Supes Postpone Decision on 3400 Cesar Chavez

by Ben Malley on July 18, 2007

After listening to over five hours of public comment on the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition’s (MAC) appeal of the environmental impact document at 3400 Cesar Chavez, the Board of Supervisors voted to wait two weeks to make a decision. MAC had appealed the approval of a 60-unit condominium project due to its minimal levels of affordability.

When the last speaker finished at 9:48 p.m., Board President Aaron Peskin said that he thought higher-level staff from the Planning Department should have been in attendance, and wanted more time to come to a decision. “What we need to determine,” he said, “is the thoroughness, completeness, or lack thereof from the Planning Department.” Supervisor Tom Ammiano seconded Peskin’s motion, and said he “hoped we can find some closure around the CEQA issue.”

CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act – and it’s traditionally been used in city planning pertaining to “physical environmental impacts only,” according to Victoria Wise of the Planning Department. “Physical environmental impacts” mean the effects such as pollution or excessive traffic that the development will have on the community.

But MAC’s attorney, Sue Hestor, and other residents who spoke on the CEQA issue argued that socio-economic impacts should also be included as “physical,” and that the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan – which calls for more affordable housing in the area – should be taken into consideration.

They also cited an April 2006 decision at 2660 Harrison Street where the Board of Supervisors voted in favor of an appeal that determined the environmental impact report should include an analysis of the “cumulative impact” of all market-rate housing pertaining to jobs and housing needs in the community.

Steve Vettel, who represents the developer Seven Hills, told the Board about the many community benefits the project is slated to give the neighborhood. “But that’s not even important to this case,” he said. “The only issue here is determining whether or not the CEQA process and the Planning Department did its job.”

Tom Ammiano then grilled the Planning Department staff, who could not give him the answers he was looking for. When he asked for the names of the individuals responsible for making key decisions on the plan, a staff member told him that the Planning Department’s offices are small and that the department came to a consensus at internal meetings.

Ammiano cracked, “I don’t suppose you have minutes for those meetings, do you?”

One of MAC’s central arguments was that the Planning Department did not do an adequate job. The department’s disorganized behavior in response to Ammiano’s questioning did little to alter that opinion. “When Supervisor Ammiano questioned Planning Department staff, it became clear that the entire plan is very muddled,” said Mission housing activist Eric Quesada.

But many Mission residents who supported the Seven Hills plan seemed to be won over by the developer’s ability to work with the community. Residents said that Seven Hills conducted “unprecedented outreach,” and changed many parts of their plan to suit neighborhood suggestions.

Many of these residents complained of crime that infests the area around the 3400 Cesar Chavez site. They said that getting any kind of development in place as soon as possible would help make the area safer. But other speakers who spoke out against the project said they did not oppose development on the site – just housing that would be affordable to people in the community.

One of the reasons for MAC’s appeal is the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center’s (BHNC) alternative to the Seven Hills’ plan for the site. Under the alternate plan, BHNC would build 60-70 affordable housing units for families earning less than 60 percent of San Francisco’s median income – $54,700 for a family of four. The Seven Hills plan contains nine affordable housing units (the minimum 15 percent), that would be sold to households earning 100 percent of median income.

On the ground floor would be an area for the Day Laborer program, instead of a Walgreens’ in the Seven Hills plan. BHNC would buy the land from Seven Hills for what they say is a competitive market rate of about $5.88 million. However, BHNC would need to acquire this funding from the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

Matt Franklin of the Mayor’s Office of Housing stated that while the $5.88 million dollar bid by the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center is competitive, that number does not take into account the 12,000 square foot retail space for the Wallgreens which would increase the value of the property. First, he said, there obviously needs to be a willing seller.

The Board of Supervisors has three options it can take when it finally does vote on July 31st. It can uphold the Planning Commission’s approval of the project, reject the project, or send it back to the Planning Department for further study.

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