Fate of Parkmerced Awaits Court Of Appeals Decision
On Monday, May 19, 2014, the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments regarding the case of Parkmerced vs. the City and County of San Francisco. The judges that presided over the case were Justice Tony Cline, James Richman and by special assignment, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steve Brick. These three judges will decide the fate of Parkmerced; no jury will be present. Lawyer Stuart Flashman represented San Francisco Tomorrow and Parkmerced Action Coalition, while Deputy City Attorney Brian Crossman represented the City and County of San Francisco as well as the projectʼs sponsor, Parkmerced Investment Partners.
If City Attorney Brian Crossman’s assertion is true that Proposition M has no ability to influence building policy today, then what about Proposition B, passed by voters in the last election, which concerns building height along the waterfront?”
The courtroom seats 100 people. The space is impressive, with a ceiling at least 30ʼ high and well lit. A large mural, painted by Willard Dixon, was the backdrop behind the judges. The pastoral scene in the Central Valley portrayed a simpler time, before large farmers tilled the land, when water languished on site and when fences were not required. The majestic nature of the architecture imposed a formal demeanor on those witnessing the hearing. The importance of the decision by the court was on everyone’s mind. That being said, notes were being taken by many of those present.
Prior to the meeting the judges read the arguments presented by both parties; they asked the presentation lawyers to emphasize particular points they felt important. Stuart Flashman spoke extemporaneously in a conversational convincing style that was easy to understand.
City Attorney, Brian Crossman, presented his argument, that was short and difficult to understand.
The most convincing argument made by Stuart Flashman referenced Proposition M, passed by the voters in 1986, limiting the amount of development in San Francisco. Flashman argued that the will of voters trumps the authority of the Board of Supervisors (BOS) and the Planning Commission regarding development policy; the Proposition M building restriction would apply to new construction at Parkmerced. The City Attorney disagreed, stating that the vote of the people has no greater standing than laws originating with the BOS; this was a view challenged by Justice Cline. However, the Judge thought that perhaps Proposition M might not be able to meet all of its overall objectives because several priorities could be in conflict with each other. He asked attorney Flashman what should happen then. Flashman said that the voters intended that if a project couldnʼt meet all the policies, it should be turned down. Even if the project was essential to meet one of the policies, he said the voters intended maximum possible compliance, not merely that the project “generally comply,” as the City argued.
Other arguments presented by Stuart Flashman included the recognition of Parkmerced as an historic landmark. As such, it should receive protection under the San Francisco General Plan.
Numerous prestigious organizations involved with the preservation of historic places have endorsed the protection of Parkmerced. Moreover, Stuart Flashman also noted that neighborhood character and housing affordability are protected by proposition M.
Therefore, Coit Tower, Chinatown, and our Victorian housing stock located beside Alamo Square and elsewhere all need our protection. The parallel being made was that these unique places, which everyone would agree need protection, should include Parkmerced. After all, Parkmerced is a shining example of the “Modern” design movement, designed by Thomas Church, the “father” of landscape architecture in the Bay area. Parkmerced is special for this reason, not to mention it being the largest affordable housing development in San Francisco, one of Churchʼs largest projects, and a project that is easily accessible to the public.
Lastly, in his data section, Flashman noted that the FAR (floor to area ratio) and the I-27 and I-2 sections of the housing element tables provide little information from the planning department regarding development guidelines. Suggestions for reasonable or recommended density levels, population density, building intensity, transportation effectiveness and other requirements for successful development are excluded.
Arguments presented by Brian Crossman, the City Attorney, included the belief that development would be seriously hampered if San Francisco accepted the position set forth by Stuart Flashman. In agreement with the City Attorney, Judge Cline volunteered the belief that “chaos” would occur if Proposition M was strictly adhered to; Judge Brick volunteered his fear that the City would be frozen in amber with the strict interpretation of Proposition M.
Flashman countered that a strict interpretation of Proposition M would not stop other development, if the public was in agreement with the new project.
As a point of reference, a number of past cases were mentioned, by lawyers and judges, to guide the court. The cases mentioned included Harris vs. County of Riverside, Landon vs. Denver, Gorret vs. City of Riverside, and the Arnel Development vs. City of Costa Mesa.
The head judge, Tony Cline, noted that the case was complex. At the close of argument, the court took the case under submission for consideration. A written decision is expected to be issued sometime this summer.
If City Attorney Brian Crossman’s assertion is true that Proposition M has no ability to influence building policy today, then what about Proposition B, passed by voters in the last election, which concerns building height along the waterfront? Does Crossman’s logic imply that Proposition B also has no more standing than the momentary whim of the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors?
It is unfortunate that a court case that will dramatically affect the lives of all San Franciscans was not attended by the corporate media. If this case is decided upon unfavorably, Highway One (19th Avenue) will become a construction zone for years into the future, while a troubled MUNI will attempt to design and implement a plan to transport an additional 17,000 Parkmerced residents. Doesn’t anyone else think this is important news?
Lastly, it is worth noting, this case comes at a critical time for San Francisco, when pressure for development is at its greatest, when working class families are fleeing San Francisco in large numbers, and when San Francisco is becoming increasingly less affordable.
