A grinding halt

City Planning doesn't want to call it a moratorium, but new condo development is abruptly being shut down

By G.W. Schulz

› gwschulz@sfbg.com

No one's quite sure what to call it yet, but it has shaken San Francisco's housing debate to its very core, pitting developers against proponents of low-income housing and blue-collar jobs.

San Francisco planning officials acknowledged March 16 that no developer in eastern San Francisco can build another market-rate unit until the city answers a key question:

How does a million-dollar loft impact the person who cleans that loft — or works in a warehouse next door — and needs a place in the city too?

Here's the backstory: The San Francisco Planning Department determines on a project-by-project basis whether an environmental impact report is necessary. Several months ago planners decided that a 68-unit residential building at 2660 Harrison St. had a green light to move forward with no EIR.

When land-use attorney Sue Hestor and the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition appealed that decision, the Board of Supervisors did something unusual: On Jan. 24 the board upheld Hestor's appeal, which in effect asked that an EIR for the project include an analysis of the "cumulative impact" of all market-rate housing, including 2660 Harrison, on the eastern neighborhoods of the city.

In other words, a 2660 Harrison EIR would have to include a look at the project's impact on available jobs in eastern San Francisco and on the future availability of low-income housing.

And under that precedent, every developer of every market-rate housing project would have to undergo the same expensive, time-consuming process.

Developers are clearly nervous: At the March 16 meeting, the sponsor of a housing project at 25 Lusk St. asked commissioners to delay voting on the proposal for several weeks so that the "political controversy" surrounding the EIR could be resolved.

With so much at stake, including an entire section of San Francisco stretching from SoMa to Visitacion Valley, the board's dramatic 8–2 vote has received surprisingly little attention. The daily papers have barely peeped, and last week's Planning Commission meeting was notably calm.

"There are a lot of development attorneys here," Hestor quipped at the meeting. "I'm surprised that they're so silent."

The developers who did speak simply begged planners to move forward with an EIR that will address the questions so they can get back to pouring concrete.

But that may not be so simple. Hestor complained that the Planning Department has so far failed to establish zoning controls that specifically allot ample space for the construction of low-income housing.

"We have a little map that says 'housing' but nothing that says how to build a neighborhood," she told the commission. She speculated that the project sponsors of 2660 Harrison would wait for planners to conduct a large-scale review of all the eastern neighborhoods rather than pay for their own costly EIR.

Environmental review officer Paul Maltzer told us city planners are working on a comprehensive eastern-neighborhoods EIR, but it won't be done until spring 2007. However, some early data on cumulative impacts could be released this fall.

Maltzer told the Planning Commission last week that the department was working on a memo that would outline the scope of 2660 Harrison's new EIR requirements. He explained, though, that all but a handful of the roughly 50 housing projects now in the city-planning pipeline would be on hold for the indefinite future.

There's a larger issue here too: If eastern-neighborhood developers have to look at the impact of pricey condos on affordable housing and jobs, could that potentially apply citywide?

Veteran housing activist Calvin Welch reminded the commission last week that the city's master plan calls for a certain percentage of low-income housing and the continued development of new public transit hubs.

"When you have a general plan that calls for transit first," Welch said, "and you have project after project approved in a part of the city that has virtually no transit, there is a fundamental planning problem that can only be addressed by a rather robust plan."

Even now the sweeping ramifications of Hestor's appeal don't seem to have completely sunk in for either top planners or developers.

"I think the Planning Department was shocked that this was no act of absentmindedness on the part of the board," Welch told us in a later phone interview.

Planning commissioner Michael Antonini still couldn't help at least describing it as a "quasi moratorium" at last week's meeting. Antonini asked Maltzer why the decision wasn't required to be part of a larger legislative package, considering its broad impact.

Maltzer said it didn't matter — the board is the appellate body, and while the decision stems from a single project, it has essentially become a blanket, at least for the eastern neighborhoods.

"This is not a moratorium," Maltzer said. "When the environmental analysis is done, decision-making can proceed." *