Dan Walters

Dan Walters: San Francisco basketball arena's now a political football

What is it about sports arenas that makes politicians bend over backward to exempt them from regulatory hurdles?

Two years ago, lawmakers passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a hastily drafted bill to give a proposed professional football stadium in downtown Los Angeles a fast track through the California Environmental Quality Act's notoriously dense, time-consuming reviews.

The legislation's big beneficiary was Anschutz Entertainment Group, which wants to build the $1.2 billion stadium near the Staples Center. The legislation would help AEG stave off CEQA and legal challenges from the developer of a rival stadium project in the City of Industry.

Earlier this year, as Sacramento's civic and political leaders battled with Seattle to retain the Kings basketball team, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg carried a bill that modifies CEQA to narrow the grounds on which a proposed downtown basketball arena could be challenged. And apparently it helped Sacramento win the NBA's board approval for selling the team to new owners.

Interestingly, development of two recent major sports venue projects, the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park on the city's waterfront and the San Francisco 49ers' new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, now under construction, went through without fast-tracking.

However, politicians are all over another big project - a proposed basketball arena near AT&T Park on the San Francisco waterfront for the Golden State Warriors, who now play in Oakland.

There's no shortage of conflict over legislation to facilitate its construction.

One San Francisco assemblyman, Phil Ting, is carrying legislation that would allow the stadium to intrude on publicly owned tidelands. But San Francisco's other assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, is opposed, and their split mirrors what's happening in the city itself.

While most San Francisco politicians are backing the project and want Ting's bill to pass, former Mayor Art Agnos, among others, sees it as ruining the waterfront's ambiance, especially since it also includes several business buildings.

Agnos, who pushed for the demolition of a partially constructed freeway along the waterfront, wrote recently, "I never dreamed that, 23 years later, after fighting to tear down ugly freeway blight, I would be fighting to protect this priceless restored waterfront from a modern-day real estate gold rush."

Last week, in anticipation of a showdown hearing in the Senate, Ting amended the bill to shift control of the tidelands issue from the San Francisco Port Commission to the State Lands Commission. But the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which regulates development on the bay, voted to oppose the Ting bill.

Thus, a basketball arena has become a political football.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/ walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.