The four fully below-market-rate housing projects coming to the Mission District in the next few years will be among the tallest buildings in a neighborhood known for its opposition to height, and three of them may accomplish the feat by breaking through current height limits. 

For 2060 Folsom St. near 17th street, a pair of non-profit developers goes before the Planning Commission today with plans to squeeze 25 percent more units into their project by building three stories above current limits. 

That one-time legislative rezoning would make the project go to 85 feet from its originally planned 75 feet, thereby increasing the units to 127 from the originally proposed 101 units. The parcel is now zoned for 55 feet.

The move comes at the same time as a similar height increase proposal at 1296 Shotwell near Cesar Chavez Street. If approved, that building will also rise to 85 feet, 20 feet higher than the current 65-foot limit. The additional stories will mean a 96-unit building, though they were anticipated when the project was first proposed.

At 490 South Van Ness Ave. near 16th Street, plans for a 72-unit complex are still being drawn up but city officials said they hope to squeeze more units onto the site, and the project may also go to 85 feet — above its 68-foot height limit. Both this and 1296 Shotwell St. would use a recently-passed density bonus legislation to build up.

And at 1950 Mission St., a 160-unit complex that would replace the Navigation Center near the 16th Street BART Station, a new building will rise to 85 feet but require no height increase, since the lot is already zoned for that height.

What may spare these projects the normal hand-wringing over “bringing downtown to the Mission District,” however, is that they are entirely affordable housing projects that will bring hundreds of units to low-income tenants in a neighborhood that has seen a mass exodus of its poor and Latino residents since the tech boom.

Parkside Housing

“The whole idea of [the height increase] is filling the need of not having enough affordable housing units, to provide more for the families that have been displaced,” said Elaine Yee, a senior project manager with the Mission Economic Development Agency, one of the non-profit housing developers backing 2070 Folsom St. and 1296 Shotwell St.

The complex at 2060 Folsom St. would be nine stories tall, significantly higher than anything else in the area. Of the four affordable complexes coming to the neighborhood, three will be in a four-block radius of the 16th Street BART Plaza and will bring in 359 units of below-market rate housing, the majority of the 455 affordable units approved for the entire neighborhood.

The project will stand next to a park years in the making that just broke ground earlier this year, replacing a parking lot on the corner. Non-profits like PODER and the Jamestown Community Center are expected to occupy the ground floor, and a cafe is planned for Folsom Street alongside a mid-block public alleyway.

The height increase in the building does more than just bump up the housing supply in the neighborhood. Developers had planned to reserve one-fifth of the projects units for so-called transitional-aged youth, 18- to 24-year-olds moving from foster or state care to independent living. 

With the extra stories, some of those units can now be turned from studios into one-bedrooms, an improvement for youth who are pregnant or might otherwise need larger rooms.

“We were only providing studios for the transitional-aged youth [before], but for this count we are able to accommodate some one-bedrooms for [them] as well,” said Yee, MEDA’s project manager.

Raising the Roof

Alongside the 10-story market-rate development dubbed the “Monster in the Mission” planned for the corner of 16th and Mission streets, the three affordable buildings in the area will rise above their mostly 4- to 5-story neighbors. 

Other, older buildings in the Mission District, however, are much taller.

The U.S. Bank building at 2601 Mission St. goes to nine stories but some 115 feet, and the Telco building at 3333 25th St. is eight stories tall but 136 feet. Both the El Capistrano apartment building at 3440 25th St. and Bethany Center, a senior housing complex at 580 Capp St., are seven stories tall.

The only affordable housing site that may not rise to 85 feet is 490 South Van Ness Ave., the former gas station on the corner of 16th Street and South Van Ness Avenue that was bought by the city last year for $18.5 million and has sat empty for more than a year. 

That site was already entitled for a 72-unit building in a parcel zoned for 68 feet, meaning a developer could proceed to construction more easily and quickly with the existing permits. 

But there are precious few empty lots remaining in the Mission District, and Kate Hartley with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development said that, even at South Van Ness, the city may favor squeezing more units onto the site.

“We would be willing to forego an easy entitlement [process] if in the end we could get more affordable housing units in the Mission,” said Hartley, the deputy director at the housing office.

No one has yet voiced opposition to the height increase at 2060 Folsom St., but another affordable housing project in the neighborhood has faced backlash for its own attempt to rise above limits. 

At 1296 Shotwell St., the fully affordable senior housing complex also planned by MEDA and Chinatown Community Development Center between Cesar Chavez and 26th streets, neighbors of the project voiced concern earlier this year that the height increase would signal to private developers that they, too, could build tall in the Mission District.

The 1296 Shotwell St. site as seen from the corner of Shotwell and Cesar Chavez streets. Photo courtesy of the Mission Economic Development Agency and Herman Coliver Locust Architecture.

The 1296 Shotwell St. site as seen from the corner of Shotwell and Cesar Chavez streets. Photo courtesy of the Mission Economic Development Agency and Herman Coliver Locus Architecture.

Nine stories is significantly taller than any other building in the area, and crucially lies between the single-family homes of Bernal Heights and their views of the cityscape, a predominant issue at the community meeting earlier this year.

Housing activists in the neighborhood often decry tall glass towers as symbols of unaffordable, gentrifying buildings that have exacerbated the housing crisis, and a few of those attending the May meeting worried that even a fully affordable housing complex might have a negative effect if it allowed future developers to use it as precedent to go above height limits on their own. 

Supervisor David Campos, who is sponsoring the legislative upzoning for 2060 Folsom St. on behalf of MEDA and Chinatown CDC, said he did not share concerns about precedent-setting because taller affordable housing projects are distinct from taller market-rate buildings.

”I don’t think this is something that would happen as a matter of fact with any project,” he said. “I think this is happening that is very specific to this project and the building of affordable housing.”

Erick Arguello, the president of the neighborhood association Calle 24, said his group is supporting the height increase for 1296 Shotwell St. and that he is personally supportive of the 2060 Folsom St. project rising to nine stories. 

“I know that there’s a lot of concerns about heights in the neighborhood, but we’re in dire need of affordable housing, and we’re looking at that more than the height itself,” he said.

The height exemption is likely to pass. Dennis Richards, the vice-president of the Planning Commission, said he would not reveal his vote but could not envision the proposal being denied by the commission on Thursday.

“It makes perfect sense. It’s the right kind of density for the right kind of use, for the right kind of person who’s gonna live there,” Richards said. “I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t [pass]. It has no opposition.”