| October 2012
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|He’s Everywhere: On a visit to Martha & Bros. on 24th Street—scene of a recent debate over coffee and tea—Supervisor Scott Wiener (right) takes a minute to chat with coffee shop regular Tony Snapes. Photo by Beverly Tharp|
By Corrie M. Anders
Halfway through his rookie term, Scott Wiener has drawn mostly high praise as District 8’s representative on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—especially for the prodigious amount of legislation he has authored.
Excluding Board President David Chiu, Wiener has introduced more bills in the past two years than any other supervisor on the 11-member panel.
His name has been on 33 measures—some narrowly focused, many far-reaching. Twenty-four have been approved by the board, including a measure that cleared the way for higher wages for janitors, and one that discouraged universities from buying apartments and turning them into student housing. Measures still pending include a law that would make it easier for tenancy-in-common (TIC) owners to convert their units to condominiums, a building code revision that would allow construction of tiny “micro-apartments,” and a change to the police code that would eliminate fees and fingerprint requirements for antique stores.
Since winning a four-year term in November 2010, Wiener has received steady applause for his close attention to constituent issues in Noe Valley.
“We’re very proud of him,” said Hunter Stern, president of the Noe Valley Democratic Club, who said he was particularly impressed with Wiener’s legislative acumen.
“He’s very systematic in his approach to identifying issues, analyzing and crafting legislation. He’s good at that,” Stern said. “More importantly, most of it gets passed.”
In a wide-ranging interview in his City Hall chambers, Wiener, a former deputy city attorney who resides in the Castro District, acknowledged that he took great pride in shaping policy for San Francisco.
“I do plenty of [work] behind the scenes,” said the 42-year-old supervisor, whose district includes Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, the Castro, and parts of Glen Park. “But there is a lot of legislative work to be done, [although] sometimes people say we have enough laws on the books, we don’t need more.”
Wiener said he was especially proud of his drum major role in getting voter approval last November for a $248 million bond measure to increase pedestrian and bicycling safety, repave streets and fix potholes, and make other capital upgrades. Twenty-fourth Street was one beneficiary of the bond measure, he said. His work on the community design for the renovation of Dolores Park also ranked high on his list of achievements.
Neighborhood leaders and politicians have had two years to take the measure of Wiener, a soft-spoken moderate often described as a policy wonk.
“Overall, I would say [Wiener] has done an excellent job. He’s highly responsible to the small and large needs of the community,” said Debra Niemann, executive director of the Noe Valley Association. “He’s a problem-solver.”
Last May, for example, Niemann said Wiener was summoned to calm a dispute at a parklet outside Martha & Bros. coffeehouse on 24th Street. DavidsTea had announced plans to open next door, and a number of parklet habitués were upset that proposed construction might disturb the ambience of the space.
Wiener spent 20 minutes at the sidewalk summit discussing permit procedures with the parklet regulars, who were also worried that competition from DavidsTea, a Canadian chain, might hurt the local coffee shop.
Wiener said his role “was to bring understanding” that construction would be handled in “a very respectful way” and that DavidsTea was a niche business without much overlap with Martha’s.
More recently, Wiener was a background player in the First Republic Bank controversy, said Rob Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association.
In late July, the bank withdrew its plans to open a branch in a vacant storefront on the corner of 24th and Sanchez streets, after residents complained the neighborhood’s main commercial strip was already well stocked with financial institutions.
Rather than let the bank’s proposal fade, Roddick said, Wiener set out to help the bank find a more appropriate location in Noe Valley.
“As supervisors go, he’s not been so bad,” said Roddick, noting Wiener’s work on a popular but expensive proposal to transform the Noe Valley Ministry parking lot at 24th and Vicksburg into a town square.
Valley Street resident Karen Spira has had only one encounter with Wiener, but it left her deeply impressed. The occasion was a June 16 ribbon-cutting at Upper Noe Recreation Center for a new sandbox cover designed to keep cats at bay.
“I was very touched that he came to the ceremony. He came even though it could be seen as trivial. But it was a big deal to our community,” said Spira, who led a nearly two-year effort to find a solution and funds for the sandbox cover. Her 21/2-year-old son, Tobias, now plays in a litter-free sandbox.
Still, Wiener hasn’t won over everybody in the neighborhood.
“Scott is a little too conservative for my taste,” said Vicki Rosen, longtime president of the residents group Upper Noe Neighbors.
“He seems more like a quote ‘downtown’ kind of guy,” she said. “He’s more pro-business and pro-development than past District 8 supervisors. My overall assessment of his presence in my part of District 8 is that he doesn’t connect easily to ordinary residents and their issues in the district,” she said.
