February 19, 2003

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Life after the live-work
Fourth and Freelon project raises troubling community planning issues for supes

By Sarah Faulkner

Two issues closest to the heart of the district-elected San Francisco Board of Supervisors clashed last week, and in a historic and portentous vote the supervisors unanimously decided affordable housing was more important than the community planning process for which most of the board campaigned in the 2000 election.

But, as it turns out, there was more at stake than just political philosophy at the board's Feb. 11 meeting, during which the supes okayed the construction of 330 apartments at Fourth and Freelon Streets in the South of Market area, with 56 small affordable-housing units planned for an adjacent site. Critics have charged that the deal, sponsored by Sup. Chris Daly, appears to be a lucrative bailout for an ally of Joe O'Donoghue, head of the politically powerful Residential Builders Association.

Daly succeeded in getting unanimous support for the project – which originally encompassed 170 live-work lofts and a massive, 480-car underground parking garage – for which developer Joe Cassidy, a friend of O'Donoghue's, had already been granted a break from local zoning laws before the reform board was elected.

Still, the project has sparked a heated debate among progressives about what sort of changes developers should be allowed to make in plans for approved live-work project, now that the market for that type of housing has declined. Most of the current supervisors were elected in 2000, in part due to their opposition to rampant dot com-friendly development. Now that the market no longer supports live-works, will the supervisors allow developers to get special breaks to build some other kind of housing?

The Fourth and Freelon deal raises some major planning-policy issues as well. First, it amounts to "spot zoning," which planning experts say is not a good way to go about determining what kind of new construction should take place in the neighborhood and throughout the city. Second, it circumvents parts of a law authored by former supervisor Mark Leno that requires all housing-development projects to make at least 10 to 17 percent of the units available at affordable rates.

Some planning experts say city officials should not allow a housing complex that is denser and taller than current zoning guidelines dictate. They say officials should wait until planners, with the help of residents, complete updated guidelines for the city's neighborhoods. That process is currently underway.

"[The current board is] undermining their own constituents, their people who are doing the planning and going through the processes," land-use attorney Sue Hestor told us. "[This time] the supervisors promised us that there would be a planning process. These issues are what revolutionized this board."

Since the area is not zoned for market-rate housing, Daly had to push planners to grant Cassidy a special permit to build his project there. Allowing a certain kind of development for one city block that would otherwise be forbidden in that area amounts to spot zoning. And that, according to planning experts, flies in the face of sound development policy.

"At its very heart, this legislation pits housed neighbors against neighbors needing housing by allowing high-density spot zoning in certain neighborhoods, but only certain ones," affordable housing activist Calvin Welch said at the Feb. 11 meeting.

"Special-use permits are a contradiction for the community-based planning process," said Sup. Jake McGoldrick, who opposed the deal for months, successfully forcing improvements to the project. "The heart of this is to gut public policy."

Opponents of the Daly deal argue that the arrangement amounts to a bailout of Cassidy, who, they suspect, cannot get financial backing at this point to do the original project. But Cassidy and Daly say that's not true – that revenues from the garage would have helped pay for the loft construction.

Either way, many neighbors were dismayed and, they say, left out of the loop until McGoldrick forced hearings: city law does not require planners to notify neighbors when a block is going to be spot zoned.

"While not opposed to growth in the area, I am opposed to the rezoning of the area to allow for bigger and more enormous buildings that are incompatible with the emerging neighborhood," Abe Garfield, a SoMa resident who lives on Fourth Street, said in a Nov. 25 letter to supervisors.

McGoldrick was initially critical that Cassidy would be able to skirt the city's affordable-housing legislation. The 56 efficiency units, which would be managed by Tenderloin Housing Clinic president Randy Shaw, amount to roughly 15 percent of the market-rate apartments. The inclusionary housing law, however, would require that 17 percent be affordable in such a project. In addition, the law would require the affordable units to be roughly the same size as the market-rate apartments. But in this case, they will be about 20 percent smaller.

City Hall insiders say that Daly's motivations were, in part, political. O'Donoghue at one point had made noises about attempting to unseat Daly in his reelection bid last November. Interestingly, the Residential Builders Association did not throw tons of money at the effort – even though there was a candidate, Burke Strunsky, with strong ties to the Fangs (who are among O'Donoghue's political allies).

"I've opposed the RBA on most of the major policy decisions at the Board of Supervisors. I have a record of standing up for what I think is right.... This is a project that makes sense," Daly said.