracy, not a direct one. If you have an issue that you disagree with you elected official about, you are free to vote them out of office. That’s how it works.”
    I dont know why you say “thats not how it works” when the ‘it’ you refer to here literally makes your statement exactly wrong.
    The federal government is a representative democracy, California has elements of both direct and representative, and San Francisco even more elements of a direct. So saying ‘thats not how it works’ is just entirely incorrect, I mean this entire post on socketsite is about a ballot issue brought through a direct democratic process.

  17. This fixation on height limits is really misguided. In most situations a tall, slender building is less visually intrusive than a Fontana wall. I fear this measure is going to pass, and developers will end up building more projects that resemble walls to skirt the initiative process. Then we’d end up with more boxy, crappy, low-density buildings in the city. I would support more restrictions on building bulk and mass if NIMBYs would drop the height issue.

  18. SF has 2 major problems lately: limited housing and limited commercial space. Development directly addresses that problem. By requiring certain development projects to go before a public vote, you inevitably increase the costs of such projects as they have to invest in money to inform the public against lies that are put forward to combat the development. As an above commenter pointed out, people collecting signatures are already using lies by stating that limiting height will help with housing…how does that make sense? But the general public who do a cursory glance at ballot measures might see these comments and vote accordingly – using misinformation. Squash development and squash potential solutions to our huge need for housing and commercial space. And those developments that do succeed will do so with much greater cost that will, of course, be passed on to any tenants, keeping our rent costs high. This is all around a terrible idea. The whole point of a representative government (in part) is the understanding that it is immensely difficult for a populace to be completely educated and informed about all aspects of government, so we elect people who tend to agree with our views to become educated for us and govern accordingly. This is an example where that works and we should keep our hands off to make sure that development is able to address our city’s need!

  19. What about the parking lot at Folsom and Spear street? I heard that Tishman Speyer is trying to build a building 400ft when the site is zoned for 300 ft. It’s 1 block from the waterfront and would definitely cast shadows over the Embarcadero.

  20. Sam is completely correct. California has for a long time been a mixture of representative and direct democracy. Fishchum needs to go back to junior high and take a political science class. Here is a quote from wikipedia:
    “Referenda have been a part of the Constitution of California since 1849. The initiative and optional (or facultative) referendum were introduced in 1911, by a constitutional amendment called Proposition 7.”
    Now, the ballot initiative process definitely has its warts. But when compared to the people that have been elected as representatives to the SF Board of Supervisors over the years, those warts pale in comparison.

  21. What we need is more affordable housing. And the first step towards that is to limit supply and density, because with less units available it’s obvious prices will fall!

  22. ^^^
    AFAIK, that location wouldn’t be affected.
    According to the proposition (namelink):
    the term “waterfront” means land transferred to the City and County of San Francisco pursuant to Chapter 1333 of the Statutes of 1968, as well as any other property which is owned by or under the control of the Port Commission of San Francisco as of January 1, 2014 or acquired thereafter.

  23. I don’t really care anymore. I’ll certainly vote no on this if these liars are able to get it on the ballot, but as a property owner in SF I win either way. If they are able to convince enough fools to vote this law in, then it will only increase housing costs, thus benefiting me, and if it fails in the ballot box, then sanity wins out, which always makes me happy.
    It’s already quite clear there are a bunch of sheep that can be convinced of anything by the right type of lie, so there won’t be too much of a surprise if the initiative will win. On the other hand, there are enough sports fans in this city, that if the opposition takes the right approach there’s a good chance they can defeat the initiative.
    I’d of course prefer it if we didn’t have to keep having these moronic initiatives, but that is out of my control, so why worry about it?

  24. I should have clarified – yes, we have a mix of representative and direct democracy, as many issues are voted on at that ballot box. However, planning and development isn’t one of them – this is why we have a PLANNING DEPARTMENT.
    Does anyone think it’s a good idea to put every real estate development project on the ballot for a public vote?

  25. While cities like Chicago and New York are wonderful

    I love this ridiculously provincial stuff Bay Area people spew.
    The Chicago lakefront is 20 miles of virtually unbroken parkland full of tennis courts, soccer fields, bike paths, jogging trails, beaches, harbors and golf courses. That doesn’t include the hundreds of acres neighborhood parks.
    Chicago and New York both host theatre, music, food, and sports scenes that put SFs to shame.
    Why? Well, in part because the build housing (some of the coolest, greenest, most innovative housing on the planet) without having the entire city have to bless very zoning variance.
    This measure is, for lack of a better word, a joke.

