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

Making good on his frequent threats to sue the city if delayed or denied in his quest to transform a laundromat at 2918 Mission St. into an eight-story, 75-unit tower, landowner Robert Tillman today took San Francisco to court — in an abuse-of-discretion claim he described as “a $17 million lawsuit.”

At issue was the Board of Supervisors’ June decision to delay the construction of his project, pending studies that would analyze potential shadows the tower could cast upon an adjacent school’s playground — at hours when the playground would be open if it was participating in the city’s nascent San Francisco Shared Schoolyard Project. Which it is not.

It was a surreal moment in public governance: A city official later likened the scene of the board scrambling to devise a means to delay Tillman’s project to a desperate man frantically digging through his couch cushions in search of loose change. This move came on the heels of Tillman being made to fund a 137-page, $23,000 study to determine if his laundromat was a historic resource (two-word synopsis: It isn’t).

“I’m just gonna sue them,” Tillman told Mission Local in June. “I’m not paying for any more studies. I’m done.”

Tillman, who is taking advantage of the since-altered city and state laws to push through a housing development composed of a scant 10.6 percent affordable units, accuses Supervisor Hillary Ronen of acting in cahoots with extortionist neighborhood activist groups — namely the Mission Economic Development Agency and Calle 24 — to thwart his agenda.

“In this case, a single Board member allied with special interest groups in the Mission district seeking to acquire the property at a below-market price, or otherwise to block it entirely, single-handedly killed the project after the Petitioner refused to sell the property to the activists at the discounted price demanded by those groups,” reads his suit. “Throughout the administrative process Supervisor Ronen maintained a close alliance with the project’s opponents, supporting those opponents’ effort to buy the property at a discount and attacking [Tillman’s] refusal to sell the property at less than its fair market value.”

The suit seeks to invalidate the board’s June action and its July ratification of that action.  Additionally, it seeks to preemptively bar the city from demanding a higher affordable-housing requirement for a future project in the event Tillman prevails, yet fails to meet a Dec. 7 deadline to obtain a site permit.

Tillman argues that a project’s shadows are not identified within the California Environmental Quality Act, “nor its Guidelines,” as “creating a potential environmental impact.” He claims the city is additionally failing to follow its own rules regarding shadows as set forth in the Eastern Neighborhoods plan.

In doing so, Tillman argues, Ronen has created a new precedent — not just for his potential project, but all future school-adjacent, would-be developments.

“Petitioner is informed and believes the Planning Department now requires all new projects to include nearby schoolyards in the CEQA shadow impacts analysis even if they are not now and may never be part of the Shared School Yards Program,” the suit contends. “Over 250 schools are located in the City, thus numerous pending and future housing projects in the City may now be blocked in contravention to the concerns of the State Legislature and the City’s former and current Mayors regarding the critical shortage of market rate and affordable housing.”

The complaint charges that the board essentially allowed Ronen to control this action. “Supervisor Ronen’s admitted prejudice against the Project, combined with the Board’s supervisorial prerogative pattern and practice, prevented Petitioner from receiving a fair hearing. … At all relevant times, Supervisor Ronen’s intent has been to defeat the Project by creating unreasonable delays.”

Tillman’s suit lists 11 separate causes of action. A dollar figure is not stated in the “prayer for relief” or elsewhere. But, in an e-mail to Mission Local, Tillman described his “$17 million lawsuit filed today.”

Messages left for the City Attorney’s office have not yet been returned. When informed of the lawsuit, Ronen replied, “What can I say? I look forward to the court deciding which is more important: a developer’s profits or children’s access to sun on a playground.”

Update, Tuesday Aug. 21, 10 a.m.: City Attorney spokesman John Cote writes: “We’ll review the lawsuit once we’ve been served with it. We’re not going to comment on the specifics of something we haven’t been served with. In all matters, including those involving environmental review, the City takes great care to ensure that the law is followed.”

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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 money source does exist. it’s rich folks like you with millions of dollars to burn to make yourselves more money. instead, we tax people like you, and use that money to build affordable public housing. landlords are parasitic, but your class has bought and paid for all the politicians we have a choice to vote for. is it any surprise mayor london breed was propped up by venture capital billionaires who expect to benefit handsomely from her conservative governance? the only “magical thinking” is hoping that people finally get wise to things like wages being stagnant since fucking 1972 despite productivity going up over 200%, to realize the people fucking them over and over and over are the rich people at the top who buy the politicians to make the rules that keep them rich.

