On Wednesday, a pre-application meeting is planned regarding the fate of a proposed nine-story building at 2588 Mission St., the site where the original mixed-use building burned in 2015.
The blaze killed 38-year-old Mauricio Orellano and displaced the 60 low-income residents living there as well as dozens local businesses, including Mission Local.
The former building didn’t offer any official affordable housing, but owner Hawk Ling Lou, who owns multiple properties in the city, offered cheap rent to both his residential and commercial tenants. The trade-off was overcrowded and unsafe conditions, including fraudulent and unlicensed fire alarm installation by Tommy Jue, which officials think contributed to the blaze’s impact.
The recent planning supplemental document submitted by the architect said the former building was three stories with 17 residential units, including one two-bedroom, 10 one-bedrooms, and six studio apartments. “The property owner does not have information on the incomes of the persons previously occupying those units,” it states.
Its proposed replacement, according to the most recent planning applications, would be nine stories with a basement and three small retail spaces. This includes 148 units total, 28 of which will be affordable (19 percent). Twelve units would be reserved for extremely low-income residents, who make up to 50 percent of the area median income.
As they have in the past, community organizers are likely to weigh in on Wednesday and demand that the original tenants be allowed to return.
“We need 100 percent affordable in the Mission, and we must bring back those that lost their homes and businesses in the fire,” stated a recent community petition opposing the project. “This proposed development goes against planning’s efforts of creating race and social equity in planning and development.”
Some locals, including those who penned the petition, criticized Lou for declining to hand the site over to an affordable developer.
“Unfortunately, at the end of the day, greed seemed to prevail and a reasonable sales price the Community could afford was not reached,” wrote Sam Moss, the executive director of the nonprofit affordable housing developer Mission Housing, in an email to Mission Local.
The site has remained untouched for years. In the place of the former mixed-use structure is a vacant lot that floods in the rainy season; its only inhabitants appear to be noisy frogs enjoying the puddles. When Lou introduced plans in 2018 for a largely market-rate development, community members and cultural organizations began calling it “La Muerte de la Misión” — the death of the Mission.
But the case to mandate the former tenants return appears tenuous.
As Mission Local has previously reported, San Francisco rental law entitles tenants to return and pay their previous rent if their building burned and is repaired, but only if some vestige of the building remains. In July, 2018, a Department of Building Inspection spokesperson said a bit remained, but the department has yet to issue an “alteration” permit that makes it official.
If, however, the successor building is deemed “new construction” — which is the term used on the most recent planning document for 2588 Mission — tenants no longer have the right to return.
“In 2016, San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection ordered the Project Sponsor to demolish the remnants of the building pursuant to Emergency Order No. 107951-E,” the new project supplemental states.
A Planning Department spokesperson said that at the moment, however, the project sponsor has not filed a “new construction” permit. The Department of Building Inspection and the San Francisco Rent Board did not immediately respond to request for comment, though this article will be updated if and when they do so.
The phone number Lou listed for contact on the recent planning application is disconnected, and he hasn’t returned Mission Local’s emails. Ian Birchall, the architect of the project, declined to comment.
In 2019, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen and her aide, Amy Beinart, expressed interest in allowing tenants to return, if feasible. Only one tenant was accepting subsidies at the time, and the rest have since found permanent housing. Now that the project is underway, however, Beinart said the office can’t officially comment on it, in case it comes back to the Board of Supervisors for appeal.
“We would certainly expect any future development to abide by our laws with regard to the right to return,” Beinart said in a recent text to Mission Local.
Moss agreed, asserting the negligence of the building as reason for tenants to come back. “The prior building made a mockery of the term ‘deferred maintenance’ for years; critical safety improvements went ignored and a building-wide fire displacing dozens of low income San Franciscans was the result.”
A few of the commercial tenants, including Mission Local, have moved elsewhere. Mark Kaplan, a regional broker at Rockwell Properties, has since relocated to Mission and 21st (as has Mission Local) and he said he’s happy where he is; he calls Lou a “super nice” guy.
Still, he believes the low-income residents should be allowed to come back if they want to.
“There’s a lot of [proposed] units there, there’s a lot of money here. If there wasn’t a fire, they would be in a unit that was rent-controlled, and would not have to worry about their housing,” Kaplan said. “It would make sense, since the fire wasn’t their fault, that they should be restituted and to be allowed to live there.”