Glenn Rogers, PLA, Landscape Architect, License 3223, Aaron Goodman
Parkmerced: Check Your Lease
When I moved into Parkmerced it was not disclosed to me nor anyone in my family that Parkmerced Investors Properties, "the owners" were going to demolish the garden apartment that was our home. As you can imagine we were shocked to hear about this.
We did hear about a possible Parkmerced default on a mortgage payment and filing bankruptcy. As a new resident, I did not know what to think or believe. Can an apartment complex the size of Parkmerced fail to disclose that they planned to demolish our home prior to renting us the apartment?
Can an apartment complex the size of Parkmerced fail to disclose that they planned to demolish our home prior to renting us the apartment?"
The California Landlord Tenant Handbook cites Cal. Civ. Code 1940.6 (a):(a) The owner of a residential dwelling unit or the owner's agent who applies to any public agency for a permit to demolish that residential dwelling unit shall give written notice of that fact—the section goes on to describe circumstances where the property owner must inform a tenant and prospective tenant.
Being wrongfully evicted is a shock I hope you never experience.
Pastor Lynn Gavin lived in Parkmerced.
SFMTA'S 19th Avenue Traffic Plan: A Study in Flawed Development
The 19th Avenue Transit Study proposes to improve traffic conditions along 19th Avenue. The study by the SF Metropolitan Transit Authority (SFMTA) seems more focused on money than public good, does not follow proper rules of transit design, shows favoritism to developers, does not consider how changes will affect senior citizens or the disabled, shows bias to certain businesses over others, provides a design that will create noise and blight in a tranquil residential community, and lastly, ignores more satisfactory solutions.
the new location of the 'M' streetcar in Parkmerced would eliminate a close stop …where a Senior Center is located. This center provides many important services to disabled adults and seniors. Neglecting seniors and the disabled is not “commuter friendly.”
Background The thrust of the SFMTA plan is for the 'M' streetcar to enter Parkmerced, where a new station would be located, partially funded by the Fortress Investment Group LLC, which would provide 70 million dollars. Federal funds are matched 80% by projects considered to be "commuter friendly." Unfortunately, this plan is not in the public's best interest because we will be forced to wait 20 more years to connect to Daly City BART via the 'M' streetcar. Thankfully, San Francisco Tomorrow has provided a serious legal challenge over the appropriateness of this project.
Mass transit is at its best when it is in a straight line, connects two points or systems directly, and conjoins other lines along its route. At the request of the developer, Fortress Investment Group, LLC, the project has been designed to enter a residential neighborhood, Parkmerced, deviating from a straight line route A more direct route would continue along the west side of 19th Avenue directly to Daly City BART, traveling over the 1952 Interchange at Brotherhood Way, then over the 280 Highway into Daly City.
In the SFMTA study, one of two 'M' streetcar lines is proposed to service Parkmerced exclusively. This could have a detrimental effect on the Oceanview district's fragile economy. Besides, we don't need one streetcar following another, one full of passengers, stopping for every patron, and an empty streetcar just behind.
No medical professional or agency has reviewed the study for its impact on the physically impaired, seniors or seriously ill. Reducing stops requires people to walk a quarter of a mile or longer to new 'M' streetcar stops. Also, the new location of the 'M' streetcar in Parkmerced would eliminate a close stop at the Temple Methodist Church, where a Senior Center is located. This center provides many important services to disabled adults and seniors. Neglecting seniors and the disabled is not "commuter friendly." The 19th Avenue Traffic Study and the urbanization of Parkmerced are founded on requirements they have not satisfied.
The plans show bias toward certain businesses and present hardships for others. They include no stop at Ocean Avenue, as the train crosses underground to Mercy High School and a Stonestown below-grade station. With the omission of this stop, Ocean Avenue businesses will lose customers. And the SFMTA plan envisions new businesses by SF State University, along with Parkmerced's new retail facility on Crespi Drive. Numerous existing stores on Ocean Avenue will lose business. SFMTA should not be picking "winners and losers."
The 'M' streetcar will create noise in a tranquil neighborhood, adversely effecting residents. Gunshots from the nearby gun club and police range already generate noise pollution. A streetcar in this neighborhood, climbing up a grade as currently shown and turning in a tight radius would add an unacceptable level of noise. Urbanizing this tranquil residential neighborhood with a streetcar turn-back, dead-end and station stop would be a big mistake.
Each elevated solution should be explored and polled by the public individually before they are dismissed by the SFMTA. Neighbors also hope to avoid a protracted traffic jam from road closures that an underground traffic solution would take. An elevated transit solution is easier to construct and less expensive.
Finally, a connection to Daly City BART by the 'M' streetcar has not been seriously studied. Only last month they corrected an error in their proposed route of the 'M' streetcar that would have been blocked by three towers on the way to Daly City BART. This station serves thousands of SF State students.
