A speaker addresses the Commission during a hearing for 2918 Mission Street.

A laundromat and parking lot one block away from a major transit hub probably seems, to many, like an absolute no-brainer location for building a big chunk of housing.

Nothing is ever so simple.

“I know that the folks in the Mission want to say, ‘we’re special, you gotta reject this project because we’re special.’ But the truth is, this is happening in every neighborhood in the city,” said Tim Colen, senior adviser to the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

But perhaps this part of the Mission is special? This week’s Planning Commission hearing on 2918 Mission St. saw the 75-unit project delayed by two and a half months — with many on the Commission describing it as an idiosyncratic behemoth.

“Bulky,” said one commissioner, and later, “a bit out of character.”

According to Commissioner Kathrin Moore, building it as designed, with the same nearly 85-foot height spanning the width of its three lots near 25th Street, would be like “plopping a foreign object into this area and not thinking about the consequences.”

“Why hesitate?” asked some. “I challenge anybody to come up with a good reason why the biggest thing in the neighborhood shouldn’t be housing.” said Corey Smith, from the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

Not everyone is convinced that new construction alone will fix things.

“For anybody to stand up and say, ‘All we have to do is build more housing and not look at job creation,’ I’m going to laugh at you,” said Commissioner Dennis Richards. “That train has left the station. It’s so far down the tracks, I can’t even see it anymore.”

Back to the project at hand.

The Commission asked for some adjustments to the design to move it ahead — confusing to its developer, who has been taking design input from Planning Department staff for months.

Then there were the usual issues in the neighborhood. The 14.5 percent affordable housing allotment, up to snuff technically, didn’t impress any affordability advocates.

Wait a minute: eight of 75 units is only around 11 percent affordable, not 14.5? Ah yes, another rub: The extra comes from a state bonus program, which gives the developer allowance for more units, and the building that controversial bulk.

The bonus calculates affordability differently. That wasn’t a hit with Hillis, but he said, “we’re kind of handcuffed by the state.”

Same on the bulkiness issue — the state program determines how big the project can be. And the developer is not keen on downsizing.

“I am completely open to having my architects incorporating specific and clear design direction from the Planning Commission,” property owner Bob Tillman wrote to the department after the hearing. “I am not willing to have my architects chase their tails and to spend money having them do so.”

What next?

Most who came to criticize the project didn’t want it killed, just delayed — they’re holding out hope that a deal can be reached with the developer to sell the land, as he’s already offered to do, to a nonprofit or the city to build affordable housing.

They implied that the deal could be reached before the Commission meets again, so a new design or proposal can be tweaked to the liking of whoever would build below-market-rate housing there.

Because, if a nonprofit developer wanted to add a floor, even if housing there had been approved by the Commission before, the project would need to go through the process all over again.  

Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards dismissed waiting for a deal as “supposition.” And, generally speaking, land is more attractive to any developer, nonprofit or otherwise, with permission to build already in hand.

Still, all six commissioners present voted to reconsider the project Nov. 30.

Tillman is already looking further down the road.

“It’s my opinion this is just going to end up in front of the Board of Supervisors one way or the other,” he said.

Help; where’s Hillary?

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12 Comments

  1. The project complies completely and exactly with both Home-SF (which implements the State Density Bonus Law in San Francisco and was passed by the Board of Supervisors on May 23, 2017) and with the Inclusionary Legislation (passed by the Board of Supervisors on July 18, 2017). Both these laws were passed after years of rancor, negotiation, and compromise. If San Francisco cannot abide by its own laws, which were updated less than four months ago, then what use are those laws? The job of the Planning Commissioners is not to remake these laws but to implement them, regardless of their personal views. If the Planning Commission does not fairly and clearly enforce these laws, then the Commissioners are simply neglecting their duty and should be removed. Otherwise, we no longer have a government of laws.

    1. I think you should give free wash/drys for 10 years, then donate the property to affordable housing. Maybe they could place a small 12 x 12 plaque in your honor for doing such a nice deed. Your donation could help dozens and dozens of needy families. Please consider my recommendation planning commission.

    2. Mr. Tillman,

      I am supportive of your project and believe that you are being given the “run around”.

      That being said, a fundamental error your approach is that you have designed your “Base Project” upon the assumption of obtaining Conditional Use (CU) permission to merge the 3 lots into a single lot over 9,999 sf.

      (As you know, in the subject Zoning District, a CU approval for a lot merger of 10,000 sf+ is not “as-of-right” and can only be obtained via Planning Commission “discretion”.)

