Portrait of the artist as an old cop

Pub date January 9, 2008
WriterG.W. Schulz

› gwschulz@sfbg.com

Imagine Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, pondering the impact of abstract expressionism on the American zeitgeist with a far-off gaze. Or picture him dressed in fashionably tight jeans, walking his fixed-gear bike to the San Francisco Academy of Art University with a leather portfolio tucked under his skinny arm.

Does that seem incongruous to you? It does to us as well. After all, Delagnes is the very antithesis of an art school student. So why are the POA and Delagnes, a brutish former narcotics officer, lobbying the San Francisco Planning Commission on behalf of the Academy of Art?

The academy, which has been rapidly snapping up properties around town to accommodate its ambitious expansion plans, has become an entity of increasing concern in San Francisco’s dicey world of land-use politics.

The for-profit school, which costs students around $16,500 per year to attend, today owns or controls more than 30 properties across the city, half of which are used to house its students, and expects to take over nearly a dozen more to accommodate approximately 14,500 students by 2017.

In the meantime, the school is facing several enforcement actions initiated by the Planning Department for brazenly making building conversions without bothering to obtain proper permits.

Delagnes was nonetheless first in line at a September 2007 commission meeting held to address the academy’s pending enforcement cases and praised the school as a tremendous asset to the academic community.

"I think that their reputation in San Francisco is unquestioned as some of the finest, true San Franciscans that I know," Delagnes said of the wealthy Stephens family, which owns the Academy of Art. "They are heavily involved and invested in the city of San Francisco and care deeply about its future."

Delagnes’s lobbying on behalf of the academy surprised and appalled at least one commissioner, Hisashi Sugaya, who told the POA president that he was "really offended" someone representing law enforcement was carrying water for a private art school that had flouted the law by racking up alleged planning and building code violations.

Responding in the union’s newsletter, POA vice president Kevin Martin reached a dizzyingly patriotic pitch in denouncing Sugaya as a liberal and demanding he apologize not just to Delagnes but also to the entire union for "demeaning our president" and "censuring his freedom of speech."

Delagnes admitted to the Guardian that his testimony was essentially a "quid pro quo." The academy has supported the POA, even offering special summer apprenticeships to the children of its members. "I’m sure that they were thinking, ‘You know what? The POA is a pretty powerful organization. It wouldn’t hurt to get close to them,’<0x2009>" Delagnes said. "Here came this problem with the Planning Commission. They called me and said, ‘Hey, would you mind going up there and basically saying that we’re a good organization? We’re good people.’<0x2009>"

During the meeting, school president Elisa Stephens, who did not return calls, portrayed the academy as a simple mom-and-pop business ignorant of planning politics and intending to fully cooperate with the city.

"My grandfather was an artist…. We’re an integral part of this community," Stephens told the commissioners. "I live in this community. We’ve been here since the late 1800s. We’re dedicated to this city…. I apologize for not being involved in city politics. I’m involved in education."

But city staffers implied there’s more to the academy’s troubles than a few honest mistakes. In March 2007, the school was hit with a litany of alleged code violations, including 14 properties converted without conditional-use permits and seven made into group housing or modified for other school uses without building permits, Planning Department records show.

Before last year the academy had never submitted an institutional master plan to the city, even though San Francisco’s Planning Code has required them from universities since the 1970s, particularly for a scattered campus that’s in a position to dramatically alter the face of downtown, where the school is primarily located and its private transit buses are ubiquitous.

The academy finally turned one over in 2007 after city planners issued a citation in summer 2006. Afterward the department visited all of the school’s properties and discovered multiple problems with use permits, plus an additional property the academy had recently acquired but didn’t include in its plan.

Code enforcers tried to negotiate with the school, planning staffer Scott Sanchez told the commission. But after department personnel outlined the March 2007 violations for the academy, it simply continued onward, converting 601 Brannan for its own use without any building permits and doing the same at the Star Motel on Lombard, this time without a conditional-use application.

As the department worked to keep up, the academy purchased four new buildings and put its eye on another, all between spring and fall 2007.

"All of our information about their new facilities came from members of the public…. It wasn’t actually through the academy, with whom we thought we had a dialogue about their institutional master plan," Sanchez told the Guardian. "We had something ongoing with them, yet they were not informing us of their new acquisitions, and they weren’t obtaining proper permits for them."

The school, in fact, is accelerating plans to convert 575 Sixth St., known as the San Francisco Flower Mart, into studio space, despite opposition from the Mayor’s Office, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors. The 30 floral business tenants that currently inhabit the building received eviction notices dated Christmas Eve 2007.

A future academy gymnasium is slated for 620 Sutter, but building it would result in the eviction of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, a 25-year-old institution specializing in African American stage performances. The academy already converted part of the building to group housing without a permit.

So what else is the POA getting for its support of the arts? For one, the Academy of Art was a $5,000 putf8um sponsor of the POA’s 2007 charity golf tournament at the StoneTree Golf Club in Novato, beating out dozens of other donors for the top of the list. The exclusive title was used for only three other contributors.

The union’s November 2007 newsletter, which appeared just after Delagnes voiced his support for the school, announced that academy president Stephens had also given POA members working at the police department’s Southern Station in SoMa 15 free underground parking spots on Bluxome, just a short walk from the Hall of Justice and the union’s headquarters.

And that’s the art of politics in San Francisco.