Rosen qualified her evaluation, however. “I feel like if we really did have a problem he’d be there to help.”
In his favor, Rosen said, Wiener has proposed some good legislation, including a parks bond measure on the November ballot that would provide $195 million to fix up Glen Canyon Recreation Center and other rundown fixtures in city parks. Still, she said, “I’m not a fan of his effort to water down the Historic Preservation Act” through reform legislation that the board approved in May. She called the reforms “misguided” and “a solution in search of a problem that will mostly benefit developers.”
Wiener countered that “people get caricatured in politics all the time. You’re pro-development or anti-development or you’re pro-business or anti-business.”
He defended his performance, emphasizing that he has a “strong pro-tenant record” and that he supports “smart development.”
“I think people can agree or disagree with particular votes I’ve cast or positions I’ve taken,” he said. “But what I don’t think anyone can dispute is my level of engagement in tangible projects that matter in the district.”
High on his agenda this year is facilitating the town square, shepherding a $200,000 renovation of the popular Noe Courts park—“that park needs a lot of attention”—and trying to resolve the impasse over the Real Food Company building, which has confounded politicians since the grocery abruptly closed nine years ago amid a labor dispute.
As for citywide issues, Wiener plans to devote more time to housing and transportation—especially improving access to car-sharing and getting more taxis on the streets.
Some, like Rosen, believe Wiener’s record foreshadows mayoral ambitions, while Stern said an assembly race might be a possibility.
“He’s made a name for himself, and others are talking about him in that way,” said independent political analyst Corey Cook, an assistant professor of politics at University of San Francisco and director of the school’s Leo T. McCarthy Center.
Wiener smiled away any suggestion that he had higher ambitions.
“I’m very, very focused on doing the jobs as supervisor,” said Wiener, who also works outside City Hall attending two to five events each evening and eight to 14 on weekends.
“Politics is so uncertain and there are so many variables that I think it’s foolish to start planning ‘this is what I want to do in the future,’ because you end up not focusing on what you’re doing now.
“This,” he said, “is truly the best job I’ve ever had.”
Wiener’s Laws: From ‘Towel, Please!’ to TICs to Street Trees
Some of Scott Wiener’s legislative achievements have won national attention. For example, his measure last year requiring nudists to put a towel down before sitting on a public bench hit CNN and the late-night talk shows.
Then there was his repeal of an item in the police code that had made it a crime to tie a dog to a tree. That created a stir too.
But the District 8 supervisor has also championed more serious legislation, some of which holds particular resonance for Noe Valley residents.
In June, Wiener and Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced legislation to make it easier for tenancy-in-common (TIC) owners to convert their units to condominiums.
Under the measure, TIC owners (with some restrictions) would be able to pay a one-time fee of $20,000 per unit to bypass the city’s current lottery system and convert immediately. The fees would go toward creating affordable housing.
“The TIC condo reform will be very beneficial in Noe Valley,” Wiener said, noting that “District 8 has the highest number of TICs in the city.”
The bill is pending before the Board of Supervisors.
Already on the books is Wiener’s “Good Samaritan Rental Law,” which was prompted by arson fires in the Castro and an accidental fire last year that displaced residents above Radio Shack on 24th Street.
The measure allows landlords to offer temporary, one- to two-year leases at low rents to disaster victims without committing to long-term rent-controlled contracts.
Wiener said the passage of legislation in April that streamlined the planning code for restaurants, cafes, and bakeries was another significant accomplishment.
He said the existing code had so many separate classifications that some businesses could sell a cold bagel but not a toasted one, or serve ice cream in a cup but not in a cone.
“We collapsed that from 13 down to three broad classifications and made it a lot easier for people to open and grow these small businesses,” Wiener said. “I think every single restaurant or café in Noe Valley will benefit from this.”
Last month, Wiener called for a public hearing on an issue that has been raising the hackles of Noe Valley homeowners: the high cost of caring for street trees. Earlier this year, the Department of Public Works began transferring, neighborhood by neighborhood, the entire responsibility for maintenance of the city’s 100,000 street trees to property owners.
“There certainly are a lot of street trees in Noe Valley, and a lot of people were surprised in an unpleasant way” when they learned about the city’s plans.
Wiener said he wants to find an ongoing source of funding that homeowners can tap into to pay for tree-pruning or for repairs to sidewalks broken by tree roots. One of the suggestions—a parcel tax—would require enabling legislation.
The public hearing on trees has been tentatively scheduled for late October. For information, call Wiener’s office at 415-554-6968 or email Scott.Wiener@sfgov.org.
—Corrie M. Anders