SAN FRANCISCO — On its face it doesn't look menacing: a proposed waterfront development of upscale condominiums that step down from 12 stories to five near San Francisco's towering financial district.

Cafes and stores on the ground floor. Public pathways and a small park with stunning views of San Francisco Bay and the Ferry Building.

But against the backdrop of a loved-and-loathed technology boom, the project known as 8 Washington has become nothing short of a referendum on the kind of city San Francisco is and shall become.

Nearly $3 million has been pumped into campaigns on dual ballot measures that on Tuesday will determine the fate of the development, which secured an exemption from waterfront height limits.

Critics say it would lead to more high-rise waterfront projects, Miami-style, and further cede to the wealthy a city already rated the nation's least affordable.

"What we're really talking about with this project is a kind of economic segregation in the city," said former Mayor Art Agnos, who in 1990 oversaw demolition of the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway and helped transform the waterfront from a "slum where 'Dirty Harry' movies were made" into a civic gem.

"We'll have a billionaires' row and middle-class housing to be built somewhere else, some other time," said Agnos, who has campaigned for the "No Wall on the Waterfront" referendum along with environmental, affordable housing and neighborhood groups.

Those backing a developer-sponsored initiative to green-light construction call the 134-unit project modest and say the only way San Francisco can solve its severe housing crisis is to build more housing.

"Every neighborhood on a hill in San Francisco has been hyper-gentrified and it's not because of new development, it's because of a lack of new development," said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, a nonprofit regional planning organization. "If you keep the housing stock constrained, then people just buy up the existing housing stock."

The developer plans no on-site subsidized housing but would contribute $11 million to a city affordable housing fund; deliver $14 million to the Port of San Francisco in exchange for a public parking lot, enabling repairs to crumbling piers; and generate millions in annual city tax revenue.

The project also would replace a private tennis and swim club with another private club — along with landscaped public walkways, sidewalk seating, a rooftop cafe and a small park.

Critics have decried the public benefits as inadequate, but Mayor Ed Lee, a booster of the city's tech and development boom, hailed them as a win for a waterfront undergoing a renaissance.

"I've seen over the years where we've tripped over our own success," said Lee, who recently joked that the crane should be designated the official city bird. "When you stop development, you stop people from getting jobs, you stop people from paying their mortgages."

San Francisco has a long history of waterfront development battles.

Former City Atty. Louise Renne recalled the outcry over the twin 17-story Fontana Towers near Fisherman's Wharf, which in 1964 prompted a 40-foot height limit on the northern waterfront. The site of the current controversy abuts a residential tower more than double 8 Washington's maximum proposed height of 136 feet.

More towers were planned there too, Renne said, but when residents took a look at the completed one, an 84-foot height limit was put in place. It is that limit that developers have managed to skirt.

While U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has remained silent on 8 Washington, she opposed previous efforts at condo development on the site in 1984 while she was mayor and again in 2003, noting that the area's redevelopment plan had set it aside "for open space and recreation." A tower, she wrote to planning officials, would create shade and traffic and "drastically change the picturesque panorama of the bay."

Other proposed waterfront projects are already waiting on height exemptions, Renne said, and approval of this one "is going to set a precedent."

Developer Simon Snellgrove's vision has been seven years in the making. The subject of countless community meetings, the project passed muster with the city Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and state agencies with waterfront jurisdiction.

But opponents contend that the public land involved and the civic mandate of an accessible waterfront call for a project that serves a broader cross-section of San Franciscans and preserves views of the hills.