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Newsom reappoints the condo commissioner

Submitted by News Desk on Mon, 08/11/2008 - 9:55am
Sup. Tom Ammiano had a short but pointed list of questions for Michael Antonini during a Rules Committee meeting of the Board of Supervisors Aug. 7 held to determine whether Antonini should be reappointed to the San Francisco Planning Commission. Gavin Newsom nominated Antonini for reappointment July 8 after the mayor’s office refused to tell the Guardian last month if he planned to do so.

Newsom’s selection of Antonini requires majority support from the board, and its progressive faction, irked by Antonini’s pro-development tenure, took the opportunity to find out how he planned to help the city ensure that 64 percent of all new housing construction was affordable to low-income residents, as San Francisco’s General Plan calls for.

Antonini told the supervisors he felt the city could move closer to that goal by essentially redefining poverty and raising the threshold for what constitutes a low-income earner, currently based on how much people make compared to the area’s median income. If the percentile was raised, developers could describe as “affordable” costlier housing units that are actually expensive and out of reach to a lot of buyers in the city.

“One of the areas that we’re really having a problem with is middle-income families,” Antonini told the committee, “and without in any way diminishing the number of units we build for lower-income groups, I think that we can accomplish that goal more realistically by having that percentile be higher.”

Ammiano also wanted to know why the planning commissioner backed the construction of a new Walgreens at Cesar Chavez and Mission streets just blocks from two other store locations in the supervisor’s district 9.

“Do you really believe that my district is under-served by Walgreens?” Ammiano asked with a smile.

Voters already voiced their displeasure with chain stores like Walgreen’s in 2006 passing Prop. G, which requires citywide conditional use permits for big-box developers. But a pitched battle had also occurred at the vacant property on Cesar Chavez last year between developers who wanted to place 60 pricey condos on the lot and affordable housing activists angry that the plan didn’t include more below-market-rate housing.

“The commission anguishes over these things,” Antonini assured Ammiano, after first being unable to recall the project, “and [the commissioners have] to weigh not only the formula retail issue but also the issue of the entire project and the benefits it may bring to the area as well as testimony from people who live in the area.”

Antonini is well regarded for his work ethic having missed only a few planning meetings since Willie Brown first appointed him in 2002, sessions that sometimes stretch well into the night, involve hours of bureaucratic minutia and lead to some of the most politically tense development clashes in the city.

But Ammiano’s questions set the tone for the commissioner’s other detractors who complained during public comment that Antonini was too reliable of a vote for large business interests and takes for granted the impact high-end loft construction has had on the city’s artist and working-class populations.

“My community has a thick skin,” said Oscar Grande, an activist for People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights. “We can brush off the comments of ‘Hey, maybe if you don’t make enough money, you should just get out of this city …’ But when it comes to having influence over policies, that’s when it gets ugly. And we don’t need a commissioner like that. He has an outright contempt for our community.”

Community activist Calvin Welch pointed to remarks the commissioner made to the Chronicle in February in which Antonini called the city’s General Plan “catering to the far left” because it recommends a high volume of affordable housing construction.

“This is hardly a judicial, neutral point of view on a critical element of the city’s General Plan that Mr. Antonini is called on to interpret, as is every member of the planning commission,” Welch said.

But Antonini’s critics aren’t his only problem. He disclosed a potential conflict of interest lingering in the South of Market neighborhood June 5, a quarter ownership stake in his son’s $515,000 condominium on Townsend Street (see photo) located in a section of the city where the commissioners have been working for years on one of San Francisco’s biggest rezoning projects.

Large sections of the city known collectively as the Eastern Neighborhoods, including Potrero Hill, the Mission and Dogpatch, will receive new designations per lot allowing for the construction of thousands of new residential housing units.

Antonini apparently didn’t realize the massive zoning upgrades near his son’s condo could result in a violation of the state’s Political Reform Act, which prohibits public officials from voting on projects adjacent to property they own. As the Guardian reported June 25, Antonini had already voted on two other projects closely located to the condo, each potential violations of state ethics rules in their own right.

For weeks Antonini has seemed certain that it’s all a misunderstanding and the City Attorney’s Office is perhaps too rigidly defining California’s conflict-of-interest laws. He’s implied that any day now the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission will simply send a letter to the city stating that there’s no conflict after all and Antonini can begin participating in planning meetings in the Eastern Neighborhoods again.

But the matter hadn’t magically resolved itself by the time Antonini, also an elected member of San Francisco’s Republican Party, made his appearance before the Rules Committee Aug. 7, and there’s no telling when any such thing could occur.

“If a member of the planning commission and his family – not artists – own and occupy a so-called ‘artist live/work loft’ South of Market, that is a slap in the face to every hard-pressed, working artist living in the city,” Keiko Shimosato, a longtime coordinator of the Mission-based San Francisco Mime Troupe, told the committee. “And you, our supervisors, shouldn’t tolerate it.”

The Rules Committee moved Antonini’s reappointment to the full board without recommendation and the vote on his fate there will take place Aug. 12. The planning commission, meanwhile, voted to approve the Eastern Neighborhoods package on the same day as Antonini’s reappointment hearing. The commissioner had to recuse himself due to the condo.