Academy finally in hot water for surrealist logic 

The Academy of Art University in San Francisco has been called many things over the years — a diploma mill, a foreign exchange outpost, a real estate conglomerate and a college version of Monopoly.

But for all its many credentialed programs, including fashion and photography, it has made a name for itself by showcasing a talent not usually associated with higher education — as a place excelling in the art of deception.

The Academy of Art University has found itself, ironically enough, on the canvas these days, after running afoul of city planning guidelines by using buildings for classroom or residential purposes without the proper permits. It may soon be the subject of lawsuits and penalty hearings, and a Board of Supervisors committee Monday discussed the academy’s role as a force in withdrawing rent-controlled units from the real estate market.

Yet what’s amazing about the ongoing charade of ignoring planning and building-code regulations and cobbling together a real estate empire under the guise of academic pursuits, is that it’s gone on for so long without city interference or control.

“We’re not getting anywhere,” Planning Commissioner Christina Olague said at a recent hearing on enforcement of regulations for the academy, or the lack thereof. “Everyone is making a mockery of us. We’re the laughingstock of The City.”

Not anymore. It now appears likely that the academy will get sued by the city and county of San Francisco for the nearly two dozen code violations it has been openly ignoring, not exactly the kind of lesson plan universities seek out.

Drawing attention to itself seems to be a hallmark of the academy. Two years ago, it was in the news for trying to buy and eventually erase The City’s historic Flower Mart. It took considerable editorial might and the help of land-use experts to block the transaction, possibly one of the few real estate deals Academy of Art President Elisa Stephens could not get done.

But she’s been busy lately, purchasing several properties in the last few months, including the longtime Mercedes-Benz showroom on Van Ness Avenue to house the university’s classic car collection (which is being housed at yet another former auto dealership it owns a mile down the street).

The academy’s formula for success goes something like this: Collect tuition fees (preferably from foreign students), use the cash to buy a building, turn the building into a dormitory or classroom and then add the building to the route for its extensive bus fleet.

And then tell city planners that it will get permits for whatever it was supposed to seek permits for in the first place.

The problem for The City is that the Planning Commission is an agency designed to set regulations, not enforce them. That’s why it has taken years for the commission to reach the level of frustration that has finally forced it to act.

“This situation has gone on much too long,” commission President Ron Miguel said. “That’s why The City has to go ahead more drastically than it has in the past.”

One question remains at the heart of the controversy regarding the academy that doesn’t often get asked: Why, if it really wants to be a credible, attractive, urban university, doesn’t it just build a central campus instead of housing its administration, classrooms and students at more than 30 buildings it owns around town?

There is enough land, as witnessed by UC San Francisco’s expansion into Mission Bay. And the Port is desperate to get new enterprises (and money) from its vast properties. Wouldn’t a bayfront location be a good fit for all concerned?

Yet it would appear that the academy isn’t interested in acting like a typical institution of higher learning, since most colleges would never blithely ignore planning regulations or be better known for its fleet of buses than its educational curriculum.

For a school that specializes in art, it’s not a pretty picture. And you’d have to be a surrealist like Salvador Dali to want to place yourself squarely in the sights of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

But the academy does own a bunch of cool cars — some might say works of art.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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