The San Francisco Planning Commission aligned with the state Thursday and voted to advance two controversial housing projects, each of which had earlier been delayed or downsized by city officials.
The commission first greenlit a 495-unit development at 469 Stevenson St., the site of a Nordstrom parking lot and a project that had been delayed by the majority of the Board of Supervisors in a now-infamous vote.
That vote, in 2022, prompted the California Department of Housing and Community Development to investigate possible violations of a state law that requires municipalities to approve and build more housing throughout the state.
On Thursday, planning commissioners voted 4-2 to move it forward, with Commissioners Kathrin Moore and Theresa Imperial voting against. The Stevenson Street project, as passed, will have 73 units that will be affordable for low- and middle-income residents, and will be developed by Build SF. Just last week, Build SF abandoned a ready-to-go 40-story housing structure at One Oak, less than a mile away from Stevenson Street; developers withdrawing from fully entitled projects is becoming a growing trend, Moore said earlier in the morning.
The commission also approved a group-housing project in the Mission that was recently under state scrutiny, a six-story, 19-unit building at 3832 18th St. between Sanchez and Church streets. The decision reverses a 2021 commission vote that had lopped off one of the stories to appease neighbors’ shadow concerns — a move state officials deemed in direct violation of the state’s density bonus.
“It isn’t that this body wantonly decried or tried to defy state law,” said commission president Rachael Tanner at Thursday’s meeting, of the 18th Street project. “But as time changed … the understanding of how the law applied to this project changed.”
The state density bonus allows a project extra height or area if it provides a certain percentage of affordable housing. The group housing project, all ownership units, promises three below-market rate units, making it eligible for a bonus.
But neighbors hated the height, which dwarfs nearby homes. While it appeared Planning Commission members thought a five-story, 19-unit design a worthy workaround — to compensate for the two units originally planned for the sixth floor, the communal kitchen would be gone — state housing officials disagreed. It sent the city two letters in 2022 noting the only exceptions to the state density law are potential health or safety issues. Shadow concerns, an earlier point of disagreement for 18th Street neighbors, are not germane.
“Denial of the density bonus was not supported by those findings, nor could they be, because there are no public health and safety impacts associated with the project,” said Brian O’Neill, an attorney representing developer M-J Mission Dolores LLC at Thursday’s meeting.
Housing and Community Development agreed, and urged San Francisco to revive the original plan. The state’s August, 2022, letter was not subtle: “HCD has enforcement authority.”
It’s yet another example of how the state is doubling down on its recent ability to force localities to meet housing goals, using new legislation, like SB35 and SB828.
Still, the state admonition on 3832 18th St. didn’t deter neighbors who, even on Thursday, attempted to persuade commissioners to deny permit approvals. Ultimately, commissioners Moore and Imperial voted against the permits for that project.
Thursday marks the third time the group-housing plan came before the Planning Commission, and O’Neill alleged that neighbors were fruitlessly scrounging for another loophole to delay the project. In February, neighbors successfully appealed the removal of an avocado tree at the property, which a Public Works employee at the time opined was actually about the proposed housing project.
But on Thursday, the victory was the state’s. As O’Neill reminded commissioners, the state “directed the city to take immediate corrective action, or face further enforcement.” Commissioners chose the former in both cases.