Peskin calls for crackdown on Academy of Art’s real estate

Time appears to be running out for San Francisco’s Academy of Art after more than a decade of wrangling with city officials over real estate practices.

At least, that is the message sent Thursday by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who presided over a hearing on student housing during the board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee.

“I would greatly encourage you and urge you to consider issuing a new round of notices of violations,” Peskin said to the Planning Department’s zoning administrator Scott Sanchez. “This has gone on this many years because of political meddling and interference. I cannot underscore that enough. We all know it’s true. It’s our dirty little secret. It’s time for it to end.”

Peskin’s aim at the Academy of Art comes amid sustained criticism over the alleged lack of accountability for the for-profit school’s flouting of San Francisco’s planning and permit laws — even as they purchase additional buildings. The academy’s also been accused of dragging its feet over finalizing an environmental impact report triggered after violations were uncovered.

The academy’s real estate practices are blamed for gobbling up precious rent-controlled housing stock.

The other supervisors who sit on the committee with Peskin, Scott Wiener and Norman Yee, agreed with the need to bring the university into compliance with local laws.

A September 2015 memo to the Planning Commission said of 40 Academy of Art-owned sites 33 “have not obtained all the required City permits” and in some cases laws would need to be changed to legalize their uses.

Peskin said he was optimistic that the university would work in good faith to resolve the matter this year based on his conversations with the school’s retained attorney, Jim Brosnahan. But then he pointed to an Oct. 16, 2015, letter sent to the City Attorney’s Office and copied to the Planning Director John Rahaim from Elisa Stephens, president of the school, which she owns with her family.

In the letter, Stephens said she has “a strong objection to The City’s plan to examine the interiors of 22 Academy buildings” for the “stated purpose” of historic review related to the required environmental impact report.

“It will also add time and expense to a process that has already taken seven years and cost the Academy more than $5.2 million in environmental consultant fees alone,” she wrote.

In response, Deputy City Attorney Susan Cleveland-Knowles wrote, “The City objects to the reported and continuing obstruction and delay caused by the AAU in this instance and others.”

In December 2014, City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent a letter to director of the Planning Department John Rahaim complaining about the Planning Department’s lack of enforcement.

During the hearing Scott Sanchez, Planning Department zoning administrator, said penalties were levied against one of school’s properties, 460 Townsend St. Those penalties total more than $500,000.

As for the other properties, Sanchez said notices of violations are being used as leverage. “It has been frustrating,” Sanchez said. “We continue to use those notices of violation and penalty as leverage to ensure compliance with the goal of having the EIR hearing at the Planning Commission this spring.”

Peskin countered: “If you issue them and stay them I’m not sure how that gives you leverage.”

Peskin has vowed to hold additional hearings on the issue.

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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