The Academy of Art University is one of San Francisco’s largest property owners and landlords. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Sides drawn in lawsuit filed by SF against Academy of Art

The Academy of Art University may have cleared a major hurdle last month in bringing its buildings up to code, but that doesn’t mean the academy is off the hook for its brush with the law.

Such is the argument painted by the City Attorney’s Office in its lawsuit against the for-profit academy, one of The City’s largest property owners and landlords, which is accused of flouting building and planning code laws for years.

The lawsuit, filed May 6, is set for its first hearing in San Francisco Superior Court today.

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

But developments over the summer may finally allow the academy to begin coloring in the gaps of bringing its buildings up to code. On July 28, the Planning Commission approved the academy’s final environmental impact report, paving the way for the academy to seek project applications and planning code amendments as part of the academy’s institutional master plan.

“Now that the EIR is certified … we finally have the opportunity to address this issue after many many years of [the academy] not complying,” said John Rahaim, director of the Planning Department.

Following the environmental impact report approval, the academy will ask the Planning Commission next month for planning code amendments that could help to legalize up to seven of the academy’s buildings where students are housed.

Specifically, the academy is hoping to qualify for a grandfathering clause that allows nonprofit schools to convert low-income housing into student housing. Planners have recommended the clause apply to some of the academy’s seven buildings that are partially used for student housing, said Jim Brosnahan, an attorney representing the academy.

“Part of this whole issue is how students are treated in San Francisco, [and] I would add how art students are treated,” Brosnahan said. “This has always been a bohemian city, it’s always respected and treasured its artists.”

There are between 8,000 and 9,000 students enrolled in the academy, Brosnahan said, though the institution reportedly plans to expand to more than 17,000 students by 2020.

Regardless of whether the academy’s buildings are legalized in the future, The City wants the academy to pay for its past code violations, said Tom Lakritz, a deputy city attorney who is leading the lawsuit against the academy.

“It is possible that they will not get all of their authorizations,” Lakritz said. “It is possible they will not get all of their code amendments. It is possible there is a scenario that even after all the things pending in front of [the Planning] Commission and Board of Supervisors are done, some of their properties will be illegal still.”

He added, “We’re going to need the court to oversee forcing them to bring the properties into compliance with our code.”

That’s why the City Attorney’s Office intends to seek injunctive relief that would prevent the academy from using the unpermitted buildings, Lakritz said.

“We’re going to ask the court that they be prohibited from using the immediate properties in violation of the planning code,” he said.

The lawsuit lists 23 of the academy’s 40 buildings as violating city codes, but as recently as May, planners told the Planning Commission the academy was only operating six of its 40 buildings legally — less than the 10 that was previously thought.

The City is also seeking civil penalties in each of the 23 buildings, which would amount to at least $200 for each planning code violation for each day. Civil penalties could also include up to $2,500 for each act of unfair business practice, and administrative penalties.

“Even if there was a magical event that occurred right now that said all their properties are legal, we’re still entitled to civil penalties for the time that they were not legal,” Lakritz said, who estimated those fees could reach into the millions.

“It can add up to a lot,” he added.

Today’s case management conference is set for 1:30 p.m. in San Francisco Superior Court, Department 305 at 400 McAllister St. in San Francisco.

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