Medjool Owner Has Been After 20 Extra Feet for Years

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When restaurateur Gus Murad won 20 extra feet for a major project earlier this month, planning officials blamed it on a clerical error in which a city planner inadvertently put the project at 85 feet after the Board of Supervisors had voted to maintain it at 65 feet.

The mistake has been cast as a fortuitous bit of serendipity that made it easier for Mayor Gavin Newsom to veto a measure that would have kept Murad’s project at the New Mission Theater consistent with the height restrictions on Mission Street. But it was an error worth millions of dollars and a zoning variance long in the making, according to realtors and planning documents.

While nothing illegal transpired as far as Mission Loca@l’s review found, the story of Murad’s 20 feet offers a look at how one project became an exception in a planning process designed to offer consistency. It is also an indication of how Mayor Newsom might one day operate as governor. His veto ensured the 20 feet that three separate votes of the full board taken in November, December and January sought to stop.

Murad, the politically connected owner of the popular Medjool Restaurant, also on the 2500 block of Mission Street, waged the battle for 20 more feet—two more floors—for three years. In fact, Murad always saw the extra 20 feet as part of the project, which  would transform New Mission Theater and its neighbor, Giant Value, into a mixed-use complex with dining, entertainment and 95 apartments. Like others nearby, the lot in question had been capped at 65 feet for decades.

“He wasn’t going to give up until he got the 20 feet,” said Colleen Meharry, who owns the building near New Mission Theater and supports the proposed project. “Whether it was a clerical error, or whether the mayor stepped in, I know he was fighting this since 2005.”

Murad declined to be interviewed for this article. Mayor Newsom told Mission Loc@l that the planning commission’s original recommendation was to put all of Mission Street at 85 feet, and that by trying to change that, the board was playing political games.

In July 2005, Murad & Associates began to argue that it needed 20 extra feet on its proposed complex to produce more revenue. Murad’s team allegedly said the money made from the 16 or so apartments on the seventh and eighth floors would help renovate New Mission Theater, according to Sarah Jones, a city planner who is overseeing an Environmental Impact Report for the project.

Mayor Newsom referred to this in his Jan. 16 veto letter explaining that the project would not be possible without the extra 20 feet. However, others pointed out that developers have long made money on Mission Street with the 65-foot height restriction.

Realtors agreed, however, that the two extra floors would give Murad more revenue. The 20 extra feet could be worth as much as $11.2 million for the 16 new units, said Jorge Cárcamo of Gold Key Realty and Investments. Cárcamo facilitated the sale of the theater to Murad in 2003 for $4.5 million, and said he was surprised to hear that Murad got approval for 85 feet.

“City College was the previous owner, and they could not get an approval beyond four floors,” he said.

For Nick Pagoulatos, coordinator of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, the problem is not the 20 extra feet or the project. It’s that in allowing Murad an exception, the city failed to seek anything new in exchange. Yes, Murad will have to comply with a 15 percent allowance for affordable housing, but so does everyone else not given the extra height allowance, he said.

From the start, Pagoulatos said, “We were concerned that the amount of upzoning didn’t require the developers to give enough back.”

Still, in his three-year journey to get the 20 extra feet, Murad found obstacles—and hope.

The biggest hurdle was the ongoing planning for the Eastern Neighborhoods Community Planning process—an eight-year effort to update city zoning and codes for the Mission District, Soma, Showplace Square/Potrero Hill and the western waterfront.

In August 2008, that effort appeared to work in his favor. City planners recommended the Mission Street corridor be rezoned for building heights of 85 feet. But after hearings the planning department noted in its memo to the Land Use Committee that the board “may wish to modify the height limits” on Mission Street, “bringing them generally down to 65 feet or possibly to their existing heights.”

It attached nine pages of current and potential heights. Many, including Murad’s property and the blocks between 22nd and 23rd streets, had been proposed at 85 feet but were originally 65 feet.

That recommendation began a ping-pong-like decision-making process that essentially tipped in Murad’s favor on a fault.

At the Nov. 17 meeting, the Land Use and Economic Development Committee voted 3-0 to keep the original 65-foot restriction on Mission Street except on two properties—New Mission Theater and El Capitan at 2353 Mission St.

Ping! The game was on.

On Nov. 25, the Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 to keep all of the Mission Street corridor at 65 feet. The no vote: Sean Elsbernd (D. 7). Excused from the vote because of conflict: Chris Daly (D. 6).

One realtor, who asked to remain anonymous because he does business with the city, said the city’s color-coded December 2008 map says it all. The colors cast a hue of perfect symmetry: dark blue to indicate 65 feet between 23rd and 21st streets, easing to a lighter blue for 55 feet from 21st to 19th streets, and then a darker blue again from 19th to 17th streets.

But right between 22nd and 21st streets is a white patch—New Mission Theater—with a special notation: Pending.

“You have this whole map and one property is pending,” said the realtor, asking how many people get such special treatment.

Pong! Dec. 9, the supervisors reconsidered their nearly unanimous Nov. 25 vote to retain Murad’s property at 65 feet.

