Residents overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure Tuesday to give voters a say in development along a 7 1/2-mile stretch of San Francisco’s waterfront.
Proposition B, backed by the local chapter of the Sierra Club, limited-growth activists and progressives from the city’s political left flank, for months had been viewed as an easy winner, giving voters greater say over a cherished part of the city: its bayfront.
With all the city’s precincts reporting, more than 59 percent of San Francisco voters were backing the measure.
Becky Evans, executive committee chair of the Sierra Club, called the measure “an insurance policy” for the city’s waterfront and added that the results of the measure’s victory showed up well before election day.
“We have already seen an impact from the measure,” she said. “The Warriors changed their mind about where they are going. The Giants have agreed to revisit their plan. Forest City already is talking about lower heights and less density (at Pier 70).”
The measure will require voter approval for any new building on Port of San Francisco property to exceed existing height limits, which typically range from 40 to 80 feet but can be as low as zero and as high as 105 feet.
Those limits were set through a years-long public planning process that voters required when they imposed a moratorium on waterfront hotels in 1990.
The final result didn’t come as a shock to opponents of the measure. No on B spokesman Patrick Valentino said his camp started out 50 percentage points behind in early polling.
“We made up some ground, but obviously not enough,” he said.
Prop. B will mean major changes for both San Francisco and its residents, Valentino added.
“Voters are now going to have to do their homework to understand what they are voting on,” he said. “What does a 90-foot building mean? How does this impact the amount of housing produced? Does this mean that a park is not going to be built?”
A disappointed Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the urban think tank SPUR, said, “Today, San Francisco took another step toward becoming the most expensive city in the country. … We fell for a simplistic slogan and effectively shut off thousands of future housing units.”
Prop. B’s supporters said they were fighting back against growing efforts by politically connected developers and city officials to green-light taller buildings on the waterfront, where there have been clashes over heights since at least 1960.
‘Voters, not developers’
The backers saw their solution as a simple one: If you want an exemption to the rules when it comes to public property on the waterfront, you need a majority vote of the people.
“It puts voters, not developers, in charge of our waterfront,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, the top elected official supporting Prop. B.
Public officials either lined up behind the measure or, like Mayor Ed Lee, took no stance. Opponents of the measure, including the Chamber of Commerce, construction unions and real estate interests, said the issue was far more complex than a simple vote on a project’s height.
They denounced Prop. B as “ballot-box planning” at its worst, saying requiring votes for any height limit increase on port property, which runs from Aquatic Park to Hunters Point, will stifle planned housing development and deprive the city of taxes and needed fees for affordable housing.
Replacing professional analysis and public hearings with punchy – and possibly inaccurate – campaign slogans is not the best way to build a city, they contend.
The architects of the measure include former Mayor Art Agnos, former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, and former Supervisor and City Attorney Louise Renne.
Given Prop. B’s appeal – who wants to be on the losing side of limiting voters’ powers? – even developers who will be directly impacted didn’t oppose it at the ballot box, as Evans of the Sierra Club noted.
The San Francisco Giants, whose plan to build a new neighborhood complete with three towers on the parking lot they lease from the port falls squarely within the authority of Prop. B, sued unsuccessfully to get the measure removed from the ballot. After that failed in March, they indicated they would modify their plan and not fight Prop. B.
And the Golden State Warriors ditched their plan to build a 125-foot-high arena on Piers 30-32, opting for a site in Mission Bay that wouldn’t be covered by Prop. B. Forest City, the main developer of the mixed-use project at Pier 70, reworked its proposal, lowering maximum heights from 230 feet to 9o feet.
Skeptical about fix
Jasper Rubin, chairman of the urban studies and planning program at San Francisco State University and author of “A Negotiated Landscape,” a history of San Francisco waterfront development, said he understood residents’ frustration with a flawed approvals process but was skeptical that Prop. B is the right fix.
“I don’t think an election process is necessarily any more democratic than going through the dirt on the approval process, because the people who are voting on projects may not be educated about them,” Rubin said. “I don’t know if that’s any better.”
Chronicle staff writer J.K. Dineen contributed to this report. John Wildermuth and John Coté are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @jfwildermuth, @johnwcote