This is the way the saga of Dennis Richards’ contested development project ends: Not with a bang, but with a whimper. 

The Board of Appeals last week unanimously voted to overturn the Department of Building Inspection’s attempts to rescind nine permits at the 22nd Street property being developed by Richards — a move the former planning commissioner has claimed to be retaliatory and a shakedown undertaken by a corrupt city agency. 

Absent the odd spouse walking into the shot, or a commissioner struggling with remote technology, the May 6 Board of Appeals virtual meeting was a quiet and perfunctory affair. 

The board unanimously granted Richards’ appeal, reinstating the nine permits nixed by the Department of Building Inspection at 3426-32 22nd St. Those reinstated permits will, likely within 30 to 60 days, be canceled and replaced by voluminous new master permits, which address and correct the myriad issues both the Department of Building Inspection and Planning Department had with this site. 

This was a markedly different affair than the Dec. 5 hearing, during which Richards pounded on the lectern, declared the building department “a cancer on this city,” and decried its action against him “out-of-control criminal activity.” 

The building department on Sept. 30 revoked the permits on the site co-owned by Richards and partner Rachel Swann. This is a rare and extreme step — as was the department’s decision to revoke the permits within hours of issuing Notices of Violation, rather than waiting the customary 30 days. 

Richards has, all along, claimed the move was undertaken as retaliation for his criticism as a Planning Commissioner of the building department’s enabling of a development at 3847-3849 18th St. in which two extra stories were constructed and 880 yards of soil were hauled off without necessary permitting. 

Dennis Richards

Commissioner Dennis Richards, who resigned from the Planning Commission on March 4. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Prior to the December Board of Appeals hearing, Mission Local asked Richards if he planned to sue the city of San Francisco. He replied “fuck, yeah,” and did so in February

In the past several months, this contentious matter has spiraled out of control for all parties involved. The Department of Building Inspection, accused of corruption by Richards, has come under intense scrutiny as a result of the FBI’s arrest and US Attorney’s charging of erstwhile Department of Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru — as well as the City Attorney’s subsequent investigation. 

Department of Building Inspection officials are alleged to have colluded with Nuru to aid Zhang Li, the Chinese billionaire developer of the 555 Fulton project — and, sources within the department say, the files for this building at one point disappeared off the DBI’s online resources for a week before subsequently reappearing. 

FBI agents on Feb. 5 visited the department to retrieve files related to this project. 

Meanwhile, longtime DBI head Tom Hui was in March suspended and subsequently resigned after files unearthed by the City Attorney indicated a pattern of misconduct and nepotism stretching back to at least 2011. DBI sources have told Mission Local that Hui “literally stood over people’s shoulders” to force out the controversial 555 Fulton Street project “sooner than it should’ve been done.” 

Richards, however, has faced blowback of his own. Mission Local on Nov. 27 revealed that he had bought out tenants residing in four units of the 22nd Street structure. Discussions with the former tenants and e-mails revealed that they had sought a buyout from whomever bought the property — but Richards also failed to expediently record the buyouts, a mistake he characterized as a mixup and an oversight. 

As a planning commissioner, Richards had chided landlords for this very offense. The commission’s foremost anti-gentrification voice buying out tenants, failing to record the transactions in a timely fashion and attempting to flip a house he’d purchased for $2.7 million for nearly three times that amount — elicited cries of hypocrisy. 

Richards’ progressive allies on the Board of Supervisors in December called for him to step down. He instead entered into a leave of absence before resigning in early March.  

None of the more scandalous details of this conflict much interested the Board of Appeals, however. In December they, in essence, instructed Richards to work things out with the Department of Building Inspection and Planning Department. And that pretty much happened. 

“We had some meetings where some good, positive information was exchanged. They got a new architect and generated a complete set of drawings that addressed the Department of Building Inspection’s Notices of Violation and Planning’s enforcement cases,” said acting chief building inspector Joe Duffy at last week’s meeting. 

“We’re in a lot better place than we were at the hearing in December.” The future master permits, Duffy continued, contain hundreds of pages of documents. 

By no means, however, has Richards expressed any contrition about his charges and subsequent lawsuit — a lawsuit that is still active and proceeding. 

“We are pleased the Board agreed to reinstate our permits and overturn DBI’s revocation. We always believed that action was out of line with standard practice and this allows us to get the project back on track,” said Richards via a statement.  

“We will continue to pursue our legal action against DBI given we believe the evidence shows that action was retaliatory in nature. The Board did not have the jurisdiction to make that finding, but a court of law will.”

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