letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor: Against Proposed Seven-Story Apartment Building at 2550 Irving St.

Editor:

Affordable housing is something San Francisco desperately needs. That’s the one thing everyone in the City agrees on. But unfortunately the fight over affordable housing is often reduced to the false binary of NIMBYs v. YIMBYs (no or yes in my backyard).

What I’ve learned this year is that it is not always that simple. The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation is proposing to build a seven-story, 100-unit apartment building on the corner of Irving Street, between 26th and 27th avenues. It is 100% affordable, which means it is for low-income and extremely low income San Franciscans. My wife and I are public school teachers with two teenage children, and (with the help of our families) we have managed to buy a small home. We have lived on 26th Avenue, one house away from the project site, for 20 years.


Most of us on my block are working-class people. Many of my neighbors are hard-working immigrants; some are from Russia, Taiwan, or Estonia. We’re not elitist or unwelcoming. Many of us want affordable housing built here, but we were shocked to learn about the project by seeing it on the TNDC website, as if it were already a done deal. We started meeting once a week as the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association. Soon, we divided research topics to study the potential impact of such a project. We have gradually developed an alternative proposal for a four-story building, because we really want this building to fit into the neighborhood. The problem is that every time we try to discuss our alternative proposal, we run into a seven-story wall.  Most officials involved say: “We love your proposal; it’s completely reasonable, but we have to maximize the number of units.” 

“This is a renderings created by an architect. It shows my house, my neighbors’ houses, and the proposed building. It is not showing the actual design or color, but just the mass of the building.” 


Actually, you don’t have to maximize the number of units.  Why would a world-class city make a huge planning decision by focusing solely on just the number of units instead of considering the scale and density of surrounding homes, the effects on traffic and parking, the demands on public transportation and other infrastructure, and the shadows created by such a huge building? This is basic urban planning, and all of these things are discussed in the General Plan of San Francisco, but none of them are being seriously addressed by the City or the developer.

Over 80% of the merchants on Irving support our plan, because they are worried about congestion, parking, and security in the neighborhood. However, TDNC even refuses to do a traffic study. All we want is for the developer to listen to our concerns and address them with some concessions, including studies of the building’s environmental impact, but the only study the developer has agreed to do so far is a shadow study.

 
The non-profit developer has become so focused on the number of apartment units that it has completely lost sight of the big picture — the neighborhood itself. The Sunset is a wonderful, low-density neighborhood with mostly single family homes; it has access to Golden Gate Park, retail, and transportation. We need to add some density, but not all at once, and not all in one building. This project would pack 300 more people into a single seven-story building that would tower over the tiny two-bedroom homes that surround it. The General Plan of San Francisco specifically states that planners should “avoid jarring contrasts that would upset the city pattern.” If putting a seven-story, 100-unit building on a block with one-story homes (over garages) isn’t jarring, what is? 

Renowned American architect and city planner, Oscar Neuman writes: “…for low income housing families with children – particularly those on welfare or suffering pathological disorder – the high-rise apartment building is to be strictly avoided. Instead, these families should be housed in walk-up buildings no higher than three stories…. This puts a density limit of about 50 units per acre on a housing project composed solely of this housing type.” 

The TNDC and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development do not seem to care what these studies say. Their motto seems to be that more is better. They are developing housing, but they forgot about developing the sense of community.

The density of this building will be much greater than any building in the district. The history of urban planning shows that low-income, high-density towers are a disaster, whether in Chicago or San Francisco. People feel disconnected from their neighbors and many who need services feel anonymous. Conversely, the studies by Oscar Neuman show that three-story buildings have been remarkably successful. The Density of Shirley Chisholm project, also in the Sunset District, is 98 dwelling units per acre. 2550 Irving proposes a density of 227 units per acre.  This isn’t parity;  it’s insanity and it’s bad not just for the congestion it would cause, but for the lack of community it would create within the building itself. 

In another disturbing turn of events, a private testing company has recently discovered dangerous PCEs — chemicals that have leaked into the soil and caused a toxic vapor that is a known carcinogen. This is all too familiar in cities across the United States, and in the past the SF Planning Department has been too quick to issue “common sense” environmental exemptions to projects at such sites. This makes anything but common sense. The private air and soil testing company, AllWest, reported unsafe levels of these chemicals inside the Police Credit Union, and the levels are likely to be worse across the street. The chemicals are thought to have come from a nearby dry cleaner that recently shut its doors. At least five people on our block have cancer. We want a full investigation to see if we are being exposed to these chemicals, but the City says it can only do a streamlined assessment of the dangers, because of a state law (SB35) that fast tracks affordable housing projects.

What is most infuriating to those of us who live nearby, is that the TNDC pretends to give the community a voice in the design of this building, but it is all a well-orchestrated charade. In April, the TNDC held its second community meeting. Those of us who have computers and who obtained access to the limited capacity Zoom meeting were asked whether we preferred grass, plants, or trees in front of the seven-story building. We clicked a little circle on the screen to indicate our choice. We were also asked what style of roof we wanted on our seven-story building. We clicked a little circle on the screen again. One question we were never asked was whether we supported having a seven-story building next to our homes. The chat function in Zoom was turned off, and no questions were allowed until we got into breakout rooms.

The TDNC has implied that it is doing us a favor by even having these meetings. However, Article 34 of the California Constitution actually says that such a project must be approved by the community. Rather than seeking our approval or genuine engagement, the developer has tried actively to avoid asking us whether we approve of the project.

