Robert Tillman said he had no reason to gloat after winning a major victory to entitle his project. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

An intractable system meets an intransigent developer, and the result is lots of nothing and everybody lawyering up

F irst things first; here it is. Here’s the 137-page historical study of a laundromat, underwritten to the tune of $23,000 by Robert Tillman, who hopes to build an eight-story, 75-unit tower atop where the washers and dryers now churn at Mission and 25th.

And it turns out that, decades ago, several groups whose actions have helped shape the Mission did meet here, organize here, paint murals here — but the building was subsequently revamped and converted into a laundromat. So this structure is not historic.

It’s a laundromat.

“The historians did a wonderful job. I only wish they had a more worthy subject,” Tillman says. When they came to him and told him the study — which the city in February mandated he undertake — would cost twice as much as he’d counted on, he claims his response was magnanimous: “Eh. Historians gotta eat, too.”

But Tillman is less thrilled to be others’ meal ticket, especially after last week — when the Board of Supervisors, by an 11-0 vote, opted to indefinitely delay his project. The rationale: More work must be done to analyze the impact of potential future shadows across an adjacent school’s playgrounds, at hours they would be open to the public if that school was participating in the city’s nascent San Francisco Shared Schoolyard Project — which it is not.

It was, truly, an amazing meeting. A city official described howling with laughter as he took in the proceedings on an Internet feed, and likened the supes’ efforts to unearth a means to delay this project to a desperate man frantically poring through his couch cushions in search of elusive loose change.

Tillman, however, is not laughing. When he’s eventually presented with “findings” from the city — essentially the City Attorney’s legal justifications for asking him to do more work, and pay for it — he foresees a different outcome. “I’m just gonna sue them,” he says. “I’m not paying for any more studies. I’m done.”

T his is not the first time Tillman has threatened to unleash his lawyers. Throughout the development proceedings, he’s let it be known to all the formal and informal bodies that weigh in on construction in this city that he knows his rights and he’s got lawyers, plural, at the ready. That’s a big reason why the Planning Commission approved Tillman’s proposed project, despite its miserly affordability rate of 10.7 percent (eight of 75 units). “That sucks. That’s lame,” planning commissioner Rodney Fong said at the time. In the Mission now, Proposition C currently mandates 25 percent affordability.

But 10.7 percent was the minimum required under a juxtaposition of state and city law when Tillman got the ball rolling a few years back, and that’s all Tillman is willing to do. Don’t like it? “Then change the law,” he says.

The notion of making concessions to city and neighborhood interests — more affordable housing, for one — comes off as almost alien to Tillman. If he puts more affordable housing into his building, you see, it lowers the value of his project and he’ll be making less money.

“You can say I’m a bad guy for maximizing value on something I own so I can pass it to my kids,” he says. “But how about if you were made to sell your house for 50 percent of its value to some nonprofit?” Well, that depends on how rich I am and how much money the house is worth — and it also depends on the worthiness of the nonprofit; we all do plenty of things that aren’t conducive to our ultimate bottom line out of a motivation other than maximizing value.

When your humble narrator pointed out that Tillman’s land is worth about 20 to 25 times the value of a San Francisco house, he replied “It’s the same principle. I don’t know what your dad did, but mine was a postman. I worked my way through college. I spent my first year cleaning 32 bathrooms a week as a janitor. I went to Harvard and Stanford business school. I paid for it myself. My parents had no money. Everything I got, I earned. So I don’t make any apologies whatsoever for that.”

He does not. And, as such, even those in the city somewhat sympathetic to his plight make no apologies about not doing a damn thing to help him out. The city’s demand for a third shadow study “is ludicrous. The historic laundromat thing was also ludicrous. But I don’t feel the need to do anything about it,” says one city official. “I don’t want to take up this guy’s cause. Nobody does. Because he’s not willing to make any compromises and won’t make any changes and just clearly wants to sue the city.”

Robert Tillman, says another city official, “is not a developer. He is an ideologue doing a development.”

