Neighbor Attends Design Review Meeting, Gets Depressed, Sees “Dark Heart” of San Francisco Housing Crisis

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Neighbor Jenna attended last week’s neighborhood review meeting for the proposal to build new homes on the “secret lot” at York and Cesar Chavez. Bernalwood noticed a few tweets she sent during the meeting, so we invited her to share her notes with us. Neighbor Jenna reports the meeting was somewhat depressing — though it helped her understand why San Francisco’s housing crunch is unlikely to go away anytime soon:

As you know from this post, there is a proposed 6-unit development attempting to go in at two of the empty interior lots inside York, Hampshire, Cesar Chavez & Peralta. I live on the 200 block of Peralta, not immediately bordering the land, but up a bit.

This meeting was bigger than the last I went to, which was also very frustrating. (That one was about the house on Alabama near the cafe that’s currently under construction. The woman that owns that Alabama house left the meeting in tears because she was being hated on for wanting to renovate and move into her own home).

This proposed development is mainly reasonable. Offering four single-family homes with 3-car parking, water capture & recycling and solar panels and 2 unit townhomes on the 25′ lot / access way on York. While the final “design” hasn’t been done, what was shown looks fine, if generic.

As far as I understood, both by the committee’s acknowledgement & the owner & architect, this is the fourth or fifth visit to the NE slope special committee with as many different proposals. The most recent previous proposal was for 12 units total, instead of six.

The entry to the interior lot containing the 4 single-family homes is through the garage on York shared by the townhouses. So, in theory, if each unit had two cars, there would be a total of 12 cars coming and going every day from a single 12′ garage. In my opinion, this is the most troublesome part of the proposal, but that’s part of city life. I can’t imagine if they had the 12 units with 2 cars per (24 cars!) going into one garage on narrow York.

According to the owner, he bought the land in 1979, and has been “trying to build ever since.” Wow.

After presentations from the owner, the architect, the fire deputy for our part of Bernal, and the geology expert who did the land and grading surveys, questions were flying.

The stuff you’d expect to hear was in abundance: Blocking light & views, the entrance on York, traffic behind people’s houses on the “driveway”, where will the garbage bins go, how will they prevent landslides, how tall are the units, how tall are the retaining walls, where will the water go, etc.

While I understand that people’s most valuable possession is their home, the objections to this eminently reasonable proposal began to feel more and more outrageous. People were saying, they bought their houses because of access to the “nature” lot behind their houses, the trees and quiet, concern about electromagnetic sensitivity” to a proposed car turntable, etc. Legally, homeowners have no right to “light, views, or nature” of undeveloped lots. This should have been part of research done during the purchasing phase and a risk taken by homeowners purchasing homes bordering undeveloped, but owned, land.

To me, it was a lot of “we like it the way it is” even though the development, in my opinion, would bring much needed housing to desirable Bernal and create more neighbors to add to our community of awesome folks.

There were objections to the (legal) heights of the roofs, the height of the retaining walls, fundamental misunderstandings about the way cisterns and water recycling works (I can’t tell you how long we spent on fundamental mis-understanding of the water re-direction) , and objections to things that are relatively new or rare like the car turntable (we spent a good 15 minutes on making sure everyone understood it was an electric turntable, not a turn around circle).There were even more objections about the construction noise, parking during construction, and the construction starting just after the Cesar Chavez construction was ending.

There were people challenging the experts on their reports. Particularly the fire marshall and the geologist. Challenging him on what was bedrock, exactly. Saying that the excavations would cause the collapse of the hill and surrounding retaining walls (many of which were hand-made by the owners). Challenging the fire marshall on the ins-and outs of his experience fighting fires at properties like this one.

All of this, in my opinion, is fine to bring up as a concern. But once the question was answered by an expert, it was challenged and re-challenged. There were people saying it was wrong to remove mature trees, chasing off the “nature” permanently. (If anyone wants extra squirrels, they can have mine!) There were even people simply saying “we like the way it is” and the standard “it doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood” argument – which seems to be a catch-all when reason fails. (There were even jabs and jokes made about how “rowdy” the patrons of Precita Park Cafe were, twinged with resentment. I’m so grateful for that cafe, it changed in a huge way, how we live and participate in our neighborhood).

In my opinion, we are in a desperate housing crisis in SF. There are not near enough available units to cover the number of people trying to live here.

As a homeowner who recently purchased a home (4 years ago) that 20 years ago was in an IDENTICAL situation, with two interior lots that their owners worked for YEARS to develop, I can feel the pain of the owner and architect acutely.

I’m SO grateful for my home, and my neighbors, and we watch out for them and they watch out for us. But our lot was the same as this one before the development. The neighbors used to run and play in our lots with their dogs and plant plants and treat it like public land, even though it never was. This created deep resentment during planning and development, which lingers to this day.

We fell in love with Bernal Heights because the neighborhood felt like a community. We could go the park with our dog and have people asking after us and catching up. For me, this meeting was extremely frustrating because it seemed like people felt entitled to things that ultimately weren’t theirs. It felt very uncompromising, negative and un-neighborly.

Is the owner going to get rich over this? Probably. Are we going to get six great new neighbors to watch out for our ‘hood? Likely. Are six families going to get to move to the neighborhood of their dreams? Yes. Will people’s lives be impacted in the short term? Definitely. Is everything ultimately going to be fine? Yes. Better, even.

One friend later told me I had seen “the dark heart” of the housing problem. Other friends said they stopped going to their neighborhood meetings because they couldn’t take it. The folks at these meetings are driving new and different perspectives away through their sheer endurance.

