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'Monster' Homes Creeping Into Noe
By Jeannene Przyblyski
They have been sighted in exclusive enclaves like Diablo. They loom over commuter corridors from Burl-ingame to San Mateo. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported their increasing presence in the East Bay, North Bay, South Bay -- oddly enough, everywhere but San Francisco itself. But make no mistake about it: the monsters have come to Noe Valley.
At first they tread softly. In my case, friendly letters arrived in the mailbox: "I am an architect looking forward to building my dream home in Noe Valley." "I am a businessman planning a wonderful home for my family."
Good for you, I thought. Living in Noe Valley has always been my dream, too. I'm happy to share it.
However, the architect proceeded to tear down the existing building before the demolition permit was approved. Midway through construction, I received notice that plans had been changed from a single-family dwelling to a two-unit building. Its top-story window now peers through a maze of unsightly heating vents and stabilizing wires directly into my daughter's room. Apparently, no posting period was required for this change.
The businessman turned out to be a developer who is delighted that the graded lots on my block allow him to build up to four stories while still staying within the 40-foot limit on building height. He claims to require 60 percent more square footage than the largest two-unit building on our block, to comfortably house himself, his wife, and child (and the ground-floor condo he needs to help finance the deal). He is so committed to the idea of domestic bliss in my neighborhood that he has also purchased the cottage across the street-- another demolition in the making.
Statistical data on the number of residential demolitions currently under way in Noe Valley is hard to come by. Repeated calls to the Planning Department have gone unanswered, even though I have been told informally that demolitions -- even of viable housing stock-- are routinely rubber-stamped. Empirical observation is presently the only way of tracking the "monsters."
We all know that real estate values have skyrocketed in Noe Valley. And we can understand why -- the weather, the proximity to both downtown and the Peninsula, the good shopping on 24th Street, the small-town feel. Our neighborhood's desirability is bound to bring some changes. But is it unreasonable to hope that they might be for the better?
Perhaps so. Most shocking to me is the discovery that the Planning Department has no road map for reasonable development, no set of guidelines for planned growth in the residential neighborhoods of San Francisco. There has been no serious thought put to the increased infrastructure (parking and transit especially, but also a host of other services, including open spaces) that would be necessary to accommodate increased housing density.
There is a building code, which developers naturally want to exploit to the maximum. And there is Proposition M, passed in 1986 to ensure the compatibility of new buildings with existing neighborhood character. But planners are inclined to ignore Prop. M unless disgruntled neighbors bring it to their attention. Even then, one planner swept it away with a wave of his hand. "Those are just guidelines," I was told. "These [monster homes] will pass review so long as they conform to code."
Meanwhile, my immediate neighbor has also been bitten by the speculation bug. He is proposing to tear down his two-unit Victorian in order to construct a building half again as large. In July he brought his architect over to my house to discuss the project.
After stepping through the plans for an additional two stories and a drastic extension past the back of the existing building, I looked perplexed.
"What you're telling me," I said, "is that the rear of my house, my deck, and garden will effectively become the lightwell for your building."
"Yes," the architect hesitated, "you could look at it that way." "But you could build out, too," he added cheerfully.
Over the past several months, more than 60 neighbors have gathered in my home for meetings to discuss how best to ensure responsible growth in our community. Initially, we were confident that reason would prevail. We didn't want to stop the construction of any new homes, just "monster homes" -- buildings far beyond the neighborhood average in height, scale, and mass. We invited the planner assigned to one case out to the site. Even though he came and concurred with our concerns, the builder responded with only the most token of modifications.
Recently, the monsters have taken off the gloves. Our neighborhood group has been told that the builder's attorney is demanding an expedited hearing process, leaving us little time to either organize or analyze the revised building plans. Despite receiving a petition with over 75 names and more than 25 individual letters, he continues to claim that only one neighbor opposes the project. I have also learned that my neighbor has hired not one but two attorneys.
Alas, we have decided that we too need legal representation. But we have had little luck in hiring a qualified land-use attorney. They are largely "conflicted out" -- unable to take our case because they do most of their work for developers.
Right now, we are scrambling to prepare for our Design Review and networking with neighbors on other blocks and in other parts of the city who are going through the same process.
This is what we have learned: The neighborhoods are effectively locked out of the planning process -- by the ingrown relationship between builder/ developers and the Planning Department, by our lack of expertise in negotiating the bureaucratic maze of city planning, and by the political mandate to build at all costs that has been handed down by the Brown administration.
A lively public discussion about growth and progress in the residential neighborhoods of San Francisco is urgently needed. And some serious sunshine needs to be cast on the Planning Department and its procedures. Until these things happen, we need a moratorium on new demolitions and residential constructions, such as the one passed recently in San Mateo.
It may be that we will find ourselves agreeing that development helps property values and that the rights of homeowners to improve their properties should take precedence. But we may also find that replacing cottages and smaller houses with million-dollar condominiums is no solution to the housing crisis in San Francisco. It certainly will do nothing to preserve the endangered economic diversity of Noe Valley.
Finally, the neighborhoods need to identify viable candidates for supervisor and mayor who have our interests at heart. Until our elected leaders instruct their staff at the Planning Department to actually plan, Noe Valley -- and the rest of San Francisco -- will be monster home territory.
Jeannene Przyblyski is an art historian and Noe Valley mom. She is also part of the newly formed Collingwood Hill Neighborhood Association. For information, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.