By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer
Most cranes swinging above San Francisco now represent outcomes of past fights.
Neighbors fought the office tower at 222 2nd Street all the way to the Board of Supervisors, for example. Groups fought Lennar’s Hunters Point project up through the courts. Others continued suing to stop the Central Subway even after construction had begun.
Project opponents often choose their angle of attack not so much for their primary concerns as for the most available political or legal path. Just so, well-to-do residents of the Four Seasons tower on Market near 3rd, concerned they will lose views by construction of the Mexican Museum and tower across the block, have sued because of the latter’s minor shadowing of Union Square.
At a meeting of the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Education September 15 I found myself recalling all this history, and more.
The Committee took testimony on a project proposed for 16th and Mission. (See the front-page story here.) Maximus Real Estate Partners has proposed two buildings, one of ten stories, the other smaller. The larger building would hold market-rate apartments; Maximus says the smaller would house “teachers and first responders.” Together they would provide 345 housing units and almost 33,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, and would flank on two sides the northeast entry to the 16th Street BART station.
The project would cast shadows on the play area of Marshall Elementary School, adjacent along Capp Street. To address this, the developer has proposed funding an addition to the school at $3 million and raising the play area atop the addition. This proposed gift is what brought the project before the Committee.
A group calling itself the “Plaza 16 Coalition” has formed to oppose the project. The coalition says the project “will further accelerate the already rapid gentrification of our neighborhood and city. We refuse to see more of our neighbors displaced and we refuse to lose any more of our neighborhood culture.”
Among the coalition’s demands are that Maximus abandon the project, that no more market-rate housing be approved in the Mission “until housing needs for the poor and working class are fully met,” and that the property’s owners “transfer the land to community hands.” Clearly none of these demands would allow for a compromise that would let Maximus build.
Small businesses and a Walgreens now occupy the site. No one lives there; the project would directly displace no one. While the coalition complains of “gentrification” of the Mission, the immediate neighborhood of 16th and Mission is in fact in the course of becoming truly mixed-income. Across the street from the Maximus project, with its pairing of market-rate and middle-income housing, the School District recently swapped a site at 1950 Mission to the City to build about 115 units of housing affordable to low-income residents.
The Plaza 16 Coalition spoke at the Buildings and Grounds Committee hearing.
There Commissioner Sandra Lee Fewer raised legitimate questions about Maximus’s proposed addition to Marshall Elementary. The architect’s renderings did not appear to meet state requirements for light, air, and emergency egress, and to pierce through the raised play area with shafts for light and ventilation could reduce it unacceptably.
Then Commissioner Fewer went on to ask something more vexing: If we continued to build housing, especially in the Mission, which had limited classroom space, would we outpace the District’s ability to serve families? In other words, shouldn’t we tie approval of housing to school availability?
Coming from Commissioner Fewer, this line of questioning had a measure of irony: She helped lead the effort to transfer 1950 Mission to the City for low-income housing construction. No story I’ve read on that effort recounts any concern of hers over school availability for eventual residents.
If availability of schools for new residents is genuinely a concern for Commissioner Fewer, however, we must note that the School District has had full opportunity to raise and address it.
The Maximus project adheres to the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. The Board of Supervisors adopted the Plan December 9, 2008, after seven years of hearings at community meetings, the Planning Commission, and the Board itself. The Supervisors voted 10-0, with Supervisor Daly excused, but with all other so-called “Progressives” in favor.
The School District, then, had seven years to raise the subject of proportioning school availability to housing construction in the Mission. While Commissioner Fewer did not sit on the Board of Education until after the Plan’s passage, she was active in District matters long before it.
Does her line of questioning, then, signal that opponents of construction and our work are probing a new angle of attack not directly related to their concerns? That is, will availability of existing schools be a new battle line for development? And will the Board of Education then become some sort of adjunct Planning Commission? Some Board commissioners have already felt entitled to weigh in on such development issues as last election’s Proposition B, the waterfront heights initiative.
It would be comforting to tell ourselves that fears on these accounts are unwarranted.
Knowing the history of development fights in the City, we can take no such comfort.