Owners of a vacant church at Fillmore and Fell streets, most recently used as the roller skating disco Church of 8 Wheels, are looking to convert the building into residential units, commercial/retail and community space. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

City planners push for below-market-rate housing in church development

As developers scour the nearly 50 square miles of San Francisco for a place to build new homes, it seems no location is off-limits: parking lots, gas stations, diners – even a roller skating disco operating out of a century-old church building.

The aforementioned church is the subject of a project recently reviewed by the Planning Department.

This week the department released its preliminary assessment of a plan to convert the former place of worship at 554 Fillmore St. that now operates as a roller skating disco three days a week into a mixed-use development including homes, offices and retail space.

The project would mean the loss of yet another quirky and beloved slice of San Francisco. David Miles Jr., owner of the 2-year-old roller skating disco Church of 8 Wheels, said tour buses roll by the church daily to point out the iconic venue that has hosted the likes of reality star and former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner.

“You could not do this anywhere else,” Miles said Wednesday of the roller skating disco. “It would be considered a little bit on the crazy side.”

But it’s the plan for housing — and, most notably, the absence of below-market-rate housing — that drew arguably the greatest criticism from city planners.

Developers have proposed building nine new homes, 5,000 square feet of retail space, 20,000 square feet of community uses, and 20,000 square feet for office uses within the site while retaining much of the church structure. There are also 40 parking spaces planned in a subsurface garage.

The preliminary project assessment — a first step in providing feedback from the Planning Department to a project sponsor — noted that the nine units proposed for the site are just one unit shy of triggering The City’s inclusionary housing requirement.

Such a law calls for developments of 10 or more residential units to either provide 12 percent at below-market-rate on-site, 20 percent off-site or pay a fee. San Francisco is aiming to build more than 10,000 below-market-rate homes by 2020.

With 20,000 square feet allocated for homes in the church, city planners noted that there is space for more than nine homes.

“The plans demonstrate an unfulfilled capacity that more than nine units could be developed,” the assessment states. “The department strongly encourages increased density on the site.”

The assessment also promotes a program in the works by city officials to encourage developers to build more below-market-rate homes by allowing taller and denser buildings. The Affordable Housing Bonus Program, introduced by Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Katy Tang in September, would apply to projects that develop at least five units of housing.

It’s estimated that some 30,850 parcels in San Francisco, primarily in areas zoned as neighborhood districts where commercial use is either required or permitted on the ground floor, with residential units above, would benefit from the program – including the site at 554 Fillmore St.

“The parcel is located within the proposed program study area, and the proposed project could receive density and other development incentives commensurate with provision of on-site affordable housing,” the assessment states.

Incentives being explored for developers would include taller height limits — ­up to an additional two stories — and increased density for building 30 percent of the homes on­-site as below-market-rate. Scores of residents, primarily in the less-dense west side of The City, have spoken out against the program, arguing what they call “high-rises” aren’t wanted.

The assessment also noted that if the development included 20 percent of its homes on-site as below-market-rate, the project could receive priority processing.

But Tim Colen, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Action Coalition, said that even if the developers of 554 Fillmore St. don’t opt for the density bonus, any type of new housing outside The City’s urban core is sorely needed.

“If it’s on Fillmore Street, it’s hard to imagine this is going to be anything close to luxury housing,” Colen said. “This tends to be smaller scale, lower cost construction that will have a lower price point. We badly need that type of construction in The City.”

Reducing the number of vehicle parking spaces from 40 to 34 and providing bicycle parking were recommended in the assessment as well. Planners also recommended that developers retain some portion of the church’s interior, like the altar or stained glass windows.

Calls on Wednesday to the developer, listed on planning documents as the Pollard Group, were not returned by press time.

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