They voted 6-4—Daly excused again—to increase the lot to 85 feet.

David Campos (D. 9), Jake McGoldrick (D. 1), Ross Mirkarimi (D. 5) and Aaron Peskin (D. 3) voted against the change.

Oddly, Sophie Maxwell (D. 10) voted with Michela Alioto-Pier (D. 2), Carmen Chu (D. 4), Bevan Dufty (D. 8), Sean Elsbernd (D. 7) and Gerardo Sandoval (D. 11).

Oddly because seven days later … Ping! Maxwell had a change of heart. She proposed the height be reduced to its original 65 feet. It was the intention, she said, that Mission Street “see no increase in height limits until the planning department came back to us with additional study on both the proposed changes … and affordable housing program for the corridor.”

Maxwell’s measure won a 6-5 approval. Once again, New Mission was back to its original 65 feet. Alioto-Pier (D. 2), Chu (D. 4), Dufty (D. 8), Elsbernd (D. 7) and Sandoval (D. 11) voted against the 20-foot trim.

Maxwell failed to return repeated phone calls to explain her Dec. 9 vote and her later change of heart. A source involved in the planning process said she was overwhelmed with all the details, but added that all the supervisors were getting a lot of pressure from the mayor’s office.

(Update: Maxwell called Mission Loc@l and said that she changed her mind on Dec 16th, because she felt that the community and the planning department needed thorough planning rather than a spot zoning. “I thought in six months we would do better planning.” She declined to elaborate on the Dec. 9th vote.)

Again, on Jan. 6, the supervisors voted 6-4 and approved the Maxwell amendment to leave the project at 65 feet. Things were looking dismal for Murad.

Then … Fault!

It turned out that way back in November, city planner Ken Rich made a typographical error in amending the zoning ordinance and inadvertently gave Murad the 85 feet instead of the 65 feet approved by the board.

The mayor then vetoed Maxwell’s Dec. 16 amendment correcting the error and allowed the 85 feet to stand.

Mayor Newsom was confident in his veto. “The proposed development would—among other benefits— rehabilitate, restore and reactivate the long dormant New Mission Theater,” he wrote in his Jan. 16 veto letter. He added that the project would “ … provide neighborhood-serving childcare services, reactivate the theater use and increase the city’s housing supply by constructing market-rate and below-market-rate units on one of the city’s most transit-intensive streets.”

On Feb. 3, some on the board tried to override the veto—essentially voting on whether to correct the 20-foot error. This time, Alioto-Pier (D. 2) Chu (D. 4), Dufty (D. 8), and Elsbernd (D. 7) stayed with the mayor. Seven others voted to correct the mistake, but that was too few to override the veto.

At least one supervisor defended his decision to support the mayor in overriding the correction. “Eighty-five feet may be more appropriate and may not. This project has numerous approvals to go through over the next few years, at which the height can be lowered, ” said District 7 Supervisor Elsbernd.

Supervisors who criticized the board’s inability to override the mayor’s veto attributed Murad’s success to his fundraising capabilities.

Supervisor Chris Daly wrote in the FogCityJournal blog that Murad hosted Newsom’s New Year’s Eve fundraiser at Medjool and “took in a stunning $76,416 on that all-important last day of the filing period!”

And Daly was not alone in his dismay. “When you talk about the future of the very large portion of the city, I am quite surprised that we have decided to go down the road of engaging in urban planning of San Francisco by way of a veto,” said Supervisor Campos, who represents District 9, which includes the Mission.

Nick Pagoulatos, the coordinator of Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, added: “There is no rational justification for what the supervisor did, other than the fact that they are supporting the mayor and doing something that only serves to give benefit to the developer who contributed money to the mayor’s campaign.”

Jim Hurley, a real estate broker at Vanguard Properties at 2501 Mission St., said it is far too early to say whether Murad would benefit. “It might be profitable. You know the truth is it is hard to say anybody can make any money,” Hurley said, explaining that the project had yet to get financing and would take seven years to complete.

Emma Brown and Lydia Chávez contributed to this article.

Related Articles. A roundup of Gus Murad mentions in Today’s Mission

Robert Selna’s Feb. 4 SFChronpiece

Chris Daly’s Feb. 3 post on campaign contributions in fogcityjournal

14 Comments

  1. Mark

    Excellent ;piece though I don’t get why the 65 feet limit. what are they trying to protect with that. the opposition seems mainly formal. as to whether murad makes money or gets financing tho is beside the point. the question is how mcuh does it cost to get a favorable variance? does missionlocal know the total murad gave to newsom and others?

  2. Lydia Chávez Post author

    Someone made the 65 ft decision long ago. Some in the District now believe that that since developers will make more money with more floors, the city and public should expect something in return when they hand out more height–more affordable housing, park space–everyone has their own idea.
    We should have included the contributions and some of our colleagues in other blogs and newspapers have done some good reporting so I have included them at the end of the article. Thank you, Lydia

  3. el californio

    The heights were maintained at their current levels for several reasons:

    1. To devise a strategy for more affordable housing along the corridor

    2. To ease the development pressure on the small businesses that would be displaced to build new housing

  4. el californio

    There is not one height limit for Mission Street. The height limits on Mission Street vary from 55 to around 105 feet.

