Tim Paulons’s Blog, 9/15/11

The other day I was invited to a small conference in San Francisco’s financial district hosted by the Lennar Corporation. We gathered to discuss the Labor Council’s groundbreaking community benefits agreement (CBA) with Lennar and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency which will renovate and invigorate the depressed Hunters Point shipyard neighborhood. This area of southeastern San Francisco has been neglected in so many ways in the 30 years since the shipyard’s closing, until the Board of Supervisors finally passed a historic development plan late last year.

I was joined by a dozen leaders including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, new Oakland City Administrator, Deana Santana (Mayor Jean Quan was tied up in Oakland), Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore, as well as representatives from Senator Feinstein’s and Leader Pelosi’s offices, among others. We spent an intense two hours discussing our project in the context of future American urban development and revitalization of a fractured modern international economy.

Associates of the Brookings Institute, a moderate but innovative think tank based in Washington, DC, came to San Francisco to learn more about this redevelopment, praise this historic urban plan, and listen to our assessment of how this is one of the best ways that San Francisco can call on community, labor, government, and planners to work together to move American urban re-growth into the 21st century. The Brookings researchers had just completed a tour of the shipyard and Conny Ford, a Vice President of the Council, and Mike Theriault, the head of our Building and Construction Trades Council, joined me, city planners and other development leaders in a discussion.

Brookings Institute analyst Bruce Katz, who worked for HUD in the Clinton administration under former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, made some observations about current urban development. Katz worked with Roberta Achtenberg, now a senior policy advisor to Lennar, who arranged the meeting. (Achtenberg, a former San Francisco Supervisor and famous for taking on the attacks from Senator Jesse Helms who challenged her credentials when Clinton nominated her as Assistant Secretary of Housing “because she’s a damn lesbian,” is a hero to many of us.)

Discussion centered on best practices for American revitalization. Some of the points Katz touched on were:

  • Green economy is still minor in this country. We have made little progress despite California’s leading legislation to move our agenda to less emissions and cleaner building. He was excited to see that Lennar has many new green tools in their plans.
  • It was wonderful that San Francisco community and labor organizations have pushed this plan to include good jobs and good benefits and labor rights.

He then gave his own thoughts on our 200 years-old history by stating that America, despite its massive land size, is driven by urban economies. He highlighted that some of the original American Federalist debate regarding Alexander Hamilton’s manufacturing principals vs. Jefferson’s agrarian roots are still in play—national government policy vs. states rights. He laughed when noting that the new Tea Party folks still pretend like we survive by cottage values. He said that despite our tremendous geographical size, including agricultural land, the American economy is dominated and driven by the 100 or so of our urban areas surrounded by the original travel routes (rivers and lakes) and our two major coasts—the areas that dominate our industries. He gave an example of how Paterson, N.J. became one of America’s first manufacturing centers due to its water falls that early American industries tapped and, though stagnant now, there’s a plan in place where Chinese capitol (sic) might invest in a new manufacturing enterprise with us. They might have to bring a few Chinese workers to train Americans but… Sound familiar? “The reverse of NAFTA might be happening if we are smart.”

Katz emphasized (on the side of Hamilton) that we ultimately need a national framework for economic policy as opposed to a decentralized states rights impediment, though he admitted that local projects like Hunters Point will serve as models for how investment dollars are spent.

Katz ended with a few remarks that included:
•    We are a country of bad habits.
•    Our politics don’t reflect our metropolitan economy.
•    We need to retool our investment priorities; e.g. China is investing everywhere.

My impression is that that the Brookings Institute is driven by business needs and really doesn’t reflect a good jobs agenda. Not intentionally, but, like SPUR, they don’t get that far into the details of living wage jobs and workers’ rights but are intelligently up in the Ivory Tower. But they do recognize a good urban strategy like our shipyard plan when they see it.

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