We live in a city. Cities are dense. We need to progress. This is not the face of progress.

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108 Responses to Neighbor Attends Design Review Meeting, Gets Depressed, Sees “Dark Heart” of San Francisco Housing Crisis

  1. R says:

    well said.

  2. Byrd Bodega says:

    Very well written. Thank you for posting this. You have a reasonable perspective, something that’s missing from too many of San Francisco’s residents (perhaps because a lot of people move here to live with their own mental issues, which would be unacceptable anywhere else, and no I am not talking about the LGBT community (mostly)).

    For the people who want stasis, the city is not for you. All change is a combination of good and bad, if not for you, for someone else.

    • CJ says:

      … just to clarify, being part of the LGBT community has nothing to do with having mental issues.

      • bldxyz says:

        I’m pretty sure that’s how Byrd meant it.

        As the sentence was constructed, one could be left with the opposite impression, so Byrd felt the need to ward off that interpretation. It is as if to say, the set of people who come to San Francisco because something about them is unacceptable elsewhere includes those who have ‘mental issues’ and those that do not.

    • bether24 says:

      I don’t see how stereotyping transplants to SF as being people with “mental issues” is helpful in this conversation. I also am not clear on why you found it necessary to say you weren’t talking about LGBT individuals. If anything, that makes me think that you WERE talking about the LGBT community. Maybe your somewhat valid point that SF is a dynamic City that is constantly evolving and changing would be easier to hear if you had simply left out the ignorant commentary that preceded the statement.

      • CJ says:

        Yes, to my point – even drawing the comparison in the first place is the problem. Also, yes +1 – describing transplants as people with “mental issues” takes away from the point… especially in a society that greatly stigmatizes people with mental disabilities. Better access to treatment and less name calling would be beneficial here. END RANT.

  3. NW-sloper says:

    ah, finally. Thank you for a thoughtful writeup. SF will never solve its housing crisis unless NIMBYs suck it up and let people build new housing.

    • NIMBYs will, almost by definition, never “suck it up.” What’s needed is an end to the ongoing farce of the neighborhood review process, AKA letting your neighbor vote on your architectural plans.

      Development in this city needs to be by-right: if your plan confirms to zoning and safety regulations, you are approved by default. Anything else is madness.

      • +1
        don’t blame the nimbys.
        neighborhood review = nimbyism.
        change the system.

      • Adam says:

        Any suggestions on how one would actually go about changing the neighborhood review system? I’d be willing to take part in starting that process, with the caveat that my willingness to doing so doesn’t move far beyond email and other internet based communication mediums (unless people want to start having community meetings that start at 8PM at the earliest).

  4. A says:

    “people felt entitled to things that ultimately weren’t theirs”

    Exactly.

  5. nancy says:

    Excellent review

  6. Pingback: The SF Neighborhood Blog Roundup

  7. BP says:

    “Other friends said they stopped going to their neighborhood meetings because they couldn’t take it.”

    That’s the problem, right there. The YIMBYs need to show up! Someone needs to stand up to the NIMBYs, who have typically always won out through sheer stubbornness. People need to step up and tell those hurling one disingenuous objection after another: “Enough.”

    I hope to hear more about meetings like this on Bernalwood, as I want to be there whenever possible to stand on the side of more housing.

    • SER says:

      Agreed.

    • GG says:

      I think that part of the problem (at least in my neighborhood, Glen Park) is that the NIMBYs often are elderly and/or have mental issues and, as a result, have copious free time in which to attend meetings, print flyers, contact their Supervisors, etc. etc. The more “reasonable” people are juggling work, life, and all the other things that make it difficult to find time to get involved, and it doesn’t help that hearings are often held on weekdays before 7pm, before most people get home from work. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make an effort to get involved, but it’s unfortunate that it’s often an uphill struggle — against people who have almost unlimited time resources.

      • Adam says:

        Yeah, this is basically the reason I haven’t attended many of these type of community meetings. If they were held at 8PM (ie when I’m home from work and had time to eat) and run efficiently (ie properly chaired and with talking time and questions limited and ordered), I would certainly spare an hour or so to go to them regularly. As is, I simply don’t have the time or patience for it.

      • Marsha says:

        Okay, I read the stuff about LGBT and people with mental issues and now it’s about the elderly too. Just to be clear folks, we are ALL reasonable from our own perspectives.
        Disparaging groups or classes of individuals is not a productive use of anyone’s time.

      • Just sayin' says:

        I think you’re part of the problem.

      • oldster says:

        Are you saying old folk are inherently unreasonable?

    • R.H. says:

      Unfortunately, dissident opinions are shot down and/or ignored at these meetings. You have to have a thick skin and a lot of time to waste.

  8. SER says:

    Very well articulated. When you buy a house in SF, especially one overlooking some empty lot or public land, you might reasonably expect that it’ll be there for some modest period of time – if no building projects were disclosed in the selling process – but where this all goes haywire is when people seem to feel that it is their right to have it remain that way forever. On our street, there’s an empty, untended lot on city land that is going to be turned into a public, educational demonstration garden that schoolkids can visit. Unobjectionable, right? Yet when the signs about the public hearing were posted, someone scrawled “SAY NO TO DEVELOPMENT” in angry black Sharpie on them. That’s NIMBY Hall of Fame material there.

  9. Carleton Hoffman says:

    that was lovely. now are you going to provide equal space to an opposing opinion?