    1. @Guillotine – If you “tax people like [Tilman]” to build affordable housing you wouldn’t get much in tax because at the same time you’re removing his source of income so there wouldn’t be anything to tax. “Progressives” have such an easy time spending other people’s money and such a hard time understanding basic economics. What you’re talking about is a place like Venezuela –

      It doesn’t work. Never has. Never will.

  2. guillotine and zRants, 7 of the units in my building are at 50% AMI (area median income) and one of the units is at 55% AMI, which is exactly as specified by both State law and San Francisco law (as passed by the Board of Supervisors in 2017). San Francisco can pass any laws that it wishes, including shutting down all market rate development. I am abiding 100% by current law that applies to my project. My lawsuit is primarily about the fact that San Francisco is lawless, neither following State law nor its own law. If you want San Francisco to allow only 100% affordable housing or shut down all market rate development, then elect politicians who will change the law, but do not complain to me. I have followed the current law in good faith and have spent almost 5 years and $1.2 million to do so. I simply expect that San Francisco do the same, other than passing a law and then doing the opposite.

    By definition, 100% affordable housing is housing that is built below cost, which means that it needs to be subsidized. If you want only 100% affordable housing in San Francisco, then you need to find a money source, which simply does not exist. Magical thinking does not house people.

  3. How do these comments by Tillman and YIMBY, in favor of building more housing to lower rents, effect the value of future rents on the new housing they they want to produce? Do they support repealing Costa Hawkins to preserve the affordable stock or do they have other ideas for maintaining the affordable units they want entitlements to build? At what point does YIMBY accept rent control as a viable solution to maintaining new property being built for and by YIMBY?

    1. Unilaterally repealing the statewide Costa Hawkins law without a well-considered statewide consistent/predictable plan of “phased-in” rent control expansion — if any — will result in a massive drop off in rental housing production.

      That would be a huge mistake that will massively exacerbate the housing crisis and push more and more people into poverty.

      The only sensible way to revise or repeal Costa Hawkins would be a “grand bargain” (for instance, one that institutes pro-housing-creation regulatory reform in concert with expanded renter protections) that is vigorously debated and implemented by the state legislature — not via the ham-fisted/blunt means of the proposition system.

      Prop 10 is exactly the opposite direction we should be heading regarding standardizing and strengthening our approach to housing creation throughout the state.

      It would be analogous to allowing every jurisdiction in California to have it’s own unique standard for automobile emissions.

      The passage of Prop 10 will create enormous uncertainty regarding rental housing creation; thereby resulting in a massive drop off in critically-needed rental housing development and an exacerbation of the housing crisis.

      Prop 10 represents a “cut-of-your-nose-to-spite-your-face” boneheaded approach to the housing shortage and skyrocketing housing prices.

      Prop 10 massively disincentivizes housing creation at the exact historical moment when we need to be massively encouraging its creation.

  4. fuck your luxury condos, fuck your loopholes to include as little affordable housing as possible. what the city needs is massive public housing development. in the beautiful city of Vienna 60% of residents live in public housing that is high quality, well-maintained, and cheaper than the private housing options (see: that’s the kind of bold thinking SF needs, not more handouts to the rich to line their pockets further.

    1. Those “loopholes” are what the law is. That’s like saying the 2 point conversion in Football is a loophole because everyone should just kick the extra point. Laws are rules to the busisness game just like rules of any game. Smart people figure out the rules and beat the dumb people. If you change the rules of chess, Bobby Fisher would still kick everyone’s ass because he would just learn the new rules.

      In addition; Italians making $50,000 or less pay more than double the taxes that Americans do. Are you proposing we more than double the taxes for middle and low income people to pay for housing?

      You are ignorant and dumb. Please don’t reproduce.

    2. “Loopholes” is how you look at all the applicable rules and regulations regarding housing development?
      And you’re criticizing Mr. Tillman for following them to the letter?
      And what are you personally doing to provide more housing and actually address the housing crisis? — other than swearing, that is.

