Longtime SF code offender the Academy of Art University may finally be brought to heel 

click to enlarge The Academy of Art University, which has more than 22 locations scattered across The City, is facing pressure over unlawful building conversions and other code issues. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The Academy of Art University, which has more than 22 locations scattered across The City, is facing pressure over unlawful building conversions and other code issues.

The for-profit Academy of Art University's 2295 Taylor St. location appears from the outside to fit in nicely with the two- and three-story buildings in its North Beach locale. But the building is a thorn in San Francisco's side.

That's because it was illegally converted from a 5,000-square-foot commercial space, and garage, into a 20,000-square-foot school site.

When the building was inspected by the Planning Department, there were still parking stall lines painted on the ground, said Scott Sanchez, The City's zoning administrator.

"It's very clearly a garage, but they were teaching kids in a garage," he said.

The property -- which received its latest violation notice April 25 and will be assessed daily fines of $250 unless things are rectified -- is just one of the university's more than 22 properties across The City that have had code violations for a litany of issues stretching over a decade, from illegal conversions and usage to illegal signage.

Now, after nearly seven years of back and forth with The City, the hammer may finally come down on an institution that some observers have called one of San Francisco's worst repeat offenders when it comes to code and planning violations.

"It is critical that these long delays in compliance by the Academy of Art come to an end," wrote Planning Director John Rahaim in an April 11 letter to university President Elisa Stephens.

If the school fails to rectify issues at a handful of sites and does not finish an environmental impact review of its operations by Nov. 1, a daily violation of $250 for 21 properties will begin accruing Nov. 2. The school has been given many second chances -- most recently violations on 22 properties were given a stay in exchange for cooperation with The City -- since Planning Department correction orders started in 2007, Sanchez said. But most of those efforts went for naught, even as the Planning Department tried to bring the school into compliance, he added.

Still, Sanchez does not understand why the school continues to skirt the rules and break agreements made with The City.

"Any further delays due to the academy will not be tolerated," he said.

Examples of violations abound, according to filings with the Planning Commission, which will be given an informational review on the issue Thursday.

At 460 Townsend St., for instance, fines for code violations already exceed $300,000, Sanchez said.

The university converted the building at 950 Van Ness Ave. into a car storage facility for its car collection without permits, among other violations. An April letter notified the school that it would face fines of $250 a day if it did not appeal or rectify the issue.

And at 2225 Jerrold Ave., a 2013 inspection found that "two of the large warehouse rooms had been converted to a weight training room and a full-scale basketball court." The school did not have the permits to transform the building, and such a conversion would not have been legal anyway.

As for the school's North Beach building on Taylor Street, John Sanger, a lawyer who was a San Francisco Art Institute board member, said in an affidavit that "some time after he left the Board of Trustees in 2000, he spoke with the Chair of the Board of Trustees and interim president ... [who] informed me that the property had been acquired by a foreign corporation acting on behalf of the Academy of Art in order to disguise the fact that it was acquiring the property, presumably in order to have a presence and signage just a block away from SFAI on the main access street to SFAI which, I was informed caused substantial confusion as to which school occupied what property."

Academy of Art University officials, lawyers and local political consultant Enrique Pierce, who works for the school, did not return calls for comment Tuesday evening.

Sue Hestor, a land-use lawyer who has closely followed the violations saga, did not mince words when it came to the university.

"They are running afoul of the Planning Department in monumentally big ways because they are a scofflaw," said Hestor, who described the university as "the most uncontrolled institution ever seen in this city."

A Cow Hollow resident who dealt with noise issues at a student housing facility at the Star Motel on Lombard Street said that while the site is no longer in violation, the school was not easy to deal with.

"There's an arrogance," resident Patricia Vaughey said of the university's approach to code violations. "They believe they can do whatever they want."

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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