Development at 15th and S. Van Ness Raises Hackles

En Español.

A major infill development planned for the vacant lot at 15th and South Van Ness Avenue may run into a roadblock at next Thursday’s meeting of the Planning Commission, if local opposition has its way.

The project — a $21 million mixed-use development orchestrated by San Francisco-based JS Sullivan Development — includes 38 market-rate residential units, 7 affordable housing units, 5 commercial retail spaces and 39 underground parking stalls. It would occupy 1501 15th Street, which is currently a vacant lot.

Once the Planning Commission signs off on the project, it is expected to break ground in the first quarter of 2012, Sean Sullivan, managing partner at JS Sullivan Development, told the audience.

Among the objections from the crowd of about 20 community members: the amount of parking (too much), the amount of community input (too little), the height of the building (at 58 feet, too tall) and the development itself (ugly).

Also on the roster: offense at not having heard about the project — which has been in the works for two years — until a week ago. “How can this go to Planning when a lot of us, including myself, have never heard of the project?” asked one man in the audience, shrugging his shoulders in disbelief. “It’s pretty outrageous. A major project like this and you’re only having a community meeting a week before the Planning Commission votes on it?”

Rauch Graffis of the United Taxi Workers, on 16th Street, echoed the sentiment.

“My office is a block away from here and this is my first time hearing about it,” she said. “This is our community. We care about it. Some of us have lived and worked here for close to 20 years.”

Sullivan assured the crowd that many flyers were passed out to neighboring businesses and homeowners weeks in advance of the meeting.

Graffis looked at the colorful renderings of the proposed building and winced. “If I was living in Stockholm, I’d love this thing,” she said, adding that here it was out of character with the neighborhood.

The building, a five-story structure designed by Natoma Architects, has a modernist design that is perhaps best summed up by the blog Mission Mission’s analysis: “You’ve shopped at the Apple store. Now live in one.”

“Look,” said Neil Kaye, an associate with Natoma Architects. “I am here as the designer. It’s not mandated that we meet with any community members. The block meets the city’s zoning guidelines for a mixed-use development. We’ve designed a building that will create more commercial space to a corridor that is becoming more pedestrian.”

The project received unanimous approval from the San Francisco Historical Commission a year ago, Kaye added. “As much as I respect your decision, seven design critics saw it differently.”

The discussion shifted to the 39 underground parking spots, and whether having so many was necessary for a site so close to BART and multiple Muni bus lines. Developers of another five-story project at the current site of Spork, at 22nd and Valencia, petitioned the city last year to include no parking spots whatsoever.

“They need to reduce the parking spaces,” said Graffis. “There are 40 dwellings for 39 car slots. We are a block and a half from many transit lines. We don’t need more cars on the street.”

The development’s occupants are likely to take transit to their jobs, said Sullivan. “Just because somebody owns a car, that doesn’t mean they drive it every day.”

The discussion then turned to the building’s 19,000 square feet of retail space. What would people like to see there? A grocery store, a printing shop, a community center, restaurants and cafés were some of the ideas floated by the group.

The meeting was nearly over. Several people made it clear that they planned to come to the Planning Commission meeting on Thursday to discuss matters further.

As they did so, a woman walked into the room. The group turned around to look at her. She pointed at the rendering.

“Is that what’s going up?” she said. “Because that looks ugly.”

The project goes to the San Francisco Planning Commission on July 14 for approval. The meeting will be held at noon, in Room 400 of City Hall. The full agenda for the meeting hasn’t been posted yet, but you should be able to find it here early next week.

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39 Comments

  1. Housing Rights Committee is directly across the street from this project and there has been no outreach to us, over time or recently. We have not received flyers, letters, visits, calls or any information about the proposed building. We also were not informed of the meeting, which we would have liked to attend. We will certainly be at the planning commission hearing!

  2. Yeti

    I agree with Bob. I live on S. Van Ness and this sounds and looks good. I’ve lived in SF for over 20 years, and am over the typical SF haters wanting to keep this city a homeless dirty dump.

  3. Ray

    YES to more housing, parking and business!!

  4. Michael

    Van Ness at 15th Street is actually South Van Ness (street changes names north-south of Market Street).

    As for parking, having a car and not driving it to work everyday requires a parking spot to leave it in. More parking spots in the garage does not equal more cars on the road, it means that residents of this building won’t have to find street parking, leaving spots open for the rest of us.

  5. marcos

    Most residents of our neighborhood do not own cars, parking is not a big issue here.

