By Thomas K. Pendergast
Redevelopment of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Laurel Heights campus is moving forward after the SF Planning Commission certified the project’s final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) last month, and rejected alternative plans submitted by community members.
The commission’s approval also came over objections to mature trees being cut down, even as the City claims to be addressing climate change challenges.
The proposed project on the 10-acre parcel located at 3333 California St., would demolish the existing annex building, surface parking lots and circular garage ramps. A four-story office building would be partially demolished and divided into two separate buildings, given new height levels of 80 and 92 feet tall and adapted for retail space.
Thirteen new buildings ranging in height from 37 to 45 feet would be constructed along the perimeter of the site, including three multi-story buildings along California Street between Laurel Street and Presidio Avenue; a single multi-story building along Masonic Avenue; a single multi-story building near the intersection of Euclid and Masonic avenues; seven multi-story townhomes along Laurel Street; and a multi-story residential building near the intersection of Laurel Street and Mayfair Drive.
The proposed project would include 744 dwelling units totaling 978,000 square feet; 35,000 square feet of retail space; 15,000 square feet for a childcare facility; 857 car parking spaces in below-grade garages; 839 bicycle parking spaces and almost 2.9 acres of open space areas.
A neighborhood advocacy organization called the Laurel Heights Improvement Association (LHIA), however, offered its own plans and requested the department evaluate them with equal rigor. The LHIA claims its alternative would meet most of the original objectives and would maintain the historically significant characteristics of the site by preserving the existing main building.
The LHIA further claims its plan would provide the same number of new residential units but offer less retail commercial space.
Kei Zushi, a department planner, told commissioners that although the LHIA plan is very similar to the developer’s “Alternative C” plan, it would not meet as many of the “project objectives.”
“The LHIA alternative would not provide a substantial mix of uses, such that it could be characterized as ‘mixed-use’ development,” Zushi said. “The department carefully reviewed these alternatives with the assistance of the SF Department of Public Works (DPW). The public works analysis concludes that the LHIA overestimates the number of residential units in the LHIA alternative or its variant. In addition, the public works analysis finds that (the LHIA plan) could not meet the unit mix requirement in the Planning Code section 207.7 … (and therefore) could not be constructed as described by the LHIA.”
For these reasons, he said, the community plans were not included in the final EIR.
The LHIA Vice President Kathryn Devincenzi, however, told the commission that while they support building 744 housing units, they oppose more retail stores. Other speakers echoed her concerns that with Laurel Village just down the street and Target and Trader Joe’s not far away, there are already enough retail options.
Laura Foote of YIMBY Action, on the other hand, urged the commission to approve the EIR as is.
“We have already spent way too much time on what is objectively a fantastic project,” Foote said. “We need to get this built. We need to get it built as quickly as possible. I agree with maximizing housing.
“I also think that the community plan is fake; and I think that we need to be really skeptical when these kinds of community plans come forward that are not based in something that could actually be feasible or realistic and are really designed to delay the project,” she said.
But some object to the project for an entirely different reason; a lot of mature and healthy trees are going to get the ax because of it.
“There doesn’t seem to be any push, so far, from the planning department to really ask this developer, ‘How can you preserve these trees?’ And it is a remarkable stand of trees on that particular piece of property,” said attorney Josh Klipp. He noted that, collectively, trees play a significant role in reducing carbon in the atmosphere and to help counteract human-induced climate change.
“Here we are, a city that has just declared that we’re in a climate emergency and all we’ve done is make that declaration. Everything else is business as usual,” Klipp said. “That includes allowing developers to basically clear-cut properties they’re working on with the promise of adding a bunch of trees later.
“Here you’ve got these healthy, mature, large trees that are exactly what we need for residential areas in terms of their carbon sequestration, their ecological benefits, the community and mental health benefits. The last thing we need to be doing is cutting all this down with the promise that at some point in the future, maybe 10, maybe 15 years from now when the project is done, we’ll replant,” he explained. “And you contrast that with our own (SF) Department of the Environment which says we’ve got 10 years, maybe, before climate change is irreversible. It’s incredibly irresponsible that we’re not even asking the question of preservation.”
Klipp said 185 trees will be cut down, including New Zealand Christmas Trees, Monterey Pines and eucalyptus, even though they are healthy.
“Here you’re talking about letting a developer take out 185 trees on this one parcel without even really questioning it,” he said. “I don’t understand how that’s a sustainable thing to do when we know we’re staring down the barrel of climate change. It’s completely irresponsible.”
Before the Commission voted unanimously to certify the EIR, Commissioner Dennis Richards noted that right now the City has 72,000 housing units “in the pipeline that have been approved,” and 40,000 of those are not part of major developments like the proposed project.
The planning commission voted unanimously to approve the project.