The Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve plans for 72 new condo units at the corner of 16th and South Van Ness. The commission had held hearings on the plan, which has been in development since 2010, three times since August, so for almost everyone in attendance on Thursday their approval came as no big surprise.
“Thirty years of under-building housing is why we have such expensive housing,” said Commisioner Michael Antonini about why he supported the project. “When you build a project like this, you tend to have reduction of crime, vandalism and graffiti in the area.”
Proposed by JCN Developers, 490 South Van Ness would fill a space that was formerly occupied by a gas station and has been an empty lot since 2012 when the developer removed several tons of contaminated soil. Of the 72 units, 12 will be below-market and it will also have 655 square-feet of ground floor commercial space.
For many who spoke at the hearing, which had a smaller attendance than previous hearings on the project, the sentiment was: more housing, of any kind, in a city with a shortage is a good thing.
“I’m excited for San Francisco to take advantage of all the high-income people who live here. They’re able to support high rents and tall buildings, that’s not always true,” said Sonja Trauss, of the recently formed group BARF (San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation). “Sometimes, you have times when you can’t build anything new because no one will support it.”
Longtime housing activist Tommi Avicoli Mecca left the meeting before 490 South Van Ness came up for vote (the Commission’s schedule was an hour delayed due to an earlier meeting going long), but said he knew which way they were going to go.
“They’re stuck; they have to follow the law. They never take into consideration the effect that projects like this have on the surrounding neighborhood. Evictions occur because of developments like this…Shame on our city for never having changed criteria for approval, for not taking into consideration the impact,” he said.
For Avicoli Mecca, the existence of the 12 below-high-priced market units does little to mitigate the impact a project like this will have on the surrounding area. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that speculators will swoop in,” Avicoli Mecca said.
Several of the comments from commissioners on Thursday, and at the previous hearing in October, expressed a desire for the Commission to think more about ways they can create and facilitate the construction of more affordable housing.
“I would love the Commission to talk more about public finance and housing finance as part of the planned development in this city,” said Commissioner Christine Johnson, but added that the conversation couldn’t really be part of looking at individual projects, that it’s part of wider policy conversation.
Commission President Cindy Wu echoed those comments, and added that the Mayor’s Office has numerous tasks forces looking at the issue, but the Planning Commission could look at ways to finance affordable housing more generally.
The Eastern Neighborhood Plan, the large-scale area plan approved in 2009, came up in much of the public comment of those in favor of the project—noting that 490 South Van Ness had been held off for approval until the East Neighborhood Plan’s passing and that it was now compliant with that plan.
Commissioner Dennis Richards hoped the Commission could reexamine the decision-making that went into the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, noting that it was passed in the middle of a recession when few developers were building anything and stipulations were made to encourage development.
“2014 is much different from 2008, 2009,” said Commissioner Richards, encouraging the Commission to take up the project of looking again at the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.
Asked if comments like this made him at all optimistic, Avicoli Mecca was glib: “It’s all well and good, but it’s just words right now.”
The plan had been previously delayed because the Commissioners had asked the project’s sponsors to refine several design details and investigate whether or not the building’s proposed garage could exit onto South Van Ness as opposed to Adair Street. Some parents of Marshall Elementary had expressed concern that exiting cars—the garage will have 48 spots—could pose a threat to children who walk on Adair and nearby Capp to get to school.
After a presentation from a traffic expert working with JCN Developers and more deliberation, almost all the commissioners expressed approval of the plan’s original garage exit on Adair Street.
Parents from Marshall Elementary were not satisfied.
“People are going to leave that garage more than once a day,” said Susan Cieutat of the potential traffic increase near Marshall. She also expressed anger with how the developers communicated with the Marshall School PTA, saying theat JCN had made misleading statements about SFMTA regulations on South Van Ness.
“All we’re asking is for them to move over garage to one side,” Cieutat said, and added: “We’re going to appeal this to the Board of Supervisors.”
Maurice Casey, a principle of JCN was visibly excited following the Commission’s decision.
“It feels great,” Casey said. “This project will bring a lot of good young people to the neighborhood.”
His project is not alone in bringing new people. At South Van Ness and 15th streets, the recently completed Stanely Saitowitz development 1515 South Van Ness has brought 40 condos to this stretch of the Mission, and on 16th and Mission Maximus Developers plans to construct a 10-story building with 350 units. The latter has inspired a protest this Saturday dubbed “No Monster in the Mission: March and Festival for Affordable Housing,” in which organizers from the Plaza 16 Coalition will march through the Mission demanding the halt of all luxury projects and the creation of more affordable housing.
A map with all the major development near 490 South Van Ness made by the Planning Department at the request of the Commission shows several more projects recently completed and in the works. So while one project’s approval process may be appearing completion, more projects (and hearings) are certainly in the proverbially pipeline (and battlefield).