    Morales failed to mention that the development would site its off street parking curb cut on 15th Street, adding more cars and congestion around Marshall Elementary School in the mornings on their way to US-101 and their jobs in Silicon Valley. Neighbors agree that the parking garage door should be on South Van Ness to direct traffic out of the neighborhood. The project sponsor indicated that the trade off was in favor of a “clean” street front on South Van Ness to favor the retail by shunting the parking near Marshall Elementary. The whole point of opening up land around 16th BART to greater heights and densities (units per square foot) was for transit oriented development with less parking. We’ve got to play for the probability that most of these residents will auto commute out of town.

    The building is one of the highest in the North Mission. It should relate respectfully to the existing housing stock in the neighborhood between 16th and Mission and 14th and South Van Ness by setting back its height to scale up from adjacent heights.

    Neil Kaye misrepresents the role of the Historical Preservation Commission. They do not officially comment on the design of a building, rather on whether the building as designed rubs up legally against any protections for certain classes of buildings designated as historical resources. It is up to the Planning Commission, not the HPC, to make a determination as to whether the project conforms with the Mission Area Plan Design Standards.

    All of the trade offs made by Planning Staff favor the developer and off load the negative aspects of this development onto our 105 year old post-quake neighborhood.

    The community is demanding that the trade offs be revisited and that a balance be struck where the pain and gain is distributed equally between developer and neighborhood.

    Developers need to take note, that the Mission community is organizing to make sure that the Mission Plan is implemented equitably. They will be in for a rude awakening if they think that they can just waltz into our neighborhood, speculate on land prior to rezonings, and propose out of scale developments which are structured to solely benefit developers and hypothetical San Franciscans at the cost of existing San Franciscans and our communities.

    The Board of Supervisors ensured that there is a hearing process specified in Section 329 of the Planning Code for large projects in the Eastern Neighborhoods that grants the Planning Commission broad power over reshaping or even denying otherwise conforming projects.

    Economically, this project really screws existing San Franciscans. Dumping 32 units of market rate condos on the market when prices are flagging and falling means that anyone who has bought a home over the past 10 years within 1/4 mile of this project will see their equity siphoned off and into the pockets of Mr. Sullivan.

    The increased supply of purchase housing and falling prices means that buyers will stay on the sidelines. How will they live? They will rent and that added rental demand will drive up rents as well over the mid term.

    I don’t think that criticisms of the architectural treatments are legally relevant so long as they comply with code. I am not a fan of Saitowitz, the architect, because his shop expects people to be glad that he’s bestowing his art on your community. Kaye threw a gasket when I commented that 1234 Howard (google image it), another Saitowitz work of art, had a frontage that was dead, like a funeral. But that is not relevant and I don’t explicitly fear new design approaches. The envelope in which those choices are applied, on the other hand, is a valid subject for the Planning Commission.

    Developers and the Planning Department view San Franciscans and our communities as problems to be solved through making neighborhoods more vibrant which means more people who make more than those who live here now.

    -marc

    • Dan

      Really marc? You oppose “dumping” 38 market rate condos on the market because they might lower the property value of your nearby condo? What about all the folks who will now be able to afford a condo? What about the 7 units of affordable housing that will be built? Your opposition seems a bit selfish.

      • Boris

        marc has always posed as a progressive on various blogs and such, but he always comes back to the point that he owns a condo in SF, and hopes to stop any and all development in order to protect his investment and drive the cost of all housing up. The rest of us are not allowed in his exclusive club unless we are willing to pay his price.

  6. Bob

    Trying to keep condo prices high by limiting housing supply sounds very selfish to me. I don’t think this approach represents the needs of most people in the community.

    • marcos

      Governmental leaders express concern about the foreclosure crisis and wish they had policy prescriptions to deal with it. When governmental policy pushes the production of new housing during slack demand and falling prices, then government is taking proactive steps to encourage foreclosures.

    • marcos

      Here’s an SF real estate statistics page:

      http://www.rereport.com/sf/ron/

      This is not the time to be approving more market rate housing if preventing foreclosures is public policy.

  7. beb0p

    So those 20 people with nothing better to do are supposed to speak for the rest of us? Screw them! I dig this project, get it done!

    • marcos

      I don’t think anyone is trying to stop this project or its hideous design, rather to change some of its performance envelope so that it relates better to the existing neighborhood and acts like it is one block from BART, and major Muni lines instead of acting like it is three blocks from the freeway.

  8. I walked around the neighborhood at 15 & S.Van Ness. It really needs more people and the vibrance they bring. The city is defined by its people first then the structures. I welcome the development of the area. The derelict buildings in the area could use some commercial interest. By the way I noticed this morning that SF is one of the few US cities with rising housing costs. The additional “supply” will be welome.

