Digital rendering of the 2550 Irving project. Created by Pyatok in 2021.

On Wednesday night, the Board of Appeals struck down an environmental appeal that would have imposed extra requirements on the construction of a 90-unit affordable housing project in the Sunset in a 3-2 vote.

The 2550 Irving St. project is poised to replace the former Police Credit Union building with a 100-percent affordable, seven-story apartment complex. A demolition permit for the existing structure was issued last November, but the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association quickly appealed, claiming that toxins on the land were not adequately understood or mitigated.

The neighborhood group asked for additional testing on the site during and around demolition, for the carcinogen tetrachloroethylene, or PCE. Counsel for the developers, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, characterized this as a tactic to increase costs and delays to the project.

After a fractious meeting on Feb. 8 and a five-hour follow-up session today, the Board of Appeals sided with the development company, along with city and state officials, in believing that the site’s current data and mitigation measures are strong enough.

President Rick Swig, Vice President Jose Lopez, and Commissioner J.R. Eppler voted to deny the appeal. Commissioners Alex Lemberg and John Trasviña voted in favor.

“We are not obstructionists,” said Swig. “We want this housing project to go ahead, because we are in a housing emergency.”

But, Swig added, the board had a duty to protect public health as well. Before voting to deny the appeal, he asked the State Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has taken a lead role in monitoring the site, to work with the neighborhood and conduct additional tests to reassure residents.

One day after the Board of Appeals on Feb. 8 opted to hold a second meeting on the issue to hear more from state chemical mitigation experts, Mayor London Breed accused the board, composed of a majority of mayoral appointees, of delaying the construction of the project and of “obstructionism.”

The arguments for both the neighborhood group and the developers are laid out in a 934-page behemoth that the commissioners have been wrapping their heads around for weeks.

The appeal against the demolition permit claimed that the level of PCE contamination in the site soil was potentially dangerous and required further investigation. PCE is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “likely human carcinogen.” The toxin was found at the site and in surrounding blocks, probably due to historic laundry businesses. It is possible for this contamination to move inside buildings in a process called “vapor intrusion.”

But, while the developers and the neighborhood group agreed that there is some amount of PCE contamination in the area, that is more or less where their agreement ended.

David Grunat, a geologist and partner with the Path Forward environmental engineering firm, is the expert consultant for the developers. In his legal declaration, he said that the evidence indicates 2550 Irving is not a source of PCE, and that the levels so far found in the soil are not of a high enough concentration to be considered dangerous. He added that “the potential risks associated with PCE at the Project Site have been fully and adequately mitigated.”

Grunat supports using a “vapor intrusion mitigation system” to prevent potential contamination of the new buildings. This method essentially means building a barrier between the new units and the soil to keep out toxic vapors.

Whit Smith, a senior hazardous substances engineer from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, has worked on the Irving Street site and on similar sites in a 33-year career. He agreed that the contamination risk is low. He said that PCE in the concentrations found on the site were not uncommon and were not considered unsafe.

“I have a higher risk of getting cancer walking down the street,” said Smith. He said that the risk of the PCE at 2550 Irving was equivalent to 1 percent of the ambient risk of breathing outdoor air in California.

Whit Smith speaking to the Board of Appeals on February 22, 2023.

Smith added that the demolition would not stop his department from continuing to investigate the area, and would not add any additional risk to nearby residents.

Ryan Casey, an Environmental Health Engineer with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said that “the process is being followed, and we are confident that the public is being protected.” He added that the developers had voluntarily added measures to mitigate potentially contaminated dust from spreading through the neighborhood.

Representatives from the Department of Building Inspection and the Planning Department also supported the permit and advised rejecting the appeal.

Donald Moore, a geologist with over 30 years experience and the founder of Environmental Risk Solutions, Inc, backed up the neighborhood group. Moore is a Sunset resident and is working pro bono for the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association.

“Based on testing results to date, indoor air and soil vapor sampling conducted at homes adjacent and proximal to 2550 Irving St. indicate an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health,” said Moore in his legal declaration.

According to Moore, the PCE contamination at 2550 Irving is suitably serious that he recommends “soil vapor extraction.” Moore’s method would mean cleaning the soil to remove PCE. He said that Grunat’s suggested vapor intrusion mitigation system would only be a temporary solution; Grunat contended that extraction and cleaning was ineffective in areas with low concentrations of PCE.

