Carolina Project Creeps Forward

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Bill Canihan has spent the last two and a half years working to secure permits to redevelop his 891 Carolina Street property.  His father, William Canihan, Senior, acquired the single-family home as a rental in 1952, and unsuccessfully sought to renovate it more than a decade ago.  Bill Canihan hoped his project would move swiftly through the planning process, but it met with resistance from the San Francisco Planning Department and community members as a result of the proposed structure’s scale, including a prominent fourth floor, which was identified as not conforming to surrounding properties. 

The project is now on its fifth round of major revisions.  Canihan is optimistic that current plans will be approved, though some neighbors continue to question if all issues, such as the proposal to build on 75 percent of the lot, have been sufficiently addressed.

The Canihan family owns property in Novato, San Rafael, and Sonoma, as well as throughout San Francisco, including in the Marina, Western Addition, and Twin Peaks.  They purchased their 20-acre Sonoma property in 1973, and began using it to operate the Canihan Family Cellars winery in 1998.        

A commercial real estate broker, Bill Canihan told neighbors that he planned to redevelop 891 Carolina Street at least in part to accommodate his family’s needs, with himself and his sick wife to occupy the upper unit and selling or renting the lower one.  However, Canihan’s wife passed away in 2015; he now says he wants to keep the plan’s accessibility aspects so as to be able to provide care for his elderly mother-in-law and father. 

Canihan claimed that since there’s been little redevelopment on the block in the last 30 or 40 years his proposal seems large, but that’s likely to change as plans emerge for surrounding properties.  “I’ve recently been encouraged by ten neighbors who think the current structure is an eye sore,” Canihan said.  “I want to make it as acceptable to everyone as possible.” 

In response to claims from Hill residents that he’s allowed the property to fall into an extreme state of disrepair, he offered, “It’s been vacant for the past two and a half years.  My grandmother had rented it to tenants who agreed to perform maintenance on the property in exchange for reduced rent.  The house deteriorated because of the tenants who weren’t taking care of it.”

Canihan’s present plans are for a two-unit structure with a combined square footage of 3,748 square feet, with four levels serviced by an elevator, rising to 34.6 feet.  According to John Lum, the project’s architect, major space reductions have been made in response to community concerns.  “We’ve cut back the front of the building, the back of the building, as well as part of the top floor.  Technically it’s a basement with three stories,” he said.  “The design matches the pattern of the rest of the hilltop.  It’s definitely within the height limit and we’re being sensitive to the neighbor’s views.” 

Chris Hansen, who owns and resides at 782 Wisconsin Street, a condominium located northeast of the proposed development, disagreed that original plans have been substantially changed.  “Because it’s at the top of the hill the property it is going to be monolithic,” Hansen said.  “Due to the elevation, a four-story building is essentially a five-story building from my vantage point, because it’s so much higher than my property based on the way that it’s situated.  This project will greatly impact the amount of open space, and will cast shadows on others’ properties.  The height could be mitigated by having a more modest footprint and not having such a large house towering over everyone else’s home.” 

Former Potrero Hill resident and owner of nearby 896 Carolina, Kris Gardner, feels that development at the site is made more complicated due to the unusual layout of the parcels on the block.  She maintained that in addition to height issues, the proposed structure will establish a deep footprint into the rear yard and mid-block open space, which separates houses on different streets for privacy, light, and shared greenery.  She’s concerned that the structure’s height and closeness would reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches a neighbor’s rear yard.  Gardner believes that Canihan misrepresented crucial plan details to gain an advantage in the municipal approval process. 

“The planned project unfairly benefits precisely from this most unusual layout of dwellings,” Gardner offered. “The result is that the proposed building creates an obstruction deep into the rear yard.  Due to the owner-developer taking advantage of existing conditions, the intent of the Code, Section 134, that seeks to protect the mid-block passage open space is not achieved.  Any application of Residential Design Guidelines for protection of rear yard and mid-block open space has not been used by Planning or by the owner-developer.” 

Carol Singh and her husband, who live further down the hill, at 1 Southern Heights Avenue, have a different perspective.  “We believe it is good for two reasons,” Singh commented.  “The house has long been derelict and is in need of renovation. The sidewalk in front of the house was often piled with junk and barely passable.  Since it has been boarded up, it is an eyesore and impacts the quality of experience on our street.  Though the Canihans should have better maintained the property, that doesn’t prevent them from developing it now.  The second reason we support the renovation is that the owner will be living in the house. We heard that the family has a special needs member and that has driven some of the requirements of the project.  You just have to have a certain footprint when you’re dealing with wheelchairs and elevators.”

One of Gardner’s Carolina Street tenants sees the project as symptomatic of housing problems across the City.  “I’m not against building or someone trying to make money, but there are right ways to do it,” Naphtali Rodriguez said.  “I feel that the developers are valuing profit more than the good of the environment of the neighborhood.  The proposed development is for four stories, which is pretty high for Potrero Hill, and it will block the neighbors’ views.  I feel that it is going to devalue the property where I live.  Even if it’s scaled back to three stories and a basement level, the actual size of the footprint is going to block our windows.” 

Rodriguez wishes that the existing structure had been maintained, which would have allowed for smaller scale renovations.  However, due to the owner’s negligence it’s beyond repair.  He explained that the extent of deterioration has led to rat infestations over the years; members of his family have been bitten by mites from the rats. 

Hansen tries to keep a balanced perspective about the development, hoping that neighbors’ views will be taken into consideration.  “The whole concept of preserving the Hill is sort of a battle cry.  It doesn’t mean anything unless we work together to come up with solutions.  I’m hoping for an open mind on the part of the owner, developer, and neighborhood,” Hansen added. 

This is the second of a two-part series.