Weighing a landlord's promise

Parkmerced developer says rent control will be protected under new plan, but tenant advocates voice concerns

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An artist's rendering of the new Parkmerced, with more highrises and fewer garden apartments

rebeccab@sfbg.com

Emotions ran high at meetings held by the San Francisco Planning Commission about a massive overhaul of Parkmerced, a housing complex located next to San Francisco State University that is a neighborhood unto itself.

The plan envisions tearing down 1940s-era garden apartments and townhomes to make way for new low-rises and high-rises that would contain a mix of rental housing and for-sale units. Over the course of a construction project spanning three decades, Parkmerced would expand to 8,900 units — enough to triple the number of residents who can now be accommodated. Final approval for the project is expected in March at the earliest.

Some 150 residents turned out at a Dec. 9 special meeting held near Parkmerced to make it more accessible for seniors and people with limited mobility. Although commissioners had planned to open with a staff presentation, residents protested and demanded to speak first, and their request was granted. After listening to residents comment for hours, commissioners continued the discussion until the Dec. 16 meeting, which drew a smaller turnout.

While some residents were pleased by the plans, the majority who attended the first meeting expressed alarm and anxiety. People aired concerns about the long construction timeline, increased density, traffic congestion, and the impact the plan would have on a well-established, multigenerational community. Many of the speakers had been born at Parkmerced or raised families there. The comments portrayed an economically diverse neighborhood supporting close-knit circles of friends and family.

One question that seemed to have residents rattled most was whether they could trust the developer's promise that their rent control would be preserved, even after their existing apartments have been torn down.

Among them was octogenarian Robert Pender, a founding member of the Parkmerced Residents' Organization, who hobbled from his wheelchair to the podium to deliver his statement for the public record. "Parkmerced is my home, and I'm not going to be evicted because some landlord wants to make some more money," he announced. After making his comments, Pender turned to face the audience, lifted his cane in the air, and issued a rally cry that captured the sentiment of the evening: "fight!"

Under the development plan, 1,500 apartments would be razed to make way for new residential units. The midcentury garden apartments open out to shared courtyards and patios. Many house tenants who've lived at Parkmerced for decades. For elderly residents or those who have disabilities, the exceptionally low rent makes it possible for them to stay in San Francisco despite limited income.

From the outset, Parkmerced Investors LLC and Stellar Management have promised existing tenants that they will be relocated to replacement units with roughly the same square footage, where they'll continue to pay the same monthly rates and keep their rent control. The developer has even promised to keep the existing apartments intact until the new units are available so that none of the residents will have to move twice.

"Our promise to our residents is that we will preserve the rent control," said P.J. Johnston, a spokesperson for the developer. "Our attorneys believe that the rent-control protections are absolutely ironclad."

Johnston emphasized the big picture: "For decades, progressive San Francisco has been talking about the need for developing large chunks of affordable housing, for increasing density on the west side, and for creating more housing around transit. Here we finally have the opportunity to do all that while introducing major transit improvements and extending rent control."