Polishing SPUR

Polishing SPUR

A downtown ally is building a new home. It’s also trying to create a new image

By Amanda Witherell

Wedged among the commerce, tourism, and white-collar businesses north of Market Street is the slim entry to 312 Sutter, easy to miss unless you happen to be searching for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. SPUR occupies the fourth and fifth floors of the building — and occupies them completely. Cubicles are close and overstuffed. Conversations compete. Space for meetings is a hot commodity. Four bicycles, ridden to work by staff members, are crammed in a side room where languish a half century’s worth of policy papers, photographs, and planning documents generated by the active public interest think tank.

It looks more like a struggling nonprofit than one of the most influential policy organizations in town, one supported by the city’s richest and most powerful interests.

“This is why we’re building the Urban Center,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the youthful executive director of the 48-year-old organization, clad in a dark suit and sipping from a Starbucks coffee cup while he roams the fourth floor office space searching for any available real estate to sit and talk.

He settles on an open-faced workroom with empty seats. They circle a table covered with a thick ledger of plans for SPUR’s new Urban Center, a $16.5 million, 12,000-square-foot four-story building at 654 Mission that the group is building with more than $8 million in public money.

Plans for the center include a free exhibition space, a lending library, and an evolution of the group’s current public education program, now consisting of noontime forums, to include evening lectures and accredited classes. Though the center will house meeting rooms for SPUR’s committees and offices for its staff, the suggestion is that the new space will be a more public place.

And SPUR seems to be searching for a new public image.

For years the organization was synonymous with anything-goes development, ruinous urban renewal, and an economy policy that favored big business and growth at all costs. Today SPUR’s staffers and some board members present a different face. The new SPUR features open debate and seeks consensus; phrases like sustainability and public interest are bandied about more than tax cuts and urban renewal.

But San Francisco progressives are a tough crowd, and SPUR’s history — and, frankly, most of its current political stands — makes a lot of activists wonder: Has SPUR really changed its spurs? And can a group whose board is still overwhelmingly dominated by big business and whose biggest funders are some of the most powerful businesses in town ever be a voice of political reason?

As one observer wryly noted, “I’ve yet to see SPUR publicly denounce a development project.”

SPUR considers itself a public policy think tank, a term that conjures an impression of lofty independence. But the group has, and has always had, a visible agenda. SPUR members regularly advocate positions at public meetings, and the group takes stands on ballot measures.

And it has a painful legacy. “We have a dark history,” Metcalf admits, referring to the days when “UR” stood for “urban renewal,” often called “urban removal” by the thousands of low-income, elderly, and disabled people, many African American and Asian, who were displaced by redevelopment in San Francisco.

That history — and the fact that SPUR’s membership is largely a who’s who of corporations, developers, and financiers — has caused some to raise questions about the public money the group has received for the new Urban Center.

“They’re not an academic institution,” said Marc Salomon, a member of the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force who’s butted heads with the group. “There’s no academic peer review going on here. The only peer review is coming from the people who fund them.”

Yet prominent local progressives like artist and planning activist Debra Walker, veteran development warrior Brad Paul, and architect and small-business owner Paul Okamoto have joined the SPUR board in recent years. “There’s a bunch of us that have come in under the new regime of Gabriel Metcalf because there’s a real aching need for a progressive dialogue about planning,” said Walker, who thinks SPUR is making concerted efforts to inform its policies with the points of view of a broader constituency. “I think SPUR is engaged in those conversations more than anyone.”

SPUR defines its mission as a commitment to “good planning and good government.” Though a wide range of issues can and does fall under that rubric, the 71 board members and 14 staff tend to focus on housing, transportation, economics, sustainability, governmental reform, and local and regional planning, and their agenda has a dogged pro-growth tinge.

SPUR likes to trace its history to the post–1906 earthquake era, when the literal collapse of housing left many people settling in squalid conditions. The San Francisco Housing Association was formed “to educate the public about the need for housing regulations and to lobby Sacramento for anti-tenement legislation.” A 1999 SPUR history of itself places its genesis in the Housing Association, though other versions of the group’s history suggest a slightly different taproot.

According to Chester Hartman’s history of redevelopment in San Francisco, City for Sale (University of California Press, 2002), the 1950s were a time when corporate-backed regional planners were envisioning a new, international commercial hub in the Bay Area. They were looking for a place to put the high-rise office buildings, convention centers, and hotels that white-collar commerce would need. Urban renewal money and resources were coming to the city, and San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency identified the Embarcadero and South of Market areas as two of several appropriate places to raze and rebuild.

