The Parkmerced investors

As a massive residential project moves forward, tenants turn a wary eye toward Wall Street landlords

Daniel Mudd is the controversial CEO of Fortress Investment Group, which bought a large stake in the ParkMerced project

Parkmerced is one of the largest rental properties west of the Mississippi, and with more than 1,500 rent-controlled units, it's an important piece of the city's affordable-housing stock. Among the residents who live in the neighborhood-scale apartment complex are seniors, young families, and working-class San Franciscans, some of whom have called it home for decades.

A plan for an extraordinary overhaul of the property envisions tearing down the existing low-rise apartments and nearly tripling the number of units with a construction project that could take up to 30 years. On March 29, after Guardian press time, the Board of Supervisors was scheduled to vote on whether to uphold the plan's environmental impact report (EIR), a key milestone of the approval process.

The Planning Commission voted 4-3 to certify the EIR, and if the board followed suit by rejecting four different appeals filed against it, Parkmerced would be on track to clear final approval sometime in May.

San Francisco Tomorrow was among the groups that filed appeals against the Parkmerced plan. "They want to destroy a neighborhood without sufficient justification or mitigation," said Jennifer Clary, the group's president, citing concerns about traffic congestion, loss of an historic landscape, and the destruction of rent-controlled housing.

Julian Lagos, a resident of 18 years, filed an appeal on behalf of the Coalition to Save Parkmerced. "It's a very blue-collar community, and they want to replace it with wall-to-wall luxury high-rise condos," said Lagos, who lives in a unit that would be targeted for demolition under the development plan. "I call it ground zero," he said. "And I tell my neighbors, 'You're living at ground zero.' "

Mayoral development advisor Michael Yarne noted that most points highlighted in the EIR appeals had already been addressed, except one charging that there hadn't been adequate consideration over whether a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas pipeline running underground near Parkmerced could be jeopardized by construction activity. "The answer to that is, that's a really good question for PG&E," Yarne said. But he asserted that it wasn't a project EIR issue.

Elected officials' reactions to the overall plan were mixed. Lagos noted that campaign filings showed that Sups. Carmen Chu and Sean Elsbernd had accepted donations from people related to the project, and he predicted that Board of Supervisors President David Chiu would be a swing vote on the issue. Chiu spent several hours touring Parkmerced the Friday before the vote. He did not return Guardian calls seeking comment.

A development agreement between the city and the developer, Parkmerced Investors LLC, promises that existing tenants will keep their rent control at the same monthly rates — even after the apartments they now reside in are razed to make way for new residential towers.

Such a plan typically wouldn't fly under state law because the Costa-Hawkins Act prohibits a city from imposing rent control on newly constructed housing. Yet city officials, with input from the City Attorney's Office, say they've constructed this deal so that it falls within one of the exceptions written into the state law, offering a legal defense in the event of a court challenge and a guarantee against affordable housing loss.

"The development agreement is like a constitution for land use," said Yarne. "You can't get rid of it." If the project changed hands or the developer went bankrupt, the new owner would be bound by the same terms, Yarne said.