T here’s an instructional story in developer circles about one of the city’s biggest builders personally attending a community meeting discussing his proposed project — and getting absolutely raked over the coals. But, when asked about it later, in a more hospitable room (with better champagne on hand), the developer admitted “some of the best ideas I have for my projects come from those meetings.”

This city’s best and most respected developers “handle their own community outreach for a reason,” says a longtime city politico. “If you’re sophisticated, you go in with a bigger project than will be allowed and work with the neighborhood to pare it down to something everyone can live with. Most developers want to do more than one project in their life — and recognize that almost every project in San Francisco eventually gets approved.”

But Tillman doesn’t care. After he’s done with this project, the Sausalito resident says he’ll never build in this town again. “Why would anybody in their fucking right mind build in this city?” he asks. “I am a one-off.”

Tillman is behaving like a kamikaze, crashing himself into a system he feels is corrupt and, in the process, blowing up both it and the established players who’ve learned to navigate it. And he’s the perfect person to do so: His laundromat, he says, nets $8,000 a month, so he has no carrying costs. He’s a successful and independently wealthy man. He doesn’t live in this city and, with no aspirations to ever build again, he has no need to ingratiate himself to city officials or the Board of Supervisors (“The moderates say they’re pro-housing? The fuck they are! Even our incoming mayor!”) — or, especially, the community groups he likens to mafia shakedown artists. All of the tools the city has to cajole a rational developer who just wants to build a building, make a boatload of money, and then build more don’t work on Tillman.  So, he has had little interest in any concessions to greater affordability. He has no wish to reduce the asking price of his land to the level where the city could feasibly buy it — or even lease it — to house the indigent or formerly homeless.

And that’s why his sad saga really is the worst San Francisco can do. Tillman’s crusade has exposed, for all to see, the torpid and arbitrary process we go through to build things in this city (or not build them). He sees his situation as the “poster child” for those shouting to get politics out of development. He has a point. And yet, at the same time, Tillman’s own behavior — all of it scrupulously within the letter of the law — reveals the shortcomings of rigid, by-the-numbers system in which bottom-line driven developers have no impetus to offer the city and its neighborhoods more than the bare minimum requirements, and fire off legal threats when confronted with any pushback.

The sheer ridiculousness of the city process bogging down this project has won Tillman the support of legions of keyboard warriors. But how useful is it to revamp the system so as to expediently drop more buildings into the gentrifying Mission with 89.3 percent of the units commanding luxury prices?   

Tillman may yet crash his plane onto the deck of this city’s bureaucratic process in his mission to immolate the system. Or maybe, just maybe, his property might be scooped up by Joe Toboni, a respected city developer who grew up in the Mission and knows how to play ball in this city. A potential deal is in the works, should the property ever be entitled. Toboni avoids specifics, because there are so many moving pieces to keep in mind — but, again, he knows how to play ball: “We have an interest in the property and we have an interest in doing what’s right for the neighborhood. That’s for sure.”

That’s all the neighborhood wants to hear. So Toboni says it again: “We are very interested in taking over the property, so we can do the right thing for the neighborhood.”

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. The core issue here, as in most cites and indeed all cities with rent control, is that for a century or more politicians of almost all stripes have worshiped at the altar of Central Planning. And Central Planning does not work if you allow petty matters of property rights to interfere.

    Of course Central Planning flat out doesn’t work ANYWAY. As even a casual examination of its history (and its graveyards) demonstrates.

    You can muddle along, for a decent while, with some common sense constraints like building codes and so forth. But eventually you get a,political clique det rmined to bring about THEIR ‘vision’ with other people’s money, and to hell with property rights and actually having a consistent body of law and precident that allows people to feel secure enough to plan for the future. This is what plagues most of the world; kleptocracies that have ower totake everything you thought you owned away from you at a moment’s notice. It is why vast areas of the Amazon basin are used with little thought for the future; the people who have the rights to the land NOW have no real expectation that they will still have those rights in twenty years,msomthey need to get their money this very moment.

