Earlier this year, a technician waving a device resembling a magic wand became preoccupied with Adam Michaels’ downstairs shower. “Woah!” Michaels recalls him exclaiming. “We got a hotspot here!”
This is never a good thing to hear about your shower.
And especially not on this day. The technician was from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and he was searching for vapor intrusions of the carcinogen tetrachloroethylene, a chemical commonly used by dry-cleaners which is, mercifully, better known as PCE. These vapors are odorless and, without a magic wand, undetectable. On this day, they registered at more than four times the acceptable threshold.
“It doesn’t look good for my home,” says Michaels, a 25-year teacher at Lowell High School who has lived in the Sunset with his middle-school teacher wife for two decades and raised two children in this house. “There are probably countless people who live near dry-cleaners and don’t realize what they’re breathing. At least we found out.”
Michaels lives a stone’s throw from 2550 Irving St., which is now a large patch of dirt and was formerly a police credit union — and, notably, was also in close proximity to not one, but two longstanding dry-cleaners. The parcel also once housed a former mortuary, and was formerly bookended by a pair of gas stations. Elevated levels of toxic PCE were detected on site at the police credit union in 2019. By March of that year, use of the second floor and eastern half of the first floor was cut off to employees.
In the not-too-distant future, this parcel is slated to be a seven-story, 90-unit, 100-percent affordable structure earmarked for families and the formerly homeless. The Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association, incorporated in 2021 to, it seems, specifically combat this project, has lost at every turn, including a second reversal before the Board of Appeals last week.
Attempts to alter or derail this project followed the predictable playbook used by neighborhood groups who do not wish to endure alterations to their neighborhood. The neighbors complained about its “out of scale” size or impact or aesthetics. They’ve also gone to court: The Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association has filed a suit against the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, claiming the future 2550 Irving developer didn’t do adequate outreach. This suit is ongoing.
Other, more strident neighbors — but not, its members claim, the Mid-Sunset group — have objected to the affordable nature of the project. This is more than a little unseemly: The posters that an anonymous person or group littered the neighborhood with in 2021 read “No Slums in the Sunset,” a less-than-subtle allusion to the income level of the future inhabitants at 2550 Irving. And their race.
So, that was the backdrop heading into last week’s Board of Appeals hearing, during which the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association objected to the state’s approach to dealing with PCE on this site. As such, “toxins!” was perceived by project proponents and city government officials as one more iteration of “wolf!” being cried by this group, following “out of scale!” and “not enough parking!” and “too darn tall!”
It warrants mentioning that, at this point, nobody was (overtly) attempting to derail — or even delay — the project. That ship has sailed. Regardless, the appellants lost, in what appears to be their final redress. This project, and any environmental remediation here, is out of their control.
That the project is moving forward is, on the whole, fantastic. But this process was not. Neighbors’ bad-faith or feckless arguments about “scale” and “impact” have jaundiced most everyone else regarding their legitimate concerns about neighborhood toxins. As such, everyone dug in their heels, and what would’ve been a natural concession became untenable — yes, this is about building much-needed housing, but it’s also about winning. “It would’ve been nice to not focus on all the other things, so we could focus on the toxic waste,” says District 4 supervisor Joel Engardio, who represents the neighborhood. “But that did not happen.”
It most definitely did not. And this is a shame, because “toxins!” is not just a strategic ploy for Adam Michaels and his neighbors. The process here has taken its course. Their issues remain.
Perhaps the most maddening takeaway from last week’s Board of Appeals hearing — itself a six-hour testament to the ritual nature of San Francisco public process — was that so much clarity could’ve been derived from a series of tests pegged at $20,000 and requiring perhaps a week’s work. When a project requires years of process and scores of millions of dollars, these sorts of numbers are negligible.
But these tests have not been undertaken.
We are doing our best to spare you the most mind-numbing details of government process and soil science, but this is a story laden with both. Here goes: Both the neighborhood association and the Board of Appeals thought an agreement was reached in February to undertake PCE testing in the footprint of a former dry-cleaning business at 2550 Irving, with the testing method being identical to the tests already performed across the street at the site of a second dry-cleaner. This would enable an apples-to-apples comparison of toxins (PCE-to-PCE, less appetizingly).
