At our Oct. 26 Board of Supervisors meeting, I thought we would be hearing a routine California Environmental Quality Act appeal in Supervisor Matt Haney’s district. As an attorney, I have always strictly adhered to that law during these appeals, refusing to allow them to be used to delay or kill projects unless there is a strong legal reason to do so. So when I reviewed the planned project at 469 Stevenson Street before the board meeting, I was certain the appeal would be denied.
The proposed project consisted of 495 units of housing on space Nordstrom had used for valet parking; 118 units were affordable, equaling 24 percent of the project. Currently occupying the parking lot are homeless tents. The project was also near a BART station and located within reach of thousands of potential jobs for residents. We all know building housing near transit makes obvious sense. Further, it included retail space, many community benefits, and would have created more than 1,000 union jobs at a time when more than 1,400 skilled workers are out of work.
But no — apparently not good enough. When the arguments against the project ensued after the hearing, I was somewhat perplexed. The reasons for granting the appeal (made by an affordable housing nonprofit) didn’t add up for me. I heard a variety of reasons, including gentrification, shadow impact, and vague seismic concerns. Apparently these concerns were not addressed adequately by the Planning Department in its 1,129 page environmental report. The Planning Commission also approved the project, and the parking lot was already zoned for housing and listed for residential development.
So when I saw the vote was going south for Supervisor Haney — a project he approved in his District 6 — I proudly seconded his motion to deny the appeal, stating that I don’t know how housing is ever going to be built in this city if we continue to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I also pointed out that the board said the week prior that we needed more family housing and this project had exactly that. The board voted 8–3 to grant the appeal, while I dissented, with Supervisors Haney and Safai.
This shocked not only me but many others, including the State of California, which is now investigating the issue and may bring a lawsuit against the city for improperly denying a zoning-compliant housing project. If the lawsuit is successful, the project will be approved, and the city could be on the hook for additional monetary penalties and damages.
We cannot continue to reject projects like this if we ever hope to address our city’s housing shortage. The cost of housing in San Francisco is among the highest of any U.S. city, and it’s too expensive for many. It’s become incredibly difficult to recruit teachers, nurses, and first responders to our city, because they cannot find a place to live, and we cannot have a thriving city if working people cannot afford to live here.
D2: DENSER THAN YOU THINK
These discussions always bring up what all 11 districts are doing with housing production. We know that production is low across the entire city, and current population density varies greatly among neighborhoods. People often wrongly assume that our D2 neighborhoods are sparsely populated. However, District 2, along with Districts, 6, 3, and 5 are among the densest in the city. About 85 percent of the households in District 2 are in multiunit buildings. Parcels in District 2 have, on average, about 3.6 units of housing on them.
The Marina, Pacific Heights, the Presidio, and Presidio Heights all have fewer single-family housing than the citywide average. This density makes it difficult to find new parcels for housing development, but when those parcels are available, we should make the most of them. Despite these challenges, I have supported multiple housing projects in District 2 that have done exactly that.
MY PROJECT ENTITLEMENTS
I have entitled more than 1,000 units of new housing in District 2 during my first term, which is more units than built in the district since 2010. The projects include 2800 Geary Street, 3333 California Street, 2670 Geary Street (the Lucky Penny site), and the former California Pacific Medical Center site on California Street. In addition to housing, these projects add new community-serving amenities, like public open space, ground floor retail, and child-care facilities. I successfully pushed the developer to increase the density of 3333 California Street by adding 186 units of affordable housing for seniors instead of the large-scale office space originally planned.
The Lucky Penny space is a prime example of how to make the most of a parcel. Originally zoned for only 21 units within the allowed height of 80 feet, I passed legislation to increase the density to allow for 101 units within the eight-story building envelope (which will be more affordable by design given the smaller size of the units). This project is located within a transit-rich corridor and around many amenities, fulfilling the desire for walkable, environmentally conscious neighborhoods. I also passed legislation to make certain the developer’s inclusionary housing fee of $4.5 million stays within a one and a half mile radius of the project instead of the larger citywide fund to help facilitate more affordable housing in District 2 — including more affordable senior housing.
Projects like these prove that we can find new ways to increase density and build housing in dense neighborhoods without compromising neighborhood character or placing vulnerable communities at risk.
The project on Stevenson Street, while beneficial, would not have solved the housing crisis alone, but it’s certainly a prime example of how we got into this mess. Since 2010, San Francisco has authorized only about half of the housing needed to meet current demand. Instead of finding fault with every housing proposal, city leaders need to take an active role in helping housing projects over the finish line. Whether it’s housing or other challenges like crime and homelessness, too often in San Francisco ideology trumps common-sense beneficial solutions — also known as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. On so many levels, San Francisco no longer has time for that.