Large Mixed-Use Project Delayed by Litigation

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Last summer, Save the Hill and Grow Potrero Responsibly filed a lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco challenging the environmental review process for a large mixed-use development located on 3.5 acres, 901 16th Street and 1200 17th Street. The project had been approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in a nine to one vote, despite an appeal by neighbors concerned about its potential impacts.

Save the Hill and Grow Potrero Responsibly, community advocacy groups that focus on land use and development issues, will be represented at a Superior Court of California hearing on May 12 by attorney Rachel Mansfield-Howlett, Provencher & Flatt, LLP.  Judge Cynthia Ming-mei Lee presides over the case.

“We have a broad-based support in the Potrero community, and we are hopeful that the court will agree with our argument:  that the EIR failed to adequately review the project’s impacts and the City failed to require sufficient mitigation or adoption of a feasible alternative that would reduce the project’s admittedly significant impacts,” Mansfield-Howlett commented.

The project’s developers, Prado Group Inc. and Walden Development, LLC, want to construct 395 residential units and 25,000 square feet of retail on the property, which is southwest of the Interstate-280 and 16th Street junction, east of Jackson Playground. Fourteen three-bedrooms units would be created; 42 of the residential units would be affordable. Existing warehouse and office buildings would be demolished.

Community benefits associated with the project include a $1.8 million investment in Jackson Park, and a $9 million municipal contribution to affordable housing, likely to be built elsewhere in the City, in addition to the development’s 42 below-market units.

“As someone who has lived in Potrero Hill since 1967, this is the most family-friendly housing development that I’ve seen over the last 30 years,” said Art Agnos, former Mayor and Connecticut Street resident. “It has the largest number of two and three-bedroom units than any project that has been proposed in that duration of time. The two-bedroom units for example, have two full baths rather than one, in order to be family-friendly; most projects offer two bedrooms and one bath. There are also flex units for artists to live and work.”

“There’s a gated family-friendly recreation area where children who live in this development can play in a safe environment,” Agnos added.

In their Opening Brief, Save the Hill and Grow Potrero Responsibly argued that the project would alter the nature of the Hill and surrounding areas by straining public transit and worsening traffic congestion, among other adverse outcomes. The heart of their claim is an assertion that by relying on the 2008 Eastern Neighborhoods Plan EIR, which they stated is outdated, the development’s environmental review is inadequate. The groups also believe that the loss of Production, Distribution and Repair space through demolition of the existing buildings would be detrimental to the community.

“Citizens and numerous concerned area residents commented on the adequacy of the Draft EIR during the established comment period, including objections to: the proper reliance on an outdated Plan EIR and the Project EIR’s failure to adequately review and analyze: traffic and circulation, transit and transportation, aesthetics and views, heights, shadows, loss of PDR, recreation and open space, land use, cultural and historic resources, consistency with area plans and policies, and cumulative impacts; as well as the consideration of feasible mitigation measures and alternatives,” the Brief stated.

According to City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his deputies the lawsuit isn’t so much concerned with the project, but the policies embodied in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, and that the appropriate time period to challenge the Plan has long passed. The City Attorney’s brief stated that the development is consistent with Planning Code density, uses, height, open space and policies and standards.

Agnos said the lawsuit’s impetus isn’t about inadequacy of the environmental review process, but preserving the views of certain neighbors in the vicinity. He thought that these kinds of lawsuits lengthen the time between approval and groundbreaking, effectively driving up cost for developers.

“This is a couple of neighbors who are worried about losing their view and are trying to block a project that will benefit funding for Jackson Park and provide family friendly housing,” Agnos remarked. “This project is more family-friendly than others in Potrero Hill, so if we’re concerned about housing for families then this is exactly what we need for Potrero Hill.”

Laura Foote Clark, executive director of YIMBY Action, a nonprofit organization working to reduce Bay Area housing costs, believes the project is an important example of infill development that reduces vehicle emissions and suburban sprawl, and that forestalling it and similar developments is what leads to regional environmental degradation.

“Those 400 potential residents of the project already exist, and not building housing in a dense place means encouraging more suburban sprawl, which isn’t something taken into consideration by CEQA,” she said. “You either have infill development in existing cities or you have suburban sprawl, that’s your choice.”