  10. S says:

    people do have legitimate concerns to construction in close proximity to their homes – it’s not as simple as being a NIMBY vs a YIMBY. Developers don’t care – they don’t have to live there. Construction could very well destabilize or cause water runoff in unpredicted ways. A home built next door to ours completely blocked our easement so now we have no way out of our yard to move bulky furniture or escape in case the front door is blocked. A home is most people’s most important investment so it makes sense that they’d try to protect it.

    In theory, I’m in favor of development in Bernal Heights as there are quite a few vacant lots but at the same time, we shouldn’t just have development for the sake of it. Some of these lots are vacant for good reason. People are reactionary because they’ve been burned in the past.

    • Byrd Bodega says:

      “people do have legitimate concerns to construction in close proximity to their homes”

      Most homes are to one another in SF. The concerns you describe as legitimate are not legitimate, they’re ignoring that people in the city live cheek-to-jowel.

      “Developers don’t care”

      If codes are conformed to, there’s nothing to care about.

      “so now we have no way out of our yard to move bulky furniture or escape in case the front door is blocked”

      So you can use your front door unless it is blocked? Please explain.

      “we shouldn’t just have development for the sake of it”

      Right, we should only have development if there’s a shortage of housing. Wait…

      “Some of these lots are vacant for good reason”

      NIMBY is not a good reason.

      “People are reactionary because they’ve been burned in the past”

      And some people are still mad at their parents for how they were raised. Get over it.

      • S says:

        you have a right to your opinion but no need to be rude about it. Like I said, it’s not as simple as NIMBY vs YIMBY. People should try to be less reactionary and try to recognize what people’s concerns are and why so that they can come up with the best solution.

        development can happen that negatively impacts neighbors. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. even simple remodeling can bring to light unforeseen issues – you cannot guarantee that no unforeseen issues will arise from this sort of construction.

        I’m not saying that development should not happen, just that people have a right to be concerned and get their concerns addressed.

        *Our house is fully detached but the developer that built the new homes next door to us just built their side yard using our wall as the property line. This is mainly an issue in case of fire since we have no way to exit the house aside from the front door.

      • bether24 says:

        @S, I’m confused about your property line statement. Can you explain how it was okay when your home was built for it to be built on the property line, but when your neighbor wants to build a home it is no longer okay to build on the property line? This is a perfect example of NIMBY hypocrisy. (not in my back yard, unless I do it and then it’s okay)

      • S says:

        @Berther24 – my home is not on the property line -it’s fully detached. that’s the problem – they used the wall of our home as the dividing line. right now a bit of our property is in their yard.

        It’s not a lot of space we’re talking about and I like my neighbors – it just makes things difficult because we have no way to access our yard from outside. Our home is on the second level so if there were a fire blocking the front door the only way out is through their yard. (the other neighbors yard is one story below us).

    • Alemany Farmer says:

      If you had a legitimate easement, I’m sure a lawsuit would clean up any access issues. If you had an informal “easement” then you did not have the property rights which you thought you had.

      • Alemany Farmer says:

        To elaborate further, if your house is built up to the property line, you don’t have an easement on the lot next to you. They can build up to the property line as well. If your house builder failed to establish an alternative form of access on your OWN property besides the front door, it is not the responsibility of your neighbor to grant property rights to their property to you.

      • rick ross says:

        Ah, but even if her easement was not “legitimate” she may have been able to establish a prescriptive easement.

    • Lupe says:

      Given we are neighbors, I wholeheartedly agree with you, S. Many areas of Bernal are challenging in that homes had been built during different periods of time and when different codes were in effect. Homes literally plopped onto a parcel of land before streets were paved, or were even legitimate! On our block, we have homes built turn of the century straight through 2011. Quite a hodgepodge, packed onto a little, bitty, crooked and steep street! One new property can adversely affect all others, and I too have seen first hand what happens after the fact. Byrd, all the meetings in the world can’t stop progress. Homes will be built. Those nearby have a right to express their concerns and fears. But let’s face it…at the end of the day, a home will be built. I do see that for the property owner, it is a difficult tightrope to walk, which is why I’m leaving my vacant lot for my children to deal with when the right time comes. In my case, any construction on that lot will chiefly affect MY home. Best case scenario would be to merge the two lots, allowing them to basically add-on to the existing home, therefore diminishing issues to the surrounding properties. Because we care.

      • Ken says:

        Because you care or because you can see what a headache your neighbor is going through trying to build on his property?

    • R.H. says:

      If you want to keep that lot vacant, get together with your neighbors and buy it.

    • Alemany Farmer says:

      So in essence, you’re claiming they built on your property (not that they blocked your easement).

  11. Derek says:

    Excellent summary, Jenna. Thanks for taking the time to write and post this.

  12. Pamela says:

    Very good article Jenna. What a meeting about what happens when people don’t want housing in ‘their’ backyard, Bernal Heights is one of the last neighborhoods that has vacant lots that would be great for building homes/condos on. Several are now being built right above the Allemany Projects on land that has sat vacant for years. I think the above is a great plan. If anything, the new homes will upgrade/improve what is there already. It wasn’t too long ago when that area was definitely sketchy. The property owner is very lucky to be able to finally cash in his fortune; he certainly has a lot of patience [since1979!!]. The other neighbors should be glad it’s not going to be a public housing project.

  13. Julie says:

    Great post!

  14. David Kaye says:

    PEOPLE ARE STUPID to think that they have some kind of “right” to an empty lot next door simply because it is there at the time they buy their home. The only way to guarantee that you’ll live next to greenspace is to buy it.