    I have never lived in San Fran, but I have loving memories of it, and of other places that struggle with this miasma of Progressive Social Justice buttinskiism from visits and from reading history. Maybe someday the voters will decide they don’t wish to live in a self-rightious kleptocracy, but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Just a clarifier on developer margins. When a developer says “5-5.5%,” that’s not the same as a grocery store making 5% margins. You might think oh so he makes $5 profit for every $100 he spends. That’s an intuitive way of thinking about it and not incorrect but not right in this situation. The 5% margin is of building value, which includes debt. So a 75 unit building where each unit is worth $1m for easy math is worth $75m and the 5% profit is $3.75m. Lawyers and time aren’t so costly in that context, especially if he is covering his cost. He might have to share that profit with investors (who are typically a demanding bunch) but in that case they probably also pick up most of the bills.

    The market could easily wipe out that profit margin. Or triple it. (Such is the impact on leverage of equity returns). It is a risky business that requires skill, patience, and capital.

    But it is not “low margin”. And if it were, nobody would do it. It is high risk, high return.

    The way to reduce the amount we as a society need to pay developers to put up buildings is to make the process predictable, transparent, and fair. If it’s hard, risky, and opaque, you’ll only get serious people to allocate the necessary capital if they stand to make a lot.

  3. Not sure why people are so against tall buildings. San Francisco is a city… with a housing crisis… partially due to the ridiculously low high limits in most of the city. We need taller buildings.

  4. Well, now I have a lot to think about regarding my positions on things in my neighborhood. As usual, nothing is simple.

    Because I care about fairness, I am generally a fan of local neighborhood influence over decisions. This helps me appreciate Calle 24 positions on deceloment, to the degree I understand those positions. On the other hand, am I correct that fairness dictates that the city follows its own laws, because it is in a contractual relationship with people who buy property just like with everyone else? Fairness well may be more nuanced than this, and I would like to perfect my understanding of it further, a project I always hope will have some practical use.

    At any rate, no matter where I end up standing on the matter of this new construction, I appreciate that there is a civil and serious conversation occurring. At least as far as I know, and at least for now.

    1. Catherine, My project was approved by the Planning Commission on November 30, 2018. All of the political issues regarding the effects of my project on the Mission were addressed in this Planning Commission Hearing. Legally, the ONLY thing that the Board of Supervisors were doing in the CEQA Appeal Hearing was determining whether the projected complied with CEQA. Whatever the feelings of the Supervisors regarding the project, they were legally required to make a decision based on CEQA issues only. Instead they “made up” a CEQA effect that legally is not a CEQA effect. They might have just as readily blocked my project on the basis that I am cranky, old and ugly, all of which are true, but none of which are legally CEQA effects. The Board of Supervisors perverted the legal process by making a decision NOT based substantial evidence in the administrative record, as is required by CEQA. In short, they acted unlawfully.

      My only recourse is asking a judge to force the Board of Supervisors to follow the law. The process is called a writ of mandamus (or writ of mandate). See: Unlike a normal lawsuit there is no jury, no discovery, no depositions, no witnesses, no experts, and no evidence permitted except what is already in the administrative record. It requires about six months to get to trial. Such a trial, which consists of a lawyer on each side presenting to a Superior Court judge, typically requires about half a day. The judge then renders a decision within 60 days.

      1. Are you allowed to sue the city (at least to recover your legal costs and lost time/profit) for the malicious, illegal and irresponsible actions of the Board of Supervisors should you prevail?

        Thank you for standing strong against this dishonest and corrupt Board of Supercisors.

        1. Yes, per the State Density Bonus Law, Mr. Tillman can (all will) recover all legal costs — which, of course, we — the taxpayers — are on the hook for due to the illegal/unethical behavior of the BOS — especially Supervisor Ronen.

  5. Thank you for trying here. I hope you manage to get some new homes built in the Mission. The city desperately needs them.

    (Do MEDA and Calle 24 understand that if the rich techies don’t live in new market-rate apartments, they’ll live where the current residents of the Mission are living? I worry that they don’t understand that.)

