The 1050 Valencia condo debate hit an interesting crossroads on Wednesday night, dividing two San Francisco factions whose interests oftentimes align. On one side of the debate, there are those against modern condos changing the historic character of a neighborhood. On the other side, there are those pushing for affordable housing.
And to further complicate things — the affordable housing advocates have allied with a condo developer.
All possible because of the general quirks of San Francisco politics — and a very specific quirk in San Francisco affordable housing law.
In December, the San Francisco Board of Appeals ruled that the condo building that will be built next to the Marsh Theater (currently Sugoi Sushi in a building that used to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken) had to decrease its height from five to four floors. Yet, therein lies the complication. As the building is currently designed, the change would reduce the amount of units to nine, which means the developer would no longer be required to build affordable housing on site, according to the city’s own law. Only developments with 10 units or more have to abide by the law that — at the time the condos were approved — required developers to include 15 percent affordable units onsite. (That has since been reduced to 12 percent).
Therefore, 1050 Valencia would be a shorter building — but a completely market-rate one.
“With your vote to reduce units, has housing affordability been improved? No,” said Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a nonprofit that endorsed the 1050 Valencia condo six years ago. “If we want housing affordability to improve in San Francisco, we need hundreds of 1050 Valencia’s.”
Yet a few of the tall condo opponents said the height vs. affordable housing debate was a false choice. They suggested that the developer design a denser project with more units per floor.
Planning Department Zoning Administrator Scott Sanchez testified that Supervisors John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, Eric Mar and Scott Wiener submitted letters against the height reduction.
Supervisor Wiener also penned a sharply-worded op-ed published in the Chronicle this week: “Welcome to housing policy in San Francisco: a policy based not so much on our city’s dire housing needs but on who can turn out the most people at a public hearing. This case-by-case decision-making process undermines all forms of housing, both affordable and market rate. Indeed, affordable housing projects are much less able to weather the time, cost and energy required to move a project through San Francisco’s approval gantlet…We can’t keep saying we want to save the forest, while continuing to chop down trees.”
That wasn’t the only argument against the Board of Appeals’ December ruling. In his testimony to the board, Andrew Junius, attorney for the developer Mark Rutherford, argued that the board’s December decision violated the California Housing Accountability Act. That law says projects like 1050 Valencia could only be significantly altered by a local agency if they have “adverse impact on public health and safety.”
“Where is there evidence that says a five-story building would be any less safe than a four-story one?” Junius said.
Board members said they wished to hear more on the impact and legality of taking off one of the proposed building’s floors — postponing a final vote on the project until next month.
“I’m in full support of the draft’s findings,” said Commissioner Arcelia Hurtado of the resolution that included lowering the building’s height. “But there’s a question in mind how the government code applies here.”
The taller, five-story condo had already been approved by the Planning Department when the neighborhood groups appealed the project, first to the Board of Supervisors, which overturned the appeal, then to the Board of Appeals. This is the second time in recent months that the Board of Appeals’ vote has hampered a large Mission District project that had already been approved at the Planning Department. In October, the board also granted an appeal to opponents of a Jack Spade store that had plans to move into 16th Street. The company abandoned its plans after the board’s decision.
Wednesday night’s Board of Appeals hearing had been slated to finalize the board’s decision on 1050 Valencia from last month. In addition to the height decrease, the board imposed various conditions to lessen the sound impact on the Marsh Theater. Construction would have to stop at 4:00 in the afternoon, and the completed building would have to include a sound-proof wall between the project’s southern wall and the Marsh Theater, so performances aren’t disturbed. Prospective residents would also have to sign a disclosure agreement acknowledging they are moving next door to a live performance venue.
During public commentary, 21 speakers — primarily Marsh artists and supporters — urged the board to adopt the conditions it created for the 1050 Valencia project in December. The majority of the public testimony focused on the noise.
“The Marsh is more than just a theater, it’s a community space,” said artist and teacher Echo Brown. “Our job is to protect that space. If you allow noise [from the construction] to get in the way of what we do, you’re not respecting the integrity of what we do in that space.”
The Marsh supporters suggested a denser, yet shorter building that would still include affordable housing.
Attorney Stephen Williams represents the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association, one of the main groups arguing that the building would clash with the historic character of the area’s Victorian houses. He told Mission Local he believes Wiener’s public criticism of the Board of Appeals is inappropriately interfering with another city body.
“What kind of neighborhood supervisor supports an out-of-town, for-profit developer over his own constituents?” Williams said.
The Board of Appeals will be back on February 26 to once again vote on the plan.
Update: To see the full draft of the finding and resolutions the Board of Appeals will be debating in February, click here.