    • bldxyz says:

      Some people tend to think that the parking space on the curb in front of their house belongs to them, too. It takes all kinds, really.

  15. bldxyz says:

    On the other hand, I look at this and see just six units. Yeah, that’ll change the supply and demand equation in San Francisco!

    Uh, no. This post depresses me because where we have empty space, a willing developed, and we have a fight to get six units developed. We need thousands of units developed in San Francisco, and if the process to get six units (within the zoning rights) approved is so cumbersome, how are we ever going to get to the thousands that are needed?

    • Adam says:

      Well, with the idiocy of some of the rules in the Bernal Special Use District we’re not going to get much more density locally unless those can be overturned or modified. I’ve had to modify my own development plans based on them (mainly that I’d legally have to have three parking spaces for my single family home if I added any additional living space).

      Current NIMBYisms aren’t the only problem, there are also huge hurdles to development written into the building codes as the result of past NIMBYism.

      • GSM says:

        Why should the neighborhood become (more of) a parking nightmare for those that want to have huge houses? While you may not be planning to add more people to your household, future owners might. There is no reason to build up a neighborhood unless it is sustainable. Our neighborhood should become unlivable so that others can build huge houses and reach maximum profit? I believe the Special Use District is a good thing – and I stand to profit from building out my house as well. Don’t want people with my perspective in your neighborhood, as your neighbors? Well then, who is actually the NIMBY?

      • Adam says:

        Honestly, I don’t think the answer to sustainable parking is forcing a number of parking spots per building (and really, 3 spots for a 2000sqft space is pretty high bar), its using parking permits like the rest of the city and limiting the number that are granted per building.

      • BP says:

        “Why should the neighborhood become (more of) a parking nightmare for those that want to have huge houses? While you may not be planning to add more people to your household, future owners might.”

        Why should someone who doesn’t plan on adding cars to their household, even if they plan on adding more people, be required to hold some of their own property empty for the hypothetical car that someone might want there 30 years from now? This is a ridiculous argument for mandatory parking. Future owners who want more space for cars shouldn’t buy a house that doesn’t have the parking they need – or modify the space to fit their needs. Problem solved.

        If anything, this city doesn’t do enough to accommodate those who don’t have need for car space. Some people who live here don’t even own cars.

      • BP says:

        correction: “or they should modify the space to fit their needs”

      • S says:

        I agree on principle – three cars is high for a SFH – but I think the issue is that people too often take up as much space as possible for living and then use a public street to store their cars. Just look at neighborhoods like the Sunset and Excelsior. It’s great that people are using their existing envelope to house more people but at the same time, then you get multiple cars per household competing for street parking or cars parked on paved over lawns. The rules may be stupid but at the same time, the problems they are trying to address are pretty complicated to solve. Ideally people would just drive less!

      • I agree, 3 car parking for 2250sf+ (not exactly “huge”) is ridiculous, as is the whole idea that mandated car storage space will somehow do anything to alleviate parking problems. What will help ease parking is FEWER CARS. SF should look at instituting a tax on vehicle ownership – whether you park outside or not. The answer is bicycles (get an electric one if you need help in Bernal) and public transportation, not more car storage.

        But back on topic, great post and I hope this project goes forward. I’d be sad to lose my own private park too, but it can hardly be surprising that that state of affairs wouldn’t last forever.

      • nsfw says:

        Do you guys really think Bernal is a parking nightmare? Have you ever lived in Cole Valley or say Western Addition?
        When you come home from work at 10pm and drive around for another hour just hoping to find a place, that’s a nightmare. Having to park a block from your house after 3 minutes of looking is not a nightmare, its just California lazy.
        Someone asked if adding six more units will really solve the housing crisis, but then you have to ask if six more cars on our streets would make parking any worse if they only built a two car garage?
        Wait until some of the restaurants in our corridor start blowing up.(Some already have.. Ichi, Pizza Hacker) Then you will see what difficult parking is and it will have nothing to do with an extra housing unit here or there.

      • bldxyz says:

        While it is certainly true that increases in density tends to put pressure on parking, we’re going to need to face the fact that density is required to make a public transit system work.

        I didn’t mean to suggest that it makes a lot of sense to increase Bernal’s density, and the idea of three car parking required for certain square footage rates seems lame to me, especially when my neighbor across the street parks three cars on the street and zero in his one car garage. Just like the person said about the Sunset: it makes no difference if you require parking and people end up using garages as extension of living space.

  16. Marsha says:

    Thank you so much for posting your opinion, Jenna. It is courageous to do so in the court of “NO” that has been prevailing lately in SF. I’m pleased so see so many posts in support of yours.

  17. Thanks (other) Todd and Jenna. Jenna, I appreciated your perspective. I won’t pass judgement on the plan since I don’t know very much about it, but you make it sound reasonable, and your analysis seems on point.

  18. bernalkc says:

    So what happens next? Just having people showing up and objecting is not enough to derail a proposal.

    Also, lest anyone get the impression that Bernal is wall-to-wall NIMBY, its not. This proposal literally abuts the back yard of a close friend, which makes her a bona fide *IMBY. She has been to other meetings about developing this lot and objected to previous plans. She finds this proposal to be much better than others — which suggests there is a value to the planning process including boisterous neighborhood vigilance. But she too was left with a wistful feeling. If improving the proposal has negligible impact on the reception, and since the developer does have rights to develop one way or another, its hard to see how this work itself out in any reasonable sort of way.