    More than that, thank you for shining a light on the horrifically venal underbelly of city planning. Anyone trying to appease these shakedown artists, these tinpot dictators, would keep it quiet so they wouldn’t be frozen out. But you’re speaking openly about ijust how ridiculous this is. Please keep it up.

  6. The absolute gall of Mr. Tillman insisting that we are a nation of laws and should not be subject to the arbitrary caprice of ideologues, politicians and their operatives!

  7. In order to sue, I must “exhaust administrative remedies”, i.e. run through completely San Francisco’s project approval process. If I do not, any lawsuit will be immediately dismissed. The last step for me to exhaust administrative remedies is for the Board of Supervisors to adopt “findings”, i.e. a legal reason or reasons based on substantial evidence in the administrative record to support blocking the project. Once they do so, which should be in a few weeks, I can sue immediately.

    Here what the Planning Department placed in the record regarding shadow generated by my project. What follows was reviewed and approved by the City Attorney. In particular, read the conclusion. The City Attorney will need somehow to contradict this material based on what is already in the record:

    Shadow (from February 5, 2018 Planning Department Letter)
    The Appellant contends that the Eastern Neighborhoods Area Plan PEIR analysis cannot be relied upon to support the exemption with respect to impacts related to shadow, yet again fails to provide any evidence of such claims. The PEIR determined shadow impacts to be significant and unavoidable because it could not determine the feasibility of complete mitigation for potential new shadow impacts of unknown proposals. The CPE Initial Study page 31 describes the project-specific preliminary shadow fan analysis that was prepared for the Project and states that the Project would not cast shadows on any neighborhood parks or outdoor public recreational facilities, and correctly determines that the Project would not result in significant shadow impacts that were not identified in the Eastern Neighborhoods PEIR. The Appeal Letter does not provide any evidence that the project would result in new or
    substantially more severe shadow impacts than were identified in the Eastern Neighborhoods PEIR.

    SHADOW (From June 11, 2018 Planning Department Supplemental Response)
    Although not required by CEQA, in San Francisco the environmental review of projects includes an analysis of whether new shadow from a proposed project would affect the use and enjoyment of parks or open spaces that are publically accessible.

    There are 143 public schools and approximately 110 private schools in San Francisco. In general, schoolyards are not considered to be publically accessible, as they are only accessible to the students, faculty, and staff associated with the school. As such, shadow on schoolyards is typically not evaluated as part of CEQA review in San Francisco. However, over 40 public schools citywide are currently enrolled in the San Francisco Shared Schoolyard Project. Information on the Shared Schoolyard Project may be found at Only schoolyards that are enrolled in the Shared Schoolyard Project are considered to be publically accessible, and participating schoolyards are included as public open spaces within the shadow analysis for CEQA review. The Zaida T. Rodriguez School located next to the Project site is not a participating schoolyard; thus, shadow effects of the proposed project on the Zaida T. Rodriguez schoolyard are not considered environmental impacts under CEQA. This issue is further discussed in the Department’s February 5, 2018 appeal response (pages 28 and 29). Accordingly, the CPE initial study did not find any significant shadow impacts that are peculiar to the Project or Project site that were not previously disclosed in the Eastern Neighborhoods PEIR.

    Although shadow effects of the Project on non-publically accessible schoolyards are not considered environmental impacts under CEQA, the Project sponsor retained a shadow consultant to prepare a quantitative shadow analysis in accordance with the Department’s shadow analysis methodology that evaluates the shadow effects of the project on the two nearby schoolyards for informational purposes (RWDI, Shadow Analysis 2918 Mission Street, February 7, 2018 – included as Attachment G). The Zaida T. Rodriguez School is comprised of two campuses. The 2950 Mission Streetmain campus is located to the south of the Project site, and includes an approximately 4,500-square-foot schoolyard located on the western side of the building fronting Osage Alley. The 421 Bartlett Street annex is located across Osage Alley to the west of the Project site, with its approximately 2,000-square-foot schoolyard located on the eastern side of the building, also fronting Osage Alley, as shown in the figure below.

