Da Mayor Willie Brown stays in the center of things. Photo by Joe Eskenazi, May 2020

It was in The Princess Diaries, oddly enough, that our illustrious former mayor immortalized the line “It never comes down on Willie Brown.” 

True, this was ostensibly a quote about rain — and, in 2021, it’s not coming down on anyone in Northern California. But the allegory wasn’t missed then, and it’s certainly not missed now: Brown’s erstwhile protégés and good buddies face prison terms or are being dinged for their ethical lapses. But not Da Mayor: He remains this state’s most-investigated, least-indicted politician. After all: It never comes down on Willie Brown. 

So we’ve got the coming down thing covered. But what about going up? That’s the task facing Brown now.  

Blink and you’d miss it: The planning notices routinely mailed to interested citizens last week indicated a forthcoming hearing regarding a variance to build a 178-square-foot deck on a home in a comfortable enclave of Forest Hill.

This is the epitome of routine, as is the fervent opposition of nearby neighbors. What’s not routine is the applicant: Willie Brown. Yes, Willie Brown has been hired to argue a variance before the Zoning Administrator.  

For a deck. 

“Well,” explained property owner William O’Keeffe, “Willie and I are close friends, number one. And I couldn’t think of a better person to represent me.” 

Really? Hiring a former mayor and perennial assemblyman to argue a variance over a residential deck is the thing to do? And, while Brown is brilliant and an attorney, he’s not a land-use attorney. Bluntly, you tend to hire Brown to call people up. The government is seeded with people he put there. So he could call them up. 

But it’s unclear who, if anyone, Brown is calling regarding this case. Planning Director Rich Hillis who, once upon a time, worked under Brown in the Mayor’s office, said he hasn’t received any calls from Brown — not regarding this deck, at least. Neither has Corey Teague, the Zoning Administrator who’ll decide its fate.

Brown didn’t call us either, despite multiple messages on his office line and cell phone.  

O’Keeffe describes Brown’s advocacy on his behalf as a “favor,” but also confirms it’s not coming for free: He’s paying Brown’s normal rate, whatever that is. 

So, that’s all interesting. But it gets more interesting. 

“This has been going on for five years because my neighbor, Tony Hall, is fighting me,” continues O’Keeffe. This is accurate. O’Keeffe’s longtime neighbor is, indeed, former Supervisor Tony Hall. And he’s pissed. 

 “Tony thinks he’s a big wheel in this city. He’s always threatened me: ‘I’ll stop you. I know everyone in the building department.’”

O’Keeffe laughs, ruefully. “Let’s see if he can stop Willie Brown.” 

In a Sanborn map (above) dated between 1936 and 1950, the house presently occupied by O’Keeffe has a functionally identical footprint to the structure on its left, and extends far less than the building on the corner to its right. A Google Earth view from the present era reveals the house to extend far further than its neighbor to the left, and nearly as far as the corner home on the right. Construction has taken place, but there’s no permitting to show for it.

Yes, let’s see: “I am not allowing that deck back there,” Hall vows. “I don’t care if it’s Willie Brown or Gavin Newsom.” 

But the one to stop Willie Brown may not be Tony Hall but William O’Keeffe. That’s because Hall has produced no fewer than half a dozen signed affidavits from nearby residents swearing that the deck in question would, in fact, be affixed to a hulking, illegal three-story addition to O’Keeffe’s home erected in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

There are no permits on record, for this time or any time, corresponding with such a massive addition to the home. The permitting history here is, to put it mildly, rather weird. It also contains a 2016 Notice of Violation for illegal construction on site. 

But that situation was smoothed out because, once again: Enter Bernie Curran.

Here’s yet another instance of the disgraced former senior inspector, who is facing federal charges for allegedly taking bribes to sign off on shoddy projects, gallivanting about the city, apparently out of his assigned districts, and inspecting and signing off on projects. This is a clear contravention of the building department’s hierarchy and organizational policy, and yet it happened again and again and again, for years and years and years.

When asked about construction on his home, O’Keeffe said that everything was properly permitted. When pressed about the massive addition, he quickly grew testy and hung up the phone. 

To, again, put it mildly, O’Keeffe’s claim that the permitting for his home is on the up and up is rather weird. There was no shortage of construction here. There is a shortage of permits. 

“I was in a direct sight line to the construction that took place,” wrote neighbor Christopher Parenti in one of half a dozen affidavits collected by Hall during this ongoing planning battle. “During the years of 1997 to at least 2000, there were constant renovations and construction done to that property including a major addition to the rear yard … the new addition included at least three stories that were built into the back yard.” 

“During the years 1997 to about 2001, I witnessed extensive construction taking place,” wrote Martin Logue. “The multi-story additions constructed during that period of time to the rear of the house … were clearly visible.” 

“I was surprised that the City allowed such construction,” wrote neighbor Carl Wendorf, “as the resultant addition encompassed most of the backyard and was very visible…” 

Coincidentally or not, you all know who was mayor here between 1997 and 2001

The Assessor’s office, meanwhile, confirms that O’Keeffe bought this home in 1983; he resides there still. There is no permitting on record that even remotely resembles an addition of this magnitude. 

And construction has indubitably taken place: Glancing at the historic Sanborn Map dated between 1936 and 1950, O’Keeffe’s home and the one next to it occupy nearly identical footprints and are far shorter than the home to their right, on the corner. 

