The remains of an historic 1935 home designed by architect Richard Neutra at 49 Hopkins Ave., which was illegally demolished, on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Property owner wins approval of new plans on site of illegally demolished home

A property owner who was ordered to rebuild a Twin Peaks home that he had illegally demolished won approval on Thursday for new plans on the site.

The San Francisco Planning Commission voted to approve plans for a three-story home at 49 Hopkins Ave. where a 1930s home designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra was razed illegally in 2017.

The commission had previously ordered the home rebuilt to its original plans when property owner Ross Johnston applied for new construction permits in December and sought to retroactively legalize the demolition.

At the time, the commision cited a need to push back against a growing trend of illegal demolitions of homes by real estate speculators vying to build larger projects in their place. However, Johnston in turn sued the commission and the City in state and federal courts earlier this year, challenging the ruling to the tune of $10 million.

With litigation still pending, the commission on Thursday greenlit revised plans for 49 Hopkins Ave., where a garage is the only remnant of the original two-story home. The approval effectively legalizes the demolition of the home and sanctions the construction of a new three-story building that would include a four-bedroom unit and an accessory dwelling unit in its place.

However, the project forwarded by the commission on Thursday was whittled down from what Johnston had envisioned. In extensive negotiations with the developer, city planners pushed for the addition of the accessory dwelling unit, also known as a granny flat or in law apartment. The approved project is also 600 square feet smaller than proposed by Johnston.

A roof deck proposed by the developer was rejected by the commissioners, who voiced their continued disapproval of the illegal demolition.

“If somebody comes to the commission and does it legally— they come and say look we want to demolish this house and build two to three units — we look at facts and make a decision and we generally approve them,” Commissioner Dennis Richards told the San Francisco Examiner. But Johnston, he said, went “around the rules.”

Richards said that while the commission did “swing back” on a unanimous vote to rebuild the house as designed by Neutra, the commission stuck with “a precedent we set with each house that is demolished illegally — putting back the square footage and massing in the same place on the lot.”

The Neutra home had been altered multiple times before the illegal demolition. In 2014, the building was approved to increased to approximately 3,900 square feet. The 2014 permit dictated that certain structural elements of the home had to be maintained as part of the new construction project.

A lawyer for developer told the Examiner previously that when Johnston bought the property for $1.7 million in 2017, it came complete with “permits to demolish 80 percent of that property and build a brand new almost 4,000 square foot house.”

Johnston hired a general contractor to begin the demolition work, who according to court documents deemed the house “structurally compromised” during the demolition, and made “a judgment call in the field to immediately remove the compromised structure.”

The illegal demolition came to light after a neighbor reported the issue to the Department of Building Inspections.

Thursday’s vote came amid stark opposition from the property’s immediate neighbors, who criticized the proposed new construction for being much larger than the demolished Neutra home.

“The permit under consideration today represents not the original 700 square foot home or 1,300 square foot home demolished unlawfully but actually a more than 4,000 square foot dwelling in the proposed plan,” said Hopkins Avenue resident Joan Kim, speaking for a group of neighbors who opposed the project. The neighbor said that Hopkins Avenue is “the kind of modest family neighborhood that is disappearing in San Francisco.”

“We are a diverse group of long standing residents. Some have been living there since 1963. The homes are lived in by the owners, not rented by out of state developers. We know each other by name,” she said. “We would love to have a new neighbor at 49 Hopkins Ave. We want to keep the character and scale that exists there today. This permit does not fit the character and scale of the existing neighborhood.”

A spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office confirmed that litigation regarding 49 Hopkins Ave. is still pending. Ryan Patterson, an attorney with the law firm Zacks, Freedman & Patterson representing the developer, did not return requests for comment by press time on whether his client would drop the lawsuit.

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The remains of an historic 1935 home designed by architect Richard Neutra at 49 Hopkins Ave., which was illegally demolished, on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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