All it takes to delay an affordable housing project in San Francisco is $578 and filling out a simple form.
Take the case of the affordable housing project at 2060-2070 Folsom Street, where one neighbor’s list of complaints – including one about sewage and flooding – could stall the project for as long as six months.
Margaret Eve-Lynne Miyasaki, a neighbor of the project, recently paid $578 to file a request for a discretionary review of the 127-unit, nine-story project. The Plannign Commission approved the project in July 2016 – some thought, finally – after a multi-year process that included multiple changes including making it taller.
No matter. Miyasaki’s form, filed on Feb. 8, triggers a new hearing of the seven-member commission.
Miyasaki, who writes in the request that she only learned of the project a month ago, fears that a new eight-story building is too high and would exacerbate sewer overflows in a neighborhood that has long experienced flooding. Like others who attended many public hearings, she also cites a lack of parking and an expected increase in crime as issues. She also suggested that the project should be built on bedrock, unusual and expensive for buildings of this height.
This kind of request, though not uncommon, is frustrating for developers, especially nonprofit developers.
“Every time they file one of these things, it puts the entire project in jeopardy, because the funding structure nationally, at the state level and locally is just so precarious right now,” said Sam Moss, Executive Director of Mission Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit not involved with the project in question. “When you file this you are literally filing against affordable housing for homeless families. You are saying, nope, I don’t want that.
Reviews like this cause delays. Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards said that construction cannot go forward until a review is finished. He estimated that given the current backlog of cases, it could take between four and six months for the case to be heard. After that hearing, the decision could still be appealed, adding even more time.
The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), one of the two nonprofits developing the building, has itself filed reviews of this kind. A hearing on its discretionary review request for a project at 1900 Mission Street at 15th Street will take place at the Planning Commission on Thursday. But it’s different when the project under scrutiny is a market-rate project, an organizer with MEDA argues.
“I think that there are some fundamental differences,” said Peter Papadopoulos, a consultant on MEDA’s discretionary review request of the 15th and Mission project. “High end housing is by its nature destabilizing to the working class on a neighborhood level.”
Securing a public hearing for a project — 1900 Mission had not been required to go before the Planning Commission previously — is worth a short delay, Papadopoulos said.
“While it’s true that more housing helps on a regional level by a very small amount, we have to be very careful about the immediate neighborhood impact of high end housing,” he said.
It is unclear if the concerns about 2060 Folsom Street will be found to have any merit – Richards called the request a “long shot.” Miyasaki at first agreed to an interview, but did not answer at the appointed time. Subsequent calls also went unanswered.
Miyasaki suggested in her request that the building be put on hold until the city can address the area’s recurring problem with sewer backflow and flooding during heavy rains.
“Projects of this size should be postponed from the Folsom 14th through 18th street neighborhood until the city renovates existing 100 year old combined storm-sewage sewer system to eliminate flooding,” wrote Miyasaki, who lives on Folsom near 16th street.
MEDA says its designs take the sewage situation at 17th Street into account.
“In terms of design, we tried our very best to work with geography, and we as the ultimate owner don’t want these maintenance problems either,” Yee said.
Miyasaki’s filing, however, seems to worry more about additional sewage. Neither sewage nor potential runoff from the building seemed to concern city utility officials.
Idil Bereket, a spokesperson for the utility, said wastewater from homes and businesses only makes up about 1 percent of total flow in the sewer system during the intense storms that tend to cause overflows.
In fact, wastewater in the sewer system on dry days has dropped about 25 percent in the last thirty years or so despite the addition of new housing.
“A more important factor is the contribution of stormwater coming from large impervious areas such as parking lots,” Bereket wrote. At present, the lot is transitioning away from a parking lot to housing.
The building will also be required to manage stormwater on-site per a 2010 city ordinance, using methods like green roofs, permeable pavement, rainwater harvesting, and rain gardens.
Plans for flood prevention in the building also include raising the threshold of the ground floor two feet to avoid water intrusion, Yee said.
Beyond that, it’s a citywide topographical and infrastructure issue.
“It’s unfortunate that this is the [topographical] low point where the sewage goes, and it’s not only this project that is going to be contributing to that,” said Elaine Yee, senior project manager for MEDA’s community real estate program. The question, she said, is for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: “When will you be able to get this work started and get that problem fixed?”
In 2015, utilities staff answered that question. The staff told community members that there were three solutions, costing between $110 and $800 million which and would take a minimum of five to nine years to implement.
Yee pointed to the city’s housing crisis and noted that projects can’t wait for such a fix, they can only incorporate good design to mitigate against flooding.
“We sure can’t just wait for 15-20 years until the SFPUC fixes the problem before we build this building, because we do know there’s a dire need for housing in this area,” she said.
Miyasaki’s other major concern was the lack of parking. Zoning, however, does not require parking in the building and the developers have no plans to install it, in part because of the sewer issue – an underground parking garage would get flooded.
This story has been updated with a reference to one of MEDA’s own discretionary review requests. It has also been updated to clarify that Mission Housing Development Corporation is not involved in the development of 2060 Folsom Street.