    • Adam says:

      If this was the usual public review required for the Bernal Heights Special Use District stuff, it actually doesn’t have any effect other than needing to happen. The committee that runs it will provide a letter indicating it happened to the city, which allows the planning process to continue. The developer doesn’t actually have to address anyone’s concerns at this point.

      Further along in the process, when they are ready to submit for the site permit they’ll be required to contact every owner within 200ft (at least thats my recollection, something close to that) with a more detailed writeup of the plans, which at that point will include full architectural drawings, etc. Those owners then have a month to submit a formal objection and call for a hearing on it.

      (This is just my non-professional understanding of this, having had to go through a the process for a relatively minor addition)

      • ESDRB board member says:

        I can clarify the East Slope Design Review Board process.

        The board will get together and discuss the project in light of the neighborhood guidelines and the concerns brought up by the neighbors. We will write a letter summarizing the comments. We generally write two kinds of letters: 1) ones that note concerns about how the project fits within the guidelines and the neighborhood context, and ask the project sponsor to refine the project and come back for another discussion, or 2) ones that recommend that Planning approve the project, since the project generally conforms to the guidelines or just needs minor refinements outlined in the letter.

        Project sponsors in the Bernal Heights Special Use District need to provide a letter to Planning. Planning wants a letter saying that the board recommends approving the project. While project sponsors can proceed with other aspects of the process in the meantime, it’s my understanding that they will eventually get hung up if they don’t have a letter from the board stating that the board recommends approval.

        Hope this is helpful.

      • R.H. says:

        Did we vote for the East Slope Design Review Board? How can I get on that board?

  19. Crumpetilicious says:

    ““Developers don’t care”
    If codes are conformed to, there’s nothing to care about.”
    Actually, the Building Codes don’t address all the issues, and there can remain a great many issues to care about regarding a proposed project.
    The Residential Design Guidelines address many issues of greater concern to neighbors, but they are just that, guidelines, not Code, and contain considerable room for subjective interpretation.

    Developers DON’T care. They’re trying to make a buck, or a few million.
    The Planning Department does it’s best, but they have hundreds of project to move along.
    When the developer has the time to lobby the planner assigned to a project, or hires a permit expediter to do it for them, then the neighborhood faces a steep uphill battle to have its voice heard in a meaningful, efficacious way.

    • Lupe says:

      While I have lived in SF all of my life, and had never had objections to building/property improvements near my homes. I did, however, have a truly negative experience when new homes built next to me were being planned and built. As we live on a dead end street, we knew it would be quite an undertaking and be hugely disruptive. We needed to know the project would work for all parties involved. My neighbors and I ended up being ignored and systematically excluded from very important meetings regarding improvements on our street that overlapped with the construction of the new homes (meeting dates and times changed without notification.) We literally had to fight our way into meetings. We each suffered from a multitude of property damage from all the entities involved with the construction/street/infrastructure improvements, after having been told our property wouldn’t be touched. Dates and times for certain projects were changed without notice, leaving residents stuck and unable to get to work. The hugest disappointment was that we couldn’t even get any worthwhile assistance from Campos. Our input was not valued from the get-go, and our issues were treated as “collateral damage”. These homes were to sell in the upper 900′s, after all. Money was to be made, and every day counted. We later found that the property owner had formally worked for SF, thus knew all the loopholes to push his agenda and ignore ours. The homes were less the issue than how were mistreated. A very frustrating and undemocratic experience.

  20. San Francisco has become an incredibly selfish city. No one cares about keeping SF as a place that people can come and afford to move to. They have theirs, and they want it to stay that way.

    • Adam says:

      There is an inherent of folks that are happy with the current state of affairs to fight against change, and in the case of the ability to afford housing those people are existing home owners and rent-controlled tenants with rates far below the market rate. And in general (possibly more so in this city than many others), the folks that are loudest tend to have disproportionate affect on policy.

      There are lots of folks in SF that want this city to become more affordable to live in, however not enough of them are participating in ways that will actually do much to change that. There’s way to much noise about evictions, tech busses, and highly paid tech workers, but way too little about the things that could realistically be changed to drive down housing prices. When it comes down to it housing prices are a result of supply and demand and not many folks actually want to change the forces driving the demand, so we need to fight for changes in the areas that control the supply. And that comes down to two areas that need serious change in this city, construction policies and rent control, both of which are broken in many ways.

      If you are in the class of people that is interested in making this city more affordable to live in, especially if you are not already a home owner, then go out to these public meetings (especially the public meetings for the big developments) and be just as loud in support of development as the voices that are against it.

      • bldxyz says:

        I agree, but I would add that you should also come to such meetings especially if you *are* a homeowner.

        I have said here time and time again that I think the solution to the housing crisis is by greatly expanding supply, and I have also noted how I believe the laws of supply and demand apply. I also am a homeowner. So I should be biased towards things that will make my house *more* valuable. High demand and low supply does, in fact, make it possible for me to get lower interest rates on mortgages, higher return should I ever decide to sell, etc. And because Prop 13 limits my property taxes, I don’t pay extra tax for the appreciation of the value of my house.

        However, I can see the benefits to the City as a whole if we do better to meet demand. Sure, the value of my home will be less than it otherwise would be, but the value of life in the City would be greater (that’s my self-interest), and so we need to show that it is reasonable even for people who have an ownership stake in the housing market can benefit from actions that would lower the price of housing.