      The wiser and more certain approach — which would have also compelled the Planning Commission to approve your project (as they would not be allowed per State law to object on “aesthetic grounds” — which they appear to be currently doing) — would have been to merge only 2 of the 3 lots together and design a Base Project upon those partially-consolidated lots (still over 11,000 sf total, but about 6,000 for one and approx. 5,000 sf for the other) — none of which, however, would have been in excess of the 9,999 sf size; thus a CU for your Base Project would not have been necessary.

      This Base Project would then have been an “as-of-right” project (i.e., not requiring Planning Commission approval.) It would have provided the “Base Density” upon which you could have successfully developed a “Bonus Density Project” (i.e., 35% more dwelling units on a single consolidated lot; easily justified via the “concession/incentive” procedure written into State Law) that the Commission would have been compelled to approve — because, if they didn’t then they would be running afoul of State Law, would most certainly lose on appeal or in court and the City would be liable for all litigation costs.

      (It’s true that the overall dwelling unit yield will be slightly less, but the certainty of approval would, most definitely, justify such an approach.)

      I would propose that you re-design the project in this fashion and make your proposal “bomb-proof” — regardless of the spurious objections of the project’s opponents or the “aesthetic agenda” of the Commissioners.

      Good Luck and Best Wishes.

      1. Avoiding the planning commission entirely is of course a good idea, but I think the reason they didn’t disprove the project is exactly because they would run afoul of state law. Hoping to wait Robert out instead is their way to avoid any legal scrutiny because they aren’t in the right.

      2. Thank you for your support. Richard Sucre from the Planning Department clarified the question of the lot merger during the hearing, essentially stating that it was a non-issue. I have since received the same feedback from my attorney. You may wish to review the video of the hearing.

    1. I doubt it; SB35 is based on Residential Housing Needs Assessment and SF is ahead of schedule according to that. Its definition of “housing needs” doesn’t match what any reasonable person would think, lol.

      The new improved Housing Accountability Act is relevant though and why I hope Tillman doesn’t pay the delay tactics much notice. They can delay until 2018 and then the new law would be available if they deny the permit then (or not, I’m not a lawyer).

      1. SB-35 does not appear to apply to my project. Nevertheless, SB-167, which also passed last week, and which greatly strengthens the Housing Accountability Act, does apply to my project. It contains numerous provisions that greatly enhance my legal position. For example, it provides that, for purposes of the HAA, the receipt of a density bonus shall not constitute a valid basis on which to find a proposed housing development project is inconsistent, not in compliance, or not in conformity, with an applicable plan, program, policy, ordinance, standard, requirement, or other similar provision, as specified. 


  2. MEDA has told me that they intend to make an offer, but I have not seen it yet.

    I had the opportunity to speak with Hillary Ronen Thursday the evening after my hearing at the Mission Housing Gala. Although we had not previously met, she knew who I was and was fully aware of my project. We talked for about 6 to 8 minutes. I asked her very directly how she might help MEDA raise the funds for the purchase of 2918 Mission St. She indicated that she would be very open to hearing about MEDA’s financing plans, but answered that San Francisco did not have the money to fund such a purchase. I have since had that information confirmed by one of the Planning Commissioners, by the head of one of the other affordable housing developers and by MEDA itself.

    Consequently, if MEDA is going to make a serious offer, they must have in mind a different financing source.

  3. Everyone agrees more housing needs to be built but luxury housing is NOT the solution. Luxury housing gentrifies neighborhoods and causes further speculation and displacement. There are vacancy rates in new luxury housing, which negates the supply-side argument that we can build our way out of the housing crisis.

    Affordable housing must be built. However at 14.5% at a time, it will take 20-30 years for the housing supply to “trickle down” and that’s if it even does. By then there will be no one left to save.

    Therefore, San Francisco needs a moratorium on ALL residential development until stronger renter protections are put in place.

    Repeal the Ellis Act and put stronger rental protections in place before we allow them to “build baby build.”

    1. Andy, affordable housing is by definition housing that is sold or rented BELOW ITS COST TO BUILD. Therefore, it needs to be subsidized, or it cannot be built. That subsidy can only come by charging the users of market rate housing more, by obtaining money from charity or by having the government raise the money through borrowing or taxation. Right now, San Francisco is broke, no one is providing charity, and the earliest that we may see State money from the recently approved affordable housing bond is sometime in 2019. If you know of the existence of some other magic money tree, please inform MEDA and they will use the money from that source to purchase my project and to build 100% affordable housing. To do so, they need not only to buy my land, but also to raise 2X to 3X the price of the land to pay for construction.

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