Sue Hestor's 70th birthday party: "We Shall Overcome."

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Everyone is singing "We shall overcome." Sue Hestor and Calvin Welch, two pillars of the development battles, are in center left. The photo was taken by Stewart Bloom, the official photographer of the Alvin Duskin anti-highrise battles.

By Bruce B. Brugmann

Plus: Tim Redmond reports on Sue Hestor and her environmental legacy on his new local  website 48 Hills.org.  

How do you say happy birthday to a San Francisco icon like Sue Hestor?

Some 200 of her friends, allies, pro bono legal clients, political heavies, and fellow warriors against big developers and their pals in City Hall gathered Saturday at Delancey Street for a surprise party to celebrate Sue's 70th birthday.

When she arrived, she was obviously surprised to find a band playing "We shall overcome" and her friends standing, clapping, cheering, and singing  in admiration for a woman who has spent more than four decades as a citizen activist and attorney fighting for one good cause after another, usually at bad odds against the big guys, often for clients without pay. It was truly a historic moment in the history of San Francisco politics. 

I first knew Sue when she popped up as a feisty volunteer in the Alvin Duskin anti-high rise campaign of the the early 1970s. The Bay Guardian was doing an investigative book, "The Ultimate HIghrise," on the impact of highrises on the city. She pitched in on the project and was in the book's  staff photo, jauntily wearing her trademark straw hat, standing next to the hole in the ground for the Yerba Buena Center development.

 We billed a central feature of the book as "the world's first comprehensive study of the true cost of skyscrapers." Our research group demonstrated that highrises cost much more in services than they bring back in revenue,  a finding that infuriated the Chamber of Commerce because they could never effectively refute it. We also laid out in detail for the first time the power structure behind pellmell Manhattanizaton, how destructive those policies are, how they shift the tax burden from dowotown to neighborhoods and small business, who profits from them, why there are more muckmakers than muckrakers. Our talented art director Louis Dunn provided brilliant graphics that drove home the damaging points about highrises.

Our conclusion was most prophetic: "The most disturbing finding can't be quantified--but it should be shouted to the heavens.  It is this: unless the city of San Francisco reverses past practice and immediately enacts an ironclad land-use policy such as Duskin's proposed height limit, the long scoffed at 'Manhattanization' of the entire city is a surefire, 100%-guaranteed inevitability." 

I like to think this project and its results were a fitting start to Sue's career in land use litigation and terrorizing big developers, City Hall enablers, and their ever more virulent forms of Manhattanization. 

In the early l990s, I called on Sue again, this time to be the founding chair of the spanking new Sunshine Task Force. It was a new task force formed to enforce the Sunshine Ordinance, which gave citizens the right to make complaints about government secrecy and its tradition of keeping City Hall safe for PG&E, big landlords, and developers etal. The task force would, I knew, drive the bureaucrats nuts and  it thus needed a strong attorney as chair who would be smart enough and tough enough to go up against the city attorney and the crocodiles in the back bays of City Hall.

 The neat thing was that nobody could kick Sue off the task force.  She was one of two members who were "grandfathered" in by the ordinance--an attorney (Sue)  and a media rep (B3) --who were selected by the Northern Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, not the supervisors. She performed admirably and got the task force on a firm footing as the first and still the best local open government task force in the country, if not the world. 

Through the years of development battles, it was often Sue and Calvin, Calvin and Sue.  Calvin being Calvin Welch, a crafty environmental and neighborhood strategist who worked with Sue and others in developing counters and initiatives and all kinds of hellish moves to beat or slow down and mitigate development.  He said Sue's career could be summed up in two words: "cumulative impacts."  The good thing was that we all knew, when the developers brought up their heavy artillery or their sneaky back alley maneuvers, Sue and Calvin would be there to blow the whistle and take on the fight. Call Sue, call Calvin was the watchword but they usually called us first at the Bay Guardian. 

Let me call now on Tim Redmond, a Guardian reporter who covered Sue and Calvin and the highrise battles from 1982 on, to explain what Calvin meant.  Tim laid out the political points in his piece, "Sue Hestor's birthday and a lesson in SF environmental history," on his new local  website "48 Hills.org."  Read Tim's first paragraphs for the fun stuff on Sue and the last paragraphs for the really important contributions she has made to the city and urban planning, as explained by Calvin.

As Tim concludes, "In 1964, 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 designed to protect neighborhoods from the effects of unlimited growth." 

Well, the Hestor faithful may not have "overcome" the big developers and their latest monstrous Manhattanization plans.   But they have come pretty damn close. On Sunday, the day after Sue's party, the Warriors caved on its waterfront project and Matier and Ross did a Chronicle column with the head, "Warriors call for timeout on Waterfront arena plan." And on Monday, the waterfront warriors marched triumphantly into City Hall and, as the  Chronicle's John Cote reported,  "turned in more than double the number of signatures needed to qualify a measure for the June 3 ballot that would require voter approval for any development on the San Francisco waterfront to exceed existing height limits."

That could kill the massively inappropriate project.  "If passed," the Chronicle continued, "the measure would put a check on high-rise hotels and condo towers along the bay and require voter approval for height increases for three major waterfront development plans, the Golden State Warriors' proposal for an 18,000-seat arena complex, the San Francisco Giants' plan for an urban neighborhood on what is their main parking lot and the development of the industrial Pier 70 area."

Whew! That's what I call a nifty bit of Hestoring and Calvinizing.   b3

If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own. (Wes "Scoop" Nisker on KSAN radio during the dark days of the Vietnam War.) 

(The Bruce blog is written and edited by Bruce B. Brugmann, editor at large of the Bay Guardian.  He is the former editor and co-founder and co-publisher of the Bay Guardian with his wife Jean Dibble, from 1966 to 2012.)