  21. jeannedarrah says:

    I’m with you sister. Thanks for going to the meeting and reporting. Review is great for many reasons, but ultimately we need to bring more happy Bernal housing and folks to the hood.

  22. bob says:

    First: If you have to explain how you really aren’t a NIMBY, then you are in fact a NIMBY.
    What we are dealing with here is a system which is designed to make it as difficult as possible to build housing in San Francisco. We’ve received coverage all over the world recently about how poorly we handle our extreme housing crisis, and yet we still allow the exact scenario detailed in this story to play out across the city every time someone proposes a change.
    We’re about to enact a defacto moratorium on building anything on the waterfront (hello 0′ height limit on portions of the giants parcel) and i wouldn’t be surprised if that was immediately followed by an effort to force everything over 40′ to go to the ballot for approval.
    The harsh reality is that the system is set up to cater to those who don’t want housing, and the vast majority of us that do, are too busy living our lives to dedicate the kind of energy required to make a meaningful shift in policy. I dont see this changing until the me, me, me baby boomer generation runs its course.

  23. bernalkc says:

    There is a thread running through these comments to the effect that in-fill development is part of the solution to our housing shortage. I think this is misinformed in many ways.

    First, resistance to in-fill development has waned over the past two decades. Significantly. And many lots on Bernal, and throughout SF, have been developed in that time. I believe it was during the Brown administration that much of the NIMBY resistance was muted, and these policy shifts persisted ever since. If you’ve lived through the fundamental changes of the past 25+ years on the hill, you’ll know what I mean. In my view, what remains of the neighborhood review process is still onerous, still painstaking, still a forum for irrational BS (as in the doubts about drainage, retaining walls, etc.) but ultimately one that a legitimate project can survive. It does favor affluent, high-end development over affordable projects, ironically.

    Second, the demand for the kind of urban living found in SF cannot be solved by making SF bigger. The market demand can only be muted by developing more SFs. The region must change to create more walkable, dense, transit oriented communities all around the Bay. I see that happening in Oakland, RWC, even SJ, Mountain View and Benecia. If the peninsula shifts development policies to promote denser housing with more rental stock, Googlers will have less incentive to put up with onerous commutes and pressure on our housing will lessen. SF cannot build its way out of this supply shortage. Not with bitsy little in-fill projects like this, not with large scale projects like Mission Bay or Bayview. Its a regional problem, and SF cannot fix it all by itself.

    • Joe says:

      Sorry, supply and demand still apply. Even in SF. Yes, we can and should pressure surrounding communities to carry their fair share of housing burden, but the fact remains that we are not going to have the infrastructure that took SF 100 years or more to build out to support expanded communities.
      More people commute into SF for work, than commute out – we dont even come close to meeting our housing burdens.
      To simply throw up our hands and say that we cant build infill in SF is irresponsible and not accurate. The situation described in this story plays out continuously all over San Francisco and plays a large part in how we have gotten to where we are now.
      We have failed in meeting our housing burden, and we continue to try and make it more difficult to build in SF.

      • bernalkc says:

        That’s not what I’m saying. In-fill development *is* happening in SF. Community input is not as effective at blocking development as it used to be, and the drama described above is not the end of the story. The notion that “we continue to try and make it more difficult to build in SF” is simply incorrect. That was true in the ’70s and ’80s. It is not true now, even if vestiges of those anti-development policies, like the meeting above, remain.

        And small scale in-fill projects of this kind are not going to make much of a dent in the supply problem. I’m not saying it should be opposed. I’m saying it can not yield the scale of supply needed to meet demand. Even large scale projects like Mission Bay and Bayview are no match for the scale of the demand.

        Addressing the problem requires a regional approach. Historical patterns of sprawling, suburban, car-oriented development have to change because consumers no longer want it. Unfortunately, regional planning and land use policies are not changing in response to market forces, thereby distorting our housing market to absurd proportions.

      • Joe says:

        Sorry, we can agree to disagree on this one. Prop B? No wall? 8 washington? We’re experiencing something of a NIMBY renaissance in SF at the moment. SF is as restrictive as it has been for the past several decades. Maybe this is a decline from the days of the bay guardian writing books about how highrises are evil, but its still a town that loves to place roadblocks in front of development. If we are not, how can you explain how we got here?

      • bldxyz says:

        I’m going to go ahead and say that three statements are true: little in-fill developments (6 units here, three units there) will *not* change our position on the supply and demand curve, AND, more widespread development in San Francisco would have an impact, AND regional solutions would also have an impact.

        Simply put: there is demand to live in San Francisco and would be EVEN IF there was more housing stock available on the Peninsula. People are leaving San Francisco to live in Oakland not because Oakland is a more desirable place to live, but because Oakland is cheaper (or, you get more for your money there, same thing). Tech workers WANT to live in San Francisco — they don’t commute from the City down the Peninsula every day because the housing is cheaper or something. It’s just better here. And you can’t build micro-cities regionally that will compete (however much San Jose and Walnut Creek may try, it just won’t get there). But, on the edges, SOME tech workers will choose a dressed-up Redwood City, but not enough to put a serious dent in the demand on San Francisco. You need both. More housing in San Francisco, and more housing on the Peninsula.

    • S says:

      exactly.

  24. NDK says:

    Thanks for your very well-written perspective. My husband and I live on Hampshire, which borders the east side of the lot. We met the property owner days prior to the meeting, whose plan was to meet every neighbor who would be affected by his project. That was pretty classy, in my opinion. He showed us blueprints and asked us for support. While it was considerate of him to ask, we feel that he should have the right to do whatever he wants with his land, so long as he and his team follows safety, zoning, and code regulations. While I was not able to attend the meeting, my husband did speak a bit exactly to that opinion. It’s not our land. It’s not our place to decide what happens to it.