Today, the existing parking garage at the Daly City BART station has reached capacity and cannot be enlarged within the existing structure. A new 'M' streetcar station combined with a new parking garage alongside the BART station, in an intermodal fashion, could be paid for with proper assessment of transit fees of Stonestown's future development, with SFSU-CSU's increased enrollment fees and the Parkmerced donation to transit infrastructure
For Parkmerced, the largest affordable community in San Francisco, to be gentrified a "commuter friendly" plan is required. Presently 8,000 residents will swell to 25,000, and most of the affordable housing will be gone. Parkmerced is recognized by these prestigious organizations as architecturally and historically significant: National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation, the San Francisco Architectural Heritage, the Cultural Landscape Foundation & the Northern Chapter of the Historic Landscape Survey. The developer calls Parkmerced blighted while Ignoring routine maintenance. The architect, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP (SOM), presents its own Parkmerced Vision Plan, with transportation improvements, new retail opportunities, and a new grocery store (one already exists). I think their research did not go far enough.
Glenn Rogers, PLA, Landscape Architect, was assisted by Aaron Goodman
Projectomania: Build First, Plan Later
On December 14, 2012, Judge Teri Jackson issued two decisions related to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), approving two of the largest developments in San Francisco since the Bayview-Hunter’s Point project. On this day she approved the development of the Parkmerced and Treasure Island projects. These approvals gave developers, political lobbyists and finance firms (such as China Community Bank) reason to celebrate. Typically, Chinese contractors are required to perform work on projects funded by the China Community Bank and, though City officials claim this would never happen in San Francisco, it should be noted that the Oakland Bay Bridge was both fabricated and installed by many Chinese companies at a time when local unemployment was at a record high.
Judge Jackson approved the Parkmerced project based on its commuter-friendly status that waits 20 years for the “M” street car to extend to Daly City BART. Improvements like these need to be provided before development, not 20 years later. Safe to say, waiting this long for necessary improvements means they may never happen.”
The Parkmerced decision¹ was largely ignored by the press, although Parkmerced is presently one of the largest garden rental apartment communities west of the Mississippi. Parkmerced was originally designed by the father of modern landscape architecture in the Bay area, Thomas Dolliver Church, and is one of his only publicly-accessible sites. The landscape was featured in the traveling exhibition “Marvels of Modernism Landscapes at Risk” in 2008 by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. ²
The decision to demolish Parkmerced poses a quandary regarding how densification of urban areas will be accomplished in the coming years. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), responsible for transit-oriented development and Assembly Bill 32 - Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), are in many ways in conflict with the San Francisco General Plan in how to best preserve and protect rental housing and culturally-significant landscapes against development. Assembly Bill 32 requires significant reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. The Parkmerced project is expected to last 20-30 years from the beginning of development, a process which has been delayed by additional litigation. Adding to greenhouse gas concerns are pollution from dust, especially lead paint from decades of maintenance on Parkmerced. Despite this inconsistency, Judge Jackson claimed, “There is no requirement for the Project description to identify a specific date for completion of the Project.”
800 Brotherhood Way Now, another project is being planned for a unit development next to the Parkmerced project. This project, 800 Brotherhood Way, is being started without an EIR review. Along with the San Francisco State University (CSU-SFSU) master plan, this other project negatively affects Parkmerced as a master-planned community. 800 Brotherhood Way will add 182 housing units to an already densely crowded area, and inject many tons of CO2 and dust into the air west of 19th Avenue. Accordingly, the approval of these two projects should be undertaken together. Since the Parkmerced and 800 Brotherhood Way developments are intended for market-value housing, forcing most of the apartment bidders to pay full-price for rentals and possibly future condominiums, how would it be possible to find tenants willing to tolerate 20-30 years of unhealthy fumes and noise in a seemingly perpetual construction zone? Needless to say, some City officials question the feasibility of these projects.
The project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) described 19th Avenue, a traffic artery adjacent to Parkmercd, as already impacted by traffic. Despite this description, Judge Jackson approved the Parkmerced project based on its commuter-friendly status that waits 20 years for the “M” street car to extend to Daly City BART. Improvements like these need to be provided before development, not 20 years later. Safe to say, waiting this long for necessary improvements means they may never happen. Besides, common sense challenges a project that claims to be commuter-friendly when it increases tenants by 17,000 and adds 6,000 additional parking stalls. Judge Jackson could have overturned this project on this recognized problem alone.
There are 11 existing towers, 13 stories high, only two miles from the San Andreas Fault line. Residents claim that these towers were seriously damaged from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and were repaired only superficially. Judge Jackson excludes retrofitting these buildings as part of the new improvements to Parkmerced. Stuart Flashman, the lawyer representing the preservation of Parkmerced, described a future scenario whereby these towers could be destroyed in another catastrophic earthquake in the near future. This anticipated earthquake could add to the scope of the development of this project not anticipated in the EIR. This scenario was also ignored by Judge Jackson.
A recent EIR on the topic of housing notes a culture of demolition and maximizing of profits for the few in San Francisco. This culture has ignored the real needs met by Met-Life in the development of Parkmerced, in conjunction with the City, during the World War II housing crisis. These three recent decisions by Judge Jackson have affirmed that appealing to CEQA, the public’s main venue for contesting and protecting existing communities, is becoming more difficult. As an appointee of former Mayor Willie Brown, Judge Jackson’s consistent favoring of City agencies and private developers hints at her past relationship with the famed business-friendly bureaucrat. Therefore, questions arise regarding Jackson’s ability to give a fair trial, when developments are seemingly approved in a “rubber-stamp” fashion.
