Our local chapter of the Sierra Club has received its fair share of criticism over the years for policies that many find to be anti-housing and promoting of urban sprawl. Now the Sierra Club is fighting to save a “historic” parking garage – the story practically writes itself. I am a dues-paying Sierra Club member, but I had not attended a local chapter meeting until last Tuesday, when I went to a gathering of their Conservation Committee at the Park Police Department.

What I witnessed in the meeting was far more unbelievable than I could have imagined.

On the agenda was an appeal by Affordable Divis representative Gus Hernandez for the club to oppose a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemption for a development of a 66 unit building at 650 Divisadero with 9 permanently affordable units on-site, which would indefinitely forestall the project. The reasoning: it would demolish what Mr. Hernandez has deemed to be an “historic parking garage.”

NIMBYism 101

The evening was a crash course in delaying and opposing development: Have you contacted attorney Steve Williams? He’s an expert on this stuff. Has there been a study on potential shadows and wind tunnels? Is this region subject to a community plan? We can appeal this at the Board of Supervisors after the Planning Commission passes it!

Hernandez’s presentation on 650 Divisadero consisted of two reasons to subject the project to further environmental review: 1) the preservation of a historic façade on what is currently an auto repair shop 2) potential hazardous waste on the site and the effect it may have on water quality now that San Francisco is introducing additional groundwater into the water supply.

It became clear that the “historic” garage was the main argument. Hernandez presented photos of the garage and the building across the street, noting that they mirror each other in design. He found the garage had been mentioned in two books, which he claims prove it has historical significance, but also admitted: “I live in the district and I didn’t know this was here until I researched.”

One member asked for more information about the hazardous waste. Hernandez replied that the Planning Department noted the development would not substantially alter the groundwater, but also that he “didn’t do much research on the hazardous materials.”

I asked if there’s any clean-up underway of the hazardous waste at the site. Wouldn’t it be better to allow the development so this waste would have to be addressed? Hernandez replied that there’s no current cleanup underway. No problem; the group was convinced that Hernandez’s appeal was necessary.

Eventually, my curiosity got the best of me: “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.

Opposition to Market-Rate Housing and Newcomers

The discussion to this point had largely been about how to block the project. Why the project should be blocked was explained by Chapter Representative Sue Vaughan, who stated that they had previously opposed the project for including too little affordable housing. The historic parking garage was a means to an end.

Activist and Affordable Divis member Calvin Welch was also in attendance, presenting why the club should oppose HOME-SF, which is Supervisor Katy Tang’s legislation that allows for new developments to be built slightly higher in exchange for including more affordable housing units. The idea is to increase the production of affordable housing units, which are incredibly expensive for the City or State to build, by incentivizing market-rate developments to include them on-site.

Welch presented arguments about the size requirements for bedrooms and the effect the bill might have on local retail, but his main argument was against market rate-housing. He noted that San Francisco has not produced enough affordable housing, which is true. This a problem that HOME-SF is meant to help address. To the club, however, HOME-SF is nothing more than a “giveaway to developers” to create more market-rate housing.

Welch stated: “I’ve been doing this for 40 years… the willingness on the part of the general public to consider believing that if you build more market-rate housing you actually lower costs is astoundingly powerful.” To which another member replied: “it only [lowers the cost of housing] if someone loses money.”

Their gambit is that it is worth stopping 9 units of affordable housing at 650 Divisadero, and up to 5,000 units of affordable housing through HOME-SF, because of the perceived negative impact that market-rate housing would have.

Even if one were to believe the club’s theory that market-rate housing might actually increase the overall cost of housing (which California’s Legislative Analyst has argued is not true), I was surprised that these affordable housing activists opposed new affordable housing on that basis.

But there’s another reason that another member put forward: “Fundamentally, why [San Francisco] has produced more market-rate – they’re trying to change the politics of this town.”

Welch agreed: “Who lives here is who votes here, and that’s what it’s about.”

That’s the ballgame. Why does the Sierra Club fight tooth and nail to stop developments, including blocking the affordable housing they claim to advocate for? They’re afraid that new housing means new residents who might not agree with their politics.

This is not a position that can be publicly stated, so what the local Sierra Club chapter and their allies do to justify their opposition to new housing is fight for policies that restrict new housing but are politically palatable, such as ever-increasing demands for affordable housing in new developments and stricter zoning regulations.

Racism, History, and Zoning

For a club that sees themselves as progressive, it is ironic that they are such strong advocates for strict zoning rules, a practice rooted in racism and designed to segregate neighborhoods. 

This was actually a running joke in the meeting, which began when Welch sarcastically stated, “Zoning is racist and made by people like me who live here to increase my profit on my property. That’s [pro-housing activists’] line…tell that to the folks in Bayview-Hunters Point, the largest single family home owning area in the city.”

It seemed to be lost on the group, which consisted of eleven white people over the age of forty, that minority homeowners might be clustered in that area in part because of redlining and racist zoning laws that restricted access to other neighborhoods. During a motion to vote to oppose the legislation, another member joked, “does this make us racist? Are we racists?”

HOME-SF was opposed unanimously. Exceeding zoning limits in return for additional affordable housing was not a trade-off they were willing to make.

Politics Over Environment

The national Sierra Club promotes infill development because they know that dense, urban environments result in less greenhouse gas emissions than urban sprawl. The local San Francisco chapter has shown itself to be against urban housing on a number of policy issues. Whether it is under the guise of affordable housing activism, “smart” growth, or cynical political calculations, their activism results in more personal car commutes, more greenhouse gas emissions, and a continued threat to our climate.

The San Francisco chapter has an impressive institutional knowledge of the workings of local politics and the language to use to stop new housing under the guise of other concerns. The Sierra Club brand is a powerful one in a progressive city, and the San Francisco chapter is using it to promote a political ideology that stands in stark contrast to the organization’s national policies.

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