Donald Moore speaking to the Board of Appeals on February 8, 2023.

One additional complication for the Board of Appeals was the need to balance their actions with state law SB-35. This law prevents city officials from taking actions that could “chill” the development of affordable housing.

“I do think that SB-35 ties our hands,” said Commissioner Jose Lopez, before voting to deny the appeal. He added that he had been satisfied with the responses from the State Department of Toxic Substances Control and city agencies about the safety of the site.

“What it boils down to, for me, is that there is no accountability to the neighborhood,” said Commissioner Alex Lemberg, who voted in favor of the appeal. They said that while they were satisfied that the residents of the new building would be safe, they were less convinced that the surrounding community would be unaffected.

The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation first staked out the spot at 2550 Irving in 2019. Some 22 of its 90 planned units will be dedicated to formerly homeless people, and 15 units will be reserved for veterans. A further 52 units will be aimed at families earning up to 60 percent of the local median income.

This appeal is not the first time the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association has moved to stop 2550 Irving from breaking ground. In December, 2021, it filed for a temporary injunction because of an alleged lack of community outreach around the project. In that suit, the group suggested an 80-unit, four-story development as a “compromise” between the developers’ plans and the neighbors’ desires. That suit was struck down, but has since seen several appeals.

On its website, the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association claims to have advocated for the community “for over 40 years.” It was first incorporated as a nonprofit in 2021, according to the California Secretary of State. Objections to 2550 Irving are the main focus of the group’s site.

The Board of Appeal’s decision comes at a time when there is a strong political incentive to build housing rapidly. San Francisco recently committed to boosting its housing stock by 82,000 new units over the next eight years, and the Sunset has not, historically, taken on its fair share. According to real estate news site The Real Deal, fewer than 20 affordable units were built in the neighborhood in the past decade.

Neither the developers nor the neighborhood association denied the need for more affordable housing in Wednesday’s meeting. But speaking on Feb. 8, a senior project manager for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, Jackson Rabinowitsh, said that the association’s request for additional testing was an attempt to delay construction.

“This is a bottomless pit, a request without boundaries,” said Rabinowitsh. He added that he believed that the developers and the various governmental agencies were already fulfilling all the testing that was required to understand the site.

Demolition is now likely to proceed next month.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. I dont think neighbors are opposed to new housing, both on Irving and on Stanyan, but we are opposed to the height, and density of 7 and 8 story buildings in our neighborhoods. They often become sources of negative behavior ( remember the pink palace- or any high rise redevelopment?) What is wrong with compromising with the neighbors proposals of 4 stories? In this city, it has become my way or the highway- and look at how that has worked out ( think MUNI, small business,housing,

  2. “On its website, the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association claims to have advocated for the community “for over 40 years.” It was first incorporated as a nonprofit in 2021, according to the California Secretary of State. Objections to 2550 Irving are the main focus of the group’s site.”

    They should just admit they do not want poor people living there already. Their lies are embarrassing.

  3. Why do we keep segregating “poor people” into their own 100% “affordable” developments?
    It probably costs more to build affordable housing relative to market rate if you factor in time value and all the baloney (see above article) that goes into it.
    The City has its hand in this enterprise so for sure the incompetency is muck deep resulting in years upon years to get even the most modest amount of affordable units built.
    Why doesn’t The City just buy a few units in each market rate housing development and rent/resell to those in need of affordable housing?

      1. ?
        The developer is seeking overall funding of nearly $166 million for this project.
        That works out to 1.84 million per unit.
        Well into “luxury” housing territory.
        You can buy a damn nice condo for 1.5 million market price.
        The whole thing seems utterly insane.
        What am I missing here?

  4. As a child of the Sunset, I truly value its built character, as much as I value the different characters of the different neighborhoods in our City. The Sunset has always had multi-family housing. I take issue with the statement “the Sunset has not, historically, taken on its fair share.” That’s Sunset-bashing, and it’s very in vogue, apparently.
    The Sunset has backyards (if houses are kept small), and a chance for affordability for couples/families who want to remodel and renovate. However, that’s all gone if those who want to continue overbuilding (commercial or residential) keep pushing their own perspective. I am glad this project is 100% affordable. I’d like to note that it is NOT a solution for homelessness and drug addiction, and we shouldn’t lump them together. SB 35 is a mistake for San Francisco; I can’t speak for the rest of the state, which is much different in land-use patterns. I hope we can continue civil and broad-minded conversations that attend to real environmental concerns, social problems and quality of life in our City. The situation is complicated, and build–build-build perspectives are too simple.

