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.”

Subscribe to Mission Local’s daily newsletter