    The shadow analysis shows that the proposed Project would not cast any new shadows on the 2950 Mission Street campus schoolyard between 8:59 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. on any day of the year. Outside of these hours, morning and evening shadows would fall on the northeastern corner of the schoolyard area; however, this location is used for staff parking and storage and not as a play area. With respect to the 421 Bartlett Street annex, the proposed Project would cast new shadows on the schoolyard in the morning throughout the year. Shadows would range in duration from 143 minutes to 273 minutes and would not occur after 11:51 a.m. on any day of the year. The duration of shadow varies with the time of year. In general, the maximum area of shading occurs before 9 a.m., and by 11 a.m., one quarter of the schoolyard or less would be shadowed. Mature trees on the schoolyard currently shade portions of the schoolyard during the mornings.

    Development projects located in proximity to schools is not an unusual circumstance in San Francisco. As discussed above, shadow on schoolyards that are not publicly accessible open space is not an environmental impact under CEQA. Accordingly, environmental review of other development projects that shade schoolyards throughout the city have determined that such effects are not physical environmental impacts. Accordingly, the CPE initial study did not find any significant shadow impacts that are peculiar to the Project or Project site that were not previously disclosed in the Eastern Neighborhoods PEIR.


    As discussed in the CEQA Guidelines section (page 6) of the Department’s Appeal Response dated February 5, 2018, CEQA section 21083.3 and CEQA Guidelines section 15183 mandate that projects that are consistent with the development density established by existing zoning, community plan or general plan policies for which an EIR was certified, shall not require additional environmental review unless there are project-specific effects that are peculiar to the project or its site and that were not disclosed as significant effects in the prior EIR.

    CEQA Guidelines section 15064(f) provides that the determination of whether a project may have one or more significant effects shall be based on substantial evidence in the record of the lead agency. CEQA Guidelines 15604(f)(5) offers the following guidance: “Argument, speculation, unsubstantiated opinion or narrative, or evidence that is clearly inaccurate or erroneous, or evidence that is not credible, shall not constitute substantial evidence. Substantial evidence shall include facts, reasonable assumption predicated upon facts, and expert opinion supported by facts.”

    The Appellant has not provided substantial evidence to support a claim that the CPE fails to conform to the requirements of CEQA pursuant to CEQA section 21083.3 and CEQA Guidelines section 15183. The
    Planning Department conducted necessary studies and analyses necessary to make an informed decision about the environmental effects of the project, based on substantial evidence in the record, in accordance with the Planning Department’s CPE Initial Study and standard procedures, and pursuant to CEQA and the CEQA Guidelines. Therefore, the Planning Department respectfully recommends that the Board of Supervisors uphold the Department’s CPE and reject the appeal.

  8. Mr. Tillman, is it true that Supervisor Ronen called you a few hours before the Board of Supervisors meeting to try to get you to sell your property? If so, can you tell us about what happened there?

    1. The morning of the Tuesday Board of Supervisors hearing on my project I received a call from Hillary Ronen asking if I would sell my project for 100% affordable housing. As I have always said publicly since my first community meeting on January 6, 2016, I told her that I would do so, provided that I received fair market value for a fully entitled market rate project.

      Are not the CEQA impacts of a 100% affordable project exactly the same as a market rate project? Did not Calle 24, who is appealing my project, support the 100% affordable project at 1296 Shotwell, just a few blocks away from my project, when a CEQA appeal was filed against it? As is demonstrated by the actions of Hillary Ronen and Calle 24, there are no true environmental issues with my project, as such issues would magically disappear if my project were 100% affordable.

      CEQA is simply being used as a shake me down and force me to sell my project at below fair market value. As might have been said in an earlier era: “Nice little project you have there. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.” My experience of San Francisco over the 4 1/2 years that I have been working on my project is that it is a lawless city. San Francisco does not even follow its own laws, let alone state law.