    • marcos

      Consider 4th and King, many new housing units, all with lots of parking accessible via garage and elevator to condos. I find that neighborhood stale and sterile. Is 4th and King your vision of a vibrant community and is that appropriate for an existing, dense neighborhood?

      • These are two completely different places. The area about 15 Th. and S.Van Ness is mixed residential, multistory with reasonable density and has been that way since the turn of the century. The existing buildings, I am pretty sure, are protected by the preservationists at the DBI. Their basic shape and design cannot be altered. The four blank corners were gas stations that failed to meet EPA standards were are significant pieces of underutilized space. Fourth and King, as I remember was home to some open lots, small factories and allied facilities plus the old freeway. After the earthquake it was a blank slate. The resulting design is similar to new construction designs found the world round. I know a few people who live there and love that style design and call the area around the ball park (which is new) home. All that said, I am with you, I love the variety of the Mission and thankfully the city will protect those historic structures at the same time tries to foster development of the blank spaces so as to enhance what I feel is the vibrance of the Mission.

        • marcos

          Again, my distaste for Saitowitz is not the issue here. What is of concern is that this building maximizes the built envelope and minimizes respect for the adjacent neighborhood.

          We need to split those differences so that the pain and gain are shared by the developer and neighbors alike.

          Just because there is an undeveloped parcel does not mean that the community and decision makers have to agree with the regulatory captured Planning Department and give the developer everything he wants.

          It is easy for contemporary architecture to respect an existing older neighborhood without being noveau edwardian. This design does not even try. It pretends that it is at 4th and King because that is the kind of design that is cheap for developers and which the Planning Department learned to like in school.

          • Well said. Sometimes adherence written requirements fails to touch all the points. I really respect a system that encourages alternative ideas. …and when you settle down you are really clear. thanks

  9. Mission Resident

    I live on SVN between 16th and 15th, right across from the Housing Rights Committee. I have mixed feelings about this development. On the one hand, it’s totally ugly; it’s very sterile-looking (a bit like a corporate office building) and will block a lot of natural sunlight on the sidewalk.

    On the other hand, if the building has to go up, I appreciate the 39 parking spaces underground. I suspect that most people who will want to (and can afford to) live in that ugly thing will also have at least one car. As the neighborhood gentrifies, street parking here is becoming increasingly scarce, and I don’t want to battle the new neighbors for spaces. 40+ new cars in this neighborhood without new spaces to accommodate them would be a nightmare.

    I also appreciate the five retail spaces, although I’m curious what will go in them. A grocery store or even a nice convenience store would be awesome. I imagine we’ll get another lackluster coffee shop and maybe a dry cleaners (yawn).

    Seven affordable housing units is better than none, but not as good as all. I’m also unclear on the definition of “affordable housing”. How affordable is it actually?

    I also did not receive any flyers, letters, visits, calls or any information about the proposed building. If Sullivan attempted outreach to neighboring businesses and residents, they did a very poor job.

    • marcos

      Sullivan’s outreach was only to ask neighbors what kind of ground floor retail we would ask them to solicit. They indicated they’d possibly have a bakery or a some other use that I cannot recall which involved kids walking to Marshall passing by tasty sweet tempting carbohydrates, because childhood obesity is not a problem.

      I disagree on the parking impacts. Most residents in the adjacent neighborhoods, the Capp/Minna/Natoma and Shotwell communities do not own and drive cars, so the impacts on existing neighbors finding parking will be minimal. The proposed ratio for the project is just short of one space per unit, while the existing community has perhaps one space per 10 or 20 units.

      Keeping to neighborhood character and recognizing proximity to transit, this project should have few if any spaces. The Mission Area Plan was approved after the Planning Commission legalistically threw their hands up and said the new upzoned housing will slow down Muni lines and that there was nothing that they could do about that. Well, here is something that they can do about that. Our neighborhood will not be impacted by fewer parking spaces for reasons outlined above. But tens of thousands of Muni riders will be delayed due to this and other projects’ ample parking, according to the Mission Plan EIR.

      Finally, that parking with egress on 15th Street will shunt more cars past the Marshall Elementary School every morning while kids are walking to school. If they’re gonna have that much parking, they’re gonna need to put it on SVN where the cars can be happy with their own kind.

      Don’t we play (non) Planners at the (non) Planning Department the big bucks to think of this stuff and to, oh, I don’t know, PLAN for it?

      • Sean Grasse

        Are you a cab driver too? I might feel different about not having a car if cabs were plentiful and affordable, like Manhattan. But they’re expensive and hard to get, trying to get a cab for 30 minutes is just not acceptable.

