Sue Hestor’s birthday and a lesson in SF environmental history

And now that she’s suffered a stroke and slowed down (just a little – and now she has email as a weapon) her friends (oh, maybe 200 of us) got together and threw a surprise party at Delancey Street and raised some money to pay her back for four decades of working for so many of us for free.

Silbert started the show off, describing how she struggled in the late 1980s to build the waterfront complex where several hundred clients now live and work. Delancey Street, by the way, is amazing: People who have decades of drug addiction and crime, who have been to prison over and over, have their lives turned around by the program.

So Silbert got the piece of Embarcadero land, and (as with everything at Delancey Street) planned to have the residents build a new complex, but no bank would front the money. Thanks to the Office Affordable Housing Production Program (promote by Hestor), which mandates new commercial developments to put money into affordable housing, there was a possible source of capital: A developer wanted to build a highrise on the Hills Brothers Coffee site, near the waterfront, and agreed to designate its OAHPP money to Delancey Street.

Except that the guy in charge of the SF project left the company, and the new local director changed his mind and said the money would go somewhere else. “When I heard that, being a strong person used to adversity … I got in my car and cried,” Silbert said.

Then she called Sue Hestor.

And Sue (who knows the Planning Code better than most developers) went to the Planning Commission and discovered that the proposed building would cast a shadow on some parks, which was illegal, and convinced the commissioners to put the whole project (worth many tens of millions of dollars) on hold. Until the owners of the development company called Silbert, apologized for the behavior of their employee, and promised all the money she needed.

Hestor didn’t send a bill.

“Nobody gets paid at Delancey Street,” Silbert said. “Sue has been our lawyer since the 1970s, and she’s never gotten a penny.”

There are probably a hundred organizations in San Francisco who can tell similar tales.

But what was riveting for Campos and me and other students of local history was the way Calvin Welch, the longtime housing activist, explained Sue’s contributions.

Taking up far, far more than his scheduled three minutes (as Joan Holden, the longtime Mime Troupe impresario and chief organizer of the event, noted, “Calvin Welch can’t do anything in three minutes,”) he outlined the way Hestor changed environmental law — and the city.

He summed it up in two words: “cumulative impacts.”

Doesn’t sound very radical. Not the stuff of rallies and marches. But profoundly, deeply important.

A little history is in order.

When Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act into law in 1970, he thought it would only apply to actions by government agencies. In 1972, in the landmark Friends of Mammoth case, the courts concluded that the law also applied to private developments that are approved by a public agency.

But it was always about one project, one building, one thing at a time.

By the 1980s, it was clear to anyone living in San Francisco that the highrise office boom was having a huge impact on the city. Rents were going up; Muni was overcrowded; the city didn’t have enough money for basic needs. That’s because, in total, developers were costing the city more than they paid in taxes. The boom (under then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, SF added more office space in a few years than all of downtown Boston) was damaging the city – but the developers and city planners kept saying that each individual building wasn’t having much of an impact at all.

(It was an insane period for environmental review of highrises. In one of the great moments in urban planning, an environmental impact report I read in the early 1980s proclaimed that a new building that would house more than 2,000 workers – some of whom would live in the East Bay and drive to work — would have “no significant impact” on rush-hour traffic on the Bay Bridge. Why not? Well, the footnote explained: “Rush hour” was defined as 6:30am to 9am, and during that period, the bridge was already at maximum capacity (8,000 cars and hour). No more cars would fit. Traffic was as bad as it could get. So, by the planners’ analysis, adding more cars would have “no impact.”)

Activists who had once fought to limit the height of new buildings realized that towers weren’t the issue – the problem was the impact of all that growth on transit, housing, and public services. And week after week, the city kept approving more projects – on the basis of EIRs that never took into account what happened when not just one building but dozens were on the table.

In 1984, Hestor, representing San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth, sued, and won a stunning decision in the California Court of Appeal mandating that the city start studying the cumulative impacts of development. As Welch noted, “there was an obligation for developers to prioritize mitigations.” That’s where the affordable housing program, the transit-impact fees – and the entire concept of analyzing development on the macro, not the micro level emerged. That was the idea behind the 1986 measure Prop. M, which included no height limits at all – but did include programs and policies to protect neighborhoods from the effects of unlimited growth.

Happy birthday, Sue. The city owes you, big time.

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Sue Hestor’s birthday and a lesson in SF environmental history

  1. Mica I. Ringel says:

    Sue Hestor is a great San Franciscan.

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