      1. Wow. So the stories I’ve heard around the neighborhood are true. That sure sounds like extortion to me.

      2. Extortion is the way San Francisco operates. The senior owners and residents of 81 Frank Norris were threatened with $250 dollar a day fines, if they did not record a wholly new deed restriction on their units , that were not part of the original conditions of approval. That raised the qualifying age to occupy the building from age 55 to 62 and required primary residency. None of which were in the original conditions of approval years earlier.

      3. Wow… the rumors of Hillary on the side of MEDA and Calle 24 attempting to extort everybody are true. Hoping some news organization besides Mission Local can run with this. Unbelievable! I thought things would get better after Campos left but it seems like Ronen picked up on his bad habits.. Shame on you Hillary.

  9. My grandfather also worked as a janitor. I don’t know if he ever aspired to attend university, but he cleaned one here in SF for decades until he retired. My mom and aunt learned from him how to plant and grow a thriving fruitful garden. Understanding angles and duration of sunlight.

  10. The building is also not historical because no building is. Events are historical; buildings are historic. Perhaps a nit-picky point, but if you’re going to go to this much trouble…

  11. Why even bother to have a zoning map if the reality is that no one will be allowed to follow it? San Francisco needs more housing, not less. Things are too expensive as it is.

  12. 1. I am obeying every one of San Francisco’s laws regarding providing affordable units. Both Proposition C grandfathering and the incorporation of the State Density Bonus Law in City Code were passed by the existing Board of Supervisors. I do not think it unreasonable that a project strictly following San Francisco City Law is approved as is. If the Board of Supervisors wanted different laws to apply, then they should have passed those laws.

    2. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I believe in a government of laws rather than a government of men. San Francisco is a lawless city. It does not follow its own laws, let alone state laws. I am simply insisting that San Francisco follow its own laws. The key problem with housing development is that San Francisco treats its laws as a baseline for extracting more concessions, and every project is thus a separate negotation. There is no certainty or protection under the law. The Board of Supervisors loves this situation as it gives them the greatest possible power not limited by law.

    3. There are no other developers willing to take the path that I have taken because they know that, with all the complexity of the development approval process, they will be harassed and delayed endlessly on their next projects. Further, their business is to build projects, not to file lawsuits. They are not experienced in filing lawsuits, nor do they have the temperament to file lawsuits. They hate litigation and bad publicity, as do their Board Members, investors and debt financing sources. They are terrified about having their very thin profit margins destroyed by carrying costs, ever increasing construction costs, interest rate increases and market crashes.

    4. The fundamental flaw in housing law is that its only enforcement mechanism is a developer suing, which developers are highly unlikely to do. There are no state “housing police”. Thus, San Francisco can safely ignore state law and its own laws unless it runs into a complete outlier such as myself.

    5. I love this quote from the play A Man For All Seasons, and think that it makes my point:

    William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
    Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

    1. It is definitely old-fashioned to say “a government of men.” The highest political office in town will soon be held by a woman.

      What would you consider a “a very thin” profit margin for a developer? What do you consider a fair profit margin?

        1. I’m unable to open the link.

          Thanks for the estimated profit margins. You say developers are terrified of lawsuits, carrying costs, interest, etc…, but this is nothing new. If someone were to read your writing and knew nothing of SF, they would be led to think developers wouldn’t touch your property with a ten foot pole. Of course, quite the opposite is true.

          Your case is definitely interesting, a lot of which is due to your candor. I look forward to see how things unfold and do hope you keep us apprised.

    2. THANK YOU Robert Tillman for exposing the farce that is SF Housing Law.

      By the way, I recommend reading “Conspiracy” by Ryan Holiday if you haven’t already. This situation reminds of Gawker’s sense of entitlement and inevitability until they were finally brought to court for the first time. May your success open doors for future development in SF.

    3. Tillman, you’re a hero. Thank you so much for fighting this, and exposing the farce that San Francisco has become. The city needs more people like you — I wish you could find the strength to do this full time after this project was done. But then, like you said, who in their right mind would decide to do this?

    4. I love your principled stand. Completely agree that it’s a farce to have one set of laws passed, and then arbitrarily reject projects based on wanting different laws to apply. Thank you for sticking out your neck and being that outlier.

