Tech lobbyists — and, yes the mayor’s office — bent the ears of planning commissioners prior to last week’s vote on corporate cafeterias. So, it’s important to someone. But why?
San Francisco is a serial boomtown. And it’s had to be.
It’s not a coincidence that there’s a phoenix rising from its ashes on our city flag. Our town has a tendency to burn and rise again, either physically or metaphysically. If it’s not an earthquake and fire, it’s social strife or economic calamities or competing splinter groups of domestic terrorists or dueling serial killers or homicidal messianic grifters or political assassinations or the constant backbeat of gentrification, coming gradually, then suddenly.
And, eventually, another earthquake and fire. You know this. (Stock your survival kits because, clearly, the federal government is spending all our money on Alabama).
Yet while San Francisco continues on, San Franciscans come and go. There is a neurosis that develops knowing that, any day, you could be buried beneath rubble and/or a wave of instant tech millionaires whose money-losing outfits will, imminently, go public.
As such, workaday matters in this city are often blown up into some manner of deep, existential scenario. To wit, take the national rancor inspired last summer by this city’s attempts to regulate cafeterias in offices. Just last week, there were reporters and TV cameramen at the Planning Commission for this item — and the commissioners beforehand received calls from both tech lobbyists and the mayor’s office inveighing against it.
Big business doesn’t enjoy regulation. Provided your business didn’t blow up San Bruno or immolate much of Northern California, the mayor’s office is inclined to agree.
But that’s behind the scenes. During public comment, more than a dozen cafeteria workers and other food contractors for Airbnb, Google, and Facebook testified to the fantastic working conditions they enjoyed, which would, supposedly, be menaced by this legislation. This testimony was effective; the Planning Commissioners deadlocked at 3-to-3. Well played: That means the item moves on to the Board of Supervisors with a “no” recommendation (more on that in a moment).
It’s unusual for inchoate land-use policy in a west-coast city to make the New York Times — but this one did. And yet, last week, this was just item No. 13 on a crowded Planning Commission meeting schedule. And item No. 14, incidentally, would rezone the entire city, via Accessory Dwelling Units in new construction, transforming every single-family neighborhood (RH-1) into RH-2, and every RH-2 or RH-3 district into RH-3 or RH-4.
That’s a big deal. That’s consequential. When other cities took similar steps, that was national news.
But not here. Here, the hot item was the largely inconsequential vote on tech cafeterias.
Why inconsequential? Because, No. 1, once this matter gets to the Board of Supervisors, nobody there gives a damn that the three mayorally appointed Planning Commissioners voted against it. Because, No. 2, this legislation is sponsored by Supervisor Ahsha Safaí and co-sponsored by Supervisor Aaron Peskin (who make up two-thirds of the Land Use & Transportation Committee, where this next must be heard — and will, naturally, find a date and time to hear it and summarily push it through). And, No. 3, with Safaí already on board, it will be a bit of a challenge for the mayor’s forces to peel off a fourth supervisor, preventing the eight aye votes that override a veto. (Yes, another pickle for Supervisor Vallie Brown).
But it’s also inconsequential because … it’s not very consequential. It wasn’t designed to be.
This isn’t major legislation. It doesn’t, say, rezone the entire city. But this was never intended to be major legislation; you’re just hearing so much about it (and not about other things) because it caught everyone’s attention and spurred a flurry of coverage. And that’s because it — again — epitomizes the existential San Francisco scenario and conjures up on-the-nose San Francisco scenes of well-compensated techies, employed by companies enjoying a tax break, supping at gourmet cafeterias in walled-off fortresses while the have-nots amble around a fetid wasteland.
And, of course, you also heard about this because, initially, Safaí and Peskin proposed to outright ban corporate cafeterias. Which was heavy-handed, and did indeed turn heads. But this was, as we wrote last summer, not so much a hard-and-fast desired end as a negotiating tactic:
Shortly after its introduction, its principals explicitly confirmed to me that this was merely an initial gambit, an opening salvo meant to spur discussion and end up in a different, milder place.
Or, as one City Hall source put it, the ultimate goal is to have the cafeteria ban “massaged into something less extreme and into a program of the sort that already exists where companies are handing out vouchers.”
So, that happened. Asking for a lot and scaling back to something more reasonable is how negotiations often work. As now proposed, new cafeterias would not be banned but require a Conditional Use permit (CU) — as would any Philz Coffee or hotel going up in San Francisco. Among the criteria that would come up at any CU hearing: whether the cafeteria’s patrons would, periodically, be given vouchers to patronize local unaffiliated restaurants.
There was a lot of apoplectic coverage of this issue. But, frankly, we seem to have had it gauged pretty decently.
Meanwhile, for the Googles, Facebooks, and Airbnbs of the world, a CU isn’t a major hurdle. Virtually any major office project already requires several Conditional Use permits. And you don’t lay out a major office, bring in hundreds of workers — and then decide to install a cafeteria. Today’s Giants of Industry are organized; they have calendars that you can access right from your phone. They can multitask. They can get this done.
A CU, one longtime land-use professional tells me, is the sort of thing that requires the services of a decent attorney and $15,000. Tech companies, so often pilloried as the source of all wrong in this city, would have the opportunity to wow everyone with pledges to treat their cafeteria workers right and additionally provide their employees with mealtickets to patronize this city’s businesses. A CU hearing needn’t be a three-ring circus or an anti-tech show trial. It could be a bit of leverage for organized labor and put-upon mom ‘n’ pop businesses and a PR coup for savvy tech outfits.
This is not going to be the barrier that keeps Big Tech from doing business in San Francisco. They are coming. They are here. They can handle this, and it could be a win for everyone.
So, Safaí’s legislation could help out some future cafeteria workers or restaurateurs. But that’s not most of us. Most of us aren’t eating in those cafeterias, either. This is, again, not rezoning the entire city. Why, some outraged observers ask, are our legislators wasting their time with workaday marginalia and not doing that?
Just because a bit of legislation piques everyone’s interest and sparks a disproportionate amount of media coverage doesn’t mean our legislators are in turn spending a disproportionate amount of time on it. Much of the criticism of this legislation seems to have come from people who’ve never bothered to look at a legislative calendar. There’s a lot on there.
Say what you will about governance in this city, but our leaders are able to walk, chew gum, regulate cafeterias, and rezone vast swaths of San Francisco all at once. They, too, have the calendars in their phones. They can multitask. They can get this done.
Compared to the Accessory Dwelling Unit legislation, regulating tech cafeterias is pretty much what its co-sponsor Aaron Peskin describes it as: “just a pedestrian piece of public policy.”
A flashy, symbolic — ultimately pedestrian — item sucked up all the air in the room, while the in-the-weeds, consequential, and potentially transformative one sailed on through with barely any scrutiny.
When you think about it, that is the existential San Francisco scenario.
Until the earthquake. Until the fire. Until the IPO.