March 2, 2023 Housing Action Coalition

The Two-Year Odyssey of 2550 Irving

Why San Francisco needs to reform the its appeals process

At nearly 10pm on February 22, after two separate four-hour hearings, the San Francisco Board of Appeals finally decided to reject an appeal of 2550 Irving Street’s demolition permits. This 3-2 decision was essential in allowing the 100% affordable housing project to move forward.

However, the over-two-year odyssey to construct this project has not yet come to an end, as the Mid Sunset Neighborhood Association (MSNA) will almost certainly file another appeal of the project’s site permit, adding further delays and cost.

MSNA’s appeal was predicated on a seemingly reasonable concern: the neighborhood surrounding the project was found to have a presence of perchloroethene (PCE), a known carcinogen. MSNA’s lawyer and representatives argued that the site has not been properly studied and characterized, and that further testing was needed.

The entire premise of this argument relied on the idea that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH), did not do their legally required work, or, at minimum, did not properly notify the residents of their findings.

This is categorically false. Hours of questioning and testimony of state and local experts demonstrated repeated assurances that the sight was “safe,” “does not pose a risk,” and that the levels of PCE were “low” and “common.” Explanations were detailed; statistics were shown; evidence was reinforced.

The two dissenting votes– Commissioners Alex Lemberg and John Trasviña–were unmoved by this testimony. They were also apparently unpersuaded by the publicly available 282 page response plan where they responded in detail to each community concern and the multiple presentations made to the community.

While Commissioner Lemberg admitted that they are “not a toxics expert,” they felt they were in a position to disagree with the scientific evidence and methodology conducted by licensed experts. They did not take nearly as critical a view to the appellants’ arguments.

This lack of critique is especially problematic because attacks towards the project initially characterized the project as a “slum” that would bring in the “wrong type of people.” When this offensive rhetoric proved unsuccessful, opponents moved to opposing the “height and density” of the project, before finally resorting to this environmental argument.

MSNA explicitly outlined using the environmental history (page 127) of the site as a way to defeat the project. Their proposed “solutions” were both time and cost prohibitive and would likely have resulted in the project missing essential financing timelines. This well-funded opposition has surely added hundreds of thousands– if not millions–of dollars to the project’s overall cost and represents one of the key reasons why it’s so hard to build housing, and especially affordable housing, in San Francisco.

Fortunately, SB 35 prevented the Board of Appeals from imposing conditions on the permit that jeopardized the entire project, which seemed to be their desire. But even without their ability to obstruct, the Board still managed to give credence to bad actors by diminishing the consistent and detailed evidence from experts. They failed to assure the genuinely concerned residents that the site is safe for housing.

The appeal of building permits is unique to San Francisco. After this most recent debacle where a win for affordable housing still feels like a loss, it’s entirely evident that the process must change for good.

Housing Action Coalition

The Housing Action Coalition is a member-supported non-profit that advocates for the creation of well designed, well-located housing at all levels of affordability. We believe more housing means more choices and better solutions.

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