San Francisco shoves projects into neighborhoods without input 

The road of good intentions is filled with unavoidable obstacles, which makes you wonder why San Francisco insists on adding to the clutter.

And for a town bent on community input for decisions big and small, you would have to question why city officials seem to go out of their way to avoid their own designated process.

All these conflicts will be part of a formidable lineup today when the Planning Commission hears the long-simmering dispute over a project to convert a former bed and breakfast in the Cow Hollow-Marina area into transitional housing for at-risk youths. It’s a classic example of how not to reach out to neighborhoods most impacted by necessary housing and educational developments, and why, even in the likelihood The City approves the project, it will have already turned the neighbors against the youngsters it’s trying to help.

Yet that’s not the only curiosity about the project involving the King Edward II Hotel, for which the Community Housing Partnership and the Mayor’s Office of Housing are seeking to spot-zone the property to allow it to increase the number of units from 16 to 25. In the span of a little more than a year, the cost of the project has ballooned from $2 million to $9 million, an estimate so high you could build the homeless youths a two-bedroom condo for the price of their small single rooms — something a contractor just recently did on the same block.

Still, the biggest fight over the proposed housing project is not the bloated price, but the lack of input from the merchants, residents and neighborhood associations that were informed of this incoming train only after it had rolled down the tracks. And as if they needed to further offend the area residents, the public affairs apparatus put together by the Community Housing Partnership has sought to portray the neighbors as affluent, uncaring NIMBYs, which is both unfair and inaccurate.

Members of the neighborhood associations support the project, but at 16 units, which would rescind the need for a special-use district. And their concerns over this rare instance of spot-zoning in residential neighborhoods is very real, since the Lombard Street corridor is lined with failing inexpensive hotels, and seeing a future of like-minded projects along The City’s northern gateway is real and imaginable.

“We’re not against the project, we just don’t want The City to set a zoning precedent that could have major long-term implications for this area,” said Lori Brooke, president of the Cow Hollow Association.

The Edward II project is the latest part of a downward trend in which community concerns are muted on behalf of some allegedly pure social tinkering. Just a few weeks back, a similar project for transitional foster care near the Presidio was pushed through the Board of Supervisors despite pleas from neighborhood groups for a slight reduction in size.

In March, residents in the Inner Sunset were stunned to discover that a shuttered school had become the planned site for teenage San Francisco Unified School District students who have gone through the court system because of drug, alcohol or disciplinary problems. School district officials told them the project was not only a done deal, but that they were going to triple the number of students at what is now facetiously known as Delinquent High.

Portraying neighbors as selfish and steadfastly immune to urban problems is a cheap and easy tactic. There isn’t a community in San Francisco that’s asking for more halfway houses and methadone clinics. People here, as much as any city, understand that all neighborhoods share their societal burdens.

But city officials increasingly have been deciding on the solutions before advising the affected communities that are going to be part of them, a combo special mixing poor policy and bad politics.

Supervisor Mark Farrell, who represents the Cow Hollow area, opposes the Edward II because he said it’s in a poor location, with no open space and no parking. It’s clear that for the same $9 million price, you could build a larger facility in a better area that does not require zoning exemptions.

Yet the exception is now the rule, coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

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Ken Garcia

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