The City Council hearing on McKinley Village was, at least to this observer, another weary spectacle affirming that the fix was in, the deal done, the final hearing merely a ritualistic pretense at democracy. Sore loser? Yes, and no apologies. This isn’t a game or sport where you run to the net, bump fists and say a cheery congratulations to your opponent. Our loss means 3,500 more cars per day down streets never meant to handle that volume. It means the building of a dumb-growth chunk of car-centric suburbia that our councilmembers, judging from their windy explanations, applaud as “infill.” It’s been said before, but needs repeating: a leaking nuclear reactor on that site would be infill. It’s the kind of infill that matters. Distinctions like this, however, seem unpersuasive to our Deciders.
Here are a few of the evening’s more grotesque highlights. Councilman Cohn rationally explained that the city’s present method of assessing traffic impact was defective because it measures only Level of Service (how many times a driver pauses in his progress). Level of Service is plainly a remiss and irrelevant assessment model because it doesn’t analyze traffic impact on residents. The passing cars exude exhaust, imperil the safety of pedestrians (kids especially), clog streets, and so on, down a bleak litany of hazards.
Everybody heard Cohn’s message. Heads nodded. Level of Service analysis is idiotically narrow and inapplicable. It’s like going to a Level of Service pain doctor at the L.O.S. pain clinic. Let’s say you have fever, nausea and agonizing cramping in your lower right abdomen. The L.O.S. pain doctor examines only your left index finger. “Your pain is of insignificant impact,” the doctor declares. “But doctor, my appendix is bursting,” you say. “You experienced insignificant pain impact in the examined finger,” the doctor repeats in that flat, stubborn, stupid tone they use when testifying. Anyway, he refuses to admit you to the pain ward, your appendix explodes and you have to spend weeks in the ramshackle neighborhood organization facility being slowly drained of poisons by overworked volunteers.
Now Cohn didn’t launch into lavish similes like this, but he explained the L.O.S. deficiencies clearly, and added that San Francisco now included impact on residents in its traffic analysis. But it was as though he had not uttered a word. Up rose the developer to declaim over his project. He said his Level of Service studies proved there would be only the teensiest uptick in traffic impact. He continued to talk proudly about Level of Service as though its absurdities and deficiencies had not just been exposed. Doesn’t this seem remarkable, even a tad dim? I glanced around to see if people were stupefied but most looked merely perplexed.
But stupefaction was on the way. Councilman Hansen. Here’s a guy with some of the oddest logic I’ve ever heard. In explaining why he was for the project he dismissed our air pollution arguments by saying that African American kids with asthma lived close to railroad tracks in his district. Now what did this mean? Was he saying that since some kids already have asthma it would be unfair to prevent other kids from getting it? That’s what it sounded like. But who could be that nutty? And what did the kids being African American have to do with it? I thought about jumping up and saying, “We don’t want African American kids to get railroad-track asthma either.” But that might backfire and people would say, There goes another Nimby. So I kept quiet, Besides, I didn’t want to miss a word of Hansen’s unique reasoning.
He asserted that a much desired traffic-alleviating tunnel (that has no other city-wide benefit) would be built. Well, sort of. The developer wouldn’t build it of course. Why should he? Hansen would find the funds for it. (There exist, apparently, stockpiles of money to aid struggling millionaires in their quests to avoid spending any of their own profits). This was hard to absorb because many of us have still not recovered from Sacramento taxpayers subsidizing the NBA. But never mind, Hansen is on the job.
The tunnel will be built, right? This is ironclad? Not exactly. It turns out that some funds may be available, sometime, somewhere, somehow. In the meantime Hansen moved to pass the project with no rock solid guarantees at all. The developer is not obligated to do anything. The City is not obligated to do anything. It’s a one hundred percent giveaway. Neighbors get nothing but more visits with the L.O.S. pain doctor.
Speaking of the Level of Service, Hansen also admitted that it doesn’t measure true traffic impact, then said, “But it’s the only tool we have.” By all means then, let’s rely on the only tool we have, even if that tool is proven to be stupendously worthless—more than worthless—dangerous. This is just plain dotty. What we should do is reverse the whole L.O.S. traffic fraud, import from San Francisco the correct methodology, adopt, adapt and apply it. How long would that take? It’s worth the wait.
But it was time for the votes. Cohn, McCarty and Ashby voted for the neighborhoods. The rest, after windy explications (no two-minute limits on this bunch) about “what kind of a city we want to be” voted that we remain a city in thrall to developers and their doubletalk. It’s a shame. Neighbors straggled out, defeated. Some were angry. Some were cynical. One said, “What did you expect? They’re owned by developers.” Another man alarmed me when he said, “This city is going to end up looking like an auto mall.” Then various people described various cities that had ballooned into gross and gleaming auto malls.
It’s hard to get those images out of your head. But not impossible. After a night’s sleep you realize that we’ve lost a battle, but not the war. This isn’t over.