  25. Joseph A says:

    I feel for the owner of the property ,
    1st the city should cease charging any property tax for the land and refund all taxes paid by the current owner until it is given a green light to be developed.
    as for what can be built, there are lots of valid issues, but emergency access is not one of them , we already have numerous developments that have limited access.

    My thought is that the site be able to be developed , BUT without parking , and only in a manner that does not endanger existing housing from de stabilizing he hillside.

    There are numerous buildings like this in Telegraph Hill so it should be an easy project.

  26. I love this. I live on 29th and Mission and have been meaning to go to one of these meetings for a long time. It’s a serious breath of fresh air to see a pragmatic person point out that people are upset about things they aren’t entitled to. We need to help people know their rights – including the ones they don’t have.

  27. Eugenie Marek says:

    Neighbors need to be included in the process. Part of community is input, airing opinions, feelings, ideally reaching concensus. It’s very often messy, as this seems to be, but since many people value living in Bernal because of the community or village that it feels like, public discussions of things that will effect us goes along with this.
    It’s only speculation but I guess the price of each home close to or above $2 million. I’m hard-pressed to image how this will ease the city’s housing crisis. Buyers will either already be housed in the city or move into the city from elsewhere. So, I suggest leaving that “concern” out of the discussion. Then it comes down to, as written above, zoning, safety, and impact on neighbors. One positive note: this large block of home dwellers are getting to know each other

    • MC says:

      I disagree. “Community” is not about forcing people to spend tons of time and money handholding each neighbor through that neighbor’s specific issue/fear/hangup. That’s what zoning and building policies are supposed to do – set rules so that every single remodel or change doesn’t have to be hashed out person by person from scratch.

      A city can’t function like this. If it was a few dozen people living in some tiny village, maybe, but the expectation that every resident who happens to live nearby deserves to have significant 1:1 time, input and veto authority over every single possible change to that neighborhood, is nuts. It’s not a commune. It’s an urban neighborhood with a necessarily diverse population that will likely never agree on anything, so all this community uber-involvement results in, is gridlock. It can’t be about making everybody satisfied, that’s an impossible goal.

      The argument that “this one project won’t solve the housing crisis” is a red herring because that statement can be made of every housing project. No, one 6-unit project won’t solve the housing problem, and it won’t cure cancer or bring world peace either. But this debate over one tiny project is a microcosm of what’s deeply broken with the process everywhere in SF. And eventually lack of housing will distort this city in crippling ways (if it hasn’t already).

      • R says:

        Exactly. If neighbors want input, they should vote in representation that will change the zoning laws, not expect veto authority.

      • R.H. says:

        It has already….

      • Eugenie Marek says:

        A pretty ornery presentation to justify your opinions! If you want change, exaggerating the situation to fit your views doesn’t further the discussion, but rather puts people off.

      • Joe says:

        “A city can’t function like this. If it was a few dozen people living in some tiny village, maybe, but the expectation that every resident who happens to live nearby deserves to have significant 1:1 time, input and veto authority over every single possible change to that neighborhood, is nuts”

        San Francisco operates as if it was some tiny village.

      • nsfw says:

        +1 MC. Nailed it. We can’t even get people to agree on the design of a parklet. How will we agree on the design of the Bay Bridge if we open it up to the public? Oh wait, we didn’t agree and look how long and costly that mistake was.

    • Joe says:

      This magical mythical state of consensus in SF doesn’t exist. What exists now is that neighbors feel free to bully other neighbors into giving them what they want. Either you have the money and time to fight, or you just give in. This idea that we all get together and hold hands while everyone gets what they want is fallacy.

  28. Joseph A says:

    @bernalkc I think that sprawl is a bad both for the creation of dynamic communities and for the environment , but lets be honest we are talking about an interior lot that either should be allowed to be built., and if its going to be forced to be a green space then the city should buy it and access the burden to the property owners that border it.

  29. Greg says:

    It’s a shame that the NIMBY’s have already gotten the developer to “voluntarily” reduce the proposed number of units from 12 down to 6. I’m sure the same NIMBY’s will then question why the units are $2M+ each. If the developer was able to build to the maximum density / heights allowed by code, we’d end up with a higher quantity of lower priced units. This type of community involvement just drives up prices. This is exactly why all current development in SF is luxury development.

  30. Target says:

    If a development needs a “car turntable” it doesn’t pass the common sense test,.

  31. Ben Wiseley says:

    But I’m to blame. I make $100K, work in tech, don’t own a car, walk to work, live in an (illegal – in Bernal) 1 car AirBNB garage and can barely afford whiskey… that’s why SF is going to hell. Get back on track people.

  32. Many many thanks for this wonderful recap of the meeting Neighbor Jenna. I call you that simply because this blog post has done so. You are not actually my neighbour but I do wish you were part of the little community in which I reside. I will be forwarding this to others here because I’d like them to be able to relate to your wonderful perspective and this small island has been enduring horrendously similar harangues during public meetings about the development of similarly privately owned lands that have been treated as public for decades. My hope is that your words will be more easily comprehended as they come not from any of the ‘usual suspects’ here. In a nutshell this village is battle fatigued and weary to the bone. Fresh words and fresh eyes may help many who seem to believe the conflicts here are unique realize that they are terribly common after all. Good luck to you Bernalwood and Neighbor Jenna and all the rest of you who welcome change and progress and new neighbours who come along with that and (this I especially appreciated) understand that you would not be there but for previous change and progress.

