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Art Agnos

Art AgnosArt Agnos, Advisory Committee Member

Former Mayor of San Francisco

In 1987, he ran for mayor, to replace Dianne Feinstein, who was term-limited. Agnos came from behind to defeat Supervisor John Molinari, garnering 70 percent of the vote.

Agnos is best known for his leadership of San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and for the city's recovery. The recovery effort also brought political peril to Agnos when he led the effort to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway rather than rebuild it. Agnos won a narrow vote at the city's Board of Supervisors on a 6-5 decision for the tear-down, leading the way to the opening of the San Francisco waterfront into what is widely considered one of the best outcomes from the earthquake. However, the move angered the city's Chinatown merchants and voters, who had been significant supporters of Agnos, and played a significant role in his failure to win re-election.

In recent years, Agnos’ decision has been looked to by city leaders and elected officials in Seattle and Toronto, Canada, where Agnos’ Embarcadero result is considered a potential model for replacing elevated freeways in urban areas.  Under Agnos, the waterfront transit system gained an uninterrupted streetcar line with historic trolley cars running from Fisherman’s Wharf in the north to Mission Bay in the south.  Agnos added to the waterfront by laying plans for the city’s first public access pier, Pier 7, to allow pedestrians to walk out into the Bay. Today San Francisco has dedicated a new public pier, Pier 14, to honor Agnos for his leadership in opening the city’s waterfront.

Agnos inherited a city struggling with homelessness, a challenge that faced a number of cities in the late 1980’s. Agnos convened a task force of providers, homeless advocates, city agency representatives and others to develop an approach that ended the reliance on overnight shelters in favor of programs to help homeless individuals and families become self-reliant. The plan, Beyond Shelter, won national recognition and awards.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 low-rent housing units, including units housing those recovering from homelessness. Agnos championed changes in earthquake recovery programs from the federal and state government and from the Red Cross that provided funds to build new facilities and housing to implement the Beyond Shelter program and to restore arts programs and facilities. In 1993, the results were named a Finalist in the Rudy Bruner Foundation Award for Urban Excellence.

During the nine months that it took to renovate and open the Beyond Shelter multiservice centers, Agnos allowed homeless individuals to sleep in the park in front of City Hall, saying that the alternative was to drive them into neighborhoods and that, as long as they were in front of City Hall, city leaders would be confronted daily with the urgency of the crisis. Critics dubbed the result “Camp Agnos,” and called on him to use police force to remove them, which Agnos refused to do.

Agnos remained committed to a program of expanding affordable, low-cost housing in San Francisco. The city increased funding to repair and rehabilitate public housing by 300 percent, changing the vacancy rate from ten percent to one percent. He increased other affordable housing production from 342 units when he took office to 2,240 units, winning San Francisco’s first national recognition from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Excellence in Rental Rehabilitation and a Special Achievement Award.

Agnos’ liberalism also ran counter to other conservative interests. As mayor, Agnos and his family became the first to ride in the Lesbian Gay Freedom Day Parade, appointed minorities, lesbians and gays to high city posts, and ended the city’s opposition to a court-ordered consent decree to hire and promote minorities and women in the fire department which a federal judge opined was “out of control” due to racism when Agnos took office.  Agnos ended a police department policy seen as permitting spying on local political organizations and ended the Department’s Tactical Squad that critics blamed for abusing citizens. Agnos also strengthened civilian oversight of the Police Department.

Agnos signed a law establishing domestic partner recognition for lesbian and gay couples that had been vetoed by his predecessor, which then became a target of repeal efforts.  In 1989, voters narrowly repealed domestic partner recognition. Agnos moved forward with a Family Policy Task Force that recommended broad changes to San Francisco policy and law, including health insurance for domestic partners of city workers. In 1991, the city formally adopted domestic partner health insurance rights for the city’s 20,000 employees, the largest employer to do so at that time.   Also in 1991, San Francisco voters approved a new domestic partners recognition law for the city.

Agnos served as Chair of the US Conference of Mayors AIDS Task Force, where he organized the lobbying effort that resulted in passage of the Ryan White Care bill.  He implemented the policies he advocated as a state legislator, including a 98 percent increase in the city’s AIDS budget. He created the Mayors Task Force on the AIDS/HIV Epidemic staffed by Dr. Don Francis, a national leader on AIDS/HIV and credited with leading the effort to eradicate smallpox worldwide.

During his tenure, Agnos also undertook major improvements to the city’s infrastructure. As first lady of San Francisco, Agnos’ wife Sherry co-chaired the bond campaigns for public school renovations and a new Main Library at Civic Center, and Agnos designated that the existing Main Library become the new home for the Asian Art Museum that had been located in Golden Gate Park. In 1990, Sherry Agnos also raised funds and oversaw the construction of the $2 million Jelani House that has become a most successful drug rehabilitation facility for pregnant addicted women. Agnos ended the nation’s longest stalled public works project at Yerba Buena to develop a cultural hub that includes the Museum of Modern Art, Yerba Buena Center and Yerba Buena Gardens.   Agnos also proposed a waterfront site for a new San Francisco Giants ballpark, but the proposal narrowly lost in November 1989 weeks after the Loma Prieta earthquake absorbed public attention. Later the Giants ballpark was sited at the location Agnos designated and built to the same overall design by the architects and developers he selected originally.

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