Meanwhile, sweeping changes in CEQA are being proposed simultaneously by Supervisor Scott Wiener and Governor Jerry Brown that will further eliminate the public’s ability to appeal future EIR’s. What is lacking in this discussion is how the Parkmerced redevelopment project will be analyzed for alternatives that generate a sounder investment in land-use, transit planning, environmental protection and enhancement. How can we preserve open space that prevents the demolition and destruction of resources? How can we build upon housing design when we destroy a shining example of the ‘Garden City’ movement, a project that was as much a social experiment as an example of a master class landscape architect’s abilities? The project’s original courtyards display a unique vision of landscape design that will be lost in demolition. Indeed, older homes of the 1940’s and 50’s are often in better shape than contemporary public housing schemes built to far ‘superior’ specifications. Besides, little proof has been offered by the Parkmerced developer regarding the alleged poor condition of the existing Parkmerced Garden apartments. As Kathryn Moore, a planning commissioner, states, “The proposed development has no hindsight, insight or foresight. It is not a project of the 21st century. It is the agenda of a self-serving developer.” Unfortunately, during the approval process, her position was in the minority.
A well-known award-winning affordable housing architect from the Netherlands, Mr. Oustermeijer, toured Parkmerced during Architecture in the City Week. Many of the architects, planners, and landscape enthusiasts were in awe of the design of Thomas Church, and in disbelief over plans to destroy a mature landscape and wonderful example of the ‘Modern’ housing design for families. They questioned why local government agencies had not purchased the property outright or protected it through preservation. The judge’s recent decisions, and dimming opportunities to appeal the case, bring into focus what happens when the pleas of preservationists, sustainable communities, and landscape advocates are disregarded.
The case against the City and County of San Francisco and the developer, Parkmerced Investors Properties LLC, filed by the environmental group San Francisco Tomorrow (SFT), and (PmAC) the Parkmerced Action Coalition, is at the next stage of appeal and may be the only representative case focused on the challenge of CEQA and the public’s right to fight for what they need most, “a place to call home.”
Your donations to stop this development can be made at both organizations web sites www.sftomorrow.org and www.pmacsf.org
Glenn Rogers is a landscape architect, living in District 7. He was assisted by Aaron Goodman and Robert Rogers.
Mass Evictions Beginning at Parkmerced?
3-day notices issued to 190 tenants, including disabled, seniors, and veterans — they get no help from City Hall
There were over 190 evictions—3-day Notice to Quit—issued by Parkmerced from April 2011 to December 2011. To date, every single agency and institution purposed with defending renters and low-income people in San Francisco has failed in a spectacular way, except the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. The retaliation from City Hall reverberated so strongly that the Supervisors broke the law again, and the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force was dismantled this year in a vicious political maneuver. As a result, San Franciscans have not been able to seek redress from their local government for four months.
I was tenant at Parkmerced.
When I heard about the possible demolition of my home that was going before the Planning Commission, I began to make inquires about issues at Parkmerced. On May 24, 2011, during the Land Use Committee meeting, Board President David Chiu introduced 14 phantom pages of revisions to the development agreement. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a proponent of the project and lawyer by profession, sat on the dais throughout most of the meeting. There were nearly 100 people attending the meeting; not everyone received a copy of the revisions nor were we allowed to speak on the revisions. It was a dark day for the City because residents and citizens were denied their right to redress the government and give meaningful public comment regarding the demolition of their homes. Many of the seniors who attended the meeting were visibly shaken. A woman in her 80’s desperately called out to Supervisor Elsbernd at the Board of Supervisor’s meeting later that day because we had not seen the revisions. The Agreement was approved by the Board.
I have found no one who will address the question of legality of serving people 3-day notices for “utilities”— notices which are normally used for rent and nuisance complaints. In the discovery process for my case I received evidence that Parkmerced overcharged me for the utilities. Sadly, many of the people who were wrongfully evicted could not and cannot adequately represent themselves legally…”
Thanks to the Sunshine Ordinance, I was able to access pertinent information about the Parkmerced Development Agreement negotiated last year. In doing so, I never anticipated that my Sunshine Case would find that Supervisors Malia Cohen, David Chiu, Eric Mar and Scott Wiener committed official misconduct. The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) referred the case to the Ethics Commission and District Attorney Gascón. The Ethics Commission acknowledged receiving it; I have never received a response from District Attorney Gascón.
On August 23, 2011, at the hearing before the Sunshine Task Force, I finally won a victory! The SOTF found that Supervisor Eric Mar violated the Sunshine Ordinance by allowing the introduction of the phantom 14 pages that were not on the agenda. Parkmerced representative Bert Polacci was present throughout the entire hearing. He left in a hurry when one of the SOTF Commissioners explained that the local remedy had been satisfied and that a case could be filed in court.