  5. Lydia Chávez Post author

    True at the outer edges of Mission, but between 17th to 23rd street there is no building height higher than 65 feet–except Murad’s property. But, correct me if I’m wrong. That’s what our map shows. Best, lc

  6. el californio

    The Bayview Bank building on 22nd and Mission is zoned for a height limit around 100 ft. I not sure of the building’s height, but it is well over 65 feet. It may even be 100 feet tall.

    Most building on mission are not built to their maximum height limitation, so the actual height of buildings is not a good indicator of the actual height limits.

  7. Bob

    Seriously people – WHO CARES. 20 feet! you are all up in arms over 20 FEET!
    How about the murder rate, or prostitution, or open air drug dealing?
    Where are your priorities?

  8. fsharp

    I’m sitting 80 feet above Mission in a 9 Story building. I’m looking at the long abandoned New Mission Theater and butt ugly Giant Value as I write this. I’m almost across the street from the Theater. An extra 20 feet won’t hurt my view a bit. Zoning height laws don’t make sense until you tear this 100 ft. building down.

    I know Gus. What he’s done to this block is only positive for the area. Despite some people’s thoughts about the douchiness (code for anti-arab racism) of his bar, the upper deck is a great place for after work drinks. The food at Medjool is actually good and the hotel there brings in lots of hot European visitors to this otherwise dreary block. This next project will actually fix up the theater. What the hells is wrong with that?

    The motto for regressives like MAC, Chris Daly et al is “Keep the Mission Shitty!”. I’ve totally had it. Give him his 20 ft. legitimately. Remove the typo issue.
    Also Mission Loc@l is doing a bang up job covering the Real Mission, including the Latino point of view. I give you guys kudos.

  9. el californio

    First of all, I’m fairly sure that MAC does not believe that the Mission is shitty. I think they understand that the Mission works for the residents that live here.

    Medjools on the other hand, does not cater to local residents. I imagine that the proposed theater, like Medjools, will not cater to the community.

    Yes there are problems in the neighborhood like, but gentrification is not the answer.

  10. Missionary

    @El Californio: Who says that Medjools does not cater to local residents? Sure it is more high-end than many of the restaurants in the area, but the Mission is home to people with a wide range of incomes. It is very narrow minded to say that it doesn’t cater to the residents.
    And as for MAC’s slogan being “keep the Mission shitty”, that is actually very close to the truth. MAC is vigorously opposed to any improvements to the Mission because it fears that if the Mission was a nicer place to live rents would go up. Of course, many, many Mission residents would like to see neighborhood improved, but MAC does not care about those people.

  11. CREO

    This is so stupid! We should be more concerned with the quality of this project, rather than how high it is going to be.

  12. RollingJ415

    Check this out for backstory on how Medjool won “douchiest bar in SF” honor: http://sf.eater.com/archives/2008/11/25/douchiest_bar_vote_winner_medjool.php

  13. fsharp

    @El Californio – The Mission works for the residents who live there? What the hell are you talking about? The Mission completely SUCKS for most of us who live here. I’m a Mission resident since 1987. Murders, robberies, human shit, graffiti & empty-vandalized buildings everywhere. It’s a complete Failed State. Rents and homeowner costs are through the roof to live in a fricking slum.

    MAC is responsible for this as much as people like Chris Daly and the Mayor. If it wasn’t for us residents picking up trash, reporting crimes, painting over graffiti, planting plants and fighting the city about blight, the place would be even worse. Now we even have to fight misinformed people like yourself. If it wasn’t for MAC and others, we wouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to make it a decent place to live. They work 100% against residents of the Mission. Damn right the MAC motto is keep it shitty. I’m staying with my friends to fix it and MAC be damned.

  14. El Californio

    “If it wasn’t for us residents picking up trash, reporting crimes, painting over graffiti, planting plants and fighting the city about blight,..”

    It just sounds like you are just concerned with the beautification of the mission. If you are so concerned about beauty, then maybe you should open an salon on valencia street where AA wanted to move in. Good luck trying to cover the high rent they are likely paying.

    When I said the mission works for the residents, I was actually talking about mission street. If Mission street and 24th did not cater to the community, it would actually be empty, kinda like valencia. Mission street is busy every day, despite how shitty you think it is.

    I do not like graffiti (as i have to paint over it on my parents house to prevent the city from giving them a citation) but it is out right ridiculous to blame MAC for all the graffiti or crime.

    For the record I was born and raised in the Mission. I know all the problems and assets in the neighborhood. And trust me, making it beautiful by fighting what you call blight is not the answer. Good luck changing the neighborhood by planting some trees and painting over graffiti.

    You would be better of spending your time as a tutor for some of these young kids.

    What is the definition of blight that you are using? Are you making it up to suit your arguement. I have degrees from multiple planning schools, and no one has ever referred to the Mission as being blighted.

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