The agency, however, was dysfunctional and couldn’t seem to get plans for the Yerba Buena Center — a convention hall clustered with hotels and offices — off the ground. The Blyth-Zellerbach Committee, “a group the Chamber of Commerce bluntly described as ‘San Francisco’s most powerful business leaders, whose purpose is to act in concert on projects deemed good for the city,'<0x2009>” as Hartman writes, commissioned a report in 1959 by Aaron Levine, a Philadelphia planner, which identified the Redevelopment Agency as one of the worst in the nation and recommended more leadership from the business community. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association was born, funded by Blyth-Zellerbach, whose leaders included some corporations that still pay dues to SPUR, like Bechtel, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

John Elberling, a leader of the Tenants and Owners Development Corp., a group representing the people who were trying to stay in the area, was one of many activists who litigated against the city’s plan and managed to wedge some affordable housing into the developers’ vision of South of Market. SPUR, he told us, was “explicitly formed to support redevelopment issues in the ’60s and ’70s.”

By 1974, when Paul began fending off redevelopment efforts around the Tenderloin and directed the North of Market Planning Coalition, “all through that period SPUR was viewed by the community as a tool for the Chamber of Commerce,” he said.

In 1976, “Urban Renewal” became “Urban Research,” a move away from the tarnished term. The 1999 commemoration of SPUR’s 40th anniversary is a somewhat sanitized history that never presents the faces of the people who were displaced by the program; nor does the analysis nod significantly toward the neighborhood groups and activists who were able to mitigate the wholesale razing of the area.

That’s still a soft spot for SPUR, some say. “They’re uncomfortable with questions of class. Those questions tend to be glossed over,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and a SPUR board member from 2000 to 2004.

Metcalf doesn’t duck the issue. “If you’re a city planner, you’ve got to meditate deeply on urban renewal, even though you didn’t do it. It’s the only time in urban history that planners were given power, and that’s what they did with it,” he said.

Besides a long friendship with powerful businesses, SPUR has frequently enjoyed an intimate relationship with city hall. “They morphed in the ’80s into a good-government, good-planning group, but in fact they were really tight with the [Dianne] Feinstein administration,” Elberling said. “One of the ways you got to be a city commissioner was by being a member of SPUR. Feinstein’s planning and development club was SPUR.”

Mayor Feinstein’s reign is often remembered as a boom in downtown development — at least until 1985, when San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth succeeded in passing Proposition M, a measure severely limiting annual high-rise development. SPUR opposed the measure and still supports increased height and density along transit corridors in the city.

“SPUR always goes with more,” Radulovich said. “Sometimes there’s a trade-off between sustainability and growth, and I don’t have much confidence they won’t go with growth.”

A March SPUR report, “Framing the Future of Downtown San Francisco,” is one example of a cognizance of other options, weighing the pros and cons of expanding the central business district or transforming it into a “central social district”: “While office uses remain, the goal of a CSD is to create a mixed-use, livable, 24-hour downtown neighborhood.” Another line in the report offers a telling look at how SPUR thinks: “Economic growth in the CSD model may be diminished as the remaining sites for office buildings become used for new residential, retail, or other non-office uses.”

Retail means, in fact, economic growth. A 1985 Guardian-commissioned study of small businesses in San Francisco, “The End of the High-Rise Jobs Myth,” found that most of the new jobs created in the city between 1980 and 1984 were not in the downtown office high-rises but around them. Businesses with fewer than 99 employees had generated twice as many jobs as those with more employees.

While the numbers may be different today, the concept that neighborhood-serving retail keeps a local economy healthy has only grown stronger, as has public sentiment against chain stores. Yet SPUR opposed a proposition calling for conditional-use permits for formula retail, which voters approved in 2006.

Over the years SPUR’s political record has been checkered. Though the group talks the good-government talk, it opposed propositions establishing the city’s Ethics Commission and reforming the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. According to Charley Marsteller, a founder of Common Cause and a longtime good-government advocate in San Francisco, “Common Cause supported initiatives in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2005. SPUR opposed all of them.”

This November, SPUR came out in favor of Proposition C, which calls for public hearings before measures can be placed on the ballot, but opposed Question Time for the mayor. The group gave a yes to the wi-fi policy statement and approved establishing a small-business assistance center — contrary to past stances.

SPUR isn’t afraid to defend its positions. “Those who disagree with a conclusion SPUR reaches object to us presenting our ideas as objectively true rather than as values based,” Metcalf notes in the May SPUR report “Civic Planning in America,” in which he surveys other similar organizations.

“And in truth, evidence and research seldom point necessarily to one single policy outcome, except when viewed through the lens of values. We want to stop sprawl. We want housing to be more affordable. We want there to be prosperity that is widely shared…. Perhaps it’s time to grow more comfortable with using this language of values,” he writes.

Paul, who’s now program director for the Haas Jr. Fund and has served on the SPUR board for seven years, says the group is indeed changing. “Over the last six to eight years I’ve noticed a real shift on the board,” he said. “We have really intense and interesting discussions about issues. People feel they can speak their mind.”

Okamoto, a partner in the Okamoto Saijo architectural firm, thinks this is the result of a fundamental shift in planning tactics, due to a more recent and deeper comprehension of the coming environmental crises. “Global climate change is moving things. I think SPUR’s going in the same direction,” he said. Okamoto joined SPUR “because I’d like to see if I could influence the organization toward sustainability. Now we have a new funded staff position for that topic.”

