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This prime lot has approved plans for 60 apartments. Why is it still empty after 30 years?

An empty plot of land is seen in an aerial photo.
An empty lot on Van Ness Avenue has been vacant since the early 1990s, as seen in an aerial drone photo in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

A lone sandal, an empty beer bottle and a run-down shack are all that sits on a prime corner lot on one of San Francisco’s major streets, despite having approved plans for a nine-story apartment building.

The 11,000-square-foot plot on 2601 Van Ness Ave. has been vacant since the early 1990s, according to planning documents and aerial photos. The waste of space just blocks from hip Union and Polk streets is infuriating locals.

A side-by-side composite photo shows a plot of land that's been empty for over 30 years.
Aerial views shows a plot of land at 2601 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco in 1993, left, and in 2022, right. The lot has remained undeveloped for decades. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department

“A grocery store like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s would be nice,” said Summer Spain, who lives on Filbert Street a few doors down from the land at 2601 Van Ness Ave. “I pass by it, and I’m like, ‘Ugh.’”

J.C. Cardenas, who drives from the Presidio to run his Lombard Street cafe, the Coffee Berry, said he wants affordable housing to be built on the lot.

“The city’s just so expensive,” Cardenas said. “And more people means more customers.”

A man stands inside a cafe
J.C. Cardenas said he wants an empty plot of land just blocks from his cafe to become affordable housing. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

The most use the 11,000 square-foot plot of land at Van Ness Avenue and Filbert Street has seen in the past decade was as a storage yard for supplies during a multimillion-dollar bus-only lane project, Google Street View photos show. In 2018, the San Francisco Planning Department approved plans to develop a nine-story apartment building with 60 units, including 18 affordable ones. But the project ground to a halt in 2020 according to permit records.

“This whole thing is frozen right now,” said Albert Costa, whose company, Costa Brown Architecture, drew up the plans.

Costa told The Standard he hasn’t spoken to the plot’s owner about the project in at least five years, but did not explain why.

An empty lot at 2601 Van Ness Ave. has been vacant since the early 1990s, as seen in an aerial drone photo in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

The plot is owned by an entity called Van Ness Terraces LLC, which is, in turn, controlled by George Lam, whose listed address is identical to that of AGH Realty Group in Millbrae. Suzanne Lo, a real estate agent with AGH Realty Group, confirmed over the phone that the plot is available for lease and the LLC owns it.

Lam did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why the plot has been empty for decades.

An architectural rendering shows a planned apartment building
There are plans approved in 2018 to build 60 apartments on a plot of land at 2601 Van Ness Ave., which has been undeveloped for decades. | Source: Courtesy Costa Brown Architects

Meanwhile, the Planning Department said the project is approved but Costa, who represents the project’s developer, has been unresponsive. While Costa has applied for a permit to build the apartments, notes from the Department of Building Inspection on the permit application say it can’t be issued because the construction cost is wrongly listed as $1.

Building inspection spokesperson Patrick Hannan said the department contacted Costa, asking him to resolve the $1 cost error, and that Costa has not responded. Costa was contacted for clarity on the cost situation but did not respond.

In an earlier conversation, Costa said he is still optimistic that housing will eventually be developed on the lot but said the ball is in Lam’s court.

“The owner will move forward,” Costa said. “I just don’t know when.”