Ballot measure threatens San Francisco dot-coms

Sparse attendance at a pro-business rally spreads panic in an industry under siege.

Topics: San Francisco,

This city’s November election may bring local technology companies a serious comeuppance. If the anti-dot-com development Proposition L passes, however, they’ll only have themselves to blame. Judging by the industry’s current pathetic attempts to organize itself, chances for a business-friendly victory at the polls are lower than your average dot-com stock price.

Case in point: Wednesday’s “get out the dot-com vote” rally. Invitations to the event — held at a private downtown club and sponsored by the San Francisco Partnership, a pro-business nonprofit — touted it as an attempt to mobilize the dot-commer constituency. The goal is to defeat Proposition L, which the organization says will freeze development on 85 percent of the city’s commercially zoned land. The partnership, like the mayor, backs the alternative Proposition K, a less-stringent growth proposal that allows for about 25 percent more growth over the next four years.

“We want to create a groundswell,” said Mara Brazer, the group’s president, before the planned discussion and question-and-answer period began.

But the groundswell was nowhere to be found. With only 60 people in attendance, drinking wine and eating dumplings, without even a single sign or banner in sight, the event may even have had the opposite of its intended effect. Those who did manage to make it — people like Chris Reggie, general counsel for animation company Wildbrain.com, wound up discouraged. “We’re worried,” he said. “We’re trying to grow and these laws matter.”

A real sense of panic permeated the event — as well it should. Dot-com entrepreneurs have recently begun kissing up to their aggrieved neighbors, but with only five weeks to go before the election their efforts don’t appear to be gaining them any traction.

In contrast, Proposition L’s proponents — a mix of San Francisco activists, artists displaced by skyrocketing rents and others who are simply tired of the dot-com invasion — are running a well-oiled political machine. Arguing that L would “save San Francisco” by protecting diversity and keeping out obnoxious dot-commers, they’ve conducted countless marches and rallies. They hold weekly meetings. They give people speaking lessons on how to address the press and public. They’ve swarmed planning committee meetings and managed to get themselves arrested.



Even in the virtual world, which one might expect to be home territory for dot-commers, Proposition L fans dominate. They have a Web site that lets supporters order “Yes on L” window signs, join a discussion group or an e-mail list and get information on how to make campaign contributions. The site even includes a link that helps people register to vote.

Meanwhile, the dot-coms languish in la-la Luddite-land. They have neither a Web site nor a list of companies or people who have signed on with their cause. They have no posters. They have no office. Indeed, one of the issues that kept coming up on Wednesday was painfully simple: Who could one call with questions?

By the end of Wednesday’s two-hour meeting, at least that pressing problem was resolved. Mayor Willie Brown’s development director Emilio Cruz announced that as of Monday he’ll step down from the mayor’s payroll to devote himself to runnning the Proposition K campaign full-time. And Chris Reggie announced that Wildbrain.com would help build a Web site.

Will this be enough? It’s hard to see how. The industry may end up getting its just desserts, says Tony Wessling, president of Wessling Creative, an advertising firm.

“We are very good at learning how to communicate with the world, but haven’t been very good about learning how to communicate with our neighborhoods,” he said. Until the industry “learns to stop having rooftop parties and start working on how to find jobs for local residents,” he says, the backlash will continue.

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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