Academy of Art flunks city test

One of San Francisco’s largest educational institutions is also a major downtown property owner with a litany of alleged code violations.

Almost all of the Academy of Art University’s properties may be in violation of city codes, from minor permitting technicalities to changes of use that were never reviewed, according to the San Francisco Planning Department. The City notified the university of these violations in a letter sent in March warning that official citations were a possibility.

Since 1990, the 77-year-old Academy has built a vast downtown real estate empire, buying 25 of its 28 properties in the last 17 years, and leasing one. The nearly 12,000-student university houses about 1,300 of its students, President Elisa Stephens said.

The for-profit institution uses 14 of its properties for housing, according to city records. Of those, planner Scott Sanchez said 12 were converted to so-called group housing, or dormitories, from their previous uses as apartment buildings or hotels, allegedly without permits.

“They’ve just kind of done whatever they’ve wanted without regard for the law,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district contains many of the university’s buildings, said Friday. “Most other folks seem to be able to get it together to comply, particularly larger institutions.”

But university lawyer Tim Tosta said the school is working to correct violations and is challenging The City’s interpretation of code in some cases. “It’s a long list of violations, some of which are valid, some of which are subject to interpretation and some of which are flat-out wrong,” Tosta said.

The City requires public hearings before a building’s use can change, for example, from a hotel or apartment building to a dormitory, because of the potential impact on the neighborhood, Sanchez said.

Additionally, much of the university’s signage, which was not installed with proper permits, appears to run afoul of The City’s historical preservation laws, Sanchez said.

But Tosta argued that the sign permitting code is too complex, and that some signs may have “slipped through the cracks.” The university is auditing itself in order to determine what permits it needs to acquire and what it will challenge, Tosta said.

“The code has a lot of elements that are subject to varying interpretations. That’s one of the reasons it takes so long, because you have to sit down and go through it one sign at a time,” he said. Tosta predicted that the code issues will be resolved in the next two to three months.

But Sanchez expressed frustration at the length of time it has taken the university to answer The City’s criticisms. “It seems clear that they could be doing more than they actually are,” he said. “I think we’ve really tried to work with them and it’s frustrating.”

amartin@examiner.com

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