    5. Keep up the good work Mr. Tillman. All of San Francisco is rooting for you. I hope this story gets picked up by the Chronical and other news organizations.

  13. The neighborhood belongs to all of us, not just Erick Arguello or Hillary Ronen. We live here too. It’s our community too. It belongs to everyone. We need more housing for everyone. Tillman is right: Build it, and build it according to the requirements of the law.

    Shame on Hillary Ronen for prolonging this farce. She is an embarrassment.

    1. Glad Hillary isn’t the board of Supervisor President.. Her extortionist ways would permeate the rest of SF and beyond.

  14. From a legal perspective, is it possible to personally sue the members of the Board of Supervisors for financial compensation? If for no other reason than to send a message that their unlawful and cynical scheming with whatever “neighborhood” group they recruit political power from is unacceptable when used to deny legal rights to individuals?

    Or, more to the point, subpoena a federal grand jury to look into the longstanding and deeply ingrained practices of collusion between public officials in San Francisco and MEDA et al. I’m speaking of these groups using political clout to get the City to limit/delay/deny the lawful use of an asset (property, in this case) to such an extent that its market value is diminished, and then swoop in and buy the property at fire sale prices. It’s time to end this nonsense. Look at every piece of property MEDA has acquired recently, and follow the money. “Lovely laundromat you have here. Shame if something should happen to it…”. If this is not a shakedown…what is?

    Also, to Mr. Eskenazi (from one keyboard warrior to another), you throw the term “neighborhood” around very loosely for a trained journalist (“That’s all the neighborhood wants to hear”). There is no monolithic voice of the Mission. Yet you seem ready to grant such powers to the very vocal and politically connected antagonists highlighted in this article. If you wish to be taken seriously, you should be more objective in your writing.

    1. Andy, I agree with your comments regarding MEDA. On a different point, I like Joe Eskenazi’s article a great deal. I do not agree with everything in it, and would not expect to do so, but I think that it is very well written. I particularly liked the title. I have just now submitted a few comments to clarify from my perspective certain points in the article.

    2. You can’t and shouldn’t be able to sue people for doing their job. You might disagree with their political decisions but the legal beef should be with The City, not the individual members of the BoS. No one would agree to be a public servant if every vote you made would make you personally liable. I don’t like the decision either, but this is not the way to change it.

      I don’t know about the corruption angle, swapping favors isn’t really illegal, is it the basics of politics. So long as no money changes hands, this doesn’t smell like corruption to me.

      1. One of the “jobs” of the City and its public officials’ is to both make and follow the law.

        In this case the City is clearly in violation of the law — specifically the Housing Accountability Act as well as the CA Density Bonus Law.

        The only available remedy under both laws, based upon the City’s illegal behavior is to sue them.

        Mr. Tillman is on the right side of a considerable amount of case law regarding both of these statutes and will win his case and the City (i.e. the taxpayers) will be liable for his considerable legal fees and other other damages available to him via these laws.

        The City is behaving despicably.

      2. I agree completely. Government officials generally should not be sued personally, however much we disagree with their decisions. There are clear procedures to remove a government official who misbehaves, and we should follow those procedures. It is up to the voters and to other elected officials to remove officials who misbehave through such procedures as impeachment, if the voters desire their removal. I intend to sue the San Francisco government, not the individual officials. In general, I believe that we should ere on the side of providing government officials with discretion to make their decisions in good faith. I do not think that Supervisor Ronen has yet crossed the ethical line, although she has come very close. I do believe the Planning Commissioner Melgar crossed the line ethically in using her personal influence with Planning Director John Rahaim to force the Planning Department to evaluate my site as an historical resource after she had sat in judgement in a quasi-judicial capacity on my project. I deliberately chose not to file an ethics complaint against Planning Commissioner Melgar as I did not wish to make her a martyr.

  15. Hey Joe. Why is it you don’t name the city officials and city politicos that you are quoting? It happens repeatedly in this piece .. I don’t understand.

