A familiar San Francisco story: development conflict heightens 

Only in San Francisco could one story devolve into such a twisted tale.

But that 10 feet of height in a proposed affordable-housing project near the Presidio threatens to undermine a basic tenet of district elections, ignores most planning standards and, if approved, almost certainly will result in a lawsuit against The City for blithely brushing aside the concerns of several neighborhood groups.

That fight will be front and center next week when the Board of Supervisors considers an appeal of a project at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center. The center, which provides programs and housing for young adults at risk of homelessness, wants to build a 55-foot-high, five-story building in a residential neighborhood where the height limitation is 40 feet.

It’s a development battle that has now reached the outer limits, one likely to escalate since the board appears poised to approve the project on Tuesday.

Supervisor Mark Farrell, whose district includes the project area, spent months trying to assuage the concerns of neighbors and ultimately crafted a compromise plan in which the 50-unit structure would be pared down to 41 units and dropped to 45 feet by lopping off the top of the five-story building. Neighborhood groups begrudgingly signed on to the proposal, agreeing not to appeal or go to court to block the downscaled version. And as part of the deal, the Mayor’s Office of Housing agreed to put up another $500,000 to cover operating and construction costs.

Yet officials from Booker T. Washington said they were never part of the negotiations and were “surprised” by Farrell’s plans. And when they were finally presented it, the reaction was swift.

“No way,” said Patricia Scott, the center’s executive director.

So much for compromise — and the same goes for the supervisors themselves.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district is adjacent to Farrell’s, decided to push through the original development plan, a move generally considered unsportsmanlike in political circles — especially since it was Farrell who endured numerous meetings with the irate neighbors.

Supporters of the center’s expansion say that trumping a supervisor in his own district is only appropriate when it’s for a greater good — in this case, an extra nine units of affordable housing. But they certainly haven’t been listening to the neighborhood groups who say the project is out of scale with its surroundings, regardless of its kindly mission.

“You have to find a point where you are doing the least amount of harm and achieving the greatest amount of good for the parties involved,” said Charles Ferguson, a director of the Presidio Heights Association of Neighbors. “This project tips the balance part too far to where it’s going to change the character of the neighborhood.”

Farrell said the proposed compromise was not ideal, but it at least appeased the neighborhood groups to the point of agreeing not to sue. That chip is now off the table.

“It’s just a matter of common sense,” he said. “We tried to find common ground and build the support of the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a good project, we all agree on that. But ultimately we’re fighting over one story here.”

One of the arguments pushed by officials from Booker T. Washington is that when the project first started more than six years ago, they envisioned an eight-story building. But that’s like proposing to build a 100-foot-tall house in a neighborhood of two-story homes — and then saying you’ll compromise by lopping 30 feet off the building.

It’s a game played by every developer in San Francisco, knowing they’ll have to make concessions.

In this case, no one is conceding. In some circles they call that stubbornness. In San Francisco, that’s called a lawsuit.

Everyone agrees that the service center does good work, helping predominantly black youths get their lives back on track after emerging from difficult places such as the state’s foster care system. The neighbors don’t question that. Along with everyone else, they’re more concerned about parking, and the fact that the new building will loom over them.

So is it worth having such a contentious battle over nine units of housing that would no doubt be built somewhere else?

In a city of sharpened elbows, you don’t even have to ask.

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Ken Garcia

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