Harry S. Pariser
20 min readJul 3, 2023

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How SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association) is like Chairman Mao

“It’s an iterative process, and we’re acting as it happens” — Supervisor Hilary Ronen on the closure of the plazas at 16th and 24th and Mission streets.

“Institutional advocacy… is inherently conservative in that the intention is to work with elites to influence policy from the inside. Management literature describes the prototypical process wherein a cadre of organizational leaders develop an advocacy strategy, enlist the support of relevant publics, and establish legitimacy based on expert knowledge important to a policy discussion.” — Jennifer Alexander and Kandyce Fernandez, Nonprofit Policy Forum (October 2020)

How is SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, like Chairman Mao?

On the surface, not much.

However, when we dig deeper, both share the tendency to set aside the overall good of society in pursuit of contrived goals which benefit elites (the Army in the case of China; realtors and bluebloods in the case of SPUR).

Both China and SPUR have pushed misguided programs which have had negative effects on society.

Writing in 48 Hills in January 2018, Calvin Welch wrote:

The tech sector was, after all, not the major employer of San Franciscans then (or now). Two other sectors, health care and government, employ twice as many San Franciscans as tech. But there has always been a bias against both by San Francisco’s business establishment, because both are so heavily identified with the public sector and are reliant on taxes. Both are also dominated by a unionized work force. The tech sector has magically transformed itself from being a literal government-funded invention into being the darling of the investment class and the shining beacon of “private sector innovation.” As a sector, it is not unionized and is lead by a white male establishment that looks and believes exactly like the white, male business establishment.

The problem with tech was that it is not a good fit with San Francisco’s demographic, in which non-English speaking people of color make up a major proportion. But there is an answer for that, one that was outlined by SPUR in 1966 on the eve of the last great “transformation” of the City to the “corporate headquarters of the Pacific Rim.”

In 1966 SPUR published it’s “Prologue for Action” in which it grappled with the problem that San Francisco was a city that was not competitive with other major urban centers because of its “population”.

“If San Francisco decided to compete effectively with other cities for the new ‘clean’ industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to ‘standard White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ characteristics…Influence…should be exerted in many ways-for example, changing the quality of housing, schools and job opportunities.”

At the beginning of SPUR’s propaganda piece Temporary to Transformative: Leveraging San Francisco’s pandemic programs to usher in a new era for the city’s streets”, SPUR relates:

Gee, a pandemic can be used to make changes that fit an ideologically fixated mindset!

Who knew! One wonders, does the fenced-off ten blocks of Strybing Arboretum count when figuring out who has a park near them? What kind of park is near them? (Many parks are quite unsubstantive).

But the “big surprise” here is that 95% of San Francisco streets are dedicated to transporting people (in cars, and otherwise). Most of those people will use cars because the majority of streets do not have buses on them.

Even if some streets do have bus service, it may be very limited and not meet the needs of residents. Many of the smaller lines run infrequently and stop early at night. Residents will need to take another bus (or more) to get to their destination.

It is unclear how streets can become parks, but, one would think, that removing the asphalt would be a vital first step.

But we do not see that happening. Instead, streets are becoming bike lanes. And the cars go to other streets.

How is that environmentally conscious? How does that improve life for those on the other streets?

As Chairman Mao states: “Without preparedness, superiority is not real superiority and there can be no initiative either. Having grasped this point, a force that is inferior but prepared can often defeat a superior enemy by surprise attack.”

The move to privatize parking spaces (and turn them over to restaurants) had been well over a decade in the making. The “surprise attack” here was to take advantage of the Covid plague to implement measures that might have met with community opposition otherwise.

Because, for elites, we can never have too little democracy and too little democratic progress. For citizen participation often may stand in the way of profitability.

Especially when making these profits belie common sense.

SPUR writes:

California wildires are caused by automobiles. And we thought it was Rothschild lasers~

It is unclear what is “sustainable” about cars blocked from streets. The reality that transit is underfunded; that it is, in fact, in financial crisis, is ignored. The fact that there is no difference between a car and a bus or a tram or a light-rail vehicle other than the number of people they serve, and how much energy they consume per user (including construction and transport costs for the vehicle) is widely ignored.

