Corovan Project to Proceed

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One of the largest housing developments in Potrero Hill history is set to move forward after the Board of Supervisors rejected an environmental impact appeal by opponents of the project in July.

The development, which includes 395 residential units and 25,000-feet of commercial space, will feature a six-story building at 901 16th Street and a four-story adjacent one at 1200 17th Street. The properties are currently used as a storage site by the Corovan moving company.  With the exception of a brick office building that’ll be used as retail space, the existing structures will be demolished.  According to developer Josh Smith, construction is slated to begin next summer.

While project proponents cite the need for additional housing in the City, opposition was fierce, with concerns focusing on how quickly the area can adapt to rapid growth.

Save the Hill and Grow Potrero Responsibly, which fought against the project in one proposed form or another for nearly a decade, filed the appeal to the Supervisors, claiming that the Planning Commission’s approval of the project had been flawed. The advocacy groups are considering appealing the Board’s decision to the California Superior Court, but as of press time hadn’t determined how to proceed. According to Grow Potrero Responsibly member Alison Heath, the organizations’ decision will be based on whether the appeal has a chance of success.

The Board meeting at which the appeal was heard drew close to 50 speakers; opponents outnumbered proponents by three to one. Those in favor, including many who lived nearby, cited the need for the planned 146 two-bedroom and 22-three bedroom units, and referenced the 10,000-square foot outdoor playground, six ground floor units of live/work space and a promenade walkway connecting 16th and 17th streets as examples of a well-considered design.

More controversial, however, is the plan for 388 parking spaces in an underground parking garage.  Additional vehicle traffic was identified by District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen as her greatest – and perhaps only – concern, although she didn’t otherwise take a stand on the project. Under questioning from Cohen, Planning Department staff admitted that they didn’t consider the proposed removal of Highway 280, north of 16th Street, in their traffic counts, and only analyzed a generic use of the planned Golden State Warriors Arena parcel, since the arena hadn’t been finalized at the time of their computations.

Cohen cited the corner of 16th and Mississippi streets, where the property abuts, as already being one of the most congested in the City during rush hour. Further complicating traffic concerns, two new buildings, located across the street, featuring 453 apartments, are slated to begin renting this fall. “We’ve got problems now and we are nowhere near where we are projected to be,” Cohen remarked.

Julie Kirschbaum, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency manager of transit planning, attempted to alleviate those concerns by stating that she believed it was a transit rich area. She noted that, in addition to the new 55 bus line, the agency has extended the hours and frequency of the 10 Townsend bus, and will be lengthening the 22 bus line into Mission Bay by 2020.

The most common theme voiced by opponents – and some proponents – at the meeting, was the failure of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan to anticipate rapid growth in Showplace Square and Potrero Hill. The plan, adopted by the City in 2008, established zoning regulations and set growth-related goals, including transportation and affordable housing, for the area. 

“None of the promised community benefits of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan has been delivered to us,” said Sean Angles of Grow Responsibly, noting that luxury residential construction has been “mushrooming at lightning speed.”

The plan estimated that 3,180 housing units would be built in Showplace Square and Potrero Hill by 2025. According to the Planning Department, 21 percent of those units have been constructed.  However, if projects currently in the pipeline, either approved or waiting approval, are included the number rises to 3,043, or 96 percent of the projection.

That figure, however, was contested by District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who believes the actual total, including projects in the works, is 3,179.  “Growth has happened much faster than anyone anticipated,” he admonished City planners. “We are about to hit that ceiling. You have arrived at that number. You are one short.”

Commercial growth hasn’t kept the same pace.  One of the compromises embodied in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was to change Production, Distribution and Repair zoning to Urban Mixed-Use. Out of the Plan’s expected loss of 991,463 square feet of PDR, only 40 percent has disappeared thus far due to several projects adding such space.

Nonetheless, the perceived need to protect PDR space was one of several reasons that prompted Save the Hill and Grow Responsibly to float an alternative proposal for the site, featuring 177 housing units and 50,000 square feet of PDR space for artists and artisans.  The plan called for preserving two metal sheds the groups deemed historical, having been constructed by the Pacific Rolling Mill in the early-20th Century.

The Planning Commission agreed that the buildings had historical significance, but dismissed the designation because the structures had been altered by a glass manufacturing company in the mid-1940s. In addition, Dario Jones, the Planning Department’s environmental review officer, indicated that even if the Board of Supervisors decided that the edifices should be historically designated it was legally required to support the Planning Commission’s viewpoint and reject the appeal.

Save the Hill/Grow Responsibly’s alternative plan, because it offered less environmental impact, would’ve had to be the preferred option if it was deemed economically feasible, but it wasn’t.  The Commission estimated the land value at $38 million; Smith paid just $12.5 million for it in 2006.

Other Hill residents spoke highly of the project, noting that Smith promised $9.7 million to the City for affordable housing, $1 million for renovations to Jackson Park, and will include family friendly housing.

As to the metal sheds, Potrero and Dogpatch Merchants Association president Keith Goldstein, who previously owned a company that restored historic buildings, called the current site “a rusted out old claptrap” and an eyesore. I agree there have been many failings with the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan,” he explained. “However, this is not the project to make a stand.”

The proposal also had the support of former Mayor Art Agnos who, in a letter to the Board stated, “It’s time we do something about this terribly blighted corner of Potrero Hill.”

Under questioning from Cohen, Planning Department staff defended the Eastern Neighborhood Plan, as did former Planning Commission President Ron Miguel, who said of the development, “This is what we wanted and expected in the plan.”

The six-story building will be designed by BAR Architects, which recently completed 1 Henry Adams Place, and will rise 82 feet. The smaller building, 68 feet high, will be designed by Christiani Johnson Architects, which was responsible for The Potrero building at Rhode Island and 17th Streets.