New Details, Less Controversy for Latest Northeast Bernal Infill Housing Proposal

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Proposed site plan, from December 2015 Design Review Board meeting

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As you may recall, there was another Design Review Board meeting last week to look over the revised plans for the very longstanding, very controversial plan to build infill housing on the secret interior lot bordered by Hampshire, Peralta, York and Cesar Chavez.

In case you missed it, Neighbor Margo shared these terrific summary notes from the Design Review meeting:

About a dozen neighbors attended the East Slope Design Review Board meeting Wednesday evening to see the most recent architectural plans for the six-unit infill development behind our home. Local contractor Patrick Quinlan wants to build three-bedroom homes and a cliff-side elevated driveway on two undeveloped interior lots. Access would be from his lot at 1513 York Street.

The project has been in and out of the development pipeline for 15 years or more.

The latest iteration from San Francisco-based architect Stephen Antonaros drastically cuts the number of parking places. Mr. Antonaros said the city Planning Department directed the builder to reduce the number of dedicated parking places in the four three-bedroom homes from three spots to one per unit. That goes against what the neighbors had advocated for many years, but the directive is apparently in keeping with the city’s transit-first policy.

The plan envisions four three-bedroom homes on the R-2 interior lots, and two one-bedroom townhouses above a driveway/garage-door structure on the York Street access lot. The total of 14 bedrooms is unchanged from the previous plan, which we saw 18 months ago in May 2014.

But one of the concerns that neighbors voiced for many years was that the parking spaces in the development should reflect real life. The last set of plans met that concern; most neighbors thought the 18 spots for the six units would avert a flood of drivers seeking a place to park in neighboring streets, where parking is already extremely challenging, particularly at night. So, for those of us who were hoping that this project would not worsen parking in the area, the new plan, with just six parking places, is a setback.

The other major change is that the four interior buildings had been oriented in the previous layout in a sort of slanted configuration, facing northeast, following the contour of the hill, leaving some space between the buildings, and some space at each side of the lot. The city directed the architect to reduce the mass of the development, so he took that as a directive to push the houses closer together and over to one side, as well as to configure them parallel to the neighboring streets. The development now would be more like a cluster of four buildings hard up against the York Street side of the property.

The owner of the adjacent property on York Street pointed out that he had previously noted that the building on the access lot would abut two existing windows on the north side of his house. He had asked the architect to modify his plans, perhaps with a light-well. Mr. Antanaros responded that when you install a window on your property line, you take a risk that someone will construct a building there. In any case, that modification was not made.

Two neighbors asked that the builder consider leaving the space open, perhaps as an organic garden. Mr. Quinlan said the finances of the situation make that option unrealistic.

The East Slope Design Review Board volunteers, led by Wendy Cowles, went point by point through their previous concerns, expressed in a letter to the Planning Department following the last neighborhood meeting in May 2014. Mr. Antonaros tried to show how his new plans answered them. A few spirited exchanges ensued.

The Board’s concerns included traffic density within the project itself, which, of course, would be lessened by reducing the number of parking places. Another traffic concern was the “pinch point,” the area near the gate to the project, where cars can safely wait while turning into and out of York Street, which is quite steep and narrow on this block.

A retaining wall and elevated driveway directly above the back yards of the adjoining properties on Cesar Chavez were a concern both aesthetically and for safety. The builder plans to excavate, with earth-moving equipment, to reduce the scale of parts of the wall, but the proposed driveway remains right on the property line, and was not moved back.

One part of the project, the two one-bedroom townhouses on York Street, was over the neighborhood’s 30-foot height limit, and it was lowered.

The architect and builder expressed frustration at the pace that city planners are moving this project. In the 18 months since the last meeting, Mr. Antonaros said, he has had but three email exchanges with the planner, Mr. Doug Vu, and the directives he’s gotten have not added clarity for him, he said.

The review board will write another letter to the Planning Department and expects to see plans again at a later date.

Despite the contractor’s and architect’s frustrations, and several neighbors’ skepticism about the whole project, Ms. Cowles succeeded in keeping the atmosphere relatively civil and efficient. The meeting wrapped in a bit over two hours.

Many thanks to Neighbor Margo for sharing her most excellent notes.

20 thoughts on “New Details, Less Controversy for Latest Northeast Bernal Infill Housing Proposal

  1. “Mr. Antanaros responded that when you install a window on your property line, you take a risk that someone will construct a building there.”

