Civil Grand Jury report rips Parkmerced plan

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One week before the massive Parkmerced redevelopment project is slated to go before the Board of Supervisors for a second shot at approval, the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury has issued a scathing critique of the plan in a report titled "The Parkmerced Vision: Government-by-Developer." The assessment charges that the project's development agreement fails to guarantee adequate rent-control protections for current tenants whose homes will be razed and replaced with new units as part of the ambitious, 20-to-30 year overhaul.

The Civil Grand Jury report charges that the development agreement "is fundamentally unable to deliver such assurances because of overarching state laws that are changeable and subject to court interpretation. Through its call for demolition of existing units, the agreement eliminates existing statutory rights of tenants, replaces them with a contractual agreement from the owner/developer, and bypasses due process in the face of eviction."

The report appears to reject the claim that the tenant protections are "ironclad," an assurance that was repeated often in public hearings by representatives of the developer and the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "As it is stated, the agreement claims it can cause newly constructed units to be protected under the same rent stabilization ordinance previously applied to the demolished dwellings," the report notes. "In reality, current laws appear to contravene this claim."

When a discussion about Parkmerced was continued several weeks ago at a Board of Supervisors meeting, several members of the board voiced concerns that they did not have enough clarity on the question of whether renter protections could be guaranteed for tenants who reside in the complex's 3,221 rent-controlled units, some of whom have lived there for decades.

"Never before has a redevelopment project of this size and length been undertaken in San Francisco in an existing community where more than 9,000 people live," the report notes. It acknowledges the enormous tax revenues that the city stands to gain from the development, but cautions that "this windfall, no matter how promising, should not come at the expense of citizens’ legal rights."

To remedy the flawed agreement, the Civil Grand Jury recommends that the city "enact legislation prior to signing the Development Agreement that adequately assures the statutory rights of existing tenants to remain at Parkmerced and enjoy undisturbed continued tenancy," and goes onto suggest language providing that “If a landlord demolishes residential property currently protected under the City's Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance, and builds new residential rental units on the same property within five (5) years, the newly constructed units are subject to the San Francisco Rent Stabilization Ordinance."

Meanwhile, Parkmerced spokesperson P.J. Johnston has already issued a response the hot-off-the-presses report, sending out a press release calling it "flawed," and charging that the Civil Grand Jury is "calling for a solution to a problem San Francisco has already solved.”

Johnston contends that San Francisco already has a provision in the local municipal code that would do exactly what the Civil Grand Jury is asking city government to enact as a remedy for the shortcomings of the development agreement. Is Johnston's interpretation of the local ordinance an accurate assessment? Not being lawyers ourselves, the Guardian phoned the office of the City Attorney to find out. We'll post a response as soon as we receive one.

Johnston criticized the Civil Grand Jury report as "a highly political stink bomb," saying, "I believe we’ve been able to address those concerns over the past several weeks, and I hope our leaders are able to see past this kind of last-minute distraction.” Johnston, who previously served as former Mayor Willie Brown's press secretary, added, “This reeks of the nasty side of San Francisco politics.”

**UPDATE** The Guardian just received a call from an official from the City Attorney's office, who said they did not want to be quoted because Parkmerced is a highly politicized issue. This person confirmed that the existing code Johnston pointed to does in fact do just what the Civil Grand Jury was asking for, and added that the local law had been referenced in a Parkmerced board file from last week. Seems the Civil Grand Jury didn't have that information when it issued the report.