At a Sept. 30 Planning Commission meeting, several commissioners and community members raised concerns that project approval for Parkmerced, a development that will add thousands of new housing units to an existing residential complex, had been scheduled before anyone was really prepared to discuss it. It’s since been pushed back, but the attempt to rush it through drew fire nonetheless.
Land use attorney Sue Hestor said she’d discovered the day before the Planning Commission meeting that a final project EIR would be made available Oct. 7, with an approval hearing scheduled just two weeks later, on Oct. 21. That came as a surprise even to Hestor, who closely monitors development projects. “You cannot just drop a complex legal document on people two weeks before the hearing and say that is sufficient,” Hestor said. “Two weeks for a staff report for this project is insulting.” Prior to this notice, the hearing on Parkmerced was widely expected later in the year.
Christina Olague, vice-president of the Planning Commission, said during the meeting that the accelerated timeline was highly unusual. "I was hearing that we were going to be attempting to initiate this project on the 7th of October with an approval calendared for the following week," she said. "And I was concerned that it felt, at that point, that it was a little bit out of the hands of the planning commission. When it comes to projects of this size, I just felt like that was too much of a rush to get it through, especially given that we are in the middle of CPMC with comments due the 19th of October."
Olague said the process made her uncomfortable. "I felt a lot of our say was being removed from our realm and there were outside forces ... other departments in the city that were kind of influencing it in a way that didn't feel comfortable to me," she said. "Also, historically ... we have never done it that way. Usually we calendar an item for one week and then there's a 20-day noticing period that allows members of the public to digest the information and review the information." She added, “I just didn’t want the public to get the impression that we were favoring one project over other projects.”
Calvin Welch, an affordable housing activist, noted that Parkmerced developers have a laudable goal of preserving onsite rent-controlled units at the housing complex -- but he had yet to see a draft of a development agreement outlining the details of that plan. The planning commissioners hadn't seen that document, either. Welch suggested more time was needed to review the terms of the agreement.
If the Planning Commission had approved Parkmerced on this accelerated schedule, it might have gone to the Board of Supervisors for approval before the end of the year, so the votes would’ve easier to count than if the project went before a new class of Supes in 2011.
The Guardian reported earlier this month that Mayor Gavin Newsom received a $1,000 campaign contribution for his bid for lieutenant governor from Craig Hartman, a design partner for Parkmerced, plus $2,000 from two executives associated with the project. AECOM, which is completing technical studies for the project, gave him campaign donations totaling $13,000.
Speaking to a crowd of real-estate professionals and representives from the business community a couple weeks ago, Newsom urged them to get involved in district elections in order to avoid “a dramatic shift” that would occur if the wrong people get elected to local office in November.
Did the mayor's office lean on the planning department to rush the approval of Parkmerced in order to ensure a more predictable outcome? We emailed Newsom’s press secretary, Tony Winnicker, with questions, and we’ll be sure to post a response if we receive one.