Avoiding a Lennar meltdown

Supervisors should worry about homebuilder's finances

EDITORIAL Millions of dollars in campaign money kept Lennar Corp.'s plans for southeast San Francisco alive. But the financial news isn't looking good for the giant homebuilder — and the San Francisco supervisors ought to be worried.

Last week, Sup. Chris Daly released a document he obtained from the Redevelopment Agency showing that the city had quietly sought a $25 million grant from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to cover a projected loss in Lennar's Hunters Point Shipyard project.

The problem: increased construction costs, trouble in the financial markets, and unforeseen environmental issues have eaten up all the money that Lennar and the city had made available for infrastructure improvements on the site. That means the roads, water and sewer pipes, and other basic stuff that project will need to go forward are no longer adequately funded. Without an influx of state money, the city argued, the whole shipyard project would either be "drastically reduced in scope" or put on hold for another two or three years.

"Without the requested $25,021,079 Infill grant allocation, our infrastructure project faces a serious risk of being mothballed," city officials wrote. As Sarah Phelan reported at sfbg.com, the state rejected the application last week.

The shipyard project is the first piece of Lennar's grand-scale Bayview Hunters Point redevelopment — and it's already in serious financial trouble. The same issues that are causing problems at the shipyard will be in play when Lennar starts work on the 10,000 new housing units now approved for the Bayview–Hunters Point redevelopment area. Construction costs will be even higher in a year or two. The end of the mortgage crisis is not yet in sight. As Daly told us, the shortfall in the first part of the project "casts a very large shadow on the mixed-use development envisioned under the conceptual framework on Proposition G."

Then on June 8, a Lennar subsidiary that's working on redeveloping the Mare Island Naval Shipyard property filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That project is now in limbo as the development consortium — facing economic pressure and unable to get the necessary financing — seeks protection from creditors. Combined with the fact that Lennar's bond ratings continue to tumble (Lennar debt was downgraded again June 10), San Francisco officials ought to be asking the obvious question: can this Miami-based developer actually pull off this project? Or is it possible that after all of the political debate over the Lennar plan, the lack of adequate affordable housing, the future of the 49ers, the toxic contamination of the site, and everything else, the entire massive project could collapse because Lennar doesn't have the financial ability to finish it?

This, of course, is one of the inherent problems with the traditional redevelopment model. The city essentially will be giving a huge piece of public land to a single private company that will then be responsible for building an entire new neighborhood with homes, offices, stores, and parks. In theory the developer will make enough money to stay afloat until construction is finished — and the property taxes in the area will increase enough to fund necessary infrastructure (schools, roads, bus lines, water and sewer service, and other public amenities). But if the developer goes broke, the city is left hanging.

That's what's happening in Vallejo, where a city that already has serious financial problems is facing the possibility that environmental cleanup at Mare Island will grind to a halt, and that a $6 million municipal service fund — paid for in part by Lennar — could suffer.

The prospects for San Francisco could be far worse. Suppose the city goes ahead and transfers public land to Lennar — which then goes into bankruptcy.