The rest is just meaningless drivel, boilerplate prose. What exactly is going to “become clearer”?

Chinese YIMBYs demonstrate in favor of more closed streets and more bicycles on sidewalks.

Page five shows us three new visions for Valencia Street. The graffiti-adorned “parklets” are shown as well as the garish anti-environmental LED lights, another form of privatization of public space (as they were forced on the general populace without consultation).

NOT the Valencia Street that has emerged.

What exactly is a “shared walk zone” is not elucidated. These “dining structures” were constructed without public input and have had little regulation (although this is changing).

The bike lane that emerged, welcomed by no one, has been a catastrophe (as of this writing):

https://missionlocal.org/2023/06/crashes-confusion-unfinished-sf-valencia-bike-lane/

SPUR does not balk at using the always-overly-positive prose of Rebecca Solnit in the most fatuous manner (in the excerpt below) and to reach a fanciful conclusion. It also trots out that old saw “holistic perspective” as though the words have any actual meaning. How can streets be “joyful”? Asphalt is now animate?

The “holistic approach” that sees the “street grid as a network” can not help “people reach places quickly and safely,” and street construction definitely exacts a toll on the environment. What the “minimal costs” are is not defined, but then everything written up to now has been quite nebulous.

Streets take on anthropomorphic qualities in the fanciful daydreams of SPUR “planners”

SPUR outlines eighteen strategies divided into 18 principles. Number three, “Don’t pilot, iterate” effectively means giving up the ruse that something is a pilot project and likely rejecting the need for any community input. Number four recommends that “shared spaces” be “deployed” as “neighborhood parks and plazas.” However, as the old “public” “parklets” were always located near restaurants (which used them for their patrons) but had to maintain the ruse of being for everyone’s use, all but a small minority of the new “parklets” are exclusively for restaurants and stay unused for some 20 hours per day.

SPUR urges us to establish “a holistic set of metrics” (8) and to “build a joyful street culture (10).” This is all quite nebulous, but one doubts the writer could actually clarify.

Funding should be dispersed through CBOs (nearly always run by and on behalf of the class interests of the elite) “in the short term” (12). Long-term funding remains undefined. Nor is it clear to which purposes any funding would be used for.

Although permits are supposed to be simple and predictable, of course they are not.

Point 14 advocates “reinstating” Sunday parking meters. Valiant neoliberal warrior, the late Mayor Ed Lee, had boldly implemented Sunday meters in 2013 to appease the anti-car set (who all appear to spring from elite backgrounds), but adverse public reactions had led to the end of this regressive taxation on Sundays.

Since this paper was released, they are making a comeback, along with evening parking meters. Supervisors have asked SFMTA to delay implementation, but SFMTA is a rogue agency and may likely disobey.

The final point (18) urges the government to “staff up for permanent programs,” but does not indicate the source of funding.

The next page holds three tone-deaf illustrations:

Note that parking spaces have been eliminated from one side of the street. How this affects streets with homes with driveways is immediately unclear, but so is practically every concept offered up so far.

While planners and politicians may claim to be adverse to cars, they are likely to own them. Parking is woefully insufficient to meet the needs of current residents and visitors. Reducing parking has caused increased congestion, hurt small businesses and led to increased emissions.

Planners and politicians live in a privileged class and have the funds to pay for valet parking and pricy garages. Some politicians employ drivers So they may not experience the same realities as locals who may spend twenty minutes or more looking for a parking space.

But then, as Ronald Reagan said “Facts are stupid things.”

Chapter One includes the following claims:

Happy Days are here again!

The “outdoor heaters” are gas-fired enclosed flame throwers. These use a lot of natural gas, something that environmentalists have been trying to curtail use of — even to the point of replacing gas stoves with electric ones, a goal which has thrown the corporate anti-environmental right into a feeding frenzy.

