By AYAKO MIE

The San Francisco Planning Department’s public meeting Tuesday night on height limitations in the Mission District underscored the challenges in trying to strike a balance between encouraging new growth and providing affordable housing.

As Mission Loc@l reported, height limits on Mission Street became an issue when Ken Rich from the planning department made a typo and mistakenly gave local developer and restaurant owner Gus Murad an extra 20 feet on his New Mission Theater project.

Mayor Gavin Newsom upheld that mistake, but the board of supervisors has asked the planning commission to “come up with a better solution rather than a quick solution.”

The purpose of Tuesday’s hearing, Rich said, was to get ideas from the community and to present a survey on the vulnerability of small businesses and the restriction’s impact on housing. The survey was taken in December 2008 and January 2009.

“We do not have a proposal tonight,” Rich said. “None of the existing ideas are perfect.

The focus of the discussion centered on how to achieve smart growth in the Mission while adding more affordable housing and maintaining existing small businesses.

Claudia Flores from the planning department said a survey found few parcels on Mission Street that are big enough to provide affordable housing without raising the height restriction to 85 feet. At present, much of the Mission Street corridor is limited to 65 feet. Each 10 feet allows for one more floor.

Murad has maintained for years that he needs two extra floors to add additional units that will help pay for the renovation of the New Mission Theater.  His representative, P. J. Johnston responded in an e-mail that the height increase “is consistent with the City’s efforts to encourage transit-oriented development, add affordable housing, spur on community-based economic development and engage in intelligent planning. “

Johnston pointed out that the Planning Department initially recommended that the heights along Mission Street be raised to 85 feet.

Many of those attending the meeting agreed with that earlier recommendation and argued that land is scarce in the Mission District.

Larry Del Caro, president of Mission Housing Development Corporation, said an increase in the allowable height to 85 feet would create more housing for low-income tenants.

Nick Pagoulatos, coordinator of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, disagreed with Del Caro, arguing that allowing increased market-rate development on Mission Street without adequate controls or community benefits would result in an increase in land prices.

“It would make it more difficult for the city to accomplish this goal because it would not be able to buy sites in such an economically competitive environment,” he said.

The survey by the planning department also found that existing small businesses would be the most vulnerable if heights were increased because many could easily be evicted. The planning department found that 34 percent of the 49 small business they surveyed have either no lease, rent month-to-month, or have a lease that is close to expiring.

Some residents argued that the Mission has to let the businesses that are not sustainable leave. “It is very dangerous and very dirty,” said Jean-Paul Samaha, a realtor at Vanguard Properties, referring to 16th and 18th streets. “If we talk about retention, lots of crappy businesses have to go.”

Colleen Meharry, the landlord of Foreign Cinema, agreed. She said her neighborhood organizes and takes care of itself.

“We do not need help from the city to be sustainable,” she said. “We pay a higher tax that goes straight back on the street to keep it clean.”

Meharry, a longtime resident in the Mission, also added that the Mission is underutilized and not taking advantage of its great transportation network.

“Market and Castro street[s] have been successful because of their transportation,” she said. “If you talk about safety, we have to bring new businesses and families to the Mission.”

Tom Radulovich, BART director, said an increase in the height restrictions would revitalize the business community.

A few at the hearing disagreed.

“Do you think it will be really a good idea to let development happen with a shrinking city budget? It is [we] who have to support the project by paying higher taxes,” said Marc Saloman, who has lived in the Mission District for 20 years and is currently unemployed.

Some of those who disagreed said the meeting was dominated by people who support the increased height restrictions.

“There are many market-rate developers and their advocates from the Mission Merchants and HAC. Those most affected by the decision to be made are the residents of the neighborhood, and they were not really in evidence last night,” said Pagoulatos.

Flores said, however, “the challenge is how to get everybody involved.”

Rich agreed, saying it was useful to listen to what the community has to say.

“We are talking about a pretty wide range of people,” he said. “We need to get a more creative way to weld both ideas of housing for low-income people and smart growth.”

The planning department will present the feedback to the planning commission on April 23, and to the board of supervisor’s Land Use Committee on April 27. Light said the planning department would hold more public hearings on the issue.