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‘Spite project’ for 10 townhouses delayed by San Francisco lawmakers

President Aaron Peskin presides over the Board of Supervisors meeting in San Francisco on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors ruled on appeals for two controversial housing developments Tuesday, perhaps providing a preview of how permit appeals will fare in a new regulatory environment dominated by state intervention to expedite the construction of new housing.

Compared with Peskin’s introduction later in the meeting of major reforms of the city’s inclusionary affordable housing rules and fees, which he is co-sponsoring with Mayor London Breed, the appeal votes reflect continued ambivalence over the city’s new development landscape.

The board upheld the appeal of one project on Nob Hill that had been deemed a “spite project” by appellants and denied another for a group housing project in the Mission that had already been the subject of state review.

The first project, a cluster of 10 townhomes at 1151 Washington St. on the slope of Nob Hill near Upper Chinatown, had been described by appellant attorney Scott Emblidge in a June 16 appeal letter as “absurd in so many ways” and as a “spite project.”

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In the letter, Emblidge alleged the developer “made it clear through extensive online posts that he is proposing this monstrosity because of his anger at the city for having turned down an earlier remodel project that did not comply with the Planning Code.”

Earlier plans to expand the existing two-story house on the site were abandoned after the Planning Department blocked a conditional use authorization in 2021. The new plans are for a row of townhouses totaling over 12,000 square feet in area and 50 feet in height, overlooking the basketball court of the adjacent Betty Ong Recreation Center.  

While perhaps not as much of an eyebrow-raiser as plans for a 50-story skyscraper apartment complex near Ocean Beach, which were submitted to the Planning Department last April, the Washington Street project drew incredulous opposition from both neighbors and community groups. 

Opponents cited three major objections to the project, including likely shadows on the basketball court, the presence in the ground of what appellant attorney Richard Drury called “very unusual toxic chemicals” and fire safety issues due to the houses’ narrow paths and spiral staircases.

“There are too many unknowns in this project,” said Hanmin Liu of the Upper Chinatown Neighborhood Association, supporting the appeal of the project’s exemption from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

Staff from the Planning Department and the Department of Public Health repeatedly testified that issues laid out by the appellants either were irrelevant to the CEQA process, or well within the coverage of the project’s site mitigation plan and did not merit an environmental impact report. 

Most supervisors disagreed. Board President Aaron Peskin, in whose district the project is located, said the project presented very unusual circumstances, particularly in regard to its proximity to the Betty Ong Center, which he described as a “precious, unique public resource.”

Supervisor Myrna Melgar speaks during the Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Supervisor Myrna Melgar concurred. “There’s a mismatch in how we’re treating this. … It’s unusual,” citing the toxics and life safety access issues. 

Several members of the pro-housing group YIMBY Action testified in favor of the project and opposed the appeal, warning of consequences from Sacramento. “If we continue to abuse local control, we’re going to lose local control,” said Jane Natoli, a YIMBY Action lead organizer and airport commissioner, during public comment. 

In the end, the board remanded the project back for environmental review by a vote of 7-4 with Supervisors Ahsha Safaí, Matt Dorsey, Catherine Stefani and Joel Engardio in dissent. 

The board then went on to block an appeal of the conditional use authorization for a six-story “group housing” project at 3832 18th St. 

The project originally had a floor trimmed by the Planning Commission in 2021 to allay neighbors’ shadow concerns, and Peskin led a successful tightening of regulations around group housing, also known as “microunit” or “efficiency apartment” buildings, in its wake. 

Last year the California Department of Housing and Community Development got involved and ordered San Francisco to allow the original plan. 

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman listens during the Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

New appellants argued that the current project should be subject to the new, more strict group housing rules; supervisors unanimously disagreed. 

“I don’t think this is a great project,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman in moving to block the appeal. “In a lot of ways I think this is not fair. The trouble is, I don’t believe this is a fight we would likely win.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hanmin Liu’s name.