After several aggravating years and little progress, the aspirational developers of the so-called Monster in the Mission may be putting the ball in your court, city voters.
Late last year, after many moons of strife and harsh invective and dueling rallies and community mobilizations, a major development was erected on the 16th Street BART Plaza.
And there was much rejoicing. For it was a ping-pong table.
People do play. But it’s been raining something fierce of late. Perhaps a few men or women could take shelter beneath this sturdy table. This city is, after all, so lacking in places to stay.
Maximus Real Estate Partners — Rob Rosania, founder and “lead visionary” — would like to build housing on the plaza, an errant smash away from the ping pong table. Quite a lot of housing. But, after dropping some $42 million for this land, and investing years — and plenty more money — wrangling with any and all comers, the 1979 Mission St. project remains an ethereal watercolor.
You probably know this proposed development better by the nickname its opponents have saddled it with: The Monster in the Mission. Developing market-rate projects in the Mission is no easy feat, and other developers told us they passed on buying this land because they didn’t need the grief. Mission activists are fervent and well-organized. And they come up with good nicknames.
So it’s hard to build here. But not impossible. The “Monster in the Mission” was the first of the derisively named projects targeted by area activists; it predated the “Beast on Bryant,” the “Titanic Mess on South Van Ness,” and the “Baby Beast.” And yet, in the past several years, deals were struck to approve all of those projects (and with far south of 100 percent affordable housing, the zealous if not monomaniacal demand of 1979 Mission opponents).
And yet the grandfather of them all, “the Monster,” remains the imaginary second act to a ping pong table.
Earlier this month, hundreds of community activists — largely unpaid, mind you — chose to spend four hours or more in the cavernous auditorium at Mission High so they could have their two minutes to denounce the 1979 Mission project in front of the Planning Commission. The commissioners themselves expressed trepidation over Maximus’ latest proposal: Giving the city two parcels of land it does not own — and that the city doesn’t necessarily even want, because it has scant money to build housing now or in the foreseeable future.
So, it’s hard to claim much in the way of progress has been made in making housing a reality on the gritty 16th Street Plaza. And, along the way, Maximus has become a toxic entity, not just among strident neighborhood activists but with city elected officials and staffers — only the very people needed to shepherd through such a project.
Maximus’ handling of this development campaign brings to mind ski-jumper Vinko Bogataj wiping out in the opening montage of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, falling again and again in a concatenation of painful and dramatic missteps.
Barring some manner of tax incentive (or performance art), it’s hard to conceive of how development professionals could miscalculate so badly. And so consistently.
Let’s start at the top. Rosania — a flamboyant champagne collector out of New York who self-applies the nickname “Big Boy;” favors loud coats, scarves, unbuttoned dress shirts; and gallivants through the city with an unlit cigar the size of a fungo bat — is not a natural to do business here in the Mission. But that’s okay. If you surround yourself with the right people, you can get things done.
But that hasn’t happened. Maximus’ team pushing the 1979 Mission project draws heavily from big landlord advocates — a curious choice in the Mission. Notorious consultant Jack Davis has carved out a unique career as one of the most aggressive, shoot-the-hostage political strategists this city has ever seen. But, again, he has proven an interesting selection to get a building entitled in the Mission.
As such, in a city where every district supervisor sits as a lord of his or her fiefdom in terms of providing the thumbs-up for individual development projects, Maximus has seemingly gone out of its way to alienate and cajole a series of Mission District supervisors. And, for that matter, Mission residents: The developer’s ongoing tactic of describing the 16th and Mission neighborhood as a festering, crime-ridden shithole that could be cleaned up by market-rate development — i.e. newcomers with higher expectations and demands for a greater police presence — has not resonated with the people living here now.
But the biggest conflict point is likely the incorporation and bankrolling of “Mission for All,” a nonprofit subsidized by Maximus to push for the 16th and Mission development. City lobbying records indicate that Maximus has, to date, funneled nearly $850,000 into this entity, which handsomely pays consultants like Larry Del Carlo and Gene Royale up to $10,000 a month, and employs young Mission locals (to, among other tasks, flog this project).
The Mission, however, is not a neighborhood devoid of community nonprofits. In creating Mission For All, Maximus has, essentially, established its own community nonprofit — albeit an obeisant one.
Rather than work with the community, it has purchased its own ersatz community.
At a recent meeting, Supervisor Hillary Ronen claims Rob Rosania outlined the offer later ballyhooed as “historic” in a press release. Maximus would trade the city two plots of land to be used for perhaps 300 units of 100-percent affordable housing. In exchange, Maximus would be able to build its 86-percent-market-rate development at 16th and Mission.
Ronen described this as more of an “idea” than a proposal. But, she says, Rosania was very clear that if the city spurned this offer, Maximus would take its fight to the ballot (that the company was threatening a ballot battle if the city balked at its so-called last, best deal was known in development circles months ago).
Maximus, again, does not yet own the two parcels of land in question. So, that’s interesting. But even if it obtains them — and, certainly, it can — the city still wouldn’t be thrilled with this parlay.
Those parcels would likely lie fallow; high-level city officials note there’s hardly any money in the coffers right now to build affordable housing. The city spent it; perhaps you’ve noticed the four 100-percent affordable housing developments that have broken ground in the Mission, with three more approved.
Land costs aren’t the hurdle now. Construction costs are. Maximus’ offer might have worked for the city several years ago — when it had money in the bank, back before 800-odd affordable Mission District units were in the pipeline. In 2016, the city accepted an arguably less generous land-donation offer regarding the “Beast on Bryant,” with a lower ceiling of potential affordable units.
But that was then. And, notably, that was a deal cut with a developer who (eventually) opted to work within the system instead of waging war against it. Maximus, per a city official “has not created the space to have this kind of dialog.” Quite the opposite: “They have pissed off a ton of people. What incentive is there to do something special for them?”
As for that possible ballot measure, it’s the rare land-use item that passes without consensus. And, to put it mildly, there is no consensus here. “It would be crushed,” predicts a longtime San Francisco land-use professional. “It would be the rallying cry for everything that is wrong in San Francisco.”
In the meantime, everything that is wrong with this city continues, unabated, in the heart of the Mission: squalor, unaffordability, rapacity, scarcity, gaping disparities, desperation. But, on the plus side, at least it’ll stop raining soon.
Great ping pong weather.