New City Exec Aiming to Speed up Development

The need for speed: Cohen promises an “end to stasis” in planning and development

San Francisco Business Times
By J.K. Dineen

Promising to fight for an “end to stasis” in the city’s development and planning process, city hall veteran Michael Cohen will take over Mayor Gavin Newom’s workforce and economic development department.

Cohen, a former deputy city attorney who has been Newsom’s point person on Hunters Point and Treasure Island military base reuse projects, will replace Jesse Blout, who is leaving to take a position with Goldman Sachs.

While he does not start until January, Cohen said he has been looking at a number of ways to restructure the 80-person office. One of these is to consolidate all the workforce development programs — currently spread across different departments — so that job training can be better coordinated with business recruitment. That way, all the city’s departments will be better able to match workers’ skills with the type of companies and industries coming here, said Cohen.

“We want to look at the whole picture and be more strategic in use of workforce dollars,” said Cohen.

Other ideas include a new small business assistance center, and a “China desk” dedicated to luring fast-growing Chinese companies to San Francisco. Pointing to SunTech, the 4,000-employee solar company that recently decided to put its North American headquarters in the city, Cohen said a new generation of Chinese companies will be looking at establishing a beachhead in the United States.

“We are putting together a very robust strategy geared toward making sure that as the Chinese economy matures and more companies look toward creating North American headquarters, that San Francisco becomes the premier choice,” said Cohen. “I believe this is a an economic development strategy which will serve San Francisco for the entire 21st century.”

Working with groups like the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Center For Economic Development, Cohen hopes to have people on the ground in Shanghai and Beijing charged with promoting San Francisco as a place to do business.

“To do this right, we need to be nimble,” he said.

Cohen said much of his energy will be focused on improving the development process for builders and developers. In an interesting move, Cohen has hired Michael Yarne of the Martin Building Co., a land use attorney and developer who has publicly expressed frustration with the city’s slow and unpredictable entitlement process.

Yarne successfully led the public-private partnership that built the new Mint Plaza off of Fifth Street

“There is a direct connection between creating efficiencies in entitlement and planning and the city achieving the public benefits — the parks, education programs, and affordable housing — we all want, ” Cohen said. He added that Yarne brings “the right mix of experience and qualification.”

“He brings a real first-hand set of knowledge and experience on what the issues are facing the development and entitlement process in San Francisco,” said Cohen.

Developer Jack Myers, who built 101 Second St., said Cohen has an “impeccable record of performance under pressure in dealing with the most complicated and problematic challenges in development.”

“As far as this developer is concerned, it’s a windfall for the citizens of San Francisco to have Mike Cohen step into that position,” said Myers. “If anyone can straighten out the quagmire of problems currently manifest in the city’ planning process, it is Cohen.”

As a former deputy city attorney who worked on real estate deals under former City Attorney Louise Renne, Cohen is more a policy person that a politician, according to developer Chris Meany, a principal with Wilson Meany Sullivan, which is one of the developers working on building 6,000 housing units and an organic farm on Treasure Island.

“He is substantive — I don’t think anyone sees Michael as a political guy.”

He added: “The mystery is how government can have a guy as good as he is.”

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