        Car haters: forcing people to use a transportation method that is far less convenient, comfortable and reliable is not the solution. Make transit awesome FIRST and watch people start using it rather than driving.

    • Sean Grasse

      Rainbow and Foods Co aren’t close enough? You want another grocery store?

      One persons’s sterile is another’s “clean modern design”. I think that building will give that corner a nice modern look.

    • Taca

      this building reminds me the one on Cesar Chavez and Mission… terrible!
      If they would be using half of those units for below market, I ‘ll give them my thumbs up!
      I’ll bet you 5 to 1 they would bring you another wallgreens and a starbucks…

  10. sflady

    Marcos, Don’t worry so much about the kids at Marshall Elementary. I live across the street from the school and my child didn’t even get in there (another topic completely). But, thanks to the SFUSD lottery system most kids are driven to school by their parents who don’t use 15th st, but actually double park along Capp St in front of the school yard and entrance gate. A bakery would be lovely!

    • marcos

      Not to apologize for the SF lottery system, but I saw a report in the mid 1990s while volunteering at City Hall, under this lottery system, that showed that Marshall was one of the top five Elementary Schools where kids walked to school.

  11. Matthew

    Who goes to a community building to talk about how much they like a proposed development?

    • Taca

      I do. And many people in the Mission do to. You should give it a try, it’s pretty informative.

  12. Sean Grasse

    So let me get it straight: A cab driver is opposing private parking spaces. Yes, no conflict of interest there.

  13. sg

    I feel compelled to comment on this article. I am completely amazed at the self importance displayed by some of these neighbors. First, the woman who walked in an blurted that this building is “ugly”. Besides being vulgar and vacuous, it is downright rude. The developer is not there to appease the community, he is trying to make money. To make money, one has to sell a product that people want, and those people likely have money. These are the same people that buy BMWs because they appreciate the design, performance and the social status that it conveys, not necessarily in that order. The design reflects that, whether someone thinks it is “ugly” or not. It is irrelevant.

    The Mission is changing rapidly, with some of the best restaurants and shopping in the city popping up at increasing pace. Therefore, this site becomes desirable to develop condo units to sell to people that want to live here. I think that the assumption here is that these people are interlopers, some kind of parasitic silicon (valley) being that will come in an ruin the community. How about people that already live in the Mission and want to be able to choose from new, modern housing stock instead of a drafty, old Victorian?

    The community prides itself on its diversity, yet is rejecting this project, which seems disingenuous. A community it is people, not its buildings, and there is enough diversity architecturally in the Mission to welcome some modern architecture. South Van Ness is in decline, and needs some help, any development along this ailing commercial corridor should be appreciated.

    • Taca

      I am with you, that’s why i think more units should be below market rate so the families that already live in the mission and can not afford a market rate place, can still remain in the neighborhood. Take a look at the building on Mission and 18th… a couple from India working in the sillicon valley industry was featured on a HGTV buying an unit. The unit sold for over 700k. Maybe these people already were residents in the area, if that is the case, It’s great!!! What i am saying is that since the Mission is so diverse, it would be nice if the units created in the neighborhood would have half of them being below market, so the families that makes a moderate income can actually buy a property there… That way the neighborhood remains diverse, families would stay here and less eviction would hit the hood.
      What do you think of this? Equal opportunity to a diverse population with diverse income.

  14. Claire

    Ugly. Looks like an office building and if the new Mission architecture popping up lately is its predecessor then it’s also bound to be lifeless and slightly morbid. SF overall lacks imagination. Pop-ups with little connectivity. 7 units of affordable housing only? Come on! Also, I live around the corner from the new gallery spaces on 20th at Folsom, below the UGLY million dollar condos. Art, great! Galleries, great! Mixed use development, great! But now, all of a sudden neighborhoods are being erased and are written up as art and gastronomy “corridors”.

    This development will probably go the same way making it a cookie cutter Mission development. That are needs life, not this development.

  15. Would be better with about half the parking (or twice the housing) but really, as long as the parking isn’t bundled with the housing I think it’s a big improvement to the neighborhood….

  16. BJ

    UGLY UGLY UGLY…. OUT OF CONTEXT…the beautiful and rich fabric of the MISSION DISTRICT is totally ignored… This must be a developer/contractor’s special. No Mission District Architect would do this UGLY UGLY building. Back to the drawing boards or you’ll be banished to the suburbs.

  17. BJ

    BANISH THE DEVELOPER TO THE SALT MINES… THIS IS TRASH!!!!

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