    3. I think sending our homeless residents to Vienna is a bad idea. It might save money but I think it would be harder for them to find work due to the language issue

  5. Hillary Ronen somehow thinks that the issue is still in the political world. Rather, it is in a very limited legal world. One of the good things about this lawsuit is that it is a writ of mandate, which means that it will be decided solely on the evidence that is already in the record. There is no evidence in the record that supports Hillary’s position. No discovery, depositions, witnesses, experts, jury, etc. are allowed. It will simply be two lawyers arguing in front of a Superior Court judge, who will be asked to make a decision purely on the facts and on the law. The trial will occur in about 6 months, and the judge is required by law to render a decision within 60 days. Hillary is accustomed to making impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of her audience. There is no demagoging this lawsuit.

    1. Is it possible for the proceedings to be broadcast on public-access SFGovTV? That would be very educational and entertaining.

    2. How much money net do you stand to make from your current proposal? Cause I doubt you’re a champion of the working class, middle class, and lower middle class – the people who need affordable housing in San Francisco.

      Obviously your good with using the construction trades to build – but once it’s built what’s your profit net?

      I’m going to go out on a safe limb here and guess building affordable housing is not a labor of love for you and that this about maximizing personal profit for you, and that your clutching your pearls aghast in horror that people are tired greedy developers & would prefer developers who want an *livable/decent* profit from building affordable housing as opposed to more “market rate” maximized profit.

      How much money do you stand to make net from rent over say an 8 year period or sale post construction or mix of both? Are you embarrassed to say?

      1. So that’s the issue here — not the phony “shadow on playgrounds” reasoning upon which the project denial was ostensibly based?

        I think you need to collude a bit more with with Hillary Ronen and get your stories straight.

      2. So far I have spent $1.2 million cash and five years of my life working on this project. That time is far longer than it took the United States to win World War II. I expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more and another one to three years to reach a conclusion. I may win or I may lose. If I lose, I have lost that money and that time. What moral right do you, who have done nothing, risked nothing, who have absolutely no skin in the game, to comment on me profiting from that hard work and that risk? The very fact that I am forced by the actions of the Board of Supervisors to file a lawsuit is proof of the magnitude of that hard work and that risk.

      3. Hi there, is 2 million dollars profit too much? What about 10 million or $20,000? What exact amount of money would be ok in your eyes to make as a profit? What exact amount would be needed before you support this project?

        Do you have any idea what you are talking about?

        When you are the boss, you have to take a risk which is something most employees don’t get. If the business loses money, the boss gets screwed. It’s only when the business is profitable that bosses make money. Would you risk a year of salary to make three times that much? Or are you a giant pussy that would never take a risk and just prefer to bash anyone that is willing to put their money where their mouth is?

        Please answer the question about how much profit would it take for you to back this project. Or are you embarrassed to say?

  6. Hillary Ronen is clearly wrong to keep delaying this proposal. We need housing. He is following all of the steps to get it done.

  7. Planning application has listed fifty-five units and the building permit, seventy-five. Two story commercial and six residential? I’m confused. Seventy five micro apartments can be built for six million.

    Project Profile (PRJ) 2918 MISSION ST
    Project involves the demolition of the existing retail building and surface parking lot and the construction of a new residential/retail building. The proposed building is 64′ and six stories high. Approximately 18 parking spaces plus car share space. 13 Studios, 19 one bedrooms, 20 two bedrooms, 3-three bedrooms;
    Under Review
    2922 MISSION ST 94110

    Permit: 201612285987
    Form: 1 – New Construction
    Filed: 12/28/2016
    Address: 2918 MISSION ST
    Parcel: 6529/002
    Proposed: APARTMENTS
    Existing Units: 0
    Proposed Units: 75
    Status: TRIAGE
    Status Date: 12/28/2016 8:49:46 AM
    Cost: $15,000,000.00

  8. Hero. I can only hope to see that building constructed in time to have those new Mission residents vote Hillary Ronen out.

  9. Anyone who is anti-housing is anti-immigrant. You might as well be a trump-voting racist because the bottom line is that you feel entitled to live here, and don’t believe anyone else has the right. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  10. I hope you really kick some a$$, Mr. Tillman. The city’s process for approving projects like yours is totally messed up.

  11. Since the schoolyard is to the south of the laundromat, I assume the purpose of the shadow study is to evaluate potential problems in the event there are changes in the earth’s orbit. Or perhaps our supervisors have forgotten their basic geography.

  12. I’m glad Hillary is standing up for our children and our communities in San Francisco! Every industry needs boundaries and it seems like developers are seeing our most working class neighborhoods as their playgrounds. Balance people! We need balance.

