Noe Valley Voice April 2001

Neighbors Look Over Sketches for Dan's Site

By Corrie M. Anders

By day, it's easy to see that the soul of Dan's Auto Service is missing. Abandoned since last August, the garage has gone grimy with neglect, and its once proud white-trim-over-blue paint job has started to fade. The gas pumps are long removed, adding to the emptiness. By night, the garage is even more forlorn, an industrial black hole that warns off intruders with a bright yellow chain-and-wood barrier that looks like TV crime-scene bunting.

But the former gas station, built in 1930, is anything but a discarded stage set. Dan's is the largest--and the last--parcel of land available for development along the 24th Street commercial corridor in Noe Valley. That makes the site a highly valuable prize, which a mysterious buyer, now revealed as a veteran real estate broker-developer, is in contract to purchase for approximately $3.5 million. At the same time, a still mysterious group of wealthy Presbyterians waits in the wings with a "viable backup" offer--and dreams of transforming Dan's garage into a parking lot for church activities offered by the Noe Valley Ministry.

Just what type of development should arise on the location at 3865 24th Street (at Vicksburg Street) has engendered a buzz not heard since the brouhaha three years ago over developer Joe Cassidy's sprawling retail-apartment complex next to Bell Market. Broker Peter Naughton of Shamrock Realty and members of his development team have been making the rounds of Noe Valley's civic and business organizations during the past few weeks to showcase his vision--a four-story project of apartments and ground-floor retail shops similar to Cassidy's.

So far, the proposal has elicited grumblings that the structure is far too massive for the block, and that it would exacerbate traffic congestion. A proposed underground parking garage has raised the specter of dredging up buried toxins from an oil leak a decade ago. The looming building also might block the sunlight that now warms strollers and bench-sitters on 24th Street. Meanwhile, residents on Vicksburg, Jersey, and Sanchez could suffer a significant loss of privacy.

18 Apartments, 3 to 5 Stores

Naughton's preliminary plan calls for construction of a complex that would contain 18 apartments on the top three floors: 14 two-bedroom units, 2 to 3 three-bedroom units, and 1 or 2 one-bedroom apartments. As newly built residential units, they would not fall under the city's rent stabilization ordinance and thus would command market rents--although two of the apartments would be reserved for moderate-income families in compliance with city law. An underground parking garage would be excavated to accommodate 32 cars--18 allocated for residents, with the remaining available for lease. Three to five retail shops would occupy the ground floor.

At a Friends of Noe Valley meeting on March 8, architect Warner Schmalz said the development's architectural style would fit the existing character of 24th Street and its eclectic makeup of two- to four-story structures. Schmalz, a prominent Bay Area architect and principal with the firm Forum Design, described a building that featured a contemporary design with "Victorian references,'' including bay windows and gabled roofs.

In an effort to address concerns that the building is too bulky, Schmalz said the top story would be set back eight feet on the 24th Street side, to give the illusion of a structure only three stories high. A pedestrian walkway leading to an arcade of shops might also soften the façade.

There may be other revisions as well, said Naughton, whose identity initially was kept private, as Schmalz and land use attorney Claire Pilcher of Noe Valley delivered the early public presentations.

"We'll take a look at all the issues that were raised [at the various meetings] and see what we can do,'' Naughton told the Voice.

Friends Want Project Downsized

At the end of the March 8 meeting, Friends president Dave Monks, summarizing for the group, cited a litany of objections--and suggestions. "We want it [the building] set back more from 24th Street. We want smaller retail spaces, and we don't want the fourth floor. Remember, this will affect not only the neighbors behind the building, but will reduce the sun on 24th Street, which has Martha's and the [Manhattan] bagel shop where people sit and have coffee every morning. Also, this housing is going to be expensive,'' Monks added. "It's not really affordable housing."

A number of residents also voiced strong sentiment for making Dan's over into a public parking lot--which the Noe Valley Ministry said it is prepared to do should Naughton's contract falls through. Naughton has not closed escrow on the purchase, which apparently is contingent upon him getting the necessary approvals to develop the site.

Presbyterians Prefer Parking

The Ministry's backup bid was made by a group of wealthy Presbyterian donors who "are committed to helping small urban churches around the country,'' said church pastor Keenan Kelsey. Little is known about the donors, who prefer anonymity--and not even Kelsey knows who they are.

"Their proposal is to purchase the building and give