Slow down the Laguna project

EDITORIAL The 440-unit housing development slated for the Laguna Street site of the old UC Berkeley Extension campus is suddenly on the fast track. The Planning Department has calendared a vote on the project for Dec. 20 in what appears to be a desperate effort to get it approved before the end of the year. That may be in the interests of developer A.F. Evans, but it’s not in the interests of San Francisco, and the commissioners should be in no rush to go along.

This isn’t a typical commercial project: the land has been in the public sector for a century and has always been used for public projects. Until the 1950s it was home to San Francisco State University, and it became a UC campus in 1958. Turning public land over for private use should raise alarms anywhere, and in the middle of a dense city, where public land is scarce and affordable housing desperately needed, those alarms ought to be ringing loud and long.

In this case Evans has done a brilliant bit of political maneuvering: the market-rate housing project is paired with an 80-unit development that will be designed as retirement housing for queer seniors. That’s clearly something the city needs, and that aspect of the plan has won widespread support — and helped divert or eliminate opposition to the overall project.

But there are real issues here. For one thing, Evans plans to tear down two historic buildings (while saving three others). That was a compromise the Board of Supervisors accepted in August, but we still find it dubious. We also find dubious the notion that the developer will create public space by reopening a section of Waller Street — a public thoroughfare — that was part of the old campus.

The biggest problem, however, is the lack of affordable housing. Evans is planning to make 20 percent of the units available below market rate — but that’s a fairly small number considering that this is public land. Remember: at that ratio only 16 of the queer retirement apartments will be available to anyone who isn’t wealthy. While we agree that queer seniors of all income levels need this style of housing, which will feature community amenities and on-site services for the aging, 16 lower-cost units hardly seems like enough of a benefit to justify shifting 5.4 acres of public property into a private project. "How can the queer community settle for this, in San Francisco of all places?" queer housing activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca asks. "I think that we can do much better."

Evans is in a rush — and thus the Mayor’s Office and the City Planning Department are in a rush — because the developer’s contract with the university expires if the project isn’t approved by Jan. 1, 2008. Almost everyone involved agrees that the UC and Evans can easily reach terms on an extension, so there’s no real threat here. But it doesn’t matter — that’s not the city’s problem. San Francisco has a responsibility to ensure that big new projects serve the public interest; the developer’s deadline doesn’t trump that.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi is asking that the affordable-housing component be increased to around 40 percent. That may take a little work: the UC, which wants to make as much money as possible off this, is charging Evans a stiff fee for the land. But with the proper pressure, including pressure on the UC from Assemblymember Mark Leno and state senator Carole Migden, a much higher ratio of low-cost housing ought to be possible.

It’s too early to approve what’s still a bad deal. The planning commissioners should turn it down, and if they don’t, the supervisors should demand more from Evans before allowing the property to go from public to private use. *