And yet the fact remains that only 5 of the 71 board members — about 7 percent — can be described as prominent progressives. At least half are directly connected to prominent downtown business interests.

And a list of SPUR’s donors is enough to give any progressive pause. Among the 12 biggest givers in 2006 are Lennar Corp., PG&E, Wells Fargo, Westfield/Forest City Development, Bechtel, Catellus, and Webcor.

In the past 10 years SPUR’s staff has doubled, signaling a subtle shift away from relying mainly on the research and work of board members. One of the newest positions is a transportation policy director, and that job has gone to Dave Snyder, who helped revive the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in 1991, founded Livable City, and spent seven years on SPUR’s board before taking the job.

Having occupied the new post for a year, he said, “If I left, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t like SPUR. The debates we have at the staff level are more open than I expected.”

Proposition A, the November transportation reform measure, is one example of the group’s new approach. The group voted a month earlier than usual to endorse a measure that was directly in opposition to the interests of one of its biggest funders, Gap billionaire Don Fisher (the Gap is also a member of SPUR). According to Walker, when the SPUR board vetted the endorsements the number of no votes for Prop. A was in the single digits. “I was so surprised,” she said.

SPUR opposed Proposition H, a pro-parking countermeasure largely funded by Fisher, and worked with progressives on the campaign.

Metcalf noted it was the ground troops who made all the difference. “We don’t have [that kind of] power, and there are other groups that do. We wrote it, but we didn’t make it win. The bike coalition and [Service Employees International Union Local 1021] did,” he said.

Sup. Aaron Peskin, who brokered much of the Prop. A deal, called it a sign of change for SPUR. “They probably lost a lot of their funders over this.”

Radulovich is still dubious. He jumped ship after witnessing some disconnects between the board and its members. Though SPUR asks members to check their special interests at the door, Radulovich couldn’t say that always happened and recalled an example from an endorsement meeting at which a campaign consultant made an impassioned speech for the campaign on which he was working.

As far as his board membership was concerned, Radulovich said, “there were times I definitely felt like a token…. Development interests and wealthy people were much better represented.”

Some say that isn’t about to change. “SPUR has been, is, and I guess always will be the rational front for developers,” said Calvin Welch, a legendary San Francisco housing activist. “The members of SPUR are real estate lawyers, professional investors, and developers. Its original function was to be the Greek chorus for urban renewal and redevelopment.”

Welch and Radulovich agree SPUR doesn’t represent San Franciscans, and Welch suggests the Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors hearing on an affordable-housing charter amendment was a case in point. “The people who got up to speak, I’d argue that’s San Francisco, and it doesn’t look a fucking thing like SPUR.”

SPUR recently applied for a tax-exempt bond capped at $7 million from the California Municipal Finance Authority to help pay the cost of SPUR’s new Urban Center. It’s a standard loan for a nonprofit — SPUR is both a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) — but some neighborhood activists raised questions about whether SPUR’s project is an appropriate expense for taxpayer cash.

“There’s no city money going toward the Urban Center, but by using tax-exempt bond financing they’re depriving the US Treasury of tax revenues,” Salomon said. “The people who are funding SPUR can afford to buy them a really nice building, with cash.”

The Urban Center also received a $231,000 federal earmark from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, whose nephew Laurence Pelosi is a former SPUR board member. Another $967,500 will come to SPUR from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, which voters set aside through Proposition 40 to fund projects that “provide a thread of California’s cultural and historical resources.”

Metcalf said SPUR isn’t sitting on a pile of cash: “We’re not that wealthy. We just don’t have that level of funding.” The group’s endowment is small, and according to its 2006 annual report, revenues were $1.8 million, 90 percent of that from memberships and special events. The annual Silver Spur Awards, at which the group celebrates the work of local individuals, from Feinstein to Walter Shorenstein to Warren Hellman, is one of the biggest cash cows for SPUR, typically netting more than half a million dollars.

So far most of the funds for the Urban Center have come from donations raised from board members, individuals, businesses, and foundations. Metcalf defends the use of public funds. “For a group like SPUR that needs to be out in front on controversial issues, our work depends on having a diverse funding base. The Urban Center is part of that,” he said.

The new headquarters is modeled on similar urban centers in Paris and New York, places that invite the public to view exhibits and get involved in answering some of the bigger planning questions cities are facing as populations increase and sprawl reigns. According to SPUR, this will be the first urban center west of Chicago, and the doors should open in 2009.

Walker, who’s been a board member for about a year, isn’t ready to say SPUR has been transformed. “It’s in my bones to be skeptical of SPUR,” she said. “I have a different perspective than most of the people who are on SPUR, but the membership is different from the people who are funding it. I still think we need to have a more progressive policy think tank as well.”

Walker recruits for SPUR’s membership development committee and said some of her suggestions have been well received. “The reality is, the progressive community is really powerful here when we come together and work on stuff. You can’t ignore us. Rather than fight about it, SPUR is offering some middle ground.”

Originally published December 12, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian