Another week, another NIMBY effort in San Francisco — despite all the groundswell of support for the idea that the city needs more housing, not more hemming and hawing over it.
A 70-year-old neighborhood association in Laurel Heights has filed — what else!? — an environmental lawsuit to try to shut down or alter a 744-unit redevelopment project on the soon-to-be-vacated, 10.3-acre UCSF Laurel Heights campus. Concerns have been raised about the "quiet" neighborhood getting overrun with congestion, Laurel Village merchants being threatened by new retail, "needless significant environmental impacts" to the area, and a general rejection of this type of density in what ought to be a far denser city. The project also includes a 186 units of affordable housing for seniors.
As Curbed notes today, "It’s getting to the point where California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenges and lawsuits are part of the official San Francisco development process." And, sadly, that is the case here, with the Laurel Heights Improvement Association arguing that the city failed to comply with CEQA in approving the large mixed-use project last year, which is a collaborative project of Prado Group, SKS Partners, and Mercy Housing.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, neighbors expressed frustration with the design and other aspects of the project during the Planning approvals process. As the Chronicle reported, Clay Street resident Krisanthy Desby said at the time “this is not a downtown construction zone” and “15 years of noise, construction dust and congestion is simply unacceptable.” She added, "Laurel Heights is at the intersection of four quiet family neighborhoods. The scale and timeline of the Prado Group plan will destroy them in every way."
You may recall that neighbors on the Embarcadero used CEQA arguments to fight against a temporary homeless Navigation Center on Port of SF property — which now, thankfully, has been completed and opened despite their legal efforts.
"It’s a pretty clear indication that there is a need for CEQA reform,” says Mercy Housing President Doug Shoemaker, speaking to the Chronicle. “We’re in a moment where no matter how much work you do and how much consensus gets built … this is the option that is available to anyone who can scrape together enough money to file a lawsuit."
The developers, like other SF developers before them, were careful in the case of this Laurel Heights project to take advantage of a little-known state law expiring in 2021 called AB900, which fast-tracks the appeals process for projects deemed "leadership projects." To qualify, they project has to cost more than $100 million and prove that it will not result in any net additional emissions of greenhouse gases, and that it will provide high-skilled construction jobs. Under the law, the neighborhood association only has 270 days to resolve any legal appeals. The same trick was employed by the Golden State Warriors in trying to get the Chase Center built several years ago.
The fact is — and here I go editorializing on a favorite topic — San Francisco doesn't get to wave a magic wand and create housing out of nothing, or make sure that all of it gets built in already dense downtown neighborhoods or formerly industrial areas like SoMa. Housing density is going to come at the cost of some of the quaintness that San Franciscans hold dear — and that neighborhood associations like the Laurel Heights Improvement Association have been fighting to preserve for decades. Every last suburban-feeling space in San Francisco can not be preserved if we are also going to address the vacancy and housing-affordability crisis in this city — and let's not forget this is a city, even though so many areas like Laurel Heights and the Avenue neighborhoods are filled with single-family tract homes and larger manses.
The UCSF Laurel Heights campus was constructed in the 1950s and acquired by UCSF in the early 1980s. The university sold off the property for development as part of its long-term plans to reduce occupancy costs, and the departments housed there — primarily behavioral and policy research, and various academic and campus administrative departments — are getting relocated to Mission Bay this year.
The Prado Group's development, known as 3333 California, was unanimously approved by the SF Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission last year.