The Fauxvironmentalists of San Francisco

Self-styled Climate Activists Throughout the Bay Area Block Dense Infill Housing, Even Though That Increases Sprawl

San Francisco policymakers recently received a building proposal that one might think fits the city’s environmental goals. A developer wants to build a 5-story, 20-unit building in the Outer Sunset, a neighborhood that’s added only 21 units since 2011. The project would include 5 affordable units, abut a rail line, and replace a vacant gas station.

As with many San Francisco projects that are code compliant, this one can be appealed by residents for $750. So an appeal is being filed against it to reduce the unit number, increase the number of parking spaces, and potentially kill it altogether. It was filed by Mike Murphy, a former Board of Supervisors candidate… and councilor for the San Francisco Green Party.

Welcome to the wacky world of San Francisco climate activism.

Various groups there call for, in the abstract at least, environmental sustainability, but frequently organize to block mixed-use, multi-story, transit-oriented housing developments. This sends a growing Bay Area population further to the suburbs, where they make long car commutes into the city.

The most notorious offender has been the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter. In 2017, I wrote a Forbes piece listing the projects they’d opposed in the city and nearby dense suburbs like Berkeley. It ranged from various high-rise projects downtown, to housing around the Giants’ stadium, to a shipyard redevelopment that would clean up a toxic site and produce 12,000 units. For the article, I interviewed three different chapter representatives. Each interview was strange.

The reps would insist that they favor infill development, citing the chapter’s bylaws which say so. But for each project I mentioned, they’d cite specific reasons for their opposition. It included aesthetic gripes, soil concerns, grievances about the projects’ affordability, or the fact that developers would profit. Conor Johnston, former chief of staff to current San Francisco Mayor London Breed, also noted their consistent but opaque opposition in a San Francisco Examiner article.

“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.”

The aforementioned San Francisco Green Party has, by comparison, been more open about its anti-growth stances. It has long endorsed candidates—or fielded its own—who oppose infill development. This November, it opposed 2 ballot initiatives that would spur more housing production. Measure A would fund $600 million in affordable housing construction, including for seniors and the chronically poor; and Measure E would loosen zoning to build more teacher housing. Regarding the Outer Sunset project, Murphy on Twitter called it a “pre-apocalyptic future sandcrawler”, while the San Francisco Green Party account tweeted that it would be “more luxury condos on toxic land.” The response about toxic land did not, however, explain why the Green Party wants less housing and more parking. I contacted both accounts for comment about this apparent contradiction, but have not heard back.

Aside from the Sierra Club and Green Party, a third way San Francisco climate activists block development is through the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. The law was passed in 1970 to file appeals against environmentally-harmful developments. It has since been used as a standard means to obstruct environmentally-friendly ones. According to one study, 98% of units targeted by CEQA are in urban areas. In San Francisco, CEQA has been used to try and block the new Warriors arena, the redevelopment of a laundromat into housing, and a homeless shelter.

Lastly, there are random residents who aren’t affiliated with specific laws or organizations, but think up environmentally-based arguments to use. For example, a recently-approved 744-unit project in the Laurel Heights neighborhood was opposed because it meant cutting down 200 trees. But as Johnston noted in a phone interview, the developer promised to replant twice that number during development.

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The thing is, dense development really is good for the environment—especially when built in San Francisco. A study by economists Ed Glaeser and Matthew Kahn found that the city has the 2nd-lowest CO2 emissions per household of major U.S. metros, due to its mild climate, efficient use of utilities, and low car ownership. The more people who live there, the better for our climate.

Why some local environmentalists protest such growth is hard to know, since they don’t give straight answers. It may be that they’re anti-capitalist, and prefer sticking it to developers even when the developers are helping the environment. Another theory, offered by Johnston, is that there’s a strand within the movement that wants population control, and thinks restricting development will accomplish that. But it may simply be that they are NIMBYs, and are using distorted environmental arguments to serve their goals.

“It would be comical if it wasn’t so horrible,” said Johnston. “Opposing urban infill housing under the banner of environmentalism is hypocritical and harmful to the environment that we’re all actually trying to protect.”

But the obstruction remains powerful in San Francisco. It has left Outer Sunset and other neighborhoods with almost no recent growth, worsening the housing shortage and expanding sprawl.