The 16th Street Bart Plaza where Spanish-speaking preachers blare sermons from portable amps and plaza regulars spend their days on benches in front of Burger King and Walgreens may soon transform into a square of glass towers, market-rate apartments, and an expanded marketplace — if a recently-resurrected housing project can defeat community opposition.
If it’s approved, the 10-story, 380-unit project at 16th and Mission would be the largest housing project built in the Mission District, just ahead of the 335-unit development at 2000–2070 Bryant St. that was approved by the Planning Commission last week and achieved a significant 41 percent of affordable housing.
The controversial development at 1979 Mission St. — dubbed the “Monster in the Mission” by activists — will have the first of many public meetings on Thursday.
The hearing at City Hall will come just days after a lawsuit between the developer and the owners of the site that delayed the project for months was settled for an undisclosed amount, clearing a major hurdle for the development.
Last August, Maximus Real Estate Partners sued the Jang family — the owners of the site — alleging that the family was trying to sell the land to another developer after millions of dollars in investment from Maximus. That suit was settled “on mutually agreeable terms” on June 3, according to a spokesperson for Maximus.
Still, the project faces heated opposition by activists who have vowed to derail the development.
“We’ve been saying all along and we’re going to keep saying as we’re moving forward that we want 100 percent affordable housing,” said Chirag Bhakta, a member of the Plaza 16 Coalition that was formed in 2013 to oppose the project. “If anyone wants to build at Plaza 16, they will have to build a 100 percent affordable housing site.”
As it is proposed now, the project is split into three buildings: One on Mission Street would replace the Walgreens there with a 6–10 story residential tower, another on 16th Street would demolish a Burger King, the Hwa Lei Market, the Mission Hunan Restaurant, and the City Club dive bar for another 7–10 story residential building, and the last on Capp Street would clear out a parking lot and replace it with a lower 4–5 story residential complex.
The site would host 290 market-rate rental units, 41 condo units for middle-income residents, and 49 rental units of affordable housing for low-income tenants. That makes the project 24 percent affordable with the addition of the middle-income units or 13 percent affordable without those units.
Some 64,000 square feet of ground-floor retail is planned for the site — including the construction of a market hall for food and other vendors — as well as 163 parking spaces, 22 of them for commercial tenants. The developer would also enlarge the Bart plaza by 40 percent.
New Atmosphere of Affordability
But times have changed for large housing projects in San Francisco.
When approved with 41 percent affordable housing last week, the Bryant Street project joined other large projects — namely 5M in the SoMa and Mission Rock in Mission Bay — in defining a new benchmark of near 40 percent below-market-rate housing for large projects in San Francisco.
Asked whether affordability levels in other projects would change the project, Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for Maximus, said that it will go forward “as envisioned” but that he understood things are different now than they were last summer.
“We want to be cognizant of the fact that we are in a different environment,” he said.
Concessions from the developer may not be enough at 16th and Mission, however, where opponents want to project scrapped altogether. They say nothing but fully affordable housing should go on the transit corner, though they have not yet identified the public subsidies that would likely be required to finance such an endeavour.
“We don’t know yet,” said Bhakta when questioned about the funding. “As this process moves forward, we will be looking towards funding sources to ensure that our proposal is not just something on a piece of paper but is also backed by money.”
Fully affordable housing projects are built by non-profit developers with heavy financing from the city. For the site to become 100 percent affordable, the developer would have to sell the site to the city and the city would need to have the funds to construct housing on-site.
That happened last year at 490 South Van Ness Ave., when the city bought a corner lot just two blocks from 16th and Mission for $18.5 million. The developer had only paid $2.5 million for the 72-unit site, however, and the deal was criticized for being expensive — at $250,000 per door — and conferring so much profit to the developer.
Schools, Shadows, and Height
But even if the developer of 1979 Mission St. agreed to sell the land to the city and the city could purchase and develop the site, it’s unclear that the affordable project would be able to rise very high. Activists have said for years that they want to prevent the casting of shadows on the nearby Marshall Elementary School, something the 10-story building would do.
“We’re hoping for a significant number of units there, but the thing is the shadow matters,” Bhakta said. “We’re not going to sacrifice daylight that kids have to play in for a few feet [of height].”
Bhakta said it was wrong to think of a trade-off between affordable housing and shadows. More affordable housing developments are required city-wide, he said, and one project in the Mission District will not solve the housing crisis by building up.
“We don’t need to have a 10, 15, or 20 story tower in the Mission, thinking that this is going to solve everything,” he said, envisioning a 5–7 story building instead. “For us it’s not a zero-sum game. Families need deeply affordable housing, but their kids also need open space and sun to play in.”
Parents at the school — located at 15th and Capp, around the block from 16th and Mission — have long opposed the project, even after its developer agreed in 2014 to elevate the school’s playground by 15 feet to mitigate the shadow effect.
A community meeting held earlier this year saw a popular proposal for cutting down the project to as little as 150 units at four stories.
Sonja Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, a pro-development advocacy group, said it was illogical to oppose a project on both affordability and height.
“Only one of those can be a valid argument,” Trauss said. “If you’re happy with an 8–12 story building if it were affordable, then you can’t be bothered by the shadows, and if you’re bothered by shadows, then your problem isn’t that it’s market-rate, it’s that it creates shadows.”
Trauss pointed to stern opposition to a nine-story, fully affordable housing building at Shotwell and Cesar Chavez as evidence that activists claim to be pro-affordability but are really anti-height. She said such opposition runs the danger of delaying the project to death, and said people could already be housed there if the developer had been able to proceed without backlash.
“In a functioning city, people could be living there today, including however many below-market-rate [tenants],” she said. “Every single one of those units — that’s like 700 people that could’ve not been displaced from the Mission.”
Tim Colen, the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, said the transit corner was the ideal place for a high-rise. He said many urbanists would call for a 200 or 300 foot tall building at the site rather than the 105-foot height the parcel is zoned for.
“Where else would you put housing and height other than that location?” Colen said. “We don’t agree that ‘Oh, it’s too tall.’ If we’re too timid to stand up and say we should build housing at this location, then woe unto us.”
The project will go before the Planning Commission on Thursday for a review of its draft environmental impact report, after which it will likely face months of hearings. Activists are planning a press conference at City Hall to present an alternative plan for the site at 1 p.m. on Thursday.