San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera speaks to the media during a news conference announcing a lawsuit against Academy of Art University at his office in City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, May 6, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

SF leaders paint Academy of Art as ‘land-use scofflaw’ in new lawsuit

San Francisco leaders railed the Academy of Art University on Friday for years of building code violations that culminated in a lawsuit against the school, while an attorney representing the university fired back that the suit is “a total waste of time.”

Joined by supervisors Aaron Peskin and Scott Wiener, City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced the filing of the lawsuit against one of The City’s largest property owners and landlords Friday morning at City Hall. The suit “details a decade-long pattern” by the academy of flouting building and planning code requirements, Herrera said.

“Again and again, the Academy of Art University’s use of the properties it acquired was unauthorized, unpermitted or wholly prohibited by local law,” Herrera said. “Academy of Art quite simply is an egregious land-use scofflaw, and its defiance persists at the worst possible time for our residents.”

The university acquired residential and commercial properties that were converted to student dorms and facilities, depriving The City of some 300 homes that are needed amid a regional housing crisis and a need for office space, according to Herrera.

City planners continue to uncover various abuses to the planning code.

As recently as March, planners told the Planning Commission the academy was only operating seven of its 40 buildings legally, less than the 10 that was previously thought.

The violations triggered the academy to begin developing an institutional master plan in 2011. The final environmental impact report for that plan is still due to go before the Planning Commission in July despite the lawsuit, said Jim Brosnahan, an attorney representing the academy.

Brosnahan said Friday the academy has worked continually with The City to bring its buildings into compliance with the law.

“The biggest point here is the academy hard worked terribly hard for a long time with the Planning Commission, and we intend to keep doing that,” Brosnahan said. “In addition to that, there’s a lot of inappropriate and wrong statements being made by the city attorney.”

Brosnahan argued it was a conflict of interest for Herrera to represent the Planning Department and San Francisco in the lawsuit because Herrera has previously chastised planners for not enforcing various codes with the academy’s buildings.

In 2014, for instance, Herrera sent a letter to the Planning Department calling for planners to hold the academy accountable for its repeated violations. Brosnahan said he plans to ask that Herrera recuse himself from the case.

But Peskin, who earlier this year urged the Planning Department to issue a new round of notices of violation to the university to bring it into compliance with local laws, touted the lawsuit as a critical step toward addressing longtime concerns with the academy.

“We have been waiting patiently, perhaps too patiently, for over a decade,” Peskin said. “The Academy has played San Francisco for a fool but that is coming to an end today.”

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