Letter to the Editor: Examining this latest development surge – why and for whom?

South San Francisco, CA   July 22, 2019 by Mark A. Johnson, resident South San Francisco

An article in today’s SFChronicle (https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/1-council-vote-kills-San-Bruno-housing-plan-near-14112359.php?psid=dMzwk) is highly critical of the council and the people of San Bruno.


After I read the article, I asked myself “how did Signature Development spend 3 years and millions of dollars to design and adapt a plan, yet – with the close support of city and area pro-development organizations – their proposal had major unanswered questions about the effects of the construction process and unmet requests for mitigating undoubted future effects on neighbors and the larger community”


Yes the process is broken, but at least as much at the developer end as in the approvals process.  Is it laziness, or is it or arrogance and incompetence?


Our experiences in SSF with the Sares Regis project, the decade of Mission Road’s everlasting construction, and now the hard-of-hearing Akai PUC developers isn’t atypical at all.  These guys can’t just toss a few dollars to a city that will face significant service cost increases, and walk away patting themselves on the back.


Planners need to envision an extant neighborhood with a unique history and character, being faced with several hundred new folks, likely unmindful or unimpressed with the culture and accommodations their advent will upset.


Meanwhile, the construction phase ignores anything outside of its own inward-looking needs.  San Bruno Avenue traffic was severely compromised for a year by construction of a single building!  Don’t developers understand that these precedents have generated enormous ill-will?  Yet, they take the position that it isn’t their problem.


Organized construction labor, too, ought to be pitching in to convince target communities that it doesn’t have to be so disruptive.  But every day I drive down El Camino to Chestnut, and realize these individual workers don’t give a thought to the problem.  Focused on their own work, not a thought for the world or people around them.


Investors are demanding huge profits for a few years.  In the present context the word “quality” appears to mean “ought to last 10-15 years before it’s out-of-date and falling-apart”. In short-term mode, they’re not willing to spend up-front money.


So Signature’s people just bad-mouth everyone because they couldn’t make it go…


Meanwhile, we’ve continued to elect officials who have no clue.  And they hire managers whose abilities aren’t well-matched to the problems we face.  So these civic lights fall back to merely representing community concerns – instead of leading everyone to solve the real problems.


The era of developing empty, untouched California land and farmer’s fallow pastures has passed. Even empty lots or movable businesses are hard to find these days.


For some years, I have characterized local boards and commissions as “the B team” because small governments can’t afford to hire top talent, while for-profit developers can.  And – until now they have.  Today’s story highlights a disturbing new problem in screaming Day-Glo yellow.  Investors and developers are unwilling to pay for talent, either!


Building new homes today comes amidst the ongoing business of life, and it threatens established lifestyles.  But it also means that the inefficient and wasteful construction practices of the past must not continue.  And the level of political skill and community mindfulness to bring a project to a successful conclusion is well beyond many of today’s practitioners.


If we won’t make housing issues (including increased stock, affordability, equity for current communities, and homelessness) a social priority because we’re wedded to a lassiez-faire economic model in that sector, we will suffer as individuals and as a people.


Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Christo; his 1970s Running Fence was accomplished with huge opposition being turned into acceptance (if not enthusiastic support) by building linkages to the entire community (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/christos-california-dreamin-90869/).  The Maysles brothers 1978 film ought to be required watching for developers and planners today.



Mark A. Johnson


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Tony Verreos
3 years ago

Nice job Mr. Mark A. Johnson, unfortunately, the developers don’t care, and those elected light weights you mentioned are really out of their depth in the deep water.

Dolores Piper
Dolores Piper
3 years ago

The Chronicle Article on San Bruno development is very interesting. I also found it laughable that out of 425 units, there would be 46 below market units – it’s a joke. We need 95% affordable units, and a few at market rate in these cities. Teachers particularly are commuting to SSF from San Jose, Hayward, etc. That’s irresponsible of our city. These developers don’t care once the project is finished. People who grew up here can’t afford to raise their families here. I have heard this frequently. What about those nasty condos on Appian Way – who approved those horrible places. They need to be torn down. They are full of mildew and quite unhealthy, and rent there is outrageous. We should be a city of leaders in affordability.