Of course, as we have already pointed out, most of these structures stay empty much of the time. They collect trash in off-hours, and a large (but unquantifiable) percentage of them are continually covered with graffiti.

Of the two contradictory aspects, one must be principal and the other secondary. The principal aspect is the one playing the leading role in the contradiction. The nature of a thing is determined mainly by the principal aspect of a contradiction, the aspect that has gained the dominant position. But this situation is not static; the principal and the non-principal aspects of a contradiction transform themselves into each other and the nature of the thing changes accordingly.

Despite the description below, there can be little doubt that these structures were always intended to be permanent.

Businesses were not going to invest tens of thousands of dollars to build these structures without some covert guarantees that they would be permanent.

Supervisors could not but have voted to do this. Had they refused, the powerful restaurant association would have targeted them when they ran for re-election. And, as restaurants now appear to outnumber commercial businesses, they would have endured enormous heat from the local merchants associations (who often represent only elite interests) as well as from individual restaurant owners.

In the case of one restaurant, the San Francisco branch of the “Pacific Catch” chain, an entire parking lot was turned into a tiki bar without any sort of input, official or resident generated!

The loss of their parking lot meant that their customers would compete with others for already scarce parking spaces. But this is not a concern for planners who believe “cars are going away.”

Dorothy makes cars all go away!
Where would neoliberal “nonprofits” be without phrases such as “equity and inclusion” when their goals are anything but!

“Parklets” (goal 2) place more obstacles in the path of the disabled (many of whom lack the income to eat in restaurants). While adding acoustic music might be fine, loud blaring music can be hell for residents, especially if they live above the restaurant.

“Transit first” remains a joke (with double parking “ride share” and delivery vehicles, such as Amazon Fresh, frequently stalling MUNI vehicles). It is not clear what “micro-mobility” motorized vehicles (such as “electric scoots”) should be doing on the sidewalk, but we need to mysteriously meet their needs! If there is any balancing of needs going on, it is not evident.

Graffiti and illegal and illegal double parking are chronic problems at this controversial “parklet” which is inappropriately placed where the N Judah turns south from Irving to 9th Avenue.

Public access to these “parklets” is not provided because chairs and tables are moved in and out of them. Seating is for patrons. There is no sharing of “parklets” between businesses (as per 5).

According to SPUR, “shared spaces” (6) differ from “parklets” in that they are removable and spaces are available to the public during daytime hours. It is not clear that such places, other than the “public parklets” (marked as such) which do provide open seating, actually exist (although local businesses — the ones whose patrons are actually the ones using the “parklet” may and have placed their own tables and chairs on the “public parklet.” Naysayers might term this use a type of privatization of the “public parklet.”

We do need to look critically at these and delve beneath the hype. As the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao (himself hardly a Magellan when it came to agricultural policy) enunciated:

“When we look at a thing, we must examine its essence and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the threshold, and once we cross the threshold, we must grasp the essence of the thing; this is the only reliable and scientific method of analysis.”

So anyone can see that this program is a willful appropriation of public space for the benefit of public interests.

The Great Helmsman intrepidly sails the waters much as SPUR valiantly sails the uncharted sea of gentrification, displacement and public-private “partnerships” (which always have taxpayers as the junior partner).

SPUR does raise some of the innumerable problems with street privatization:

→ Parking is to be charged up for four more hours daily, and free parking on Sundays will be abolished to pay for the lost meter revenue.

→ Use of benzine-polluting portable space heaters is ubiquitous.

→ Cars crashing into “parklets” are a fact of life. It is just surprising that it does not happen more often.

Have they, in fact, indemnified the city?

→ We suspect no insurance has been taken out, especially for less well-heeled restaurants.

SPUR relates:

Well, do they have answers? No solutions are offered.

Citizens spoke up against having this program rammed down their throats without proper process. SPUR’s response is to not have a response.

Somehow older people, rather than being an informative and vital source (given the perspective their life experience, now called a “journey” offers) are termed a “community.” Are teenagers a “community”?

