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Politics & Policy

San Francisco sends ‘Sunset skyscraper’ back to the drawing board

A rendering of the proposed tower at 2700 Sloat Boulevard in the Sunset District of San Francisco. | Source: San Francisco Planning Department via Solomon Cordwell Buenz

San Francisco’s Board of Appeals unanimously upheld a decision to block a controversial proposal for a 589-foot apartment tower in the Outer Sunset after a two-hour hearing late Wednesday evening. 

The massive proposal was first unveiled in April after San Francisco’s Planning Department questioned an earlier proposal for a building a quarter of the size. The agency quickly rejected the new plans, calling them “categorically out of compliance with both state and local laws.”

The developer has described the current plan as a “protest” of the city’s interpretation of a state law that allows developers to build bigger in exchange for including affordable units. The project plans for 110 means-tested below-market-rate units. 

“Massive” was the operative word of Wednesday’s proceedings, which were held over Zoning Administrator Corey Teague’s determination that the project violated existing height and bulk standards. 

Board of Appeals President Rick Swig admonished participants to keep discussion strictly to the matter of the appeal—Teague’s interpretation of two planning code sections regarding height and bulk which prevent the current iteration of the project from going forward.

“There is no specific project tonight,” Swig said, during a discussion with Teague and the deputy city attorney about the parameters of the case. Board member John Trasviña noted “there would be other venues for discussion, such as the Planning Commission,” if the plan were to go forward somehow.

Melinda Sarjapur of law firm Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP, counsel for developer 2700 Sloat LLC, argued the determination violated a number of state laws such as the Housing Accountability Act, and was an “abuse of discretion,” citing several approved projects, such as Rincon Hill and others built in recent years, that like the proposal featured a single building with multiple towers. 

Asked by Swig whether the appeal was an exercise in “pushing the envelope” with regard to current height and bulk restrictions, Sarjapur maintained that it wasn’t since the proposal was objectively similar to those other projects, which are mostly in the southeastern part of the city. In making the determination on the Sloat project, she argued that the Planning Department was creating “a new, arbitrary standard.”

Sarjapur did concede, however, that “I think the goal of current state housing laws is to maximize residential development, to address the current housing crisis that we’re in—that does call for pushing the envelope for what’s allowable.”

And the 2700 Sloat proposal may well “push the envelope” in that it features four narrow towers attached together, creating the appearance of a single tower, in order to fit on a smaller plot of land compared to other previously approved large projects.

That’s how the project and the controversies around it—including whether or not it’s even a serious proposal—have become a Rorschach test of opinion on the current debate on how to solve San Francisco’s housing shortage and affordability problems.

More than 3,500 residents signed an online petition against the project, and Our Neighborhood Voices, an anti-growth group, has used the proposal to garner support for a statewide ballot measure that would roll back recent reforms in Sacramento to boost housing construction. 

Meanwhile, local pro-housing activists have offered some pro-forma support for the project, perhaps simply to troll hardline “NIMBY” groups like Our Neighborhood Voices, and many showed up at the hearing in support of the developer’s appeal. 

Swig, upon seeing 57 people lined up for public comment for the item, mostly remotely, limited comments to one minute per speaker. In the end, about 20 speakers testified, with opinions roughly divided equally over the developers’ appeal.

At least one local writer has called the project a “NIMBY jumpscare,” calling to mind neighborhood groups that regularly complain of shadows from comparably modest projects now facing a proposal that some might think threatens to turn Ocean Beach into a giant sundial. 

Most on the front lines of the legislative struggle to remove obstacles to housing development, like state Sen. Scott Wiener, regard the tower as “a distraction.”

Whether the developers actually intend to build the project has become an open question, in part due to their history. Raelynn Hickey is the principal officer for the developer, but her husband, John Hickey, has led discussing the project with the city. Neither testified at Wednesday’s hearing. 

John Hickey’s history can best be described as colorful. 

In 2004 John Hickey promoted a project which would have included three 650-foot apartment towers—the tallest in the city if built—for India Basin in San Francisco’s Bayview. It was described at the time as “flying in the face of 30 years of waterfront planning.”

Another problem with the 2004 project: at the time, John Hickey was under indictment for defrauding over 700 investors in 1994 of $20 million, ostensibly for real estate development in the North Bay. He was sentenced to prison in 2006 and ordered to pay $17 million in restitution, most of which remains unpaid. He was released in 2013. 

One experienced developer who spoke to The Standard July 13 estimated that the current iteration of the 2700 Sloat project would cost over $1 billion to build and that no lender “would seriously contemplate financing a billion-dollar project in that neighborhood.”

Those factors weren’t discussed at the hearing, but they certainly loomed in the background, as did opinions over the nature of San Francisco’s housing crisis, which Swig questioned at times. 

In the end, the commissioners agreed that Teague’s determination was a legitimate baseline for deciding the initial merits of the project, leaving room for negotiation in the planning process. 

“It doesn’t foreclose opportunities for housing,” Trasviña said, in declaring his vote against the appeal. 

Commissioner Alex Lemberg called Teague’s determination “a legitimate use, not abuse, of discretion,” also noting that the Board of Appeals couldn’t rule on whether state laws preempted the decision. 

The Hickeys have the option of requesting a rehearing of their appeal if they apply to the board within 10 days. They would have to show that new evidence would have changed the outcome of the hearing, or that there was “manifest injustice.”

Or, they could submit another plan.