The Sierra Club and the city of San Francisco—it seems like a match made in heaven. The Sierra Club, at national level anyway, is dedicated to preserving nature and promoting urban infill development, to lessen the environmental impacts caused by suburban sprawl and automobile use. San Francisco, meanwhile, is the real-life embodiment of this goal realized; it is one of America’s densest, most transit-oriented cities, and is primed to become more like this in coming decades because of the high demand for living there. Yet the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter, in apparent defiance of these goals, routinely opposes dense development. In the process, it has become a local—and increasingly national—symbol for nimbyism, hypocrisy, and faux environmentalism.
Indeed, the chapter has a solid track record of opposing dense projects–time and again–that would be located along transit lines either inside or near San Francisco proper. Their opposition has been directed towards, but is not limited to, the following: 8 Washington, a 12-story condo building along the San Francisco Bay; the mass redevelopment of Treasure Island, a nearby land plot used mostly for military purposes; plans to increase residential densities in Berkeley; the Candlestick Point/Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment, which would’ve cleaned up a toxic site, and produced 12,000 new homes, including one-third affordable; the chapter failed to support a project in the nearby Alameda suburb that would’ve increased densities and used sustainable construction materials; they opposed Park Merced, with 5,679 housing units and transit improvements in the sprawling southwestern part of the city; Mission Rock, an attempt by the San Francisco Giants to build a 1,500-unit, mixed-use community around their urban stadium; and a new Golden State Warriors arena in Mission Bay that would’ve included public space improvements.
Last year, the Sierra Club held a meeting to strategize against a new 66-unit development on 650 Divisadero, in the Western Addition neighborhood. The main gripe, according to Andy Lynch, a dues-paying member who voiced his frustrations against the club’s nimbyism in a Bay City Beacon article, was that it would hurt neighborhood character, by demolishing….a historic auto repair shop.
More recently, the chapter attracted national notoriety for opposing SB827, a California state bill that would weaken the regulations that now prevent dense housing from going around transit.
The loser in all this is the environment. There is extensive literature noting that, rather than just a theory, urban density does in fact produce less greenhouse-gas emissions per person than suburban sprawl. San Francisco easily reinforces this point. It has a much higher share of transit users, and much lower share of solo drivers, than the national average. It has a larger percentage of residents living in apartments, meaning energy and other utilities are likelier shared in the city. And according to a study by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, San Francisco has the 2nd-lowest per-household carbon emissions costs of any major U.S. city.
Perhaps most importantly, San Francisco concentrates 871,000 people near existing infrastructure within a 47-square-mile boundary. That’s 871,000 people who aren’t otherwise forced to live in suburban tract housing that devours every last bit of Bay Area greenspace. The fact that, thanks to Nimbyism, San Francisco can’t accept yet more people explains why some of the fastest growth nowadays is occurring in exurban municipalities like Dublin, Brentwood, even Tracy. And yet the Sierra Club’s stances directly cause this.
So what gives?
In recent years, I’ve called several chapter officials to seek answers. Finding those answers has been challenging. In 2013, while writing a City Journal article that criticized the chapter’s stance on the 8 Washington project, I interviewed executive committee member Becky Evans. During a 45-minute interview in which I asked very pointed questions about why the club would reject a waterfront mid-rise in downtown San Francisco, I received roundabout answers. But they seemed to center on Evans’ preference to order into existence her personal definition of urban quality of life. She claimed that the building would block views, reduce open space, add traffic, and create a “wall of gold” for “rich developers.”
The answers were similarly vague during my more recent interviews for this article. First I called Matt Williams, chair of the chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee. When I began asking why the chapter had opposed certain projects, he claimed that he could not comment on their exact details. So I called Minda Berbeco, the chapter director. She said that the chapter will at times oppose projects not from nimbyism, but because they have specific problems. In most cases, for example, the chapter takes the side of “other affordable housing organizations” in San Francisco, which are often reactionary in their own right, since they oppose projects that have substantial market-rate units. Other concerns could be about a project’s environmental hazards or its impact on surrounding neighbors.
“Infill housing definitely we are supportive of,” she said. “But at the same time, it needs to be done right.”
For readers who are unacquainted to the landmine political issue that is urban American development policy, this statement seems reasonable enough; nobody wants a housing development that spills toxins into the water. But the reality is that this sentiment about doing development “right” has become a nationwide Nimby dog whistle to communicate resistance. People who say that they want housing in theory will pursue every argument, regardless of the merits, and every existing regulation–for aesthetics, traffic, affordability, quality-of-life, building safety or the environment–that can be found in the legal code. What they are seeking is not some platonic ideal of development, but any excuse not to allow development at all. The San Francisco Bay Sierra Club chapter is just a particularly well-organized version of this parochialism.
This was noted by Conor Johnston, yet another Sierra Club member willing to write a scathing review of his organization, this time for the San Francisco Examiner.
“Time and again, chapter leaders hedge their opposition with statements like, ‘We support infill development, just not this plan.’ But if you oppose every plan, that hedge rings awfully hollow.”
And given that the people who can’t live in city boundaries will move further out and drive in makes it an environmentally destructive hedge.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.
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