The Planning Commission Thursday approved a 75-unit building at 2918 Mission St. near 25th Street, and held off on a decision about a 60-unit building planned for 2750 19th St., requesting that the owners clarify the proposed community benefits.
The commisioners split 4-2 on the 75-unit Mission Street building, with even commissioners who voted to approve it concerned that the building doesn’t set aside enough affordable units.
“10.6 percent affordable housing sucks. That’s lame,” said Commissioner Rodney Fong.
The property owner, Robert Tillman, is using a state density-bonus law to add units to a project. That law doesn’t require adding any additional below-market-rate units as the project grows, so what started as a 14.5 percent affordable project under city law now, as a bigger project, works out to just about 11 percent, with eight affordable units.
“It’s an unfortunate quirk in the state law that we’re actually increasing density here and allowing for more units and the affordable housing percentage goes down,” said Commission President Rich Hillis, who indicated his support for the proposal but left before the vote. “We can stand here and shake our fist at that one, but there’s not much we can do.”
The building represents an example of how state and local laws interact and, although several wanted to see more affordable housing and other adjustments, their hands were tied.
“We are at risk of a lawsuit if we disapprove a project where we haven’t made very specific findings that pertain to written codes, not ones that we’ve made up right here,” Commissioner Christine Johnson said.
Indeed, Tillman has threatened openly to take the city to court if the commission rejects his project, and sent repeated letters to the Planning Commission and others detailing his attorneys’ interpretations of the various laws in play.
Tempers ran high during the project’s considerations. After members of the public began shouting at Tillman and city officials, Commissioner Dennis Richards called a recess and asked that sheriff’s deputies restore order in the hearing chamber.
That episode came after pleas from neighbors to reject the project, out of concern that it would exacerbate already advanced gentrification in the neighborhood, did not include enough affordable housing, and that construction would trouble young students at the preschool and other educational programs immediately adjacent.
Thor Boucher from the Zaida T. Rodriguez Preschool, adjacent to the property, said he worried what impact dust and noise might have on students.
“We have watched the Mission District explode with development, pushing out generations of families who once walked through our halls,” he said, adding that he feared a “medical impact to young children’s lives as their lungs are developing.”
Tillman’s frankness was praised, even by his opponents, throughout the project, but his doggedness about obtaining approval on his terms did not win sympathy from anti-gentrification activists.
Some had hoped that the property might be scooped up by a nonprofit developer or the city for the production of an entirely below-market-rate building. But those hopes crumbled because no one could come up with the money Tillman was asking for.
“We’re talking about 89 percent luxury and 11 percent affordable,” said Alicia Sandoval, who works with renters through the Housing Rights Committee. “How can we even consider that?
Inevitably, race and class concerns came up; residents argued that the project would further push out Latinos.
“I see what happened in the Western Addition — I see that there was one permit given, another permit, and all in the name of redevelopment. But you know what? They wiped out the African American community,” neighborhood resident and activist Roberto Hernandez said. “That’s what’s happening in the Mission.”
Gloria la Riva, who volunteers at an office down the block from the proposed development and has also repeatedly run for the presidency of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, voiced opposition as well.
“How long will the Planning Commission, with little tiny changes, keep on rubber stamping high-cost developments that are driving people out?” she asked the Commission.
Others argued that housing in and of itself would ease displacement pressures, and welcomed the project with open arms.
“There’s no definition of luxury housing anywhere in the planning code. The reason housing is a luxury is because we haven’t built enough of it over the last 40 years,” said Corey Smith, representing the Housing Action Coalition.
Earlier concerns about the size of the building prompted the commission to direct Tillman to adjust the design to make it appear less imposing and massive. A new one submitted apparently assuaged those concerns, drawing little discussion.
Before approving the proposal’s required uses, Commissioners asked for measures to mitigate the impact of construction on the neighboring school and pledged to hold another hearing within two years to revoke the permissions if no progress is made on the site, to make sure that what was approved is actually constructed quickly.
60 units at 2750 19th St. at Bryant Street
The Planning Commission sent the proponents of 60 units of housing at 19th and Bryant streets back to neighbors and community groups to make promises of community benefits more concrete.
The property owners, along with the owners of the business currently in the building, the Fitzgerald Furniture Company, are proposing housing over a commercial ground floor where they plan to put an incubator for culinary businesses.
At neighbors’ behest, the owners also agreed to build the required affordable housing instead of paying a fee. They later agreed to add one more below-market-rate housing unit beyond what’s required, bringing the number to 11 units, representing 20 percent of the project.
At least two spaces on the building are intended to exhibit the work of local artists, likely through murals, though a specific artist has not yet been identified.
Several neighbors, members of the family that owns the property, and merchants associations have expressed support for the proposal, including a few who appeared at the hearing to implore the commission to approve it.
But, because no official agreement had been made between community groups who opposed the project and the developer, neither activists nor commissioners were convinced the setup was as sweet as it sounded.
“There’s no question that, with 80 percent luxury housing, that this is going to have a gentrifying impact,” said Scott Weaver, an attorney who volunteers for local activist groups like Calle 24 and United to Save the Mission. “We submit that conditions should be included that would blunt these impacts.”
“What is actually in writing is what’s going to happen,” said Peter Papadopoulos, part of the organized opposition to the project.
While the commission stopped short of actually making approval of the project contingent on a signed and sealed contract, they did seem to agree that more assurances needed to be made.
“There’s basically a missing step,” said Commissioner Kathrin Moore. “While [the proposals] do sound good, they represent it well, there is that leap of faith.”
“The project sponsor came with an entire packet of supposedly community benefits agreement[s] that were meant to have us feel better,” said Commissioner Myrna Melgar. “I don’t think it’s cooked. There are ways that you could make us feel better in presenting this package that would frankly convince me that you were making a good faith effort.”
With that, they voted 5-1 to delay a vote on the project until Jan. 25, 2018, instructing the project’s proponents to meet again with neighbors and activists to finalize details everyone could be happy with.