This rendering was as far as the 1979 Mission St. project — the so-called 'Monster in the Mission' — ever got.

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.

Mission For All t-shirt at City Hall ralley. Photo by Julian Mark

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.

Laura Guzman, director of homeless services with the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, in front of a “No Monster in the Mission” banner at City Hall on June 9, 2016. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

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.

 

Joe Eskenazi

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...

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22 Comments

  1. I would vote to approve a ballot measure to build the monster, and without those two extra parcels. Why? Because I know, like many/most of the City, that that section of the Mission is a crime ridden hole that would indeed benefit from new housing and development. Also, because we have a massive housing crisis and need to build more homes. As this article notes, the city is out of money for building affordable housing projects. So this site will not be 100% affordable, as the activists supposedly want. And if we can’t build an apartment building next to a subway stop in the middle of a city, then we are all just kidding ourselves.

    1. Seven 100% affordable housing construction projects on their way, and we still can’t build a complex to improve, beautify, and make safer the embarrassing 16th Street BART station. It blows my mind. Bring it to the ballot!

    1. Agreed.
      JE is a master at his craft.
      Honed by many years of covering the reality of this city.

      Best journalist/columnist in SF?

      1. Absolutely! I’ve enjoyed seeing JE’s craft evolve. When I first started reading him, he seemed to be trying to impress with big, fancy words. Now it’s all about research and well-written articles.

  2. San Francisco government just announced that since so little market rate housing is being built we’re running out of funds (paid by market rate housing developers) for affordable housing projects.

    So what market rate projects are we willing to let the developers build?

  3. The extortionists in the Mission, supported by their kickback receiving supervisor Ronen, get to keep an area that could support many families a drug-filled, crime den.

    Cool.

  4. Any developer looking to turn to the ballot box would do well to consider the humiliation resulting from Propositions B and C from November, 2013, as well as the candidacy of Sonja Trauss. The idea that enough money can produce victory for a repulsive cause has been disproven.

  5. Let democracy decide.
    These decisions need to be taken out of the self appointed rulers of the Mission and out of the hand wringing politicians.

  6. Under Campos’ watch, some 90 Mission luxury condo projects sailed through without a peep because developers paid the toll of privatizing public benefits into the coffers of the poverty nonprofits.

    Maximus, to their credit, has tried to blow through the toll booth. Their failing is that they are doing this with an absolutely atrocious project.

    Public benefits should be taken through the public process, not by private sector extortion.

    Given that the CoC has polled support for density around transit north of 2/3, that the poverty nonprofits have not won a contested election in decades where a wealthy white male was not cutting big campaign checks for them and their lack of ongoing mobilized grassroots organizing of residents citywide, i’d handicap a ballot measure for Maximus.

    Odds are they will consolidate their position behind the eight ball.

    1. Sub-comandante Marcos, I presume? The success of the ballot measure would depend 85% on the economy. If times are still good at the time of the election, this will fail cuz it’s butt ugly. But if the economy takes a dive (hint: impeachment) then it will pass. The monster rides on Donald’s back.

  7. “… four 100-percent affordable housing developments … have broken ground in the Mission, with three more approved…”

    Sounds like there is plenty of tax-payer subsidized housing already being built. If a city with an $11 billion dollar budget has already spent all of its available funds on affordable housing projects, that’s a good thing, right? That means a lot has been/is being built.

    And yes, anyone with two eyes and two nostrils who visits that plaza now will see that conditions are dire. Virtually nothing could make it worse…

  8. I’m curious why Joe doesn’t mention the community proposal. The problem with the Monster isn’t just Maximus’ Trump-like personality. The proposal is ugly and self serving. Everyone argues for more housing. Please build housing with a community orientation like they sometimes do in places like Paris, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. The Monster is a design for a bedroom non-community that flips its middle finger at history and good sense. We need denser housing. We need it all up and down the Bay. We need some broader co-ordination.

    1. Construction cost are going up and entitlement sales are going up. We have already seen astronomical rent increases and evictions in the vicinity. The goal of the developers is to jack up the land values and cleans the neighborhood. Voters need to know that.

  9. Truly absurd that a transit hub location with chain stores (Burger King and Walgreens) and no existing housing can not be developed for the good of over 300 households. Not to mention the affordable housing. Essentially anyone against this project is obstructing the development of affordable housing. How Liberal of our Supervisors to prevent affordable housing when the city has no money to build it. Our Supervisors are exacerbating a problem they all pledged to correct. Shameful.

    1. The Walgreens has been there since before Walgreens became a mega-chain.

      Joel and his team in the pharmacy provide para-medical advice on prescription medications to countless lower income and Spanish speaking Mission district residents.

      The Walgreens pharmacy at 1979 Mission is a real community resource that provides more services to more of the community than all of the poverty nonprofits combined.

      1. They are planning to allow the drug store to return, and have even offered to put them in a temporary space during construction. I agree that they are a significant asset to the (and part of) the community.

        1. I’d heard about the replacement pharmacy but not about a temporary pharmacy during construction. I won’t believe Maximus until it is in writing, signed and notarized.

    2. This project as proposed will DOUBLE the number of off-street parking spaces over a transit hub which, combined with generated TNC trips, will snarl the 14, 14R, 49, 22, 33 and 55 lines. This much parking disqualifies the project as Transit Oriented Development.

      The thesis of TOD, that housing near job sites or transit means that people will walk or take transit to work stands ignorant of the fact that people change jobs more frequently than they move and that most jobs are not proximate to transit.

  10. I agree that Maximus (btw, just a godawful name for a development company) has totally mismanaged the entitlement of their project.

    Long ago (like around 2016) they should have pivoted and utilized the State Density Bonus Law to override all the local nonsense and they would have had their 300 units built by now — and with a heck of a lot less wasted $’s.

    Either they’re getting horrible advice from their battery of expensive consultants or they’re just willfully incompetent — or perhaps both.

  11. One other point: There are many people dying to move to the Mission. I wouldn’t be so certain that this would fail at the ballot. The entire city gets to vote. That turns NIMBY on its head. Especially in a transit hub which is in disgusting condition where there are currently no housing units. No one gets displaced. Affordable and market rate units would be built (both onsite and offsite). So given that the “voting population” in San Francisco can be educated on the benefits and compare them to the impossibility (without government funding) of building 100% affordable housing. So we let it sit as is for another 10 years and let the housing crisis exacerbate. Not everyone in San Francisco is so detached from reality that they don’t understand why we are in this mess. It certainly isn’t because developers are begging to build more. It is uninformed, special interests being lead by someone who will do anything to get re-elected, including doing what is wrong for the greater population.

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