A hard line on 55 Laguna

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EDITORIAL In spring 2007, Assemblymember Mark Leno talked to Ruthy Bennett, the point person on the A.F. Evans proposal to build a major housing development on the old University of California at Berkeley Extension campus in San Francisco. Bennett was running into some problems: the site's neighbors didn't think the project included enough community mitigations. And Evans was looking for ways to fund a much larger community center and possibly some affordable housing.

Leno was interested in the project in part because it included plans for 80 units of housing for queer seniors. Open House, a local nonprofit, had been trying to find a site for an LGBT retirement complex for some time, and Evans had agreed to make that part of its project. The assembly member had a friendly relationship with the chancellor of the UC, which owned the land, and he told Bennett he might be able to intercede and help reduce the lease amount the UC wanted to charge the developer. Leno brought Sup. Bevan Dufty, whose district includes part of the site, to the meeting.

Leno told us he made some progress: the UC had wanted $20 million, but he talked the chancellor down to $18 million. "With that $2 million, we were able to substantially increase the size of the community center," he said.

But at the same time, UC representatives apparently walked away from the table thinking they had a final, done deal — that representatives of the city and the state had signed off on a price, which was now set in stone. "Unfortunately, UC's position is predicated on a deal that doesn't work well for moving this project forward," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told us. Now that Mirkarimi is demanding greater affordability in the housing — which is largely high-end rentals — Evans is saying it needs a break from the UC, and the UC won't budge an inch.

And somebody needs to budge, or this deal needs to be scrapped altogether — because it's not good for the city.

Remember: this is public land that's been used for public educational purposes for a century. Now the UC and Evans want to turn it into a private, for-profit housing complex. And only a minimal amount of that new housing will be available at a price that's affordable to the vast majority of San Franciscans.

Of the 420 units, only 16 percent (roughly the legal minimum) will be affordable. None of the 80 LGBT units will be rented at anything but market rates unless Open House can raise the money to subsidize them. That's not acceptable: building high-end apartments for the rich does nothing to help the city's housing crisis, and while we agree there's a need for supportive community housing for LGBT seniors, middle-class and poor queers need a place to retire too — and this will do nothing for them.

The project was on the fast track until state senator Carole Migden squeezed the UC and forced a delay until late January. The city has plenty of leverage here: not only does the site require rezoning, but the supervisors would also have to sign off on a plan to hand over a piece of Waller Street to the developer.

At this point city officials need to take a hard line: either Evans and the UC up the affordability level to, say, 40 or 50 percent and guarantee that some of the senior units will be subsidized, or the project dies. Period.

We agree with the neighbors of 55 Laguna who say the site has been empty for too long, is an eyesore, and attracts crime. It's 5.8 acres of land in a central part of the city, and it shouldn't remain a crumbling ghost of a former college. But the UC and a private developer can't set all the terms here either — and the city can do a whole lot better than the deal on the table right now.