Planning Commission Approves Carolina Street Project

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At a discretionary review hearing held this past summer, the San Francisco Planning Commission approved renovation and expansion of a single-family residence, owned by Bill Canihan Jr., at 891 Carolina Street.  The home, a two-story dwelling with a basement, will be comprehensively remodeled, with square footage added to the second-story, a ground floor addition and enlargement, facade modifications, and construction of a second dwelling unit on the property. The project will result in a two-unit residence totaling just under 4,000 square feet, reaching 34.6 feet in height over four levels. In addition to the height increase, the building’s footprint will extend into the property’s backyard.

Planning staff had received 11 letters supporting the project, 24 opposing it. A petition that garnered 52 signatures expressed opposition to the project’s height, square footage, and expansive footprint, which will reduce green space in the rear yard.

Despite a general desire to see the residence improved and inhabited, neighbors believed that the recently approved plans called for an excessively large structure, and didn’t conform to the Planning Department’s Residential Design Guidelines.  The discretionary review was requested by 19th Street resident, Robin Bishop, who lived at adjacent property 897 Carolina Street for five years before she and her mother, Kris Gardner, rented it.

“The proposed project at 891 Carolina Street is threatening to change the context by building an out of scope, four-story home — being described in the plans as a three-floor over basement — on a flat lot at the very top of the hill,” Bishop said at the Planning Commission hearing. “The topography of this site is such that the scale and mass of this nearly 4,000 square foot house will be enormously larger than all the homes around it, and its magnitude will be felt by all.”

Bishop and other neighbors who spoke at the hearing believe that the project will create a precedent, ushering in similar proposals that’ll erode the character of the neighborhood, which is currently dominated by smaller single-family homes with often lush backyards. Because 891 Carolina Street is on a hilltop, project opponents advocated for removal of the fourth level and reduction of the overall footprint. Although municipal code allows for buildings of up to 40 feet in height, neighbors think that the property’s positioning will result in a structure that towers over surrounding buildings, out of context with the community’s charm.

According to John Lum, project architect, opposition to the scheme was motivated by the loss of a neighbor’s view.

“For the past seven years I’ve been trying to rebuild a family home for myself and future wife, my young daughter and my 81-year-old father who wants to live next door to the house he was born and raised in,” said Canihan, Jr. “And I’d like to build a three-bedroom, modest family sized rental as additional housing for the City.”

The Planning Commission approved the project on a five to one vote, with modifications that eliminated front and rear decks, both at the third-floor level. Public comment at the hearing included assertions that the Residential Design Guidelines aren’t being applied consistently. The RDG, a Planning Department document published in 2003, states that, “Proposed projects must be responsive to the overall neighborhood context.” Canihan submitted an expansion proposal in the early-2000s, which was rejected by the Planning Department in 2003, when it decided that a four-story residence at 891 Carolina Street would be an aberration from the surrounding neighborhood. Community members view the Planning Commission’s latest decision as a change in how the RDG is interpreted.

Bishop viewed the Planning Commission’s decision as a failure to listen to the details of the objections to the project. Although the approval included removal of two decks, their presence wasn’t a concern that’d been raised by neighbors.

“My feeling is that they’re afraid that the property owner won’t build anything if this isn’t approved, and it will stay decrepit and abandoned,” offered Bishop. “That’s not something we want either, but the project needs to comply. I’m disturbed by the Planning Commission’s lack of attention to my questions. They didn’t address the questions that I presented to them. It makes me feel brushed aside, like I don’t have a voice.”

According to Department of Building Inspection records, the project will cost $560,000. Building permits haven’t been issued; an appeal period for the approval won’t commence until that happens.

The more than one-hundred-year-old home has been a source of concern for many in the neighborhood due to its chronic dilapidated state, which reportedly involved rat infestations and visible garbage.  According to Canihan, the problems were caused by former tenants who didn’t perform agreed-upon maintenance in exchange for reduced rent. The occupants’ mother began her tenancy in 1952.  After she died about a decade ago, Canihan asked them to depart, but they remained ensconced.  About six years ago they were evicted under the Ellis Act, given two years to move, and paid $13,600 in relocation expenses. The property has been vacant for the past three years.