These concerns (of mobility access) were ignored when JFK was closed in order to make it safe for nylon banners, doggie heads and hot dog stands. (How are these connected? All of these produce a profit or income for somebody.)

→ Well, if you are on a “slow street,” your property values will raise, but the traffic goes to other streets — which become less safe, busier and noisier. How is this fair or connected to safety?

E.g. Slow Streets do not have a lot of traffic to begin with!

The irony is that the streets chosen to be “slow”, as SPUR says, do not have a huge amount of traffic to begin with. Many have slopes, so they are hardly going to be a playground for tricycles as is sometimes maintained. Pedestrians already have sidewalks, so there is no gained benefit there.

Who exactly benefits other than bicyclists? And the residents of Slow Streets who see their property values rise?

The conservative neoliberal “YIMBY” movement uses make-believe “progressive” and “environmental” values to push for changes that push gentrification and still higher property values.
Funding can be a concern? Maintenance?

→ While potholes are rife on San Francisco streets, somehow money for these absurdities must be found. We will see if things are maintained.

SPUR links to more absurdities here:

https://default.sfplanning.org/Citywide/green_connections/GC_Final_Report-CH5_Design_Toolkit.pdf

What the hell is a “Green Connector”?

What the hell is a “Green Connector”? It is not clear what “recreation infrastructure is”, but this appears to be the idea that a network of streets need to be made safe for bicyclists. Pedestrians already have sidewalks that connect (although selfish scooter riders and electric and manual bicycle use on them have impaired their use for throwback pedestrians).

SPUR tells us that public process and community input are unwelcome factors in retarding the implementation of the vision of elites (and the immense profits which are financed through billions of misused interest-paying city government debt:

Once more SPUR unwittingly tries parody here:

“Paradigm” appears to be the favorite word of those who have nothing genuine to say!

SPUR opines that “Community-based groups and individual businesses have taken steps toward making street improvements, filling in the gaps of stewardship by paying for higher-quality materials and better maintenance.

It is never clear what a CBG is but this usually refers to wealthy, well-connected individuals. In the case of Parks Alliance, we see them create a new “nonprofit” to build high-end playgrounds, generally using environmentally unfriendly petroleum-based products.

Do we really need high-end playgrounds? How about just sand and swings?

And when Supervisor Connie Chan took Parks Alliance to task for its blatant corruption, Drew Becher, their CEO, wrote a totally outrageous letter challenging them with a rhetorical style mafiosa might well envy:

It is unbelievable that this type of rhetorical drivel can be taken seriously:

“The conversation shifts from “yes or no” to “how do we make this better?” This reframing ensures that perfect does not become the enemy of good; rather, good simply becomes one of the many stages that lead to greatness.”

In other words, we should have boondoggles such as the Valencia bike lane and have struggling store owners, quite reasonably, be up in arms about losing parking spaces to SFMTA white elephants:

This, again, is total drivel:

The nuclear threat posed by not privatizing streets?

The “larger public good” as determined by who? Why was the moment “urgent”? Ironically, as Slow Streets (a program long in the making) was unveiled many public spaces (including the 55 acres of the formerly public Strybing Arboretum) were closed for months.

Mysteriously, the Shakespeare Garden was barricaded (perhaps because they could not rent it for weddings), and the Arboretum was shut off because the blueblood San Francisco Botanical Garden Society could not make money from it, as it was seen to be hazardous for ticket-collectors to work.

Also, they did not want to set a precedent. Bringing it back to free entry might have made it difficult to bring it back to being an expensive-to-enter, gated compound for the wealthy, and we can’t have that.

SPUR also writes that “A holistic view of streetscape design seeks balance among competing interests — emergency vehicle response times are weighed against the consequences of traffic violence, and the ease of parking is weighed against the comfort levels of pedestrians and cyclists as well as against the economic benefit of vibrant commercial corridors.”

“Traffic violence”? You can not make this stuff up! This is an even more ridiculous terminology than parking being called “car storage.”