Glancing at a present-day Google Earth shot, O’Keefe’s home now dwarfs its neighbor to the left and extends only a shade less than the home to its right on the corner. 

People noticed. People complained. But, it seems, nothing was done. And, now, O’Keeffe is looking to put on a deck. Let’s see if they can stop Willie Brown. 

Da Mayor Willie Brown and Mayor London Breed share a moment at the traditional John’s Grill election day schmoozefest in 2018. When Brown asked Breed how she was doing, she replied “I’m feeling like a winner!” Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

How could this happen? Well, here are two words that begin to explain it: Bernie Curran. 

Is Curran the cause of every problem at the Department of Building Inspection? Sadly, no. Was he responsible for whatever happened at this site in the late ‘90s and early 2000s? There’s nothing on paper indicating it. 

Rather, Curran’s ubiquity when one begins researching dodgy building sites — and the many years he apparently operated in this city with carte blanche — renders him an all-too-fitting symbol of a broken department gone rogue. 

And he really is ubiquitous; this wasn’t supposed to be another Bernie Curran story, but, there he was, apparently going out of his districts in 2016 and 2017 to both inspect and sign off a project at O’Keeffe’s home. As Michael Corleone said in “Godfather III,” “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” 

Willie Brown appeared in that movie, too, incidentally. 

Curran, in fact, cleared up a Notice of Violation on this property. And he did it in an interesting way.  

In March, 2016, an inspector popped O’Keeffe for extensive work without permitting: “Constructed room at ground floor area of building (approximately 200 square feet in area),” reads the Notice of Violation. “Work was done without obtaining the appropriate permit. Work consists of plumbing, electrical and framing which was covered without inspection.” 

In December of that year and in February, 2017, Curran signed off on a correction permit, eventually, checking off on a final inspection. And here’s what that permit did: “Install new glass block in exterior walls, sliding glass window and powder roo (sic) to extg [existing] storage room.”

Blink and you’d miss it: The word “existing” is doing a lot of work here. While the violation was for building an illegal addition, the permit Curran signed merely deals with amenities in that addition, which is now described as “existing.” With a bit of semantic legerdemain, work done “without obtaining appropriate permit” — and, thereby “illegal” — is now “existing.” 

That’s a neat trick. Tony Hall may or may not know everyone in the building department — but perhaps it’s best just to know the right people. 

Tony Hall, seen here with his longtime band, the Hallmarks, in an old, old photo.

Is Willie Brown the best person to argue a variance over a residential deck? Possibly. Is he the flashiest? Without question. 

Had nearly anyone else been given this task, the scheduled Sept. 22 hearing regarding the deck would likely have come and gone without Hall being the wiser. As it was, the jarring notice of Da Mayor arguing for Da Deck was something people began asking questions about. Hall received a phone call in the midst of his vacation to Ireland: “They totally caught me off guard.” 

Instead of missing the hearing, Hall was able to deploy his hired representative Mike Antonini — yes, the former planning commissioner — to successfully request for a continuance to October. 

So, that’ll be something. A Planning Department source said not to bet heavily on the variance being granted; O’Keeffe hasn’t exactly demonstrated “hardship.” But, regardless of the outcome, Brown will get paid. 

After all, it never comes down on Willie Brown.  

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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. Thanks for your efforts to expose these under-the-radar efforts to expose those who will stop at nothing to have their way. What a mess the Building Dept has become. I recently was told by an architect that he knows many owners and their contractors who are simply proceeding without permits, because you simply cannot get them, anymore. It’s a totally broken system, further exasperated by the pandemic and lazy City employees. Anyway, I loved you article.

    1. “many owners and their contractors who are simply proceeding without permits”.
      My read: Conversions that would have never been permitted w/o knowing the Curran’s of the City. Not recommended, things can get quite uncomfortable when the City gets tipped off and feels like pressing the matter (see Allison Collins)

  2. DBI should be renamed the Department of Building Prevention – for those who don’t have Bernie or Willie in our back pockets.

  3. I think you’re kind of missing the point by focusing so much on Brown. The problem is that there is so much process involved in adding a deck to a house, and that it’s so complicated that people need to hire people to navigate all that process. And that any neighbor can slow down a simple permit by demanding even more process.

    1. MJ — 

      We’ve written before, a lot, about the dysfunctional nature of building and permitting in San Francisco and the opportunity this provides permit expediters. We’ve written a lot, in fact, about how permit expediters game the system by seeding the department with their people and ensuring their projects are handled — and yours aren’t.

      So we’ve written about that. With all due respect, when Willie L. Brown, Jr. is hired to argue a variance on a deck — even absent the salient details of what’s happened on this site — that’s a story.



  4. Joe you are doing such fantastic journalism. How you haven’t received a Pulitzer by now is beyond me, nor is why the chronicle isn’t syndicating more of your work. Keep it up and they’ll have to. Great job!

  5. Who was Bernie Curran’s direct supervisor during all these years of crime?!?

    Oh, that’d be: Patrick O’Riordan…

    The same fella London Breed claimed was “cleaning up a hot mess” at DBI.

  6. Is this taking place on September 23rd. The only Planning Commission hearing I see is listed on that date and I can’t find the item in question.

    1. Mel — 

      My understanding is that the item has been continued from Sept. 22 to Oct. 27.