The next day—August 24, 2011, after winning part 1 of a 2 part hearing, an unsigned 3-day notice was tacked to my door. The 3-day notice specified “utilities” as the cause and it stated that I had not paid these fees for 17 months. I was very perplexed as to how Parkmerced arrived at these fees so I wrote Parkmerced’s attorney and asked to make installment payments. They never responded. At the September 2011 SOTF meeting, the other three supervisors were found in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance, just like Supervisor Mar.
The “utility” issue adversely and disproportionately impacts low-income, disabled, seniors and veterans who are physically or mentally disabled. There was much fear and panic as many residents began to receive these 3-day notices.
I have found no one who will address the question of legality of serving people 3-day notices for “utilities”— notices which are normally used for rent and nuisance complaints. In the discovery process for my case I received evidence that Parkmerced overcharged me for the utilities. Sadly, many of the people who were wrongfully evicted could not and cannot adequately represent themselves legally due to a myriad of factors; the obstacles placed before them suggest collusion and corruption permeating the highest levels of city government.
• On their behalf I asked HUD to investigate Parkmerced. They have not responded, possibly because of pending lawsuits on this issue.
• The San Francisco Human Rights Commission has also been investigating this case. It is curious that these cases were filed in Superior Court when there is existing case law on this issue in Federal Courts.
• I wrote California Attorney General Kamala Harris and City Attorney Herrera about this issue because I wanted to know if it was legal to send these late notices. Her office sent me a tenant landlord book. I read it and discovered that Parkmerced had violated CCP §17200 “unfair business practices” —failure to disclose their intent to demolish my (and every other) townhome when I moved in.
• I also wrote City Attorney Herrera about the “utilities” issue and met with a Deputy City Attorney (DCA) Yvonne Meré from the enforcement unit on December 2, 2011. I asked if there was going to be an investigation into the utility issue. DCA Yvonne Meré said that she would have an answer for me on December 8, 2011. I made numerous attempts to follow-up with DCA Meré but she did not respond for nearly three months. City Attorney Herrera has never responded to any of my inquiries about this issue.
• On December 13, 2011, I spoke to the Rent Board Commission regarding this issue and staff stated that the City Attorney’s office was going to investigate the issue. It has been nearly a year since I spoke before the Rent Board, and I have not heard anything from the City Attorney.
By investigating, I have been able to allow sunshine in and expose the corruption and collusion. I have been viciously retaliated against, culminating in the wrongful eviction of me and my family from our home. So many people were afraid of being evicted that I could not stand by and do nothing. Given everything that my family and I have experienced, I would gladly do it again because I wish for justice to be done. I have filed a lawsuit in federal court to address these issues.
Lynn Gavin is a candidate for Supervisor District 7. Feedback: email@example.com
Parkmerced Edges Out Critics
The proposal to redevelop Parkmerced passed the SF Board of Supervisors on a 5-6 vote. Spokesman for the 116-acre high-rise apartment and garden townhouse complex PJ Johnston said that the redevelopment project would be a "win-win."
Parkmerced was constructed between 1941-1951. It was then and still remains the largest privately-owned single apartment complex in the City. Designed by landscape architect Thomas Church, it is one of four such places in the nation. Parkmerced's layout encompasses courtyards, gardens and wide sweeps of green space, giving residents, especially families, a sense of community and urban convenience. The proposal wants to expand the existing 3,221 units of housing into 8,900 units by demolishing the garden townhouses and replacing them with high-rises.
Once the project gets underway, demolition will eventually displace families and relocate more than 7, 000 residents. Current Parkmerced owners, under the management of Stellar/Fortress, believe this is the best plan for the future.
SF Housing Action Coalition executive director Tim Colen supports the proposal. "Population growth is anticipated to reach the size of Los Angeles or San Jose over the next decade," he said. He insists the time to prepare for the future is now. He believes density housing with high-rises is "smart housing" for the future.
"The existing towers are fine," said Colen to the members of Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People at a meeting last month. "It is the garden townhouses that have outlived their life-span," he said.
Parkmerced as envisioned by the team of Skidmore Owings & Merrill will be more transit-centered instead of car-centered. The new design challenges Church's mid-20th Century landscape design by incorporating an ecologically holistic pedestrian-focused design to create a sense of community for 21st Century needs. It will take an estimated 30 years to complete.
Speaking to Supervisor Sean Elsbernd by phone he assured that "this will be done in phases, gradually. Each phase will not proceed until the previous phase has been completed in full," said Elsbernd.
Serving Parkmerced as part of his constituency, he is confident developers will honor their agreement. Elsbernd said that with the cooperation of Stellar/Fortress, the developers promise to pay for all relocation costs. And he also said that rent control would remain for the new units.
Yet long-term Parkmerced residents like Michael Russom and Susan Suval disagree.
In return for the city's agreement to the proposal, the Parkmerced area will be re-zoned allowing for relaxing of current building height and density code restrictions.
"What will happen is a major demolition of a neighborhood," said Suval. "People don't realize that this proposed plan, if it gets its way, will create more congestion," she said. And, said Suval, "what if the relocated families stay away and do not return to Parkmerced?"
