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State investigating S.F.'s decision to reject turning parking lot into 500 housing units

The California Department of Housing and Community Development is investigating whether the San Francisco Board of Supervisors acted improperly when it rejected a 495-unit apartment complex near Sixth and Market streets.

On Tuesday, in an 8-3 vote, the board upheld an appeal of the apartment complex at 469 Stevenson St., essentially saying that the project’s 1,129-page environmental study was inadequate and directing city planning staff and the developer to redo it. The broader study could take a year or two, and the Board of Supervisors could still reject the project if they deem that inadequate.

State housing director Gustavo Velasquez said that attorneys in that agency are looking into whether, in siding with opponents of the development, the board violated one of two laws: the Housing Accountability Act, a state law that limits the ability of cities to reject housing that complies with local zoning; or the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, which studies how development impacts things like wind, shadow, traffic and air quality. “It’s premature to say whether it’s definitely a CEQA issue or an HAA issue,” Velasquez said. “All I know is my legal team has already started gathering the facts and seeing if there is something we can act on.” If the state attorneys find that the vote violated state housing laws, the city would receive a warning letter. If the city still fails to approve the housing project, the state attorney general could file a lawsuit. “We want to make sure this project, and projects across the state, get approved,” he said. “Every time one of these cases comes up we are going to be diligent in acting if it’s within our jurisdiction.” State Sen. Scott Wiener, who has passed several pieces of legislation strengthening the HAA, said he thinks the vote may have violated the law. The 28,000-square-foot parking lot is zoned for housing and is listed as a residential development site on the city’s Housing Element, the state-mandated plan where cities identify sites for residential building. “The point of the HAA is not to change the rules in the middle of the game,” he said. “If a project complies with the existing rules in terms of density and height, you can’t reject the project unless (there’s a) specific health and safety problem, which there is not in this case.” Supervisor Hillary Ronen, one of eight supervisors who voted to support the appeal of the project, said that her reasons for upholding the appeal were consistent with CEQA law. She said that the environmental impact report did not adequately study the potential dangers of building on “liquid marsh.” She said that the proposal lacked a detailed analysis of the building’s foundation, something especially important in the wake of both San Francisco’s sinking Millennium Tower and the condo tower that collapsed in Surfside, Fla., this past June, killing 98 people. The cause of the Surfside collapse is still under investigation, though officials are exploring a range of potential issues, from improper adherence to building codes to failure to maintain the building properly. “You have the Millennium sinking, and the city on the hook for $30 million. You have tragedies in Florida,” said Ronen, who is an attorney. “You would want some expert analysis on how you build there safely. This is a typical CEQA issue one would expect to have analyzed in the EIR.” S.F. Housing

Ronen said that she had other issues with the project as well. She objected to the fact that the plan calls for 73 affordable units on-site and 45 off-site. She is concerned that the market rate building will gentrify the neighborhood. But she said that those concerns were not among the reasons she voted to uphold the appeal of the EIR. If the seismic issues are answered, she will vote to certify the EIR, which will let it go forward. “I’ll do it holding my nose,” she said. “I have overridden appeals of EIR when I hated the project because it’s my obligation to follow the law,” she said. At a time when state officials are pressuring suburban communities to accept more housing, it looks bad for San Francisco to reject 495 apartments, Wiener said. The board also recently voted to uphold the appeal of a 302 microunits at 450 O’Farrell St.. “When San Francisco acts like this, it sends a very negative message to the rest of the region,” said Wiener. “We have been pushing other cities to do their share, to be better, so when San Francisco does something like this, it puts the proverbial turd in the punch bowl.” J.K. Dineen

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