The Building Boys Cry Wolf Again

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 05:51:00 PM

Why do some unions insist on shooting themselves in the foot? The current hysterical media campaign by San Francisco’s Building Construction Trades Council against the proposed implementation of voter-passed Measure J, establishing a Historical Preservation Commission, is a textbook example of how to do it.  

On Tuesday their sfbctc.org website popped up this message in mega-point bold type:  


We are fighting for our lives... 

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering a measure on historical preservation that would kill much of our work… 

Work is hard to find now.  

Don’t let it go away forever. 


Clearly, the SFBCTC has never heard the story of the boy who cried wolf. The proposed regulations they’re inveighing against were sponsored by two of the city’s most progressive Democrats, Aaron Peskin and Chris Daly, people highly unlikely to be trying to kill off construction work in San Francisco.  

The pop-up message pitched a damp rally that took place at noon on Tuesday, intended to lobby supervisors to pass a watered-down set of regulations which would leave Measure J toothless. Preservationists planned a counter-picket. Various San Francisco pols showed up and said there, there, don’t worry. 

Maybe the Building Trades haven’t gotten the memo: we’re in a recession, no, maybe we should make that a depression. And the reason construction is down (and it is) is primarily because construction funding is tight. That’s not because of historical preservation, guys, but because financial shenanigans at a global level have sucked the cash out of the economy. But it’s much easier to blame problems on anyone who doesn’t want San Francisco’s historic buildings demolished to make way for the kind of industrial-technology building projects the SFBCTC seems to favor.  

This just in: re-habbing existing buildings uses more labor than new construction. Really. Check the figures. Also: re-using older buildings is the greenest alternative, when you consider the sunk environmental costs they embody, along with the very substantial contemporary impact of demolishing them and trucking away the rubble.  

And modern construction methods are resource hogs. Manufacturing new cement is a very energy-intensive process, as is making the steel for rebar.  

Chuck Nevius, of the Chuck ‘n’ Chip Show, the metro daily’s matched pair of suburban philistine columnists, gleefully knocked preservation in a recent column: “No one wants to tear down the Palace of the Legion of Honor, but preserving broken-down structures because they fall into a vague historical category isn’t useful either…historical advocates like Peskin maintain they are trying to protect the unique architectural feel of the city. That’s fine, but not if it means creating an urban museum.”  

He quoted a land use lawyer: “It’s like the Venice phenomenon… Venice is beautiful, but no one lives there.” 

Never mind that the tourist industry profits handsomely from marketing San Francisco’s historic beauty. Better San Francisco should have some nice strip malls like Concord, where Chuck is rumored to live, right? 

Writing about BCTC minions picketing a Democratic luncheon in San Francisco last week, Nevius left readers with the impression that it was all about historic buildings holding up construction jobs. Only from the Bay Guardian and Fog City Journal online could one learn that the fight was much more complicated (or perhaps much less complicated) than that. It seems to have to do with some plumbers’ union official, son and heir of another of the same, who failed get the liberal majority on the Board of Supervisors to appoint him to a commission for which he’s totally unqualified. His nose is out of joint…hence the picket.  

The building trades and historic preservation don’t have to be enemies. Our extended family contains both building trade union officials and architectural historians, so I’ve always been sympathetic to both perspectives. Last week I wrote a quick e-mail to the Trades Council website suggesting that they risked losing friends like me by knee-jerk anti-preservationism.  

Council Secretary-Treasurer Michael Theriault wrote back saying the press had gotten it wrong, but nonetheless, he said, “Someone had to throw sand in the gears, and fast. We’ve done so. I don’t regret the picket, even with the misreporting.”  

Mr. Theriault, like Mr. Nevius, seems addicted to quick takes and extravagant turns of phrase.  

On the council’s website is a column with his byline entitled “A Moment for Anger.”  

Why his anger this time? Well, a great big building proposed for 110 Embarcadero is being held up by a bunch of people whose opinion he disdains, among them some members of the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union. The project if approved and built would require demolishing a piece of union history, a building which played a key role in the famous 1934 general strike. A couple of ILWU locals oppose tearing it down, supported by someone characterized by Theriault as “a Marxist activist.”  

(That’s a phrase I haven’t heard used as an epithet in a while now, or at least since we got the last letter attacking our Dispatches columnist. Evidently McCarthy-like red-baiting is alive and well in the building trades, dead though it may be in other venues.) 

Sometimes people in the building industry, both bosses and workers, seem to believe that the main purpose of construction should be to provide jobs. Well, no. The buildings should also be needed. 

In cities like San Francisco and Oakland and even Berkeley numerous fancy and environmentally costly condos now sit empty, and in Stockton whole housing tracts are vacant. Office vacancy rates are up too. 

If we want to make work for the unemployed, there are many other things in contemporary society that need doing, such as providing decent home health care for the elderly. In an era when the threat of climate change is real, it’s not environmentally sound to tear down re-usable structures just to build new ones, or to continue to manufacture a steady stream of un-needed new buildings as an excuse for providing a paycheck for union labor accustomed to industrial construction methods and unwilling to learn adaptive re-use techniques.