OPINION Battles to preserve the unique character of San Francisco’s neighborhoods are nothing new. Indeed, most of the current crop of supervisors were elected in large part as a reaction to east-side development battles that raged during the first dot-com boom a half dozen years ago.
In the northeast corner of San Francisco, I have long been part of the struggle to preserve the character of some of the city’s oldest, most historic neighborhoods against the onslaught of incompatible development.
Decades ago, as downtown was expanding northward, gobbling up thriving, diverse communities and destroying dozens of historic buildings, community activists won a monumental zoning battle by drawing a bright line down Washington Street. On one side is the massive Downtown Business District, where the Transamerica Pyramid sits. On the other side are the human-scale neighborhoods of Chinatown, North Beach, and Jackson Square, San Francisco’s first historic district.
We have fought hard to maintain this barrier against the Manhattanization of our neighborhoods. In the late 1990s I joined with neighbors to successfully prevent the destruction of the landmark Colombo Building at the gateway from downtown into these historic neighborhoods. So when more than 200 neighbors showed up at a recent public meeting to protest the threat of yet another high-rise encroachment, I certainly took notice. Who was it this time? Not a private developer but our very own City College is now proposing a 17-story, 238-foot glass monstrosity at the corner of Kearny and Washington streets. And the college is arguing that, as a state agency, it can ignore San Francisco planning and zoning codes.
As the city’s Chinatown Area Plan states, the proposed site, which is located diagonally opposite Portsmouth Square, one of the city’s most heavily used parks, is not an appropriate setting for tall buildings. Seventy-five percent of the structures in Chinatown are three stories or less in height. The permitted height of buildings at this site is 65 feet. In addition, the proposed building would overshadow Portsmouth Square and likely condemn it to significant shading.
While I support a new campus for the Chinatown–<\d>North Beach area, City College administrators have failed to reach out to the community — and now they appear to be jamming through their latest proposal, ignoring objections from their neighbors and simultaneously committing millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to the project well before the completion of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Plans for the site were hurriedly submitted for environmental review in September without prior community input or consideration of alternatives such as a combination of smaller buildings or a location of adjunct campuses in underserved areas of the city — the Richmond, the Sunset, or Visitacion Valley. Moreover, the college’s construction bureaucracy apparently tried to stifle public comment by providing little notice and scheduling the only environmental scoping hearing immediately after Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, just a week after that meeting the college’s Board of Trustees approved a $122 million budget for the project, which can only be interpreted as a clear sign that they have already made their decision regardless of what impacts are identified in the EIR. And perhaps, most ominously, administrators may be pushing to make the project a fait accompli before newly elected Sierra Club leader John Rizzo is inaugurated.
It’s time for City College to listen to its neighbors and go back to the drawing board.
Aaron Peskin is president of the Board of Supervisors.