In her classic urban planning treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs writes: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

San Francisco and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation need to take note. We live here, we support affordable housing, and we want to be part of the process. You can build in our backyards, but can we talk about it first? 

Adam Michels

8 replies »

  1. I just loved this letter! It makes so much sense that the entire community should have a voice in the introduction of major housing changes. It makes so much sense that an environmental review is necessary when toxins are found in the ground and air of the property and its surroundings. I am hoping the developer and city agencies will rethink this project. It needs modification and additional environmental oversight.

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  2. Very reasonable, well-written, articulative article. The illustration clearly shows the impact of a big monster (7-story building) landed on the north side of 2-story single-family houses, blocking much of the sunlight, and creating a lot of shadows, completely out of proportion. With 100 units in the proposed building, one would be naïve to believe 11 parking spaces are adequate and expect most of the tenants to take public transportation only.

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  3. This large block of concrete will be built right next to my small house. I’ll be living in darkness next to this “warehouse”. Please imagine what it is like to be adjacent to a seven story Costco or Walmart. We are talking literally a few feet from this concrete monster. Can someone intervene before life goes to hell???? We will be on the way there if this project is not stopped. It is too close to my house. How is this even possible????

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  4. This is indded a very well thought out and well-written letter that outlines a couple different problems (impacts) that may occur. Kudos to Mr. Michels.

    As far as I can tell the actions currntly ocurring are preliminary planning for the developer and the CIty is not yet involved in any measureable way, except through potential support by Supervisor Mar. But I could be wrong.

    The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is the process by which a project must go through which will include analysis of various environmental topics (see Appendix G of the CEQA Guidelines (starting pn page 309 of https://www.califaep.org/docs/2020_ceqa_book.pdf). If the CIty as Lead Agency has failed to address potential impacts, the CIty may be sued.

    Alternatively if the City deems this project to be Exempted for an Infill Development (Class 32), the follwoing mut apply:
    Class 32 – In-Fill Development. New Construction of seven or more units or additions greater than
    10,000 sq. ft. and meets the conditions described below:
    (a) The project is consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable general plan policies as well as with applicable zoning designation and regulations.
    (b) The proposed development occurs within city limits on a project site of no more than 5 acres
    substantially surrounded by urban uses.
    (c) The project site has no value as habitat for endangered rare or threatened species.
    (d) Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.
    (e) The site can be adequately served by all required utilities and public services.

    However, the City as Lead Agency can override any significant and unavoidable impacts if they feel it is in the overall public benefit. This may indeed be the case. The way to oppose a project is to publicly show through the CEQA process that immpacts were not sufficiently assessed, call for more in depth studies on ALL CEQA subjects and both cost the Client more money (the Applicant has to pay for environmental studies and additional CIty reveiw) and delay the project for as long as possible (time is money).

    Another thing to consider is that the Applicant (TNDC) may be posing to get the most possible out of a Projject in a negotiation. If they propose 7 stories and 100 units and you say 4 stories and 60 units, they might settle on 5 or 6 stories and 75 or 80 units. But if you start as 2 stories and 25 units, there is more bargaining power to reduce the prject down to 4 stories and 60 units. Yes – it can be similar to haggling with a used car dealer.

    It seems to me that if the neighbors are very concerned, and want to fight this Project, they would do best to have a CEQA professional and liklely an atorney on their side.

    Note- I am not an attorney, and do not know CEQA in depth, but I do have a small understanding of CEQA and know the project location as I live in the Sunset. Plase don’t take my writen word as gospel or unwavering truth as this is all off the of of my head as I drink my mornign coffee.

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  5. The same issues are facing us with the project on Stanyan at Haight. An affordable housing project on the old MacDonalds site( gone due to crime issues not being managed) is being built. After much community input, ( several years) a compromise was reached to lower the height to 4 stories. It was due to start in June. Suddenly, we are notified that the project will now be back to the 7 story project – 3 stories taller arbitrarily overriding all objections and the agreed upon compromise.
    Thank Weiner, and his bill rammed thru sacramento ( with support from developers and those with no knowledge of history nor thought to the existing communities they are destroying.
    Does anyone remember the PINK PALACE?
    This kind of density is very destructive for residents and for communities . We, the citizens, must be able to exert some control over OUR neighborhoods.

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  6. Thank you Adam Michels for writing this excellent letter. It would be terrific if you or the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association would also submit it to the Sunset Beacon, request that it goes into the SF Chronicle print edition, share it with local news stations and use it to generate more publicity!! Supervisor Mar and the TDNC are sadly unmoved by our efforts to date. Sharing this loudly with more news outlets may get their attention. Well done here. Best, Your Sunset Neighbor

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  7. Almost 20 years ago the Planning Dept. proposed a new “Housing Element” (state required updated county housing plan) that would raise city housing heights to 8 stories on every street with public transportation and on side streets for 1/4 of the block. The Coalition of SF neighborhoods had to sue the city to get a ruling that a CEQA review was required. As SF’s housing element was several years overdue when the city first proposed it, it dropped the new proposed height limits. A member of the Planning Dept. told me, “There’s no place in SF for single family housing.” And there’s your problem: SF’s planning dept. is made up of a generation of planners who believe that high density is good and “suburban” single family homes are bad (unless it’s wealthy Pacific Heights.) With the “homeless” on the streets at an all time high “nonprofit” developers such as TNDC are fully supported by the city government and politicians like Weiner.

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