Will Planning Commission Ask Tough Questions About Parkmerced at Tomorrow’s Hearing?

by Dean Preston on February 9, 2011

In the City’s rush to approve the redevelopment of Parkmerced, any meaningful review is being sidelined – not just now, but for the life of the project. If approved, this project will authorize a free-for-all at Parkmerced for decades to come, with no further review by the Planning Commission or the public.

The proposal creates a new special use district for Parkmerced that is exempt from current city restrictions. Under the proposal, buildings can be demolished whenever the developer wants without even a conditional use hearing at the Planning Commission for residents or neighbors to weigh in.

As for the proposed new construction, it is the Planning Department – not the Planning Commission – that will have the power to approve design and other keys aspects of the development. The difference is significant because the Commission holds hearings open to the public, whereas the Department can operate without public input.

The Planning Department acknowledges in a memo to the Commission that the Parkmerced Development Agreement is different than the City’s other recent development agreements in that “the Developer receives greater flexibility on the phasing of the Project over the next 30 years and additional assistance in the form of the elimination of maximum density controls, reduced setbacks and rear yard requirements, increased permissible height and bulk envelopes, elimination of a Conditional Use requirement for residential demolitions and for residential buildings over 40’‐0, and by allowing more commercial mixed‐use development than permitted under current zoning.”

The memo continues: “unlike other recently approved development agreements, under the terms of this Development Agreement, the Developer is not required to maintain any development schedules or pre‐determined physical development phases.”

There are few enforceable standards for how the project will unfold. One understands why a developer would want this kind of latitude, but why would the Planning Commission, as a matter of law and institutional self-respect, not want to retain some ability to supervise the project? Why give away the ability to regulate future demolitions and other keys aspects of the plan?

It is imperative that the Commission address the profound flaws in this project. In preparation for the hearing Thursday, here are five questions, at minimum, that every commissioner should ask about this project:

1. Why has there been no consideration of a project alternative that does not involve demolition of over 1500 units of sound, rent-controlled housing?

2. Why is unprecedented latitude being given to the developer with respect to project phasing and the timing of demolitions?

3. Why is the City agreeing to make the developer exempt from future Planning Commission review, even precluding conditional use hearings for demolition permits?

4. What, if anything, prevents the future owner from invoking the Ellis Act to evict residents?

5. Why has this project never been reviewed by the Historic Preservation Committee, given that everyone agrees that Parkmerced is historically significant?

So far, only Commissioners Kathrin Moore, Christina Olague and Hisashi Sugaya have asked tough questions about this project. Will any other commissioner step up on Thursday and demand answers to the many serious questions about this open-ended giveaway to Parkmerced developers? If not, the Board of Supervisors will need to take action to stop this runaway train before it crashes.

Dean Preston is the Executive Director of Tenants Together, California’s statewide organization for renters rights. For more information about Tenants Together, visit www.TenantsTogether.org.

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