She noted that with the economy the way it is how can anyone guarantee that the new units will remain under rent control? "The developers need to make their money," said Suval. With housing the way it is now and loans hard to find, she asked, "how will families be able to afford the new units if they go on the market at full value?"
Russom, who has lived in Parkmerced for more than 20 years and raised his children there, believes that the real plan is not about creating more housing, but for greedy investors to make more money. Russom believes the City thinks it is getting a great deal by allowing the developer to build more housing to increase tax revenues.
He fears that once the proposed project gets underway, unforeseen complications will prompt Stellar/Fortress to step away from the project and hand it over to another investor/developer.Suval agreed as she said, "it is important for the City to really look at their track record. With the current recession, this is not the time to be doing this kind of project," she said.
Housing advocate and legal consultant Mitchell Omerberg said he has seen similar scenarios before. Lots of promises in the agreement but then there is a breach of contract. "This could very well end up like 'urban renewal' projects of the past such as what happened to the Fillmore District over 40 years ago," said Omerberg.
Promises of relocation and tenants and owners being able to move back after new structures were completed sounds too much like "urban renewal." As Carl Close noted in his blog article for the Independent Institute blog back in July of 2008, "with the help of eminent domain and federal funding, 4,729 businesses were forced to close, 2,500 households were pushed out of the neighborhood, and 883 Victorian houses were demolished."
SF Planning Commission Vice President Ron Miguel insists that scenario was different. Elsbernd also reassured that such a scenario could not happen. But Omerberg and architectural analyst Aaron Goodman question the judgment of the Planning Commission in its 4-3 approval to allow the proposal to go on to the Board of Supervisors.
Goodman used to live in Parkmerced and coordinated a neighborhood alliance for the complex. He said that there is no guarantee that the developer agreement with the Mayor's Office will be ironclad certain. To use this as a means to increase potential tax income Goodman sees is off balance.
Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore questioned the feasibility of the project. "This is all speculative," she said.
She pointed out Parkmerced is along 19th Ave, one of the most congested commute corridors in the City. "It's not a city street," she said. "It belongs to the State of California, part of I-280 going south and of Highway 1 going north, the construction will go on for years," she noted. "The State and Caltrans has not even weighed in on this yet," said Moore.
Jonathan Farrell is a free-lance reporter living in San Francisco.
Parkmerced: Imagines A Better Future
When my parents brought me home from St. Mary’s Hospital,
exactly 40 summers ago, they squeezed me into their uncomfortable
little apartment at Parkmerced. Even in 1969, this cookie-cutter
community on the southwest corner of San Francisco was long
past its heyday.
(Photo: Proposed Juan Batista Circle)
The ensuing decades were not any kinder to Parkmerced. A series
of owners, including the infamous Leona Helmsley, seemed to
specialize in unbenign neglect, and by the turn of the century
whatever anachronistic charm this postwar experiment in “suburban
living within city limits” may have exuded had seriously deteriorated.
Things began looking up in 2005, when new owners took over
Parkmerced and embarked on a mission to attack the long-deferred
maintenance, vastly improve current living conditions and
launch a massive revitalization effort that will transform
Parkmerced into one of the best neighborhoods in San Franicsco.
(Photo: A typical Parkmerced street)
It may not be easy at the moment, but imagine a Parkmerced
thriving with life, no longer dormant and dependent on cars
squeezing through a maze of unsafe streets. Imagine a Parkmerced
that grows its own food, refills Lake Merced and provides
a healthy living environment for its residents and neighbors.
Imagine learning from the mistakes of the last 60 years and
beginning the 21st century with a more enlightened way of
Currently, Parkmerced can only be considered unsustainable,
economically and environmentally. But with city approvals
just around the corner, positive change is about to come to
the southwest corner of the City.
There are two basic dwelling types at Parkmerced: midrise
towers and attached, single-unit “garden apartments.” The
project was built quickly, by Metropolitan Life, during and
just after World War II. Most of the so-called garden apartments
were built during wartime material rationing, using quick
and inexpensive wood and plaster construction techniques,
poorly detailed for weather tightness. As a result, constant
repair and remediation is necessary to keep them habitable
(the current ownership has spent more than $130 million on
upgrades, repair and maintenance since purchasing the property).
Consequently, the garden apartments have ongoing material
decay and water intrusion. In addition, they lack wall insulations,
contain inefficient fixtures and appliances, have undersized
electric service and are not ADA accessible.
These highly consumptive conditions extend throughout the
development, and include heavy use of cars by tenants due
to retail and transit inaccessibility.
The 1940s landscape is another prime example: maintaining
the expansive lawns and open boulevards, along with wide unusable
spaces, require the application of tons of fertilizer and
wastes millions of gallons of drinking water annually. In
fact, actual metering shows the consumption of 55,000,000
gallons of potable water per year – just for irrigation.
What the team at Parkmerced is creating is a 21st Century
eco-neighborhood with sustainable construction, employing
renewable and alternative energy.
