housing

Development Project Approved for CPMC Property at 3700 California St.

By Thomas K. Pendergast 

View of property from California Street. Photo by Michael Durand

The San Francisco Planning Commission approved a plan to tear down most of the old California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) at 3700 California St. to build new residential housing in spite of objections about the lack of affordable units and the chopping down of 126 mature trees.

Although the developers, TMG Partners, promise to keep 47 existing trees and replace those removed with 224 new trees, the capacity for the new trees to equal the amount of carbon being pulled from the air by the mature trees slated for removal there will not be realized for many years after construction, while the City’s Department of the Environment says we have about a decade to address climate change before it is too late to reverse reversing it.

A nine-unit rent-controlled residential building at 401 Cherry St. will be left on the five-acre CPMC site in the Presidio Heights neighborhood, as well as the historic Marshall Hale building at 3698 California St., which will be renovated and converted to residential use. 

Ranging from three to seven stories with building heights from 35 to 80 feet, the proposed project involves constructing 31 new buildings, totaling approximately 632,000 gross square feet of residential floor area. With the Cherry St. building, the project will result in a total of 273 dwelling units, including 12 single-family homes, two single-family row houses, and 17 multi-unit residential buildings. They will become 69 studio and one-bedroom units, 88 two-bedroom units, 96 three-bedroom units, and 20 four-bedroom units, according to Senior Planner Christopher May of the San Francisco Planning Department. 

“The project sponsor has indicated that they will satisfy their inclusionary affordable housing program requirements by paying an in-lieu fee at a rate equivalent of an off-site requirement of 33%, which amounts to between $43 million and $44 million,” May told the Planning Commission on Feb. 27. 

The project also includes 416 off-street parking spaces, consisting of 392 spaces in shared below-grade garages located beneath the multi-unit buildings. That includes seven car-share spaces and 24 private spaces located within the 12 single-family dwellings area. The plan also proposes 424 Class 1 and 2 bicycle parking spaces. 

Matt Field, president of TMG Partners, told the commission about the overall process of planning and outreach to the community, claiming it has resulted in a better project. 

“One of the key principles for the neighborhood was making sure that we were sensitive to sightlines that exist there today and we tried to put taller buildings where taller buildings exist today, or in places that were least visible, and that we try and retain significant historic features. We came out of that process with a strong preference for traditional architecture that looked like the neighborhood and did not look like a giant project landed from outer space.”

But Richmond District resident Keith Cooley objected to TMG paying the in-lieu fee instead of building “affordable” housing during the public comment period of the commission meeting. 

“By not including any affordable housing on the site, this project seems destined to be a homogeneous enclave of extreme wealth. It is inevitable it will end up as investor-owned housing that is of little or no benefit to the immediate community or even to San Francisco as a whole,” Cooley said. “It will inevitably result in intensifying the speculation and displacement of neighboring tenants.”

Although the project has received wide support among many of the neighbors and local associations, one part of the project is not so popular. The removal of 126 mature trees also came up during public comment at that same Planning Commission meeting. 

TMG estimates the project will take about six years to complete, with many of the replacement trees planted after that. These will include 76 new street trees, and the trees removed will eventually be replaced by 224 new trees, while 47 of the existing trees will be kept.

Native San Franciscan Rosa Bell said she has been living in the neighborhood for about 30 years. 

“I’ve noticed lately that the city seems to be rubber-stamping tree removal as they relate to developments,” she told the commission. “I’m appealing to you today to ask that you please require developers to be more creative in their tree-related solutions. I do believe that it’s possible to have these large-scale projects retain trees that are in and around these properties. And in this day and age, especially with climate change concerns, we really need to find better solutions in regards to the way that we integrate nature into new developments.”

One local resident who supports the rest of the plan, Richard Frisbie of the Laurel Heights Improvement Association, was also critical of the City’s routine for deciding which trees live or die.

“We’re in an unprecedented time of climate change and no matter how small the effect, every single tree does make a difference,” Frisbie said. “Global warming is not going to be solved by a silver bullet. It’s going to be solved by a billion tiny little silver darts: one tree; one car; one capped gas well at a time, so saving a tree is important. Removing a tree to simplify construction should not in and of itself qualify for removal. It should have a higher standard.”

San Francisco attorney Josh Klipp was more thorough and harsher in his assessment of the City’s usual practice. Klipp told the commission about an assessment done on 27 of the trees scheduled for removal.

“According to the most recent EIR (Environmental Impact Report), the plan now proposes to plant 224 trees, which sounds awesome until you understand what a new tree means,” Klipp said. “For those 27 alone, 280 inches of healthy tree-trunk diameter would be removed. In contrast, new trees are one inch in diameter, which means it takes at least 280 new trees just to make up for the loss of those 27. Even if the project plants all 224 trees, it will still be hundreds short in terms of the environmental benefits that the existing trees provide. 

“Last year our city declared a climate emergency and our Department of the Environment revised their climate action strategy. It states that we must sequester more carbon or climate change will be irreversible in nine years. And for the first time, this plan contains an urban forestry component because trees are the most effective and affordable way to sequester carbon,” he said. “We can’t wait for CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), or the General Plan or planning codes to catch up to our climate reality. We need people like you to stop approving plans that contain thousands of trees proposed for removal with the promise of more sometime in the future. We are continuing to do business as usual at a time when we know we cannot afford to.”

The City follows the CEQA rules in analyzing new construction projects, but the “carbon sequestration” potential for trees – that is the amount of carbon trees remove from the atmosphere – doesn’t seem to be considered in the Planning Department’s equations.

At an SF Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 12, 2019, Debra Dwyer, an environmental planner with the department, said they follow CEQA rules. However, using those, the only considerations are whether any of the trees have special species status or are protected by local ordinances. 

District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar responded: “So, you’re saying that you really mostly look at the type of trees and the species but not how trees can play a significant role through carbon sequestration and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; that’s not part of CEQA.”

“In the different topic areas the questions that we look at are very specific, and with respect to biological resources, it has to do with species that have some special status, like the Endangered Species Act, they have to be listed,” Dwyer explained.

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