What Does Green Mean in SF, Sierra Club?

A polluted property draws the group’s local chapter into the city’s radioactive housing debate.

Slowing down: 650 Divisadero. (Google Street View)

Environmental organizations with national profiles get into skirmishes with the usual suspects, like oil companies and the Koch brothers. In progressive San Francisco, the fights for green groups are on slightly different grounds.

Exhibit A is the Sierra Club, which at a national level promotes infill development near transit. But the local chapter of the Sierra Club has been called out for apparently being anti-environmental in opposing development in the city. Even with this political context, an account of a local Sierra Club meeting in mid-April went viral on #housing Twitter, because from the headline on down (“The Sierra Club Fights to Save … A Parking Garage?”) it’s a startling read.

Andy Lynch, publisher of a new San Francisco media outlet called the Bay City Beacon, says the gathering was “a crash course in delaying and opposing development.” At issue is a proposed 66-unit project in the Western Addition neighborhood at 650 Divisadero, a one-story building that once repaired car radiators and is now a seismic-retrofitting business. The site is said to contain PCBs, the organic compounds used in coolants, old fluorescent lights, and hydraulic fluids that were banned in the 1970s but still linger and have nasty health effects.

For Lynch, who says he’s a Sierra Club member, it’s as clear as glass that the whole point of the meeting was to leverage the ostensible environmental concerns to sandbag the proposed housing. He writes: “I asked if there’s any cleanup under way of the hazardous waste at the site. Wouldn’t it be better to allow the development so this waste would have to be addressed?”

Lynch put that question to Gustavo Hernandez of the neighborhood group Affordable Divis, who had come to the meeting not only to talk about the contaminated site, but also to argue for its significance as a historical resource. That’s when it dawned on Lynch, the post goes on, that the crux of the matter was finding a way, any way, to push back. Here’s an excerpt:

“I guess I don’t see the connection between the historic garage and the problem with the development … We’re the Sierra Club, right?” I asked. “We’re opposing this because of a parking garage?”
This was met with a few polite chuckles as if to say, how naïve. I was told the club has a position to preserve historic structures, but the real reason was quickly explained. … The historic parking garage was a means to an end.

On the same day Lynch hit “publish,” April 25, Hernandez penned a response (on Medium, where everything gets batted around these days). All he wants, he says, is a proper environmental analysis. Hernandez also counters Lynch’s “The Sierra Club Fights to Save … A Parking Garage?” headline with the fact that 650 Divisadero is not a parking garage anymore. (Still, his historical-resource argument is based on the site’s inclusion in a book literally called The Early Public Garages of San Francisco.)

What’s more, Hernandez acknowledges that city planners already have determined that the site’s “proposed demolition would not ‘substantially’ alter existing groundwater quality.” It’s a post so dense with planning-process gobbledygook that even a housing nerd like me can get confused. (Seriously, go read the last paragraph.) After seeing Lynch’s post and Hernandez’s retort, I realize something’s up with this story. Where is the SF Sierra Club on all this?

I send an email to John Rizzo, who chairs the local chapter’s conservation committee. A few minutes later, we’re talking on the phone. He calls Lynch’s report outlandish. “We’re not opposing the development” at 650 Divisadero, he says. “To turn this into ‘we hate housing’ is pretty ridiculous. Sean Spicer couldn’t have put it better.” (Spicey, as he’s better known, is the combative spokesman for the current White House occupant.)

In fact, “housing on that site is a great thing,” Rizzo adds. “Let’s make sure the toxic waste isn’t going into the water supply.” He says that the city should do an environmental-impact report before approving the housing. (An so-called EIR can be costly to the project sponsor and take a year, sometimes more.)

So how is it that Hernandez, whose Affordable Divis has been battling the upzoning of the corridor for almost two years, is presenting at the meeting? “[He] asked to present this to us,” answers Rizzo, who says he doesn’t know if Hernandez is a Sierra Club member. (Upzoning means building higher with more density. Affordable Divis sought out its district supervisor, London Breed, in late 2015 and asked her to scotch the upzoning on Divisadero. She wrote back with the answer no.)

Rizzo’s view is that Lynch is smearing the SF Sierra Club by painting it as anti-housing. In fact, he says, the group supported the development of Mission Bay and approves of the Pier 70 project set to break ground. Yet Mission Bay and Pier 70 are reuses of former industrial sites, and are still being developed. This isn’t the case for existing commercial corridors like Divisadero or Valencia Streets, where smaller-scale, infill projects are critically needed and almost always delayed. Despite SF Sierra Club’s support for housing, the group still is signing on to an agenda item of Affordable Divis, which is fighting higher and denser buildings along the four-lane Divisadero corridor. In addition, the club opened the floor to Calvin Welch, San Francisco’s longtime nemesis of market-rate housing. (A good part of Lynch’s post is devoted to Welch and his comments at the meeting.)

Welch — who runs the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council and has had a hand in significant fights defeating development — is on record against the upzoning along Divisadero. Why is that? Well, Welch and other progressives and housing activists in San Francisco hate market-rate development, because as Welch says, it induces greater demand for housing units. The more new projects, buildings and condos, the theory goes, the more buyers will keep pushing prices higher. The best way to save your neighborhood from the effects of gentrification and displacement, then, is to oppose new development.

It’s important to note that this isn’t unique to San Francisco. Look at what just happened in Cupertino, hometown to Apple, with its new zoning restrictions for single-family neighborhoods. Pretty much every project and effort on housing in the Bay Area gets blowback, and that means living options are limited, and that translates into farmland getting paved over for exurban sprawl — exactly what the national Sierra Club says it doesn’t want.

Hooray for Menlo Park! San Francisco is 19th.

What about SF’s higher housing prices? Don’t activists like Hernandez at Affordable Divis and Welch have a point? I think the better question is whether prices can really get any higher. Right after talking to Rizzo, I noticed a tweet from a friend about a local real-estate item. A house on 25th Avenue near Kirkham had received 18 competitive bids. In the Sunset. The listing agent sounds exhausted: “In the end, we accepted an all-cash offer with a five-day close” that was $500,000 over the asking price.

Our city’s enthusiasm for development fights is legend and at master level. Every now and then, a fresh skirmish is so remarkable that it deserves exploration, and what turns up is more of the dispiriting potshots, resentments and confusion that have defined our housing battles for years and years, while the crisis of scarcity and affordability continues to ripple across the region.

Meanwhile the one-story former garage/radiator shop/warehouse on a prime corner of Divisadero sits there with its PCBs, waiting for the cannon fire to clear over its potentially taller, cleaner, greener fate.

UPDATE, May 9: SF’s Sierra Club professes its love for so-called infill for unused or underused sites (which is only part of what this kind of development is all about, especially in a space-limited city) and advocates for assessing the environmental impacts of building along commercial corridors in neighborhoods (what infill really is), along with an even greater degree of public process. The local group also appears to be expert at courtyards and fond of extra spaces after periods.

Follow Anthony Lazarus on Twitter: @Sr_Lazarus