Judah St. Gas Station Redevelopment Plan Digs Up Toxic Concerns

By Thomas K. Pendergast    

A 20-unit development at the corner of Judah Street and 45th Avenue is moving forward after the San Francisco Board of Appeals rejected efforts by some local residents to put the brakes on redeveloping an old gas station.

The residents are concerned about dealing with old underground fuel tanks that might leak toxic chemicals into the soil in a place where the water table is fairly close to the surface; but the demand for more housing throughout the City, and especially the west side, is bringing pressure to build the project. 

gas station photo 3945 Judah Tom SB 2-20

An old gas station on the corner of 45th Avenue and Judah Street is the proposed site of a new 20-unit housing development that is being challenged by neighbors who worry the site could be a toxic hazard to the area. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

A five story building taking advantage of the HomeSF program is planned to replace a gas station which has not operated in decades. The building would be 55 feet tall and would have 19,160 square feet of space with 2,400 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor, seven off-street parking spaces and 24 bicycle parking spaces. Of the 20 residential units, five would be “affordable” units, meaning  below market rate.

But soil and water tests on the site have not been done in many years and neighbors are concerned with the City’s plan to deal with the possibility of toxic chemicals escaping from the tanks when they are removed or either filled-in with, or encapsulated within, concrete.

On Jan. 29, local resident Michael Murphy made his case to the appeals board to slow the project down.

“The potential for significant, adverse impacts that the proposed development poses are real,” Murphy told the board. “Construction on this site without removal and remediation of hazardous materials – which may contaminate groundwater – and without removal of existing leaking underground storage tanks poses an imminent threat to public safety. These tanks are located … on the project property, also underneath the sidewalk and the street, Judah Street. 

“This is significant because the public infrastructure, including the N-Judah (light rail train) runs directly adjacent to these storage tanks,” he explained.

But several members of the pro-development group Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) Action network also showed up at the meeting to argue against delaying the project any more than necessary.

“We’re in a massive housing shortage,” Bobak Esfandiari, a YIMBY volunteer, said. “The west side of the City has not done its part. This project is an excellent opportunity to not only get 20 homes, but five of them below market rate, where normally, because of the zoning, because of the lack of density, the inclusionary (housing) program can’t even be triggered unless you can get above 10 units. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

San Francisco’s YIMBY Action is affiliated with other such groups nationally, many with similar “YIMBY” acronyms attached to their names.

A July 17, 2017 article by Angela Hart in the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported that a housing advocate in the SF Bay Area, Brian Hanlon, started California YIMBY with early funding from Silicon Valley, at least $500,000 from tech executives like Nat Friedman, a mobile app developer for Microsoft, and Zack Rosen, CEO of the website management platform Pantheon.

An Oct. 2, 2017 article in The Guardian newspaper by Erin McCormick reported that YIMBY groups have received funding from the founders of several hi-tech companies, including tens of thousands of dollars from Jeremy Stoppelman, a co-founder of Yelp, and the Open Philanthropy Project, which is partly funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

A San Jose Mercury News article by Bay Area News Group reporter Marisa Kendall published on May 3, 2018 reported that the online payments company Stripe, a company then valued at $9 billion, donated $1 million to California YIMBY.

SF’s YIMBY also credits Google Giving Week with a contribution of $55,000 and claims a membership of 2,700 people.

Esfandiari said that members pay dues to the organization. Other media reports also tie support for YIMBY to the real estate industry.

In an Aug. 8, 2018 article by “community organizer” and contributing editor at Jacobin magazine, Karen Narefsky, claims that “many YIMBY groups are funded in part by developers and real estate interests,” although no further details or dollar amounts are given.

In an April 1, 2019 article for Los Angeles Magazine, Zoie Matthew interviewed the co-founder of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, in which Rosenthal claims the YIMBYs “have immense resources from the real estate industry and private landlords, as well as tech companies who have worked very aggressively against tenant protection,” although no further details on what exactly these resources might be are mentioned.

But following him during the public comment was Erica Zweig, who said she lives within a block of the property, and she challenged the idea that these units would be “affordable.” 

“I think you should note that we do not have people from YIMBY Action that live in the area,” Zweig said. “The community as a whole, there’s some exceptions of the YIMBYs that support it but as a whole we don’t support it.

“We’re in a housing emergency, but we’re not in a luxury housing emergency. Market rate, at this point, is luxury rate. I don’t want to be poisoned in my own neighborhood, that’s number one,” she said.

Attorney Steve Vettel of the firm Farella, Braun and Martel represents the developer. He argued that the project should be allowed to go forward because responsibility for dealing with the tanks and toxins is not within the jurisdiction of the Planning Department but instead is the responsibility of the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH), and that comes into the process when it’s time to get building permits for the project, which has yet to come up. 

“It requires prior approval of a site mitigation plan, or SMP, prior to the start of construction. But there is no requirement anywhere that an SMP be approved prior to land use entitlements, or gives that Planning Commission jurisdiction to even consider the issue,” Vettel told the board. “Now the ball is in DPH’s court, which has requested preparation of a Phase II work plan. That Phase II is now being prepared. Once it is submitted, DPH will evaluate the work plan and that will require an SMP.” 

Vettel said the SMP will be implemented during the excavation and construction, “assuring that there will be no groundwater contamination.”

One of the commissioners, however, expressed reservations about rushing the process just to get more housing up sooner. 

“I’d like to place special emphasis on that (fuel) tank,” Commissioner Rick Swig said. He recalled once owning a home in San Francisco that had a similar tank buried under his front yard. 

“We had to have it removed, along with everybody else on the block, because there was a fear that a dry, 80-year-old tank at that point had some impact,” Swig said. 

Then he recalled buying a property  that had an underground fuel tank buried on the property next door. 

“There was a huge focus on creep … of very poisonous things, that would creep onto the land next door, which I intended to purchase. So I’m very sensitive to tanks,” he said. “Sometimes when things are rushed, even for the right reasons, appropriate fears are overlooked, potentially, because they’re in a rush to get it done.”

San Francisco Board of Appeals Vice President Darryl Honda, however, claimed the west side was already lagging in building new housing. 

“Everyone wants the Sunset to stay the way it was when we were kids, and everyone’s upset,” Honda said. “Imagine if you live in the Mission. They’re not just building over vacant gas stations. They’re tearing down current locations where people actually live  and they’re relocating those people. This is not just two developments in a whole district. This is like two on every block. It’s a huge concentration and so looking at HomeSF … you’re making $150,000 a year and you’re barely surviving in this city…. Affordability is just a word and it’s not just a housing shortage; it’s an affordability shortage. 

“Every district in this City has to put up some density, whether we like it or not. I know everyone is passionate about it because it’s in our neighborhood. I get it. This City needs a little more density so that we can ease a little more of the pain.” 

The appeal was then denied by the Board on a unanimous vote. 

After the meeting, Murphy did see a positive outcome. 

“The real win for us tonight is the fact that all of this came to light because we were able to bring this appeal,” Murphy said. “Otherwise they might have just poured concrete and been done with it.”  

Note: The article printed in the Sunset Beacon newspaper has been updated for this website with new information to clarify the funding sources of YIMBY and give media reports about those, plus to clarify that Bobak Esfandiari is a volunteer with YIMBY. is sponsored in part by:

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