Why Mission Bay isn't a train wreck

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Now that the city planning director is comparing neighborhood activists to war mongers and meanies, it's worth a moment to look back at how the city wound up with what the Chron is now calling a vibrant success of a medical-tech development at Mission Bay.

That site used to be a Southern Pacific railroad yard, but in the early 1980s, the old robber barons realized that a lot of their property had more value as real estate than as railroads. So SP decided to develop Mission Bay, eventually spinning off Catellus Corp. as the developer. The first plan was a disaster, a mix of highrise office buildings, hotels and a little bit of housing. Then-Mayor Art Agnos got it toned down a little, but the proposal he and Catellus put forward in the late 1980s was still a mess -- more office space than housing, nowhere near enough in the way of community amenities, something an old-school builder with no concern for public process might have gotten away with in another city, but it wasn't going to fly here. Of course, Catellus and the mayor both argued that this was the best deal the city could possibly get; more housing or different uses just wouldn't pencil out.

Those same darn crazy activists that the planning director hates forced a public vote on the plan -- and it was overwhelmingly rejected.The next day, Catellus came back to the table -- and offered dramatic improvements in housing and amenities. In the end, UC decided to move into the site, building what I consider a hideously ugly campus with not a single decent piece of architecture -- but without giant highrises and with at least some open space and community facilities. There's actually a chance that this could become a viable neighborhood -- thanks not to the developer, the mayor, or city planning, but to meddlesome neighborhood people.

Funny how that works.