A landlord’s plan to remodel and possibly house parolees at his 15th Street property on the corner of Albion, has upset neighbors and raised questions about a city policy that allowed the owner to secure a building permit without alerting neighbors of his intentions.
Far from a not-in-my-neighborhood battle, nearby neighbors said, the area already supports its share of low-income housing including Valencia Gardens and more than nine single room occupancy hotels within a three-block radius. Moreover, they point to the upcoming opening of Dolores Hotel, a 59-unit building three blocks away that will house residents in transition.
“Don’t call us NIMBY’s (not in my backyard),” said Kathleen Johnston, a homeowner of ten years on Albion Street. “Look what we have in our backyard: I am not living in Pacific Heights. I don’t have a gate on my front door.”
Barak Jolish, the owner of the building at 1731 15th St., plans to renovate the former Buddhist monastery and lease it to the Recovery Survival Network, a nonprofit that manages nine single-room-occupancy hotels in the Mission, SoMa and the Tenderloin.
Lou Gordon, the self-described politically-connected executive director of the Survival Network, said plans for the building are still in flux. At present, he said, they imagine the tenants will be parents, referred by state and city agencies such as Children and Family Services, who are trying to retain custody of their children.
He added, however, that no final decision has been made. In his proposal to the planning department, Jolish said he intended to house parolees in transition or possibly students.
The city issued Jolish a building permit on August 8 that allows him to move ahead with improvements on the three-story 20,000 square foot building. Those include adding new bathrooms, community kitchens, a new elevator, rooftop and to increase the number of rooms from 27 to 52. Only one tenant per room would be allowed, Jolish added.
After discovering the plans, a group of residents, the Albion Neighbors, filed to appeal the building permit that will be considered on Sept. 21.
The appeal is an attempt to stop the project, said neighbors, who are also upset that without notifying them, the city would allow “vulnerable populations,” such as parolees and foster youth, to move in.
No one argued that such housing isn’t needed, but they argued that the neighborhood already houses many disadvantaged residents and has only recently has achieved some equilibrium.
Planning documents show the owner was aware that his plans would trigger objections.
In correspondence with the planning department he wrote that he wanted to avoid notifying the neighbors because he was trying avoid a drawn out process that would delay renovating the building and offering affordable housing to a vulnerable population.
“The purchase and renovation of this building will be extremely expensive,” Jolish wrote to the planning department on June 18, 2010 while he was in the process of buying the building for $2.1 million. “It would be specifically difficult to absorb carrying costs during a drawn-out planning process involving public opposition to a group housing use.”
In the letter, Jolish asked the zoning administrator if his project required him to notify his neighbors. “I specifically envision providing housing for residents participating in social services programs (e.g., parolees transitioning back into society or adult former foster children), or student housing,” he wrote.
Jolish said this week that he was simply not ready to notify the neighbors because he was still unsure about the kind of use he wanted for his building.
The San Francisco planning code does not require notification because the project was previously used for “group housing” for monks and the use – group housing – will not change. Neighbors contend, however, that a project of this scope should require notification.
As a result, only two neighbors received a notice about the plans and those arrived only after the permit had been issued in August, Johnston said. The plans, however, had been underway for nearly a year. Jolish filed for the permit on November of last year, according to planning documents.
Neighbors say that without notification, they’ve been left with little recourse other than an appeal. “He’s left us with an appeals process and that’s it,” said Albion resident Chris Kapka.
For his part, Jolish said he has been trying to communicate with the neighbors this month -to no avail- to resolve any issues before the appeal hearing.
The appeal hearing is set for Wednesday Sept. 21 at 5 p.m. At City Hall room 416.
Building Could Change the Dynamics of the Neighborhood, Neighbors say
For their part, neighbors fear more housing for vulnerable populations could upset a recovery that has come slowly.
Valencia Gardens, which lies across the street from the building, was once infamous for being a place where drugs and violence abounded. The 260-unit mixed-income housing complex has made many improvements since being remodeled in 2006.
D.J. Brown, a resident of Valencia Gardens since 2006, said longtime residents of the area have told him about the horrors of the site.
“I heard it compared to the Coliseum where they threw the Christians in to fend for themselves against the lions,” he said. “It was so dangerous, so crime-ridden, so drug-infested, so horrific that an old timer in the neighborhood told me finding a parking space in this neighborhood was never a problem, finding your car when you got back here was.”
“It was a hellhole,” said Johnston of Albion Street, who is a mother of 14-month old twins.
Today that is no longer the case. Developers and urban planners credit the Valencia Gardens new design, which includes individual house numbers, porches, stoops and walkups, that create a sense of ownership. Nowadays you can hear children playing on the street and Johnston said she has come to know her transient neighbors and can even walk her dogs outside at 11 p.m.
“You can’t house a felon at Valencia Garden’s but you can house one across the street?” Johnson asked, noting the housing authority rules that prohibits it.
Despite the continuance of nuisances like litter and some drug use, there is a level of co-existence in the neighborhood, Johnston said. She added that this could be disrupted if there is a new influx of parolees to the neighborhood.
Moreover, just down the corner near 15th and Valencia there are three single room occupancy hotels. Three blocks away on Mission Street between 16th and 17th Streets, there are another six of the Mission’s 47 single room occupancy hotels.
Instead of housing more transitory residents, Johnston said, the area needs more market-rate housing. The latter, he said, would be a better fit because it is crucial to have people who have a vested interest in improving the neighborhood.
“If you are bringing parolees in, it’s institutional housing,” she said. “It is very different than group housing.”
For his part, Jolish said developing condos and market rate housing was way too expensive. Moreover, he said, the nonprofit is committed to improving the neighborhood, he said.
“Even if it is a parolee program,” Jolish said, the Recovery Survival Network runs “very successful programs and don’t have any complaints.”
Gordon, from Recovery, declined to say whether some of the new tenants would include parolees.
“We are not going to put a bad population there,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be clean and sober. They are working and earning a living wage, otherwise we wouldn’t put them in there.”
He also said they would provide 24-hour on site management security.
“Whether monks were there before or veterans or parolees, the building is the same building,” he said. “You can’t make law or make any public policy based on the individual.”
Still, the residents have been appealing to the Planning Commission and appear to have the attention of Commission President Christina Olague.
“I think at some point it might be good for us to have a conversation, either here or in public hearing perhaps,” she said. “Because I do think the we need to look more closely at the conversion of some of these spaces to programmatic uses.”