Community weighing in on run-down church’s future 

A development battle of biblical proportions — or, at least, San Francisco proportions — is mounting over the future of a 99-year-old church, and the lightning bolts may fly at a public hearing today.

For 6½ years, developers have been aiming to demolish the vacant First St. John’s United Methodist Church at Larkin and Clay streets and replace it with a modern six-story, 27-unit housing complex.

The proposed building was designed by renowned architect Stanley Saitowitz. However, The City’s Planning Department has deemed the new design’s blocky, glass aesthetic as inappropriate for the Victorian-heavy residential neighborhood.

The church has been closed since 2004, when the congregation merged with the other United Methodist Church location in San Francisco. The building was vacated completely after its unreinforced masonry was deemed dangerous, and the church administration decided to sell the property.

In an attempt to block the development, the Board of Supervisors in 2007 tried to designate it a local landmark. However, last year, a state appeals court rejected the bid, citing a California law that specifically allowed religious groups to block a landmark designation of old buildings.

Planning Director John Rahaim is now recommending the Planning Commission approve the project’s environmental impact report at today’s hearing. However, because the report concludes that demolishing the building would cause unavoidable adverse impact to a historic resource, the Planning Commission would have to approve a “statement of overriding consideration” in order to approve the project as a whole, which the Planning Department has recommended against.

That decision will not likely be popular with some of the project’s neighbors, however. Some 250 of the 300 public responses to the project so far have been in favor of it. Many neighbors have said the vacant church attracts crime.

“Most people in the neighborhood would like that church taken down yesterday,” said John McInerney of Anasazi Properties. “It’s horrible, it’s absolutely disgusting. It attracts crime and the homeless. We went there on Monday morning and there were five of them, one on each stairway.”

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Katie Worth

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