Spoiler Alert. Despite being one of the worst tales of NIMBYism I have been involved in, it all turned out as it should. The project proponent, the official project opponent, and the Planning Commission all ended up doing the right thing. 420 desperately needed housing units are being built according to the City General Plan, the Neighborhood Plan, and the existing zoning, at one of the most underutilized transit accessible locations west of Chicago.
The background for the saga started in 2000, when a small group of for-profit developers, not-for profit developers, housing activists, community activists, and business leaders went to see then-Mayor Willie Brown to ask him to restart neighborhood planning. We knew then, before the Dot-Com Bust and before the current Tech Boom, that San Francisco was in for a bad housing crisis. San Francisco had managed to build an average of a paltry 1,000 units a year all through the ‘80s and ‘90s when Vancouver, a much smaller city was producing 3,000 units a year, and Chicago, a much larger city, 5,000 units a year.
The usual pattern was a developer would acquire a site zoned for 100 units and propose 140. The NIMBYs would declare the impending end of civilization as we know it, and demand it be cut back to 50 units. After two years of squabbling, millions of dollars, and six hours of weeping and gnashing of teeth at the Planning Commission, a 65 unit project would be entitled. Thirty-five units that were supposedly permitted “as of right” would never be constructed. The land would be underdeveloped, essentially in perpetuity. Multiple this by ten or twenty times a year, and we were creating the housing shortage that is now upon us. Even with upping our game, San Francisco created some 22,000 jobs from 2010 to 2013, and only around 10,000 housing units during the same period. No wonder the average 1-bedroom in San Francisco is going for $3100 per month!
The mayor understood the problem and we were able to bring him a solution that we knew should work, just maybe. We asked the mayor to restart neighborhood planning, which had been languishing for decades. Our hope was to transfer the public negotiation away from a building-by-building skirmish to the bigger issue – how did we want our neighborhood as a whole to develop? Having been given a preview, the mayor brought his planning director, and top brass from the building department, public works, police, housing and others to the meeting. The mayor listened carefully for an hour, asked a few pointed questions, and at the end of the meeting told his staff, “Do it.”
He allocated $3m for neighborhood plans in three neighborhoods that, by virtue of demolished freeways or abandoned industrial buildings, had opportunity for complete new neighborhoods. We helped write the scopes for consultant studies, developed the budgets, and kept an eye on the process. The first plan, the Market-Octavia Plan, was supposed to be finished in 2002. It took until 2008! Little did we know going in how hard this would be to garner community consensus. But the Plan has been a great success. Where once there was vacant land where a double-deck freeway was fatally damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake, today there stand almost half of the planned 6,000 new units proposed for the neighborhood, even after the hiatus of the Great Recession.
The particular site in question, 150 Van Ness, was one of a series of buildings that belonged to the California State Automobile Association, AAA, which had decamped to the suburbs several years earlier. Once a bastard Spanishy palazzo, it was covered with turquoise aluminum curtainwall in the ‘50s. But even that could not cover that it was hopelessly seismically compromised.
A number of public and private entities looked at the site, and it was ultimately purchased by a residential developer. Not just any developer, but one of the most respected and civic minded in town . . . the very individual who helped convince the Mayor Brown to begin to address our housing shortage a dozen years before.
The Market-Octavia Better Neighborhood Plan called for this site to be a 120’ housing building. The developer proposed just that, and went through all the public notices, met with neighbors, and all was on track until a month before the final hearing.
Within the last year, a private school had leased the building next door. The developer had met with the school’s landlord, and provided notices to the school/tenant. However, literally at the 11½ hour, one parent realized demolition and construction was about to take place next door, and rallied a large group of well-do-do parents to oppose.
The school initially protested the development. The developer met with the school, and, with their architect and engineer, guaranteed a number of noise, dust, visual and other remedies, both during construction and afterward. On the day of the hearing, the school and the developer signed an agreement, and the school withdrew their objections.
The school of course could not control a number of the enflamed parents. A multi-hour hearing at the Planning Commission ensued. Crying mothers with crying infants told of impending doom, death and destruction, how they had been blindsided, and how permitting construction next to a school would be a crime against nature.
Of course, the Market Octavia Plan had been well publicized and anyone considering leasing a school in the neighborhood would have seen this in their due-diligence. How anyone ever thought that this downtown site, just feet from BART and MUNI Metro, virtually at the intersection of Market Street and Van Ness (US Highway 1), would remain an abandoned seismically unsafe building and a parking lot, boggles the mind. And in case that wasn’t enough of a hint, when they leased the building, there was construction next door converting another AAA building, this one 30+ stories high, into apartments…with scaffolding cantilevered off the side, hanging over the school site.
As I said, the most outrageous example of NIMBYism I have seen.
But happily scores of community residents, activists, housing proponents and planning proponents also showed up at the hearing. The school administration announced they were withdrawing their complaint. And Planning Commissioner after Planning Commissioner spoke eloquently about the importance of planning. How we had done a neighborhood plan to avoid just this kind of donnybrook. How we had eight years of community work to agree on the plan. How the plan has been a great success, and is making an enormous contribution to solving San Francisco’s housing shortage. Here was a project designed to meet the plan. Rental apartments on transit.
7 – 0 vote in favor of the project.
Housing wins. The 500 or 600 people who will be housed win. And planning wins. We can apply the best thinking, the broadest public participation, and good will. And this can override emotion and politics, at least this once.
PS: OK this was too good to be true. Two parents, not content with the rule of law, filed an appeal, just out of spite. This delayed the process another five weeks. But the result was similar – 4-0 project approval upheld with a relatively minor modification to location of ground floor residential units. Let the bulldozers begin.
Detailed project renderings and elevations, as well the developer’s appeal brief, can be seen at PERMIT HOLDER’S BRIEF .
Renderings from Emerald – first one courtesy of Emerald Fund, Inc. and the remainder from the attachments to Emerald’s appeal brief.
Photo of site in current condition by author.
Location aerial – attachment to Emerald’s appeal brief.