Maximus Real Estate has poured $363K and counting into a “grassroots” effort to push the so-called “Monster in the Mission” proposal.

SanFrancisco is a city in which a man in a three-piece suit can often induce more of a double-take than a bearded dude wearing a sarong and beating a conga drum — but, by any standard, the ads now gracing the BART station at 16th and Mission are head-turners.

“I AM NOT A MONSTER” reads the text accompanying sensitive portraits of teachers, paramedics, firefighters, bus drivers, union laborers and all the other sorts of people — real and focus-grouped — San Franciscans want in this city (but who are melting away quicker than polar icecaps). This notably diverse assemblage of people is being used not to sell a housing bond or organic food, but San Francisco’s most contentious high-rise housing development, the so-called Monster in the Mission. And the cure for all that ails the folks in these ads — crime, blight, displacement — is to build a large housing development skewing heavily toward the well-to-do.

“I am not a monster. I am a grandfather. New housing at 16th and Mission is not a monster either, and will ensure I can live in the community I serve.” Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

Well, that’s counter-intuitive. But that’s just the start of it; The notion of even creating such an ad in the first place is counter-intuitive. These billboards, which direct people to the website and attempt to wheedle them into signing a petition, are being used to garner support for a proposal that, at the moment, does not even have a scheduled hearing date before the planning commission. It exists solely as a happy watercolor resembling, as all proposed city developments seem to these days, a large office/lecture hall on a Cal State campus.

Yes, politics runs in this city’s water like fluoride — but, ostensibly, the fate of this development is in the hands not of random BART riders but city planners, staffers and elected representatives. “I don’t know who they’re trying to sway,” admits Dennis Richards, the president of the Planning Commission. “But, to that point: Who cares?” City planning is not American Idol. “It’s not a popularity contest. Or else they could just do internet voting and dissolve the Planning Commission.”  

A well-funded political campaign (and, make no mistake, that’s what this is) for a project at this amorphous stage is something nobody Mission Local spoke with — planners, developers, elected officials, bureaucrats, lobbyists, activists and others — could recall happening before. None of them thought it was a hot idea, either.

“They are trying to force their way through a process you gotta work through,” said a longtime San Francisco development honcho. This project, as they all do in the Mission and most everywhere else in San Francisco, will come down to height, shadows, ground floor retail usage, union labor and, above all else, community benefits and affordable housing percentage. “And,” he continues, “at the end of the day, everyone knows it’s cheaper to put up signs and websites than to provide more affordable housing.”

Not that it’s cheap, though. Those BART ads cost nearly $46,000. Going back to April, “Mission for All, LLC” has spent more than $363,200 canvassing and politicking on behalf of the project they’d rather you just call “1979 Mission Street.” Paid signature-gatherers and door-knockers have been roaming District 9 for quite some time; campaign-style fliers have been hung on doorknobs.

None other than District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, in fact, found a “slick mailer” dangling on her door in recent weeks. Every house on her block had one. How Ronen’s neighbors reacted is unknown. But Ronen is perhaps the most important resident of District 9, if not all of San Francisco, for the would-be developers to impress. She wasn’t.

“I find it strange,” said Ronen, who took pains to note that she is being “very careful to remain neutral on this; it is very likely this project will come before me and I want to vote on it.” That said, a $363,000 PR campaign struck her as an odd way to spend money. “Why aren’t they instead sitting down with the neighborhood folks who have concerns and trying to work with them? Why do they need to go to this level?”

There is a routinized song and a dance to converting projects from watercolors to reality in the Mission. The developers of 1979 Mission are not following it — and, it would seem, are attempting to pull off an end-around. The people whom they most need to win over haven’t missed this.

“I am not a monster. I am an artist. New housing at 16th and Mission is not a monster either and will ensure I can live in the community I serve.” Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

Kneecappingskull-cracking political strategist Jack Davis has long been working for Maximus Real Estate on behalf of this nascent project. Asked if this touchy-feely ad campaign was his doing, he answered “No. It’s not my style,” and deferred to project spokesman Joe Arellano.

Arellano, one of the small army of former Gavin Newsom flacks now plying his trade in this city, notes that these ads, the canvassers and the mailers are the work of “Mission for All,” which he describes as a “grassroots campaign” formed when Mission natives Larry del Carlo and Gene Royale proactively offered to counter the “misinformation” in the community about the 1979 Mission project.

Let the record show that del Carlo or Royale have earned up to $10,000 a month, each, from this “grassroots campaign,” which is actually a paid canvassing effort funded by Maximus. Mission for All is an LLC registered by a lawyer at Nielsen Merksamer and based out his San Rafael office and Maximus’ digs at 1 Maritime Plaza.

Separate and apart from the validity of Mission for All’s messaging, to call it a “grassroots effort” is 180 degrees opposite of reality and a downright Orwellian use of language. That may not mean much to someone signing a petition, but the city’s politicos and developers and decisionmakers have — again — not missed this.

They’ve also noticed that repeating the (very catchy) phrase “Monster in the Mission” is a political misstep akin to shouting “bomb” in an airport. “You don’t let your opponent define you and and live within that definition,” explains a longtime city official. “You don’t need to be an ad wizard to know that one.” You also needn’t be wizard to know that citing high crime in the vicinity of the proposed project — thereby implying high-end development will improve the character of the neighborhood — is a combustible argument for the folks living there now.

“One of the classic mistakes developers and consultants make is calling people’s neighborhoods blighted, and saying we’re gonna bring in different people with better taste who aren’t going to put up with this crap,” explains a consultant. “If you’re saying that you’ll be bringing in wealthier people who are going to demand better protection and engage in better behavior — that is a pretty dangerous argument.”  

But there it is, as the very first “fast fact” on the Mission for All website, and there it was, front-and-center in the divisive Clean up the Plaza campaign. “They haven’t learned,” says former supervisor David Campos. “They are basically regurgitating the same arguments. It backfired before. It’ll backfire again.”

Arellano confirmed that the project’s terms haven’t (yet) changed much since 2015 — but things are “very malleable.” The developers recently made overtures to the city about subsidized teacher housing — but it’d be hard to even qualify these fledgling discussions as “negotiations.” And if the project sponsors think this will deflect attention from the “significant” shadow issues with the adjacent Marshall Elementary School playground, they are all but certainly mistaken.

The project’s opponents don’t seem to have budged much, either; a 100 percent affordable development is still a principal demand. The problem here, however, is that Maximus owns this land (and paid some $42 million for it). Richards, the planning commission president, calls activists’ hopes for a 100-percent affordable “Marvel in the Mission” a “fairy tale,” and urges real negotiations and concessions akin to those that led to a deal on the so-called Beast on Bryant. “We did a density bonus project and got a 100-percent affordable project on the corner with PDR space,” he says. “Damn! I call that a win.”

Ronen, too, has ideas for the development that seem quite a bit different than what either its sponsors or opponents have in mind. “We want to see something as well-crafted as at Fruitvale Station, with affordable housing, green infrastructure, community-serving businesses and innovation,” she tells us. “We are building atop one of the most transit-rich areas in all the city. This should be an exciting project.”

Oh, it will be. But perhaps in ways unintended by the supervisor.