Ken Garcia: Meddling in massive housing deal could kill needed development 

In its never-ending search for the elusive, perfect housing deal, San Francisco is threatening to lose a very good one.

That would be the 1,900-unit apartment project proposed on a gritty stretch of Market Street that has already been approved by the Planning Commission — and where it is headed again today on its tortuous journey through The City’s Byzantine political process. For after more than two years of negotiations, members of the Board of Supervisors want to lay their own imprint on the proposal — which makes one wonder if our legislators should be acting as San Francisco’s uber-planning agency.

A word of advice to our sage board members: Don’t push too hard with demands that could kill the project, or the words "affordable housing’’ could be banned from their ornate chambers forever.

I never thought I could be on the same side as volcanic Supervisor Chris Dalyand dark-hearted political consultant Jack Davis, but the stars and longtime foes were aligned on the Trinity Plaza project, which would be the cornerstone of the future redevelopment in San Francisco’s mid-Market area.

The project is the career development trophy sought by controversial landlord Angelo Sangiacomo, who has wanted to build a signature complex at Eighth and Market for nearly two decades only to be rebuffed by tenant and community activists.

The deal came about after Sangiacomo sought to raze the former motor hotel to build his blocklong development, which led to fierce opposition from Trinity residents and Daly, the district supervisor.

That ultimately led to an agreement in which Sangiacamo agreed to place 360 of the 1,900 units under lifetime rent control leases. He also agreed not to displace the residents during construction, letting them stay while their new digs are built.

Sangiacomo also promised to offer 12 percent of the units at affordable-housing levels — putting aside 185 or so units to those who earn The City’s median income or less.

But it turns out that some supervisors want Sangiacomo to raise the affordable housing percentage to 15 percent, among other major concessions.

Apparently, some supervisors also want to severely reduce the amount of parking at the site, which would include retail offices as well. And some officials think the development is too dense — even though it was the Planning Department that increased the number of units, saying it was one of the few areas in San Francisco that could absorb such a huge amount of housing.

Yet during the protracted negotiations and hearings, the cost of construction has risen about 40 percent and Sangiacamo is about as happy as someone who just had their wages garnished by the IRS.

"It’s agonizing having to fight City Hall when the bottom line is we’re trying to do something good for San Francisco,’’ he said. "It’s a case where you have the opposition saying ‘It’s great, but we just want more.’’’

It’s a rare case where advocates of rent control and affordable housing are aligned, but that hasn’t sped up the approval process. Supervisor Jake McGoldrick told me that in a project with such density, the developer should provide more affordable units, but Sangiacomo believes that offering 360 tenants lifetime rent-control apartments in The City is about as affordable as it gets.

Even the tenants who were once vehemently against Sangiacomo got on board, but that hasn’t sped the deal any closer. And the real question now — assuming the Planning Commission gives it another green light, as expected — is whether the board will push so hard for more concessions that they sink the entire proposal. And if that happens, the board members playing hardball are going to have a lot of explaining to do to residents who have heard about the need for more housing from them for years.

It’s a dicey proposition, especially for a group not known for its subtlety. But McGoldrick admits there’s too much at stake to push the outer limits.

"I think something will come out of the sausage-making machine so that we can get a fair and decent deal,’’ he said. "We just need to find out what’s the public give-back benefit here.’’

He better hope so. Enough time has passed that they could be breaking ground instead of holding another round of hearings. The politics that helped create the project now threaten to block it, and anyone who walks in the mid-Market area knows that the neighborhood could use a serious upgrade.

It’s time, for once, that officials in San Francisco let a good deal go unpunished.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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