Parkmerced, with its urban planners and environmental experts,
is developing a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that will:
• radically reduce automobile dependency
• provide much improved access to transit
• create concentrated and more usable open spaces (using native
materials that minimize water requirements and maximize species
And it’s allowing for the continued harvesting of constantly
evolving environmental technologies to reduce energy and water
Parkmerced’s preliminary engineering studies have been a revelation.
The experts are confident they will be able to reduce potable
water consumption and energy consumption by more than 60%
per dwelling and daily car trips by more than 50% per dwelling.
Just as significantly, Parkmerced will be employing natural
filtration and bio-swales to recapture rainwater – diverting
it from the sewer system – and directly re-charge Lake Merced,
which has suffered significantly over the decades from the
encroachment on its natural watershed.
A sustainable farm is one of the most exciting aspects of
the Parkmerced Vision! The acreage currently being considered
for the micro-farm, or “Community Supported Agriculture,”
is 2 ½ to 3 acres; the farm will yield food for residents,
supply an on-site restaurant and serve as a learning opportunity
for young people.
Just as importantly, the plan for Parkmerced will directly
address the City’s housing shortage for households at all
income levels. Over a period of 15 to 20 years, the project
will construct 5,679 net new residences and a social core
comprising new office, retail and open spaces to serve the
neighborhood – with a healthy mix of for-sale and rental units.
Moreover, Parkmerced is ready to commit the resources to improve
transportation in the area – something that hasn’t happened
on the West Side over the past 40 years! And the reality is
San Francisco must combine density with transit accessibility.
Through innovations like a rerouted Muni line and an “eco-shuttle”
to Daly City BART, Parkmerced will become a neighborhood where
car use is an option, not a necessity.
The social core will be within comfortable walking distance
of all residences at Parkmerced, and will allow residents
to purchase groceries and other goods and services without
the use of an automobile. Through livability, will come vitality.
This is the intelligent alternative to continued sprawl in
the Bay Area.
Some say Parkmerced should be frozen in time as a “cultural
landmark.” That the buildings at Parkmerced – which amount
to a single housing project built by an insurance company,
within an accelerated timeframe, utilizing a design repeated
from other projects MetLife had done on the East Coast – should
never be touched. That the neighborhood should be allowed
to languish forever.
Setting aside the more dubious aspects of Parkmerced’s history
(its segregated beginnings, its deterioration during the Helmsley
years, etc.), it seems more than a little impractical, and
totally unsustainable, to freeze 155 acres within San Francisco
as an artificial, 1940s-era suburban time capsule. That just
can’t be reconciled with the living needs of the City, especially
when positive transformation is so clearly required.
And while the neighborhood’s infrastructure seriously deteriorated
over the years, Parkmerced has remained a community that houses
a full cross-section of San Franciscans, just like the rest
of the City. The new owners’ vision is to enhance that healthy
mix of income levels, while attracting more families to Parkmerced
… only this time with a truly thriving social heart at its
center and a communitywide focus on urban sustainability.
In these challenging times, imagine all the jobs this 15-20
year project will generate! Imagine the beautiful new homes.
Imagine the healthier environment. Imagine a replenished Lake
Merced. Imagine transportation improvements. Imagine a safer,
So maybe 40 summers from now – or perhaps just a dozen – new
parents will be absolutely thrilled to bring their babies
home to Parkmerced.
This is the future for Parkmerced. Just imagine.
PJ Johnston is a local media consultant, former newspaper
journalist and fourth-generation San Franciscan. Illustration
by Charles Grubbe, / Skidmore, Owens & Merrill. For more
information about the plans for Parkmerced, go to www.ParkmercedVision.com.
Parkmerced May Meet Its Match
The Highly Acclaimed Thomas Church Design Falls Prey to Ongoing Development
Preservationists are a hardy bunch, used to unexpected developments in the course of their work, but rarely surprised by the constant parade of new plans for old buildings (or the building’s site). But one project on the boards makes even the seasoned professionals gasp: a plan to remove 170 two-story houses and clear nearly 116 acres in San Francisco, including an extensive landscape plan created by Thomas Dolliver Church, the celebrated founder of modern residential landscape design in the United States.
Parkmerced was developed during World War II and the immediate postwar era as part of Met-Life’s nationwide effort to provide for the housing needs. It is one of four such comprehensively planned residential communities remaining in the country and is particularly unique in its integration of housing, circulation, and landscape design. Now, the whole is to be replaced with new buildings between one and fourteen-stories high, with an additional 310,000 gross square feet of commercial and retail services (about the same square footage as three Wal-Mart stores). The only original structures spared in this wholesale clearance are 11 thirteen-story towers.
Preservationists now find themselves in the position of defending a cultural landscape that is on the fringe of public understanding in terms of historic significance, and itself a project of huge proportions. The process of creating an argument that effectively conveys the importance of the site, and doing so quickly and efficiently, is one of the biggest hurdles facing the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, and the several citizens groups working to save Parkmerced.