But this did not happen: The Department of Toxic Substances Control in fact, did different sorts of testing analyzing different sorts of things, which cost more than five times as much money.
Separate and apart from the science here, this is confusing, even for neighborhood residents and city officials staunchly in favor of this project. “You would think that the tests they did on two sites, on two different sides of the street, would be the same, so they’d have a true comparison,” said Engardio. Toxic Substances Control “is claiming it did all the testing, and everything is fine. But it does not match up to what the neighborhood asked for, or what a layperson might see as apples to apples.”
Engardio stresses that “it’s not my role to second-guess a state agency that’s in charge of keeping people safe.” But, if only to check off a box, “it is baffling to me they would not have done apples to apples tests just to take this argument off the table.”
Dan Grasmick, an engineer and environmental consultant speaking on behalf of the neighborhood association, went further. At last week’s meeting, he called the state’s tests “seriously flawed,” and said its testing regimen “appears to have been designed to not identify a primary source.”
Let us not step between dueling soil scientists. This is not an area most of us know from a hole in the ground — and the credentials for both the neighbors’ consultants and the state authorities are impeccable. Let’s focus instead on procedure, and basic human relations. If the same set of tests had been undertaken on both former dry-cleaner sites, and the results showed negligible PCE on-site at 2550 Irving, then any attempts by the neighbors to prevaricate and continue their objections would’ve revealed them to be bad-faith obstructionists, and their case would’ve been righteously swatted away, Bill Russell-like, by the Board of Appeals.
And if the apples-to-apples testing came back showing problematic levels of PCE, then wouldn’t it be nice to know? Wouldn’t that help inform what next steps to take on a site that the state continues to insist does not require environmental remediation?
Again, let us render unto soil scientists what is soil scientists’. But, for any human being who occasionally relates to other human beings, the argument “I didn’t do what you wanted, I did something else. And it cost waaaaaaay more money — and you should be grateful” is not a winner.
Our questions to a Toxic Substances Control spokeswoman, regarding why the agency chose to do things the way it did, was not answered by press time.
Looming over the entire Board of Appeals process like Banquo’s ghost was SB35, a Sen. Scott Wiener law that streamlines the construction of affordable housing and undercuts much local impediment-making of the sort San Francisco is famous for. It remains unclear if the appeals board could’ve legally returned any verdict other than approving the 2550 Irving development process, no matter what the arguments were.
It’s hard to inveigh against SB35, in either the abstract or the concrete. San Francisco (and other municipalities) set up land-use procedures like something out of “The Lady or the Tiger,” and the state has stepped in. The city had this coming. What’s depressing, however, is to see a query regarding toxic contamination handled via the familiar rote political script of partisans trading barbs in an endless public hearing.
Do citizens owe state authorities respect in matters such as these? Yes. But they do not owe them obeisance. The Department of Toxic Substances Control’s methodology, and continued insistence that no environmental remediation is called for, remain counter-intuitive and baffling — to the neighbors, to the neighbors’ hired subject-matter experts and, notably, to area residents and elected officials who fervently support this affordable development.
And, perhaps most of all, to Adam Michaels. After testing revealed high levels of PCE at his home, he says state officials told him there may be some manner of contaminant throwing off the results. Perhaps paint, or a gun-cleaning fluid. But he has no gun, and, to the best of his knowledge, nobody dumped any cans of paint down the shower.
Watching the hearings regarding 2550 Irving was troubling for Michaels and his wife. Neither of them missed the part where experts stated that PCE is most harmful for the elderly and the young — and they raised their children here. “It would be nice,” says Michaels with a sigh, “if someone said, ‘Let’s get rid of that stuff.’”
But that’s not the plan moving forward.
“I understand why the developer wouldn’t want to pay to clean up the entire neighborhood,” he says. That wouldn’t be fair. “I understand why the Department of Toxic Substances Control would protect them.”
“But I also thought they’d protect me.”
After a six-hour Board of Appeals hearing on Wednesday, an appeal to delay a 100-percent affordable housing project at 2550 Irving St. was denied. The project will now almost certainly go ahead. The decision split the board down the middle in a 2-2 vote. Commissioners Alex Lemberg and John Trasviña favored granting the site permit…
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…