    1. “standing up for our children and our communities” – can you please explain how stopping much needed extra housing is doing anything for my children and community? The shadow claim has been completely debunked. This is another political hit job that contributes to the high cost of housing. Without more units, prices will never come down. We need responsible development but creating artificial issues where none exist only harms the cause. And I have been living in San Francisco for 18yrs, so I am also a long-term resident, and plan to stay if we can afford it.

    2. Where will our children live?

      I know families in the mission where the kids can’t come back after college. They want to but can’t afford rent. The reason? Not enough housing.

      SF is eating it young, by ensuring that they will not be able to live here.

  13. …Ronen replied “What can I say? I look forward to the court deciding which is more important: a developer’s profits or children’s access to sun on a playground.”

    Hillary Ronen still doesn’t get it — she is a seriously tweaked and dangerous individual.

    This case is about the court deciding which is more important: a Supervisor’s ability to capriciously and maliciously violate the law or the rule of law itself.

    Hillary Ronen is unfit to serve as a public official.

  14. Mr. Tillman has a very good case.

    The City, specifically Supervisor Ronen, has clearly been violating not only our locals laws — and their equal application — but the overriding State laws as well.

    The whole sordid “process” has been a grotesque absurdity.

    I look forward to Mr. Tillman’s victory which will be a serious embarrassment to SF; costing the City a significant $ judgement for attempting to stop housing creation (during a housing shortage nonetheless!)

    This will be a victory for housing, the rule of law (and a significant addition to the case law of the State Density Bonus Law) and a severe beat down to the extortionist practices of groups such as MEDA and Calle 24.

    God Speed, Mr. Tillman!

  15. Good for you Robert.

    Progressives preventing progress is getting tired!

    If we’re going to live under an informal agreement that an individual supervisor makes the rules for their own district then they all must be prepared for the fallout associated with one persons decusions.

    You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

  16. Excellent, Robert. Looks like this is the tip of an iceberg with ten names other than Ronen, the BOS, and the City and County to follow as defendents and respondents. This is what modern, big-city corruption looks like. Put Ronen and the whole bunch under oath and penalty of perjury. Tie her and the whole bunch of them up in depositions. Maybe we’ll even see former officials named, hint,hint. Put them on the stand. Maybe some RICO statutes have been violated? With any luck the trail will lead straight to City Hall and erupt in scandal.. By the time this is over the City may well spend enough to have built who knows how many schools? This looks like a big deal. Read the lawsuit.

  17. “Ronen replied ‘What can I say?'”

    What, indeed? You’ve invited this lawsuit by trying to prevent younger people and newcomers to the city from having affordable places to live. Get out of the way and stop trying to block Bob Tillman and others from building already!

  18. Robert Tillman sound like an honorable citizen trying to play the game by the rules.
    Did some people in power want an unmarked envelope under the table or some laundered kickback via their cronies?

  19. Good for him! Not mentioned in this article is the fact that Hillary Ronen had the gall to personally phone Robert the morning of the vote asking him to sell to one of her crony organizations at a lower price so they could build their own project. When he said no, Hillary suddenly decided that the sun shortage in the Mission was more important than the housing shortage. This flagrant racketeering has to end and these Campos clones are jokes and need to get voted out.

      1. This is false, though it may also depend on what you mean by “wealthy.” Many of us know mid-career San Franciscans who earn very respectable salaries who have had to move out of town within the last few years because they couldn’t afford a place to live. There is most definitely a housing shortage, and it causes displacement among all but the most affluent and price-insensitive. This building is not for people who are that wealthy.

        This particular building (“tower” LOL) will provide housing for precisely the kinds of middle-class San Franciscans who are being forced out of town now, because they’re not poor enough to qualify for affordable housing and not “wealthy” enough to be able to buy or rent a single-family home. You may not care much about them, but these people are part of our community too, and they are not immune from displacement.

        1. It’s not just that. When there’s such a shortage, at all price levels, the “wealthy” are forced to buy down to the level that’s available and affordable for them. This displaces buyers at the levels below. People like Supervisor Ronen don’t understand that development is not just about “developer’s profits” but also about building homes for people to live in. Where does Supervisor Ronen live? What was the motivation for the builder of her home, whether single family, multi-family or otherwise? Wasn’t profit the reason that every home gets built?