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Valley Views: Monster Turnout Triumphs Over Monster Home
By Jeannene Przyblyski
Since my essay on "monster homes" appeared in the April issue of the Noe Valley Voice, numerous neighbors and neighborhood associations have contacted me to compare notes and share information. I have some good news: it took endless days of strategy meetings and telephone calls, five hours of waiting around at City Hall, and an emergency pizza delivery, but at 10 p.m. on May 11, the San Francisco Planning Commission voted 6 to 1 to require the builder to reduce the height and bulk of an oversize project on our block of Collingwood Street.
Unfortunately, the thrill of victory has been short-lived. Our street faces three more pending projects in a two-block radius. And the word from the city planners on the front lines is not good. Many of them admit that the projects they administer are out of scale with the neighborhood. Still, they claim that their concerns are overruled when the projects are kicked upstairs in a pro-development administration. The neighborhoods currently have little choice but to take projects, one by one, before the Planning Commission for "discretionary review." Here are some points to consider when making your case:
Neighborhood turnout is key. In political lingo, it's called "GOTV": Get out the vote. It is much easier for the commission to say "no" to one person than to 50. We mounted an email, telephone, and flyer campaign to motivate neighbors to turn out for their community. At one point in our presentation, we asked those members of the audience who supported our petition to stand. As the commission members looked on in amazement, every person in the room except the developer, his attorney, and his architect came to their feet. There is strength in numbers.
Use your neighborhood talent. Does someone have photography or drafting experience? Have they served on a board that has addressed planning issues? Any real estate agents, architects, contractors, or public relations people? You don't need expensive lawyers and lobbyists to take a case before the Planning Commission, but you do need some expertise in defining your issues, designing a presentation, and mobilizing support. Pooling talent helps to avoid feeling intimidated by deep pockets and hired guns.
Balance emotion with reason. Everyone's home is their castle, and it is easy to get upset or lose focus when it is threatened. The emotions to take to a Planning Commission meeting should include firmness of resolve and love of your neighborhood, not anger against developers. Temper these emotions with the facts that define your neighborhood's character. What is the average square footage of the buildings on your street? The average number of stories per building? Are there any special considerations? A narrow street? A steep grade? A school nearby?
Most streets in Noe Valley are defined by their mixed architectural styles -- Victorian, Edwardian, Mediterranean, modern. But this mix of styles and modest scale does not mean our blocks lack character (as developers will argue). Instead, this mix maintains affordable housing stock and allows our neighborhood to renew itself by welcoming young families and newcomers to the city. Make sure the commission understands the issues affecting your community.
Build a discretionary review presentation piece by piece. The DR petitioner has only five minutes to make a case, but any number of people can speak for three minutes in support. Use those three-minute segments to address critical issues reinforcing the main arguments of the petitioner. Avoid needless repetition and grandstanding. But don't hesitate to ask more than one speaker to emphasize a main point or key demand.
Lobby the Planning Commission, not the Planning Department. It was clear from our discretionary review that the current director of the Planning Department is willing to give builders and developers every latitude in interpreting the building code and the Residential Design Guidelines (Prop. M). If you are lobbying against a monster home, you might want to skip his office. Instead, review past minutes of Planning Commission meetings (online at www.ci.sf.ca.us/planning/cpcindex.htm) and identify cases similar to yours. How did each commissioner vote? Which ones are most likely to be sympathetic to your situation? Make sure these people have advance knowledge of your case.
It ain't over till it's over. Even if you are successful in your petition for discretionary review, you must follow through to ensure that the directives of the commission are fulfilled in both letter and spirit. If you lose, you still have the option to go before the Board of Permit Appeals and to Superior Court if necessary.
Finally, planning issues are political issues. The Planning Commission is appointed by the mayor, and serves at his or her discretion. The mayor and Board of Supervisors serve at our discretion. With district elections approaching, we might expect to see neighborhood power increase relative to that of developers, their campaign contributions, and "soft money." No matter who is elected from District 8 in November, he or she should be required to ensure that our neighborhood planning and development concerns will be addressed at City Hall.
Jeannene Przyblyski and her neighbors have formed the Collingwood Hill Neighborhood Association. To reach her, email email@example.com. Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the "monster homes" issue on Tuesday, June 6, at 10 a.m. (Room 263, City Hall).