Development

Developer Dumps Kirkham Heights

Surprise Announcement to Cancel Construction of 445 Units

By Thomas K. Pendergast

 

Residents in and around Kirkham Heights do not have to worry so much about

landslides and displacement, now that a developer has backed out of a major

construction project at 1530 Fifth Ave.

 

Westlake Kirkham Heights LLC has withdrawn its application at the SF Planning

Department for a Conditional Use Permit to demolish 11 buildings with 86 rent-

controlled residential units, and replace them with 14 buildings containing up

to 445 apartments.

 

“There are a lot of projects in our pipeline and we just had to prioritize the projects,

essentially, and so we decided not to move forward with this one,” said Westlake’s

Jeffrey Bak.

 

Along with the sheer size of the project, another complication was the location, which is

nestled up against hills on three sides that are designated by the California Geological

Survey as “earthquake-induced landslide zones,” meaning areas with a high probability

of slope failure, which could produce landslides during an earthquake.

 

“There were numerous challenges, but we just decided not to move forward,” Bak said.

“We have a bunch of projects. We have to prioritize our re- sources. It was an internal

Westlake decision. We prioritized our projects internally and decided this is not one of

them that we wanted to move forward with.”

 

According to Roland Li of the San Francisco Business Times, Sunny Tong, managing

director of Westlake Urban, said the firm was focusing on different developments,

including housing and commercial space at the San Leandro BART station. The

company is building an office complex of up to 500,000 square feet, which includes three

office buildings.

 

Perhaps no one is more relieved than tenants of the Kirkham Heights housing complex,

who were not looking forward to finding alternative housing to live in during the

anticipated three-year construction period.

 

“Everyone’s happy. The whole apartment complex went up in a big cheer,” said Pam

Hofmann, a long-term tenant. “It was a total surprise,” said her husband, Roger

Hofmann. “The most important thing is that we wouldn’t be ‘temporarily’ displaced for

three years. In the initial study the SF Planning Department termed our displacement

as ‘less than significant’ because it was to be temporary. When I tried to figure this out

the best I could determine was the Planning Department apparently does not have a

published policy on what comprises the threshold of significance for tenant

displacement.

 

“And, here in Kirkham Heights, there are about 80 tenants. Each of us would be

displaced for three years. What that is telling us is that our planning department thinks

that 240 years of total displacement is less than significant,” Hofmann said.

 

Denis Mosgofian is a member of the Mount Sutra Kirkham Heights Neighbors (MSKHN)

organization, which was opposed to the scale of the project, so much so that it came up

with an alternative project. The plan would have kept 32 existing units and built another

154 apartments, for a total of 186, with a children’s playground.

 

Mosgofian said he was surprised at the sudden turnaround in Westlake’s plan but he is

not quite sure what to make of it at this point.

 

“Until a lot of us know really why they withdrew it, it’s premature to make a judgement

as to whether or not that reflects something positive for the community or it reflects that

they have another strategy that we don’t know about,” Mosgofian said. “From my point

of view, it’s premature to draw a conclusion other than that they’ve withdrawn this

particular application for this particular development proposal.

 

“From our point of view, any development at that site would have to, in some way or

another, take into consideration the plan that we and the architectural and design firm

Urban Ecology developed as appropriate for the site. Their proposal decided to gouge out

a mountainside in order to fit a maximum profit-making enterprise development,” he

said. “You fit a proposed development to the environment, not destroy the environment

in order to maximize your gain.”

 

Of the 86 units currently at Kirkham Heights, more than 30 have been kept empty

because Westlake did not want to rent them due to the uncertainty of the redevelopment

plans and timeline.

 

However, since the issue is settled for now, Bak said Westlake Urban will begin to

rent them out again as rent-controlled units.

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