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Development interests have been pursuing this 50-story residential tower near SF Zoo. This implausible stalking horse represents a total breach of planning fundamentals that does not bode well for the future of the Westside’s lifestyle.

West Side Stories

• • • • • • • • • • July 17, 2023 • • • • • • • • • •

An architect’s rendering had tongues wagging on the City’s usually quiet Westside. The tower, 50 stories high and home to 680 apartments, is steps from Ocean Beach and dwarfs the low-slung, single-family dwellings that dominate that part of the neighborhood.

London Breed
London Breed

It’s unlikely to be built, at least not in its current iteration, since it fails to comply with both state and local laws. Regardless, it’s worth paying attention to: It represents, in exaggerated form, Mayor London Breed’s vision for a wide swath of San Francisco, including the Richmond and Sunset districts.

Several months ago, Mayor Breed unveiled “Housing for All,” her blueprint for how the City will comply with state requirements for new housing. The City must create 82,000 new units by 2031, half of which are "affordable," or risk losing state funding for housing and transportation.

Central to Breed's program is "streamlining" the process of creating new housing. At first glance, it seems rooted in common sense. After all, the City's planning process has a well-earned reputation for being complicated, time-consuming, and costly. “San Francisco has the opportunity to make a transformation in how we build housing for everyone in our city – for workers, for seniors, for families, everyone,” Breed said.


Today, the City has as many as 60,000 market-rate apartments standing empty. They’re unlikely to be filled any time soon in a City that’s seen about 70,000 residents leave in just the last three years.”

But the devil is always in the details. On careful inspection, it’s clear that a more appropriate name for the mayor’s proposal is “Housing for the Privileged Few.” Those who will benefit most are the real-estate developers and investors who gave generously to Breed’s campaign for the City’s highest office.

Most notably, Breed’s legislation eliminates public comment on development projects, silencing opposition from the very residents most impacted by new building projects. For example, it does away with public hearings on demolitions. (Tear-downs are possible for any empty building giving landlords an incentive to clear out rental properties by any means necessary). Neighbor notification of new construction is no longer required.

It will not produce the kind of housing the City so desperately needs. “Affordable” is defined as 120% of the area’s average median income — or $121,000 a year for an individual — far outstripping the average salary of an entry-level nurse, teacher, or firefighter. According to state law, if 40% of the units in any new building are deemed “affordable,” the developer can exceed neighborhood height limits. Older buildings, many housing rent-controlled apartments, can be destroyed and replaced by super-sized developments with units that are affordable in name only. Under current City ordinances, public review or comment is required; under the mayor's proposal, it is not.

Joel Engardio
Joel Engardio

At a recent public meeting, District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio, co-sponsor of the mayor’s proposal, painted a sunny picture of a Sunset District where hundreds of residents live in high-rises above cafes and other retail stores. A touch of “Paris,” Engardio likes to say. Not surprisingly, Engardio’s run for supervisor was bankrolled, in large part, by GrowSF, a YIMBY (short for Yes In My Backyard) group that’s spent big bucks to influence San Francisco elections. Nationwide, such YIMBY ‘organizations’ have been funded by Big Real Estate and are little more than industry front groups.

Myrna Melgar
Myrna Melgar

District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar has offered her own prescription for how the City will meet its state-mandated housing requirements. Melgar’s intention, she says, is to address concerns surrounding the mayor’s measure. In response to public pressure, Melgar proposes to restore some notification requirements. Minus that concession, the supervisor’s proposal is nearly identical to that of the mayor’s. Like Breed’s scheme, it eases condo conversions, increases density and has no provision for affordable housing. It, too, will line the pockets of real-estate developers and investors at the expense of San Francisco residents.

In previous years, San Francisco answered the state’s call for more housing by over-building market-rate units and under-building those for low-income residents. Today, the City has as many as 60,000 market-rate apartments standing empty. They’re unlikely to be filled any time soon in a City that’s seen about 70,000 residents leave in just the last three years.

The mayor’s and Melgar’s legislation will eventually come before the Board of Supervisors. Both have received scant press coverage. Should either pass, they will forever change the character of San Francisco and the Westside, displacing long-time residents and opening the door for rampant and ill-considered development. The Westside has long been a haven for families and seniors drawn here for the quiet they offer in an otherwise bustling city. Breed's Engardio's and Melgar's legislation treats the City — and the beloved Richmond Sunset and Westside neighborhoods — as nothing more than a good investment for the mayor’s well-heeled friends.

Julie Pitta is a member of the executive board for the Berniecrats. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Email her: Follow her on Twitter: @juliepitta

July 17, 2023

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