  33. Crumpetilicious says:

    Such haranguing about NIMBYs! You’d think this thread was a conversation at a RBA membership meeting. Seriously though, I make a significant distinction between resident owners proposing modifications to their own homes and developers/speculators/non-resident owners proposing significant new construction on vacant lots (or “major leave the sidewalls and rebuild everything with an additional floor or two” projects) in established neighborhoods. Developer/speculators all to often come and build a monstrosity that doesn’t fit the existing neighborhood blockface or massing, and then leave with their profits, while the neighbors have to live with the disruption of their neighborhood character. Read the Residential Design Guidelines. There’s some good stuff in there, but the planners and Residential Design Teams too often make interpretations that side with the developers that they have to work with year in and year out, rather than the neighboring residents who have to actually live with the projects.

    • Trevor says:

      I can quite clearly hear the collective pearl clutch “Disruption of neighborhood character”
      Having the time to obsess about such things as neighborhood character as opposed to family, or work, or any of the other real non twee things is quite indicative of the type of people who have brought us out current housing crisis. Overly entitled provincial dilettantes.

      • bldxyz says:

        +1 “disruption of their neighborhood character”. Bah!

        That’s a euphemism for “I don’t want any change in my neighborhood” that results in either nothing by garishly painted Victorians or a bunch of run down Eduardians or post-war boxes. (Mine is a post-war box, by the way).

        You know what I think is the “neighborhood character”? An eclectic mix of eras, styles and conditions. I *wish* a couple of houses on my block were torn down and made into a modern monstrosity! Just look around and you’ll see variety and change is abundant! That’s the essential character!

      • S says:

        Every time you go up to Bernal Heights park, just remember it was those same “NIMBY’s” who preserved that open space for all to enjoy. Yes some people are a bit reactionary, but not all developments are good for a community. While these meetings can be frustrating and for the most part I’d like to see more housing built, I’m glad that I can have a voice in the planning process and that my neighbors can as well.

    • “disruption of their neighborhood character” == “The developers who built stuff 50-90 years ago get the final say on what the neighborhood looks like, forever.”

      This isn’t planning, it’s kitschy ancestor-worship. The original neighborhood character of the south side of San Francisco was farmland. The Bernal / Excelsior / Bayview that we all live in now disrupted the hell out of that character.

    • nsfw says:

      Can we get the design police to shut down the crappy paint chipped pink stucco box called a house at the end of my block? It’s really working against the design guidelines I’m sure are in the 1987 Bernal “OG” constitution.

  34. ESDRB board member says:

    A response to R.H. about getting on the East Slope Design Review Board: the board is not elected since generally not that many people are interested in volunteering their time to participate. It would be nice to have the involvement of some folks who are expressing interest in the issues that the board is responsible for. Up to two neighborhood meetings per month when things are busy, plus the time to review/discuss projects and write letters to project sponsors. If you are interested in volunteering please reach out. Terry is the external secretary, phone is (415) 285-8978.

    • Adam says:

      Is there an email address or mailing list for this? For me requiring phone calls is pretty much a guarantee that I won’t get involved.

      • Joe says:

        Alternately, you may send a telegram by western union

      • Adam K says:

        Yeah, I’m inclined to think that if you can’t make a phone call, you can’t make a meeting, either. So you’re probably not the best candidate for this job.

      • Adam says:

        Frankly, email has been in active use for 20 years at this point and is far more effective at getting things done. I know I can’t sit on the committee (see earlier comments about not being able to make meetings before 8PM) but as a resident and home owner in the neighborhood I’m very interested in working towards meaningful reform of the system.

  35. kathleen campbell says:

    Most of the neighbors are willing to see a reasonably-sized project built if it is done right. We have some concerns about both the proposed building site itself and the owner/builder: 1. In 1995 he submitted a geologist’s report to the East Slope Design Review Board that had the most relevant pages missing. 2. At that time he also had such shaky financing that he was going to have to build 10 units one at a time – build one, sell it, then build another. He says he has the financing together this time. The concerns about the site are that the property line (where the proposed driveway would be) between the interior lots and the houses on Cesar Chavez (almost all owned or rented by Latino families, BTW) is basically a cliff, in some places 15 or 25 feet high. The owner admitted at the Review Board meeting that his property had “shed some dirt” (his words) on at least one of the Cesar Chavez backyards. Those families are worried about the driveway traffic overhead of their backyards and the possibility of the hill sliding down into their backyards. So I guess they are saying Not In My Back Yard, but what they mean is no cars and no landslides. We just want anything built there to be built reasonably and right. If anyone takes the trouble to look at the lot next to 1515 York Street you will wonder how on earth anybody expects to build a driveway, much less a 2-unit building, on such a narrow space with a steep drop-off on one side. Take a look for yourself.

    • KB says:

      Thanks Kathleen for providing pertinent facts, and a bit of balance to the discussion.

      • Ken says:

        That sounds kind of funny, but then again fear is often the tactic that is employed. There are plenty of tiny looking homes in San Francisco, which, once you have entered them, you realize they are not tiny two story homes, but massive four story buildings, owing to the so-called cliffs in their backyards.

  36. Pingback: How To Prevent SF’s Housing Crisis From Getting Even Worse: Vote No on Prop B Today | TechCrunch

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