  26. I’m in the real estate business. I support development. I have no problem at all with tall buildings. But I also have no problem with this particular initiative. The issue isn’t private development. It’s private development on public land. There is already a comprehensive plan in place for the waterfront. It was adopted after extensive public input and buy-in by many different constituencies. It should be extremely difficult to change such a plan, not easy.

  27. “Chicago and New York both host theatre, music, food, and sports scenes that put SFs to shame.”
    No chance. In terms of cuisine SF dwarfs Chicago and is highly influential globally. In terms of sports SF is doing fantastic, obviously. Theater? OK. But it actually gets decent theater. Music? SF punches way above its weight and aleays has.
    I agree that SF people are often really provincial, especially when it comes to a ridiculous fetish that is constantly minimizing all things LA, most of the things you just said are nonsense.

  28. “Does anyone think it’s a good idea to put every real estate development project on the ballot for a public vote?”
    I don’t think it’s an optimal solution at all, but all this stuff
    happens for several reasons related to voter dissatisfaction:
    1. The cronyism involved in any representative democracy.
    2. Related to the first point, the “favor-for-a-favor” corruption that is rampant in SF politics (and in probably lots of other places as well).
    3. The fact that a large part of SF voters are crazies and vote for corresponding representatives.
    As a professional cynic, I realize the limitations of both the populism that tends to come with direct democracy as well as the cronyism/corruption that often arises with a representative democracy. But when it comes to advocating the virtues of representative democracy, any developer wannabe who does so because of seeing $-signs will be pretty easy to call out.

  29. “Ray Ratto for example is a professional cynic.”
    Nothing against that guy whatsoever, but I could out-cynic him in my sleep.

  30. Ouch (if you’re pro-No Wall). SFGate just ran an article saying that that state land use officials are weighing in on the subject. What caught my eye:
    “The agency, which has authority over state lands, including the San Francisco waterfront, has ‘concerns about the legality of this proposed initiative’ because it would supplant the city’s decision-making authority – which is supposed to be exercised on behalf of residents of the entire state – with a vote of the local citizenry.”
    Didn’t know the city was responsible for making land use decisions for 38 million Californians, not just 800K San Franciscans.

  31. ^^^^
    thanks for substituting your snarky armchair analysis for that of the specialized state attorneys.
    “Public trust lands” are held for the benefit of all people of the State. The State’s point with respect to this initiative is that the the officials of S.F. are charged with protecting that interest when they make land use decisions on the lands over which they were given control in 1968. (Whether those officials do in fact take into account the long-term interests of the State’s public as a whole, is another question.) In contrast, exposing projects to the whims of the voters would mean that land use decisions for these public trust parcels would be being made by self-interested voters of just one small jurisdiction, not the people of the State as a whole.

  32. If you want to defeat this kind of ballot box zoning, you have to speak the same language. You have to talk to voters in a way they’ll understand and care about. Something like this:
    Just like the Seahawks tried to keep 49ers fans out of the playoffs, now rich politicians, developers, and bankers are trying to keep the Warriors out of San Francisco.
    Why? Because they’re rich and they don’t like basketball. They rather play crocket and polo. They rather just take your money and run.
    So this election day, let’s stick it to those rich politicians, developers, and bankers who would rather take your money than watch a basketball game.
    Vote no on the waterfront height measure limit!

  33. LOL at more “cronyism/corruption” in representative democracy vs direct democracy. Maybe if we had Swiss-style direct democracy! Californian direct democracy is just about the most corrupt thing under the sun, with every single ballot issue trying to pull a fast one. I don’t think I’ve seen a single local or state ballot initiative here that wasn’t disguising its real intent in some way or another.

  34. ^ Badlydrawnbear: Allow me to clarify – I intended to refer to waterfront development of the Chicago and New York only; both have very built up and vertical components of their watefronts. Of course, Chicago’s size gives it a great deal of diviersity along the lakeshore. I appreciate your point that those truly public, open and inherently low height uses are what makes it great.
    I am not commenting in any way on the culture of the three cities. Each is different, each is enjoyable. I’d be happy living in any of the three. I just choose to live here.

  35. “3. The fact that a large part of SF voters are crazies and vote for corresponding representatives.”
    We can’t trust the people the crazy voters of SF elect, so we need the crazy voters of SF to vote on everything. Got it.

  36. One-party system. Doesn’t work no matter what party it is. I’ve never ever voted for a GOP candidate for state or federal office but I think SF could use a couple of Republican supervisors just to pull the average into the sane range.

  37. You’re over thinking the change needed. Just move all supervisors to citywide representation and eliminate term limits. That should allow good incentives to move back into the deck for dealing out supervisors.

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