    1. “…and a chance for affordability for couples/families who want to remodel and renovate.”

      What couples and families are you talking about? Have you looked at the price of a fixer in the Sunset lately?

      The character of the Sunset is nowhere near what it used to be even 10 years ago, but especially 20-25 years ago. It is totally unaffordable, rent or own, allowing no new neighbors with any sort of diversity.

      1. Peggy is just babbling nonsense. People need a place to live. Totally cruel to allow our blue collar workers to commute 1-2 hours for their jobs at restaurants, grocers, etc. ok Peggy still missing the corner egg creme stand that only served whites.

        Also love seeing Ozzie talk a big game. She’s one of the most legendary NIMBYs in Noe Valley. Just Google her name and enjoy the absurdity.

        Agree 100% with Carlos. Segregation makes the issue worse. The evidence is clear.

  5. This reminds of what the Marine dwellers did to the affordable housing project that was proposed for Marinwood back in 2013. First, they came up with the real reason why they don’t want affordable housing in their backyard: poor people putting undue stress on their public school system! When that didn’t get much traction, they came up with the same bullshit about the PCE from a dry cleaning business previously on this site. At the end, they succeeded in blocking the project and sure enough, no affordable housing has been built in Marin ever since.

    I have a hard time believing the opposition because these are the same tactics that people use to safeguard against poor people moving next door. I am very much against more luxury housing and market-rate developments in the City but when it comes to 100% affordable housing developments, it’s our ethical duty to support them and this goes particularly for those of you who constantly piss and moan about the homeless.

    1. We must point out that to be 100% affordable means someone else subsidizes those in these building. This subidy is taxpayer money in one form or another and will either come from some basic service not get being provided OR taxes will be raised for everyone else. Affordable for whom? Certainly not the taxpayers as we have the highest tax rates in the nation. Is this another “first/best in the nation”?

  6. I live across the street. I am a fourth generation San Franciscan. There are already ordinances on the books to protect everyone’s Right To Light. This project directly affects neighbors who will now have no natural sunlight. This is against current law.

    1. How do you feel about the 70 year old, 9 story apartment building that’s been on your block for three generations?

  7. The “Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association” would not likely have made any objection if the space were designated for market rate housing.

    I have friends in that neighborhood — they are the first to claim equity, inclusion, and kindness, to put signs up in their windows, whatever, but when it comes to making changes in their own backyard, they will be the first to find any sort of reason why not.

  8. the “mid sunset” association hides its donors and who they really are

    why does some fake group no one heard of get to dictate policy? all these phony associations make it tough for real ones and they are usually a scam

    why does anyone listen to them?

  9. The legitimacy of the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association’s concerns should be taken with a grain of salt if they previously tried to tie up this housing over the lack of “community engagement.” They clearly came into this debate with a goal of blocking this housing from going up, the PCA concern smells like a politically effective scare tactic to accomplish that goal.

    And what of the safety concerns of blocking affordable housing? We know how dangerous and unhealthy it is to force people to live on the street; why does the appeal not consider that?

    1. I’m a 3rd generation Sunset resident who lives a few blocks away – and banks at the Police Credit Union. The credit union was secretive with members about the property being listed for sale. They did not reach out to us until the deal was done even though as members we own the property. We are entitled to the best monetary return on our investment and a lot think this was not it.
      Gordon Mar, who apparently was in on this from the start, said he reached out to the community and community orgs before giving it his blessing. The Sunset didn’t learn of this until it was a done deal. The organizations he consulted with were the one’s who relied on him for funding, ie Wah Mei, etc. They were basically told what their position should be. The Mid Sunset group headquarters is around the corner from 2550 Irving and found about it when the developer announced the plan. Note: I have every email Mar sent when he was in office and there is no mention of this project or request for input leading up to the announcement of the deal.
      Perhaps that sounds like community involvement to you but not to me.

  10. The issue here is that SB35 is so restrictive. It skirts normal requirements for environmental review and public process under CEQA unless the site is on a state database.

  11. Unless it was heavily modernized, the existing building on the site doesn’t really appear to be all that old, maybe from the ’80s (which was not exactly the stone age when it comes to toxic soil remediation). All this soil was probably dug up and remediated when it was built.