YIMBYs are truly their own parody. But to be straightforward with their prose would reveal its vacuity and the lack of logical reasoning behind it.

SPUR really outdoes itself (as an unintentional parody) with this assertion: “Emergency vehicles could use a ‘rapid response network of streets designed to allow fire trucks to move quickly through the city, reducing emergency vehicle access requirements on most streets and potentially improving response times.”

Unless, your block, blessed with a “Slow Street,” is the one on fire! 🔥

Well, they will have streets dedicated to emergency vehicles. Will they be dedicated solely to emergency vehicles

It gets even more absurd:

This is pretty rich also:

So, as far as SPUR is concerned it is “burn, baby, burn.” If you complain after your home has gone through a holistic conflagration event and has iterated into a new paradigm, just remember that making homes safe from burning down is “too reductive,” especially in the face of the needs of cyclists, whose interests overwhelm all others’ concerns.

Exactly how they might “harm small businesses by not allowing them to make use of the street” remains unexplained. And mysterious. When has a cyclist ever been hit by a fire truck or ambulance? How are shopowners negatively impacted, at present, by having fire trucks, on rare occasions, speed down our streets?

https://vimeo.com/652171717

SPUR writes:

DPW loses something…for the first time!

How about if we keep things simple in the public space? No rusting steel, faux brick or boardwalk, no puerile street “art”?

Just fix the potholes and have a no-tolerance policy for graffiti.

It would seem like an immense waste of money to count this:

Who is doing the counting?

Why are increase in sales tax revenue of consequence? How could this create more jobs? How does one track “level of enjoyment”? How would one measure noise levels?

Jumping for joy down streets these days!

Page 30 tells us streets are now “destinations,” as though this designation had a meaning. Apparently, “groups like Kid Safe SF, Slow Sanchez and the Parks Alliance have begun to gather leaders from each Slow Street to share best practices and continue to foster community stewardship of these spaces. The SFMTA has been supportive of these ‘Slow Streets mayors,’ as they fulfill the need for a Neighborhood Steward Group, which is required for any Slow Street that is seeking to become permanent.”

As I decode this, it appears that “nonprofit” organizations are going to “lead” the street (with unknown funding and possibly massive personality conflicts) into this wonderful “stewardship.” A wonderful utopian future awaits us!

Insidiously, SPUR writes on page 33 that our neighborhood organizations (which all too often exhibit Karen-like characteristics) should be funded by taxpayers to do whatever they want in our neoliberal Wild West: “The city should disperse near-term dedicated funding through local agencies such as community business organizations, BIDs, merchants’ associations and “friends of” organizations. This funding would ensure that all neighborhoods can supplement street and open-space improvements and activate their streets or sidewalks to support recreation or economic activities.”

“or economic activities”

Such as what? Not the emphasis on economic activities, as though this is a higher value.

SPUR knows how to win friends and influence people right here:

SPUR loves regressive taxation!

SPUR ignores the fact that many people will not find that our limited public transport, which has gotten worse over recent years, works for them. Given the (hypocritical and poorly planned) war on drivers conducted by elites during recent decades, it has become harder and harder to drive here.

Parking taxes are regressive taxation. Having the meter stop at 6 PM allows working people the ability to eat dinner without having to worry about having a ticket.

They can also sleep in on Sunday mornings without getting a ticket.

None of this is of consequence to the ideologue. Privatizing a parking space to hand it over to a restaurant (which uses it only a few hours per day, or not) is not privatization but allowing a car to park there (“car storage” to the inept ideologue) is, somehow, privatization — although the former rotates and is truly “shared” while the other monopolizes (and causes traffic problems).

Why is parking not for people? And restaurant patrons are not the general public!

SPUR launches on some leaps of logic above. In the first place, there is no reason to believe that a “parklet” brings in $44,060 per year. Many of the “parklets” are empty much of the time. Even were they packed six or more hours per day, the claim that a “parklet” produces that much revenue for city coffers is a huge reach.

