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Clapping back against new density limits, a developer dares to go higher in Telegraph Hill

The proposed 19-story tower is the exact sort of building Supervisor Aaron Peskin did not want rising in his district.

Foggy city corner with street signs, modern buildings, and a distant obscured skyscraper.
The latest proposal submitted by local developer Angus McCarthy wants to raise the height of a proposed tower at 1088 Sansome St. by more than 30 feet. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Despite opposition from some local residents and policymakers to high-rise development in San Francisco’s Northern Waterfront, developers are seeking to make a new housing project in the area even larger than they originally planned. 

Last month, when Supervisor Aaron Peskin laid out the reasons behind his proposal to limit density in several historic neighborhoods in his district, he cited a 17-story project at 1088 Sansome St. as a key impetus. 

Peskin’s legislation was approved, but less than two weeks later, the developers struck back with a proposal that would make the Sansome Street development two stories taller. The group, led by Angus McCarthy, submitted new plans to raise the height of the residential tower by more than 30 feet and increase the number of housing units from 120 to 132.

McCarthy, a longtime local developer and former president of the Building Inspection Commission, is pursuing the project with investor Michael Moritz, who is chairman of The Standard. If built as proposed, the project would deliver 132 new housing units for sale, ranging from one to three bedrooms.

In January, the group originally proposed demolishing the existing three-story, 116-year-old office building near the foot of Telegraph Hill that once housed the Bemis Bag Company. Now, McCarthy intends to preserve the historic structure and build a tower on top instead. 

A plaque contains historical info about the 1906 Bemis Bag Building in San Francisco.
If built as proposed, a tower at 1088 would rise to around 250 feet, more than double the height allowed by a new city ordinance. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Because initial plans were submitted prior to the introduction of the new zoning limits, the 1088 Sansome project is likely exempt from the rules if it “adheres to what’s been [previously] submitted,” according to Dan Sider, chief of staff of the Planning Department. 

But, he added, subsequent environmental or building permit checks could open the door for additional appeals. 

If built as proposed, the tower would rise around 250 feet, more than double the height allowed by the ordinance.

Peskin’s office did not say if it intended to challenge the project, but his chief of staff, Sunny Angulo, signaled opposition to the building—and to one of its backers. 

“Michael Moritz is for building giant luxury housing towers wherever it yields the most profit for developers, including his own development at 1088 Sansome.” 

McCarthy pushed back on that characterization. He said in a statement, “Ownership looks forward to building homes for all San Franciscans, both market rate and affordable in the future.” 

Moritz declined to comment.

Before the ordinance was passed last month, McCarthy previously told The Standard he believed the zoning restrictions would “strip property owners of their rights and remove any hope we might have of repositioning our properties.” 

According to the preliminary plans, McCarthy’s group intends to take advantage of state density programs that would allow them to fit more homes than normally allowed under typical zoning constraints. City planners would still need to approve.

Aaron Peskin listens intently in a crowd while Mayor London Breed speaks.
District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin sponsored a new ordinance limiting density only a year after a plan to accommodate 82,000 new housing units by 2031 was certified by the state. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

To qualify for the bonuses, the development group would designate 22 out of the 132 units as affordable housing—with 14 reserved for those earning 80% of the area’s median income, four for those earning 105% and four for those earning 130%. 

The existing 116-year-old building would be renovated, and the tower would be located on the rear portion of the site. The group is also considering adding 132 parking spots underneath the building. 

Peskin and residents of Northern Waterfront argued that building high-rise apartment towers in the area would ruin the fabric of one of the city’s most scenic neighborhoods that sits between Coit Tower and the Embarcadero. 

The new zoning rules championed by Peskin were imposed a year after a plan to accommodate 82,000 new housing units by 2031 was certified by the state. As a result, some critics, including Mayor London Breed, have accused Peskin of NIMBYism

“I’m sick of his shenanigans,” Breed said about Peskin last week. “You wonder what’s gone wrong with this city? Everywhere you look around, there’s a way to say ‘no.'”

Angulo disagreed, saying, “Aaron Peskin is a champion for building the housing our families can afford, where it makes sense.”