Jewish group champions Prop. L in voter pamphlet

A group of prominent San Francisco Jews is backing Proposition L with a paid argument printed in the voter information pamphlet.

This step is their latest effort in a campaign to preserve existing Presidio housing for residents of all income levels.

The argument in favor of the measure, which will be voted on in the June 2 primary election, states in part, "The Jewish tradition mandates us to actively help people and pursue justice. The 1,900 housing units at the Presidio provide a unique opportunity to serve our community needs.

"The Torah and Talmud teach us that we are not allowed to destroy anything useful to human beings. Destroying $100 million worth of housing (Wherry housing) is a colossal waste of our precious resources."

The $553 fee to place the argument was paid for by private donations, said Ilana Schatz, director of the Poverty Action Alliance, a project of the American Jewish Congress. She is a spokesperson for San Franciscans for Preserving Presidio Housing, the key coalition supporting the Prop. L campaign.

Among the 13 names listed below the argument are Fred Blum of the AJCongress, Lorraine Honig, attorney Ephraim Margolin and the most visible Jewish force behind the campaign, Rabbi Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Sholom. Lew was arrested at a demonstration in the Presidio last year.

"If it wasn't for us [the Religious Witness with Homeless People, San Franciscans for Preserving Presidio Housing and other proponents], this housing would have been destroyed already," said Lew.

The proposition, endorsed by Mayor Willie Brown and several San Francisco supervisors, may not save a plank of hardwood flooring in any of the 1,900 Presidio units (including Wherry housing's 466 unoccupied townhouses). The city is simply trying to regain some leverage in the overall plan for getting highly coveted land.

In 1996, when the federally owned Presidio was converted from a military post into a national park, the master plan, which has been largely under wraps, has been in the hands of the Presidio Trust committee. The nonprofit organization was created by Congress to develop a plan to make the park self-sufficient within 15 years.

Some of the trust's six current members have strong personal and business interests in the city, including Donald G. Fisher, founder and chairman of The Gap, and Amy Meyer, who has served as co-chair of the People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1971. However, city governmental officials and taxpayers have thus far had no say in what is to become of the Presidio.

Last month, the trust revealed a proposal to transform the land into "a city within a city," demolishing the Wherry housing complex, drawing sharp criticism from the mayor as well as advocates of affordable housing.

"They want to build a housing and office complex for the wealthy," said Lew. "The city is being asked to accept this backroom deal without a say in it," he added. "It's like the city is being told, `Shut up. You have nothing to say about it.'"

Meanwhile, Prop. L offers a solution to the current city housing crisis by proposing that most of the existing 1,900 units be "set aside for rental to San Francisco residents of all income levels."

The Prop. L plan would generate $500,000 a year for the Presidio once the rentals were occupied.

Even if Prop. L passes, the trust can choose to ignore the taxpayers' wishes. But that would mean the city could play hardball by withholding such services as Muni, which would cost the city $6 million immediately and $600,000 a year.

The trust will "probably compromise," said Lew. "They've been very sensitive to public relations."

The irony is that it would cost more to tear down the housing than to restore it, according to a two-month study by Marcia Rosen, director of the Mayor's Office of Housing. Demolishing Wherry housing costs $16 million; restoring it would cost only $9 million, which the city is willing to fund.