Richmond Review

Clement Street project a microcosm for battle over city housing

by Thomas K. Pendergast

For a second time the San Francisco Planning Commission has delayed a decision on a controversial building project in the middle of the Richmond District, moving a hearing on it to April 24.
The project would construct two buildings on northwest corner lots at the intersection of 26th Avenue and Clement Street. When it came up at the SF Commission in January, it was quickly punted down their calendar with a continuance (at the request of neighborhood opponents to the project and SF Supervisor Eric Mar) to its Feb. 20 meeting.
At the time, the project’s sponsors opposed the continuance, but on Feb. 20 they requested it.
One building will reach the maximum height of 40 feet while the other will be a minimum of 45 feet.
According to City documents, the project would demolish a two-story building now sitting on a northwest-corner lot (which contains two residential units and a ground floor for commercial use) and construct two, four-story buildings with an underground garage area, each containing three residential units and the ground floor of the taller building dedicated to commercial space. They will have a total of six residential units between the two buildings.
The proponents of the project are requesting three variances. Mostly they have to do with installing parking spaces into what is now a rear yard area and to create underground parking.
Critics of the project claim one building would also have a rooftop penthouse, which might push the taller building as tall as 60 feet, yet the project’s architect denies this, saying there will be a deck area on the roof that will only require an eight-foot-tall stair shaft cover for the stairwell leading up to the deck.
At the last commission meeting, an attorney for the opposition, Stephen M. Williams, complained about the lack of notification for the more recent continuance.
“We were not notified in any way, shape or form of the new date or the request for the continuance,” Williams said. “I found out Friday for the first time that there was already a continuance in the works, in fact a date had already been selected when I pulled up the agenda online. … They opposed the continuance last time, had a bunch of people testify about how we were delaying the matter and causing issues with their project, and so this is coming from the project sponsor’s side with no explanation, no notification to the neighbors and the surrounding building owners.”
The architect for the project, Gabriel Ng, said they asked for a continuance at the request of an attorney they have now hired.
“The attorney said she needs more time to prepare the whole case to go in front of the Planning Commission,” Ng said. “We saw that we really need an attorney to represent us since the other side is so powerful politically.”
He said the reason they opposed the first continuance is because they were not informed about it until an hour before the hearing in January.
“We had so many people ready to speak and that’s why we asked the Commission to at least let them speak so they don’t have to come next time, and they denied it,” he said.
During the public comment period at that meeting the commission only allowed commenting on the matter of the continuance, not on the issue itself.
Because tearing down the building now on the property would remove two rent-controlled residential units and replace them with new units not under rent control, the issue is a microcosm of the larger affordable housing issue that the City has been struggling with lately.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Committee, a tenants’ rights organization in San Francisco, said the new residential units will not have the kind of protection that the current units enjoy.
“We are taking units that are affordable off the market and replacing them with units that will never have the kind of protection that rent-controlled units have, said Avicolli Mecca. “If (a building) was built after ’79, you don’t have ‘just cause,’ which means a landlord can evict you for no reason.
“This crisis is happening in every single part of the City. I’ve been here in this job for 14 years and then before that I was doing volunteer work with the Tenants Union. I’ve never seen every single part of the City affected like this,” Avicolli Mecca said. “All the wonderful, vibrant, diverse neighborhoods that we all love and we all moved here for are totally changing and losing their diversity. We’re losing everything that this City has always stood for and something needs to happen.”
In his State of the City address last January, SF Mayor Ed Lee also called the situation a crisis.
“It’s a crisis that threatens to choke off our economic growth and prosperity for the future, as companies move elsewhere because their employees simply can’t afford to live here anymore,” Lee said. 
”It’s a crisis made all the more daunting because there are no easy solutions, and so, too often, in frustration, some people turn to easy targets instead – a commuter shuttle bus.”
“Let’s be clear. We are all responsible – this is a crisis of our own making,” he said. “For too long in San Francisco, we’ve tried to have it both ways. We want more money for affordable housing, but too often we oppose or scale back the very projects that generate those funds. We demand that developers build more housing affordable for working people and middle income families, but then we slow them down at every step, severely limit where and what they can build, and then express surprise when new market-rate housing is affordable only to the wealthy.”
A Richmond District resident in the area of the proposed building, Jacob Louie, partly opposes the project because he feels it will increase the pressure on parking. However, he does support the general idea of ensuring affordable housing.
“I have a lot of friends that are in a similar situation where it’s not affordable to live in San Francisco and they have to live outside of San Francisco and commute to get here,” Louie said. “So, I think it would give a lot of people the opportunity to live in San Francisco.”
Even the local chapter of the Sierra Club has weighed in on the larger housing issue.
“The number of rent-stabilized units has steadily dropped over the years,” wrote Sue Vaughan, chair of the SF Bay chapter, in a recent letter. “In 2007, San Francisco had 175,337 rent-stabilized units. By the time the controller issued the FY 2012-2013 City Services Performance Measure Report, the number had dropped by 4,032 to 171,609 units. The SF Group urges the SF Planning Commission to oppose the demolition of rent-stabilized units.”

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