Citizens, preservationists, and developers alike attended a recent scoping meeting, held at a local YMCA. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the scoping period is intended to help the lead agency identify feasible alternatives to the proposed action to be explored in the environmental impact statement. Several displays were on hand for the project proponent’s plan to re-design Parkmerced over the next three decades. Even on paper, the plan is oversized. From the Notice of Preparation: “The proposed Parkmerced Project is a long-term mixed-use development program to comprehensively re-plan and redesign the Parkmerced site, increase residential density, provide new commercial and retail services and transit facilities, and improve utilities within the development site. About 1,683 of the existing apartments located in 11 tower buildings would be maintained, and over a period of 30 years, the remaining 1,538 existing apartments would be demolished in phases and fully replaced, and an additional 5,679 net new units would be added to the Project Site.” The landscape would be heavily graded so all rain water would filter into a pond at the current site of Juan Bautista circle, the streets redesigned, and underground parking constructed.
Noticeably absent from the displays on hand were existing conditions of the site and the recent determination, completed by the research and history firm Page & Turnbull, that the site was eligible for the National and California Registers as an historic district.
The public meeting started with a brief presentation from the proponent showing the intent for Parkmerced and focusing on “sustainability” concepts. The representative then suggested that the townhomes were built as “temporary” structures, naturally nearing the end of their productive lives with no mention of the historic importance of the landscape.
All but a few of the thirty to forty speakers were ardently opposed to the project. Many were near to early retirees and had concerns that they were being forced to choose between spending the last years of their lives in a construction zone or move out. Several speakers said they lived in Parkmerced for more than 20 years, one woman for 50 years. There were, as usual, concerns with traffic, but the sense of community preservation was also very strong. Several people who grew up in the apartments lamented that the redevelopment would force people out, similar to the process undertaken in the Fillmore years earlier. One person jokingly cried “Where’s Leona Helmsly when you need her?” Most spoke favorably of the proximity of their homes to the outdoors and the integration of the landscape with housing. One common concern is that the development would be primarily used as dormitories by the adjacent San Francisco State University.
Parkmerced Other advocates spoke out against the proposed new development at the scoping meeting included Andrew Wolfram with DOCOMOMO US/Northern California Chapter and Aaron Goodman with the Parkmerced Residents’ Organization (PRO). Though PRO hasn’t formally taken a stance on the issue, Goodman expressed grave concerns that Parkmerced management has been modifying portions of the landscape without respect for its historic design.
The project approvals that will be required are extensive – California Environmental Quality Act for planning code and general plan amendments, a Coastal Zone permit, and a Section 404 (Clean Water Act) permit that will trigger Section 106 review. The Environmental Impact Report must discuss the magnitude of the new plan’s impact to local, state, and national history and evaluate feasible alternatives. The National Trust believes strongly that project goals to increase density and environmental sustainability can be achieved without demolishing the existing townhomes and landscapes.
It is imperative that the California Environmental Quality Act analysis for the project include a feasible preservation alternative that meets a reasonable number of the project objectives and complies with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. Such an alternative may include the newly proposed environmental contributions to Parkmerced such as energy retrofits, water recapture, and transportation improvements. Sustainability and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive.
In short, this pattern of total removal and re-development is fiscally irresponsible, culturally insensitive, environmentally disastrous, and ultimately unsustainable. The good news is there are still alternatives – and a little time – for supporters to act on behalf of Parkmerced.
More on Parkmerced: www.tclf.org/landslide/parkmerced Christine Madrid French is the Director of the Modernism + Recent Past Initiative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Her colleague and co-author, Brian R. Turner, is the Regional Attorney for the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
featured in “Marvels of Modernism" Exhibit
design and gardens of Parkmerced
have been selected as a premier
site for The Cultural Landscape
Foundation’s exhibit —“Landslide:
Marvels of Modernism”.
Cultural Landscape Foundation,
the only not-for-profit foundation
in America, is dedicated to
increasing the public’s awareness
of the important legacy of cultural
landscapes and to helping save
them for the future. “Marvels
of Modernism” opened at the
George Eastman House International
Museum of Photography and Film
in Rochester, NY, in November
2008 and remained at the Museum
until Mid-January 2009. Since
January the exhibit has been
traveling across the country,
sponsored, in part, by San Francisco
design and furniture firm, Design
the 12 sites selected, the Bay
Area figured prominently, with
the gardens of “Parkmerced”,
off of 19th Avenue, and the
“Kaiser Roof Gardens” at the
Kaiser Center in Oakland featured
in the exhibit.
description that accompanies
the photo by Tom Fox, featured
in the TCLF’s exhibit, describes
the gardens. “Parkmerced was
designed as a city within a
city by architect Leonard Schultze
and Associates with planning
and landscape architecture by
Thomas D. Church with Robert
Royston. Its revolutionary site
plan artfully melds individual
housing units on pie-shaped
blocks, vehicular and pedestrian
traffic, and a large central
circle covered by a lush tree
canopy. Today it is one of this
country’s four remaining examples
of large-scale, post-World War
II urban planning. Unfortunately,
there are numerous threats to
the design, including plans
by San Francisco State University
and a private developer to subdivide
the property, and recent re-planting
and redesign of its historic
aerial photo by photographer
Mix shows the unique and intricate
design that encompasses Parkmerced,
one of the largest planned rental
communities in the Western U.S.