It is not clear how putting patrons out in a parking spot eating increases “vibrancy” in a street. It certainly creates a nosier atmosphere, especially where loudspeakers playing music or huge TVs are involved. (Unfortunately, they often are). It makes the sidewalk space feel more cramped.

How it would create more jobs is a mystery. It is more likely that waiters and waitresses (or “waitpeople” if one prefers) will just have to work a bit harder when these extra tables are full.

The idea of one revenue source going to fund another is, of course, absurd — even if the notion is popular. Government should fund necessary services, and corporations need to pay their fair share. Sales tax is a regressive tax (as is the hotel tax, entry fees to public spaces, etc.) and, at 8.625%, is way too high in California. Only one percent goes to San Francisco, not the 2.5% that SPUR claims!

SPUR misrepresents sales tax revenues

Obviously, it does not go to SFMTA; it goes to the general fund.

Another way of looking at this is that each “parklet”, if returned to public and not private use, could generate $11,195 per year. Of course parking meters — which are ridiculously overpriced in San Francisco — do not each bring in that sum. How that sum is calculated is a mystery. We would have to know the actual rates per meter (which vary by the area and the hour) as well as the amount the private businesses take for receiving funds as well.

In short, in addition to setting up a false dichotomy — “Parking Versus People”—dubious statistics and methods of analysis are used to present a patently false picture.

https://www.sfmta.com/getting-around/drive-park/parking-meters

There is nothing desirable about cars, and there is nothing desirable about pollution. But, if retail is desirable, retail requires parking as well as loading. One can’t simply bring a dresser on the bus. The shop will not be “activated” and will not “thrive” if goods can not be transported to and from it. Less parking increases cars in circulation, which increases pollution as well as the chance of an accident (or “traffic violence” to use effete YIMBY parlance).

In “Transit First” San Francisco, a three-parking space MUNI stop (formerly for the 21) has been privatized.

SPUR posits yet another absurd claim here:

Neighbors should not be able to object, according to SPUR.

How does comparing someone requesting a review — very likely with good reason (as an appeal will occupy their time uncompensated) — necessarily have anything to do with the time a process takes (which appears to be too long).

While there are sound reasons to appeal a “parklet,” very few table and chair permits are likely to be contested. If there ARE valid noise concerns, a hearing should be held. But such a hearing is likely to be a rubber stamp one, as DPW’s value culture has long been slanted towards neoliberal privatization and the lucre it can bring present and former employees.

SPUR neglects to inform as to why it should be made more difficult for neighbors to weigh in on public-space privatization concerns while the abysmal inefficiency of staff in expediting approval for basic changes remains unreformed.

The “Conclusion” is more boilerplate. The sentence “San Francisco can use its streets to make much more of its transportation sustainable, which will help reduce the threat of another global-scale crisis, the warming climate“ does not make any sense. As with most YIMBY concepts, it remains amorphous. Climate change (which is far more than just “warming”) is locked in for our lifetimes, and we, through inaction (and “Slow Streets” is definitely not action!) are ensuring that it will continue to be more and more devastating.

Bringing more and more Amazon delivery vans on the street, along with so called “ride share” vehicles, rental bikes and scooters and other vehicles does not solve the environmental crisis. We will have to accept a much lower standard of living to stave off the worst of climate catastrophe.

The saddest part is that this document is not unique. So many bad ideas have been implemented in San Francisco and elsewhere because documents such as this one ignorantly or purposefully (or both) misrepresent the situation. And monopolize the public discourse, as these ideas are implemented irresponsibly without long-term planning, financing for maintenance and adequate public input.

Because the bureaucrats and the decision-makers do not really care what our opinion is. Or what facts or concerns we present. As Ayn Rand had her character say in “The Fountainhead”, a novel so beloved by San Francisco’s technorati, “That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”

Not “public process”. That is for sure! ❦

Chairman Mao on Bike to Work Day.

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Harry S. Pariser

Harry S. Pariser is a long time resident of San Francisco, CA. He is a writer (and author), artist and photographer.