‘Absurdity’: San Francisco leaders stall SOMA housing project to preserve parking lot

California state officials investigating whether SF Board of Supervisors acted improperly

In a shocking and possibly illegal act of public absurdity, eight members of the Board of Supervisors voted to stall the construction of 495 new housing units on the site of a parking lot in the South of Market neighborhood. They did this by supporting an appeal of the project’s environmental impact report, or EIR, last Tuesday.

Never mind that San Francisco needs fewer parking lots and more housing units — especially high-density apartment complexes located in walkable neighborhoods on public transit lines to mitigate the existential threat of global warming. No, get this: The project’s opponents used a process meant to protect the environment to halt a good, sustainable project that would add dozens of affordable units to the neighborhood.

“This single project would build more housing than many of the districts in our city have built in the last 10 years,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents SOMA and supported the project, in an interview.

Given San Francisco’s severe housing shortage, you’d think 27 stories of new apartments on a 28,790 square foot lot currently used to park cars might be a welcome addition. Nope. Opponents of the proposed apartment tower at 469 Stevenson threw everything but the kitchen sink at the project in their determined efforts to stop it.

In addition to replacing a parking lot with housing, the 469 Stevenson project by Build Inc. would include 73 below-market affordable units, 40% of which would be reserved for current residents of The City.

“The community benefits that come with this project include 4,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space dedicated to local nonprofits and community-serving retail,” Lou Vasquez, managing director of Build Inc., told supervisors. “Half of that will be leased to tenants for $1 a year, and the other half for $1 a foot, considerably below current market rates.”

In addition, Vasquez said the project would provide, $579,000 in funding for community programming, a parcel of land with the capacity for up to 20 additional affordable unit, an in-lieu fee “equivalent to 50 more additional units and funding for the arts, for homeless services and for local employment programs.

Unfortunately, the opposition — which blames private development and market-rate housing for evil gentrification and a host of other ills — didn’t care about these benefits.

During the Board of Supervisors hearing on Tuesday, the project’s opponents fretted about soil integrity and potential seismic danger.

They worried that the building’s shadow might affect the vibrancy of the sparsely-populated Mint Plaza.

They vaguely alleged that new housing for The City’s current residents might somehow diminish historic sites in the area.

They bemoaned the dreaded specter of gentrification, as if the site’s current use as a 176-space valet parking lot for Nordstrom’s shoppers provides any benefit for communities struggling with scarce housing options.

Most of the concerns had nothing to do with the environment, but that hardly matters. If you want to stop a project from going forward, abusing some aspect of the California Environmental Quality Act is usually the most effective way.

CEQA, signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970, requires local governments to take into account a project’s environmental impacts, usually via the EIR process. It has been used to block or delay bike lanes, homeless shelters, housing developments, university campuses and hospitals. It provides a choke point opponents can use to create significant delays, with pretend environmental concern providing a fig leaf for NIMBY obstructionism.

Usually, it takes a CEQA-based lawsuit to gum up progress. The opponents of 469 Stevenson, however, found an easier path. Their jumbled litany of complaints, disguised as an appeal of the EIR, won over a majority of supervisors. The board voted 8-3 against the project, overriding Haney’s support.

“I don’t think it prevents gentrification to keep a Nordstrom’s valet parking lot,” said Haney, noting that the project had many supporters in the community. “If people are concerned about gentrification, it would help if they would build housing in their districts. One of the main reasons we are building so much housing in SOMA is because other parts of the city aren’t creating housing.”

On Oct. 2, the supervisors unanimously rejected a project at 450 O’Farrell St., worried that the 316-microunit complex might become “dorms” for tech workers.

“This just does not sit well with me,” said Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who supported the 469 Stevenson project along with Haney and Supervisor Ahsha Safaí. “We just rejected a proposed project at O’Farrell because it wasn’t family housing, and this does add family housing to our stock. I just don’t understand how we’ll ever get housing built in this city if we continue to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Earlier this month, The City bungled a chance to convert a hotel in Japantown into permanent supportive housing for the homeless after the hotel owner withdrew in the face of NIMBY opposition. All of this seems like odd behavior in a city with 8,000 homeless people and some of the highest rents in the nation.

Fortunately, the board’s outrageous vote did not go unnoticed. Housing advocates unleashed fury on Twitter, pointing out the absurdity of the decision.

“The San Francisco Board of Supervisors used a law signed by Ronald Reagan to stall a union-backed apartment project on a Nordstrom’s parking lot, citing shadows and gentrification,” tweeted housing advocate Jordan Grimes. “This sentence is both entirely accurate and completely insane.”

“Geotechnical analysis is indeed required in CEQA,” tweeted Supervisor Myrna Melgar, justifying her vote against the project to critics who accused her of betraying a campaign pledge to support more housing.

The bizarre decision also got attention in Sacramento. On Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the California Department of Housing and Community Development is investigating whether the decision may have violated state laws. One of the laws in question? CEQA.

“We want to make sure this project, and projects across the state, get approved,” Gustavo Velasquez, state housing director, told the Chronicle’s J.K. Dineen. “Every time one of these cases comes up we are going to be diligent in acting if it’s within our jurisdiction.”

“If the state attorneys find that the vote violated state housing laws, the city would receive a warning letter,” wrote Dineen. “If the city still fails to approve the housing project, the state attorney general could file a lawsuit.”

It’s a sad day when you have to pray for the attorney general to sue your city so good sense might prevail. But such is the state of affairs in San Francisco, a beleaguered city swayed by incompetents who appear to believe they can solve the housing affordability crisis by killing good projects to preserve parking lots.

Gil Duran is opinion editor of the San Francisco Examiner. gduran@sfexaminer.com

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