    1. Rosh — 

      Thanks, as ever, for reading.

      In an ideal world, you’d quote everyone by name, all the time. But this is not an ideal world, and the city officials most in the know about the inner workings of government are often unable to speak for attribution. I’ve spent 20-plus years covering San Francisco, and, as such, have aimed to become a trusted source of news. As such, I hope people reading know that I’m talking to knowledgeable and consequential people. There is always the danger of folks settling scores and whatnot behind the veil of anonymity, but I am hoping my experience prevents that from happening. The goal is for you, the reader, to know as much as possible about not just what’s happening but why it’s happening.



      1. Thanks for the explanation Joe. You are good about that and it is much appreciated. I especially liked when you recently outlined the parameters of a “reported column.”

        You’re a great investigative journalist, columnist, and wordsmith. MissionLocal is fortunate to have you.


        Ps. I’ve got a couple ideas for stories if you’re interested.

        1. You are very kind. You can always reach me at joe.eskenazi at missionlocal dot com

          Thank you!

  16. Fair market pricing , are not “luxury” prices, they are just the true reality. The real luxury is getting other people to pay for your very scare (hundreds of people apply for every unit) lottery won, subsidized home. That is unreality. Do the “right” thing for who’s neighborhood? It’s not exactly a conflict free area…..

    1. “fair market pricing” is whatever reality we regulate, and there is zero sarcasm in that statement. Repeal Costa Hawkins, rent control everywhere, now.

      1. I know it’s impossible to imagine a place where you could afford market housing, but there are lots and lots of places all over the country where middle-class people don’t have to apply to lotteries or score a subsidy; they can just… rent an apartment. Because their neighbors didn’t try to freeze them out.

        Price controls lead to shortages, and we already have plenty of those. You can have cheap apartments for a few lottery winners, or enough housing for all who need it. I can’t understand why anyone would hate tall buildings so much that they’d prefer the former to the latter.

        1. If you would like to buy a new 2,500 square foot, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, house in a gated community 7 miles outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico on a 1.5 acre lot with mountain views, I know a developer who will sell you one for $399,000.

  17. “We are opposing this project as is,” said Erick Arguello, a member of the merchants’ association Calle 24. “It’s not meeting any of the needs of this neighborhood. We need this to be 100 percent affordable housing.”

    It really looks like the community activists are demanding that developers donate 100% of the cost of land, 100% of construction costs and their time and labor to low income people. This does not really seem like a reasonable stance to take. This is what Erick (at the least) demands as “doing the right thing for the neighborhood.”

    1. “It really looks like the community activists are demanding that developers donate 100% of the cost of land”

      Affordable doesn’t mean free and no one is forcing Tillman to build ‘luxury’ apartments that is a choice he made to maximize his investment. Tillman would suffer a lower profit margin but that is not the same as donating the building and its construction. Calle 24 wants a Mission which middle and lower-class families can afford which is a very reasonable stance to take. It only become unreasonable when you willfully distort what they said.

      Regardless of what Calle 24 wants, they are not part of the decision making process only the community discussion.

        1. There is a reason why they call 100% affordable developers non-profit. They are also entirely dependent on government subsidies, so they are substantially worse than non-profit, as they could not develop at all without such subsidies.

        2. His profit would be zero as so-called “affordable housing” is more expensive to produce than market-rate housing and requires massive subsidies

      1. Residents can demand that, but I suspect it wouldn’t be worth Tillman’s time and risk to build 100% affordable housing. He can choose NOT to build at all, keep the laundry as-is and collect his profits over time. In this case, there is 0% affordable housing and the residents are no better off.

  18. Thanks for this well-written article – always enjoy reading Joe”s work. Fingers crossed that Tillman lands his plane where it will do its best to shine a light on the ridiculousness that is trying to build or remodel anything in SF.

    1. Agreed. Tillman is the perfect test case: a long-time business owner (so you can’t call him a carpetbagger) who wants to knock down something we definitely don’t need (a laundromat) to build something we do need (housing). But do we let him? Of course not.