Church Windows’ Fate to be Decided by Planning Commission

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A controversial proposal to build condominiums on the 500 block of De Haro Street will go before the San Francisco Planning Commission on June 2.  The plan, in which a 17-unit condo complex would be constructed on what was until recently the home of Moto Guild, a motorcycle repair shop and training facility, has been met with resistance from Potrero Hill residents, perhaps none more than the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, which is located next door.

The development, which is being proposed by The Murphy Trust, was delayed after initially being placed on the San Francisco Planning Commission’s consent calendar in January. Had community members failed to show up at the meeting to call for further review the proposal would’ve been lumped together with a host of other noncontroversial items to be approved.

Hill residents did voice their concerns, however, with one particularly prominent complaint:  according to St. Gregory parishioners, the development would block light that currently streams in through nine south-facing windows that are fundamental to the church’s design.  At the January meeting the commission voted six to one to continue the proposal for further review. 

“We’re not asking for gigantic changes. We’re not saying, ‘Oh, you can’t build anything next door to us.’ We’re really just asking that they will respect the light that makes this such a beautiful building,” said Sara Miles, the church’s director of the ministry.

St. Gregory, built in 1995, is well-known by worshippers and architecture buffs for its unique design. Windows similar to the nine south-facing ones are located throughout the perimeter of the dome atop the church rotunda. According to Miles, the light from the south-facing windows is what makes the church what it is.

In addition to concerns about the building’s design, while The Murphy Trust said they notified the church in 2014 about their plans, according to Miles the announcement would’ve been sent to the Episcopal Diocese of California at Grace Cathedral, because that’s what’s listed on St. Gregory’s deed. However, the chief executive officer of the Diocese said that he’s “reasonably confident the notice did not reach” him. In any case, Miles said that the first time the church heard about the plans was in December of last year, which, she explained, is an unusually busy time for any church.

Since the January meeting, The Murphy Trust offered to cut out 10 feet of the top floor unit nearest the church; St. Gregory said that wouldn’t make much of a difference.

“It is true that they were willing to make some changes to their plans, but it’s also true that those changes didn’t substantially affect the issue that we were concerned with, which was continuing to get light in,” Miles said.

Other than concerns about how the development would affect the church, residents mourn the loss of Moto Guild. “We are facing a death of 1,000 cuts. With every displaced business we lose a little more of San Francisco,” Alison Heath, a Hill resident, told the Commission.

Wilder Grippo, co-founder of Moto Guild, emphasized that he was aware of development plans when he signed the lease two years ago. “It’s a shame to have moved out of the City, but in a way we kind of knew that was happening. It wasn’t like we were surprised, like all of a sudden we lost our lease. We were completely aware that was happening,” he said. “One of the only reasons we were able to afford the City in the first place was because it was a short-term lease and we got a pretty good deal on it. I don’t know how any small business similar to ours can afford to pay more than $10 a square foot.” Moto Guild moved to Treasure Island in March.

Grippo said that although Moto left on good terms with its landlords, he understands where the church is coming from. “It’s a great church. We really enjoyed being next to them there. I understand their concerns. I mean, a big five-story condo going in…Obviously, I think the neighborhood could do without that. I think it’s a strange location for a condo building, for one. I mean, Anchor Steam has semi’s going in and out 24 hours a day…It just seems like a bad place to put it,” he said.

“San Francisco is in a period of huge transition and change, and churches aren’t somehow exempt from the struggles that all kinds of people are going through,” Miles said. “We’re so grateful for the support of the people on the Hill and beyond. And we are really praying that the developers will be willing to work with us on a reasonable solution.”

The Murphy Trust declined to comment on this article.