    I can’t believe we actually have to argue about things like this. As if you can somehow lay claim to a vacant lot next door that you don’t own simply by putting in a window.

    • It is ridiculous. I rented a loft in SOMA years ago with lot line windows and the house rules you had to sign to buy or rent the unit required acknowledgement that those windows could go away at any time and if you were the owner you would also be liable for replacing the windows with fire proofing at your expense prior to a new building going up next door.

    • This question can get complicated, though — there are rules on how close a building can be to a rear lot line. Presumably the existing house that is up against the lot line was grandfathered in, and because of those rules on rear lot lines, this resident might have had a reasonable belief that another structure would not be placed hard up on the same line.

    • I think the map shown here is wrong; it doesn’t show the houses hard up on the York St. side of the property, like Margo’s summary indicates, but rather has them in the middle of the lot. Under the new plan, are the four houses going to be spun 90 degrees, or just slid over closer to York St.? That might make a difference in terms of how close they are allowed to get to the neighboring property lines — I think the rules are different for side lot-lines than rear lot-lines.

      Either way, it is a bummer for the folks on York St., who have a pretty reasonable expectation that any structure in those interior lots would be spaced a bit away from the lot line, since it is their rear lot-lines in question. Other than that one grandfathered house hard up on the line, the other houses don’t have side windows, leaving the rear yard as the only light source. Multi-story houses hard up on that line would block some of that light.

      Folks should realize why the rear lot-line rules exist: both for fire safety (so there is someplace away from the structures that people can go to) and for light, given that most of our buildings are adjacent to each other, with few or no side-lights. That one building hard up on the line is an anomaly; there are good reasons why those building are not allowed anymore.

      All this is to say that I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all for the York St. neighbor to inquire about a light-well. That seems like a great compromise to a tough situation (and one that could be just complicated enough to cause problems for the developer). The developer’s response strikes me as insensitive and potentially counter-productive.

    • Agreed. Also hard to believe that many people think they not only have an absolute right to store their cars on valuable public property forever, for free, but that the city should prevent potential newcomers from attempting to do the same thing.

      • Haha — well I agree wholeheartedly with you, Shotwellian! I’m glad the planning department is holding the line on the city’s transit-first goals and demanding reduced parking, not increased parking. The lack of parking in a development is a good thing, not a bad thing. Too bad for the folks who have grown accustomed to having free storage of their cars on public property for years. Game’s over!

      • AdamK:

        It seems to me that your comment contains contradictory sentiments. You seem to dislike the idea of cars being parked on public streets, but you congratulate the Planning Dept (and the City’s quixotic transit first policy) for REDUCING the number of new parking spaces that would have been created. This will make parking more difficult, increase traffic congestion and foster neighborly temper flares.

        Why? No one will be forced out of their cars. The reasons include: 1) People don’t joyride around San Francisco. If they’re driving they most likely have a good reason; and 2) People don’t like attempts to force them to do things. Please refer to all of human history for confirmation.

      • takebackthegreen — It’s not so much that I’m against cars being parked on public streets as much as I’m in favor of less cars in general and more people using public transit, bikes, or walking. I am definitely anti-car, and I favor efforts to reduce the number of cars that are out there.

        Reducing the number of private parking spots in a development can force people to park their cars on the streets, true. And the folks who were used to having an easy time parking on the public streets before the additional units were built in their neighborhoods are obviously negatively impacted by that policy decision, as they often state during planning review hearings. While I’m sympathetic to those folks and the impact they personally feel, that sympathy doesn’t override my belief that we are all better off with less cars in general.

        I think it has been consistently proven that making parking more difficult reduces the number of cars out there. At a certain point it becomes too hard to deal with owning a car, and people get rid of them or they move someplace where it’s easier to park. Anecdotal experience supports this. I constantly hear people talk about the ease or difficulty of parking near their home. That affects their decision on where they live or how many cars (if any at all) they own. When parking gets too hard in a neighborhood, some folks will move somewhere else where it’s easier to park and some folks won’t move into the neighborhood because the parking is so hard. But other folks will choose to get rid of their cars (whether their primary car or their extra car), and some folks moving in won’t bother to get a car in the first place (or will only bring one, rather than two or more). Density goes up, cars go down, more people walk, bike, or use transit.

        takebackthegreen, you cite as evidence for your position that people drive for good reasons in SF, not for joyriding. This is no doubt mostly true. But the vast number of people who drive could use other forms of transit, if those other forms were on balance more attractive (whether being easier, cheaper, more convenient, etc). I recognize that having your own 3K lb. steel pod is generally the most convenient way to get around. But make parking hard, and make car ownership expensive (gas taxes, parking fees, etc) and that convenience is quickly greatly reduced. When that happens, many people will (and do) choose other forms of transportation. And the more people use other forms, those forms get easier and more attractive.

        You also state that people don’t like being forced to do something. Maybe that’s true, and perhaps that’s the beauty of implementing this policy with these reverse incentives — nobody is being “forced” to give up their cars and use transit. Nobody is being “forced” to live in a home with limited parking options; they can live someplace else if they don’t like it. And nobody is being forced to build a home with limited parking, either. If the builder doesn’t like the conditions the community imposes on the construction, they can chose not to build. They don’t have some inherent right to build whatever they want.

        For proof of that last point, refer to all of human history for confirmation. Nobody has ever, in the history of humanity, had a completely unfettered right or ability or expectation that they could do whatever they wanted, wherever and whenever they wanted. Not even absolute dictators. People have always had to deal with other people. And it’s unnatural to expect otherwise because it’s human nature to interact with other humans. We’re social creatures, for better or worse.

      • AdamK:

        Anecdotes aren’t evidence. It isn’t possible to categorically state that fewer cars are “better.” History and economics, to name just two factors, argue otherwise. The subject is complex and multidisciplinary even though it has been made narrow and dogmatic in the Loudest Voice politics of San Francisco.

        You may have the leisure time to walk or bike or take public transit to your destinations; you may have no need to transport items that can’t go by bus or bike; you may be able to afford to pay service workers to do everything for you that requires a vehicle; you may have shower facilities at work; you may be immune to injuries that prevent walking or biking…

        Everyone does not have those luxuries.

        The point is: In general I have no problem with making alternate transport more attractive to those who have the choice to use it.

        But you (rather gleefully) want to make automobile use more difficult, with the goal of forcing others to choose: 1) give up your car, or 2) move away.

        Do you see the difference?

        You don’t like cars. Awesome. Don’t use them. But please rethink your determination to needlessly make the lives of others more difficult. Empathy is good.

      • Making public property (street space) available for people to freely park their 3K lb steel vehicles is a public policy decision to make owning and driving cars easier. Devoting substantial amounts of public space to the movement of private 3K lb steel vehicles is a decision to make owning and driving cars easier. I don’t support those decisions; I favor making walking, cycling, and public transit easier, and I prefer stopping our public policy of making private vehicle ownership and use easier. It’s not forcing anybody to do anything. It’s stopping people like you from forcing your preferred use of our shared public property on me and the rest of the public.

      • I’m not advocating for my own interests. I don’t park on the street.

        Doesn’t matter. I feel your mind is pretty well made up on this.

        I sincerely hope you are always blessed with good health and endless amounts of time.

        🙂

      • No, what is wrong is couching this type of “asking” with studied language, utilized to thwart. What’s wrong is cynically using language such as “light and air,” when what is really meant is “my view,” or “blocking my property line window.” What’s wrong is the supposedly well-trained, public domain, local government job holders down at DBI constantly kicking proposals sideways, upstairs, backwards, anywhere. Anywhere that they are not left god forbid making a decision, that is. That’s what’s wrong.

  2. Wonder if pushback on the original parking proposal was from people in the adjacent lots or from others in the general neighborhood. I’d rather have street parking get a little tighter than have a parking lot behind my bedroom (which I can tell you from experience sucks).

  3. Are “dedicated parking spaces” actually street spaces? I assumed that would be off street parking. I’m curious if others are opposed to ample off street parking?

    • Why, yes, BrianK. As strange as it may sound, others are indeed opposed to ample off street parking. They don’t like cars. They believe ample off-street parking encourages car ownership.

      Rather than accept that most people don’t share their opinion (for very good reasons), they seek to force their beliefs on others, because they know what’s best for society.

      🙂

  4. Pingback: Tonight: Design Review Meeting for Northeast Bernal Housing Proposal | Bernalwood

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