Showdown at 55 Laguna

Pub date January 16, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan


Time is running out on attempts by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, State Sen. Carole Migden, and Assemblymember Mark Leno to secure greater affordable-housing levels from the University of California, which wants to build private residential units on its UC Berkeley Extension campus at 55 Laguna in San Francisco.

Since the school site closed more than three years ago, critics have questioned how the UC’s plan for the campus, which served a public use for more than 150 years, will benefit the community, while preservationists succeeded in getting the campus awarded historic landmark status.

But with the UC claiming "unrestricted power to take and hold real and personal property for the benefit of the university" in a public statement, the city’s regulatory power is limited. The San Francisco Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the project Jan. 17, including the demolition of Middle Hall Gymnasium, the oldest building on the campus, and Richardson Hall Annex. But local and state legislative officials are focused on trying to get more affordable housing at the site.

Although negotiations were still ongoing at Guardian press time, the UC’s plan was to demolish the two historically landmarked buildings on the 5.8-acre Hayes Valley campus and build 450 new housing units, 16 percent of them to be offered below market rates, about the minimum number under the city’s inclusionary-housing law.

"But we’re pushing hard at the bottom line," said Mirkarimi, who, along with Migden, Leno, the city’s Planning Department, the Mayor’s Office of Housing, and affordable-housing activists, has been meeting with developer A.F. Evans and Openhouse, a local nonprofit that intends to build an 80-unit, market-rate, LGBT-friendly, senior residential community on the site.

"And we are trying at a separate venue to appeal to the UC Regents to be more sensitive and cooperative in what their bottom line profitability level is," Mirkarimi, whose District 5 includes Hayes Valley, told the Guardian.

Mirkarimi said he’s in favor of preserving all five buildings at the site but that both the Planning Commission’s Landmark Advisory Committee and the Board of Supervisors have voted to preserve only three. "We are trying to be pragmatic yet clear as to what our objectives are in trying to make a complex deal that’s triangulated by UC Berkeley, A.F. Evans, and Openhouse, with UC as the big daddy in the room.

"UC can do almost what UC wants. But the city’s leverage comes from UC asking for housing to be built and requesting a zoning change at a site that has become a magnet for grime and crime," Mirkarimi said. "It would also be negligent for UC to let this site remain in its current condition.

Under state law, the UC is exempt from city and county zoning and building codes if it builds educational facilities or projects that are deemed to be in the public interest. But according to officials with the City Attorney’s Office, the UC is not exempt from such codes if it turns over its land for private development.

And then there’s the city’s claim that it never conveyed the title to Waller Street, which lies between Buchanan and Laguna streets and is essential to the project, giving opponents some leverage. The UC disputes the city’s claim, but Mirkarimi maintains that the Board of Supervisors’ control of the street "provides a contingency plan if we are not making progress. And either way, UC is going to have to pay for the right to Waller."

The UC’s 55 Laguna project manager Kevin Hufferd confirmed that he is having "ongoing discussions with state and city officials" but declined to comment further.

"Frustrating" is how queer affordable-housing activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca described the last-minute discussions about the 55 Laguna development plan. "A.F. Evans claims it won’t be making any money and that they can’t do any more," Mecca told the Guardian. He attended a Jan. 11 meeting with the company at which, he claims, the developers offered to increase affordability levels to 19.5 percent but Mirkarimi pushed for more.

"To his credit, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi keeps saying this is unacceptable," Avicolli Mecca said, also lauding the Mayor’s Office of Housing for trying to make Openhouse’s project "100 percent affordable."

Currently, Openhouse’s development includes no below-market-rate units, a situation Avicolli Mecca claims the MOH hopes to change "through bringing in subsidies."

"Obviously, we are not against queer senior housing," Avicolli Mecca said. "The issue is that this is a lousy deal. What are we getting? Nothing, but UC gains a lot of money. There’s a crazy need for affordable housing and no way to justify this plan."

Filmmaker Eliza Hemingway, whose documentary Uncommon Knowledge records how the UC shuttered 55 Laguna with no input from — and little concern for — staff, students, and the surrounding community, believes that people have lost sight of the public use issue.

"They are worn down by the struggle, by trying to find a compromise because the space is empty, but the question remains: why is a public campus being privately developed?" Hemingway told us. She mourns the loss of educational programs and spaces that benefited the community and the lack of transparency that has marred the UC’s plans.

"For there to have been such huge barriers to the public process over what is a huge amount of public land is unfortunate," Hemingway said.

Cynthia Servetnick of the Save the UC Berkeley Extension Laguna Street Campus told us her group is prepared to file a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act if the project as currently proposed is approved.

"We’d rather see a project that has 40 percent affordable housing at 50 percent [area median income] than a lawsuit, but $38,000 a year [which would be the annual income requirement for seniors, the disabled, and people with AIDS to be able to afford one of Openhouse’s units] is too high," she said, noting that the proposed units are small but could go for $4,000 a month, rising to $7,000 monthly for those who need more services and staff.

Claiming that recognition of the campus as a historic landmark assists project sponsors in accessing preservation incentives, including federal tax credits, Servetnick said, "A.F. Evans has its [environmental impact report] complete and is clearing the way for 450 units, but they could do that and save all the historic buildings, thus having the same profitability but more affordability. It’s now or never. This is a new term for the mayor, we have a new city planning director, John Rahaim, and officials open to negotiating a win-win."

Migden was even more blunt. "Poor old queers need a place to retire too," she said. "Either Evans and the UC up the affordability level to 40 or 50 percent and guarantee that some of the senior LGBT units are subsidized, or the project dies."

As of press time, A.F. Evans, Openhouse, the SF Planning Department, and UC representatives had not returned the Guardian‘s calls.

Deferring to Mirkarimi to make an official announcement, Leno said, "I know that the meetings have been ongoing and that the issue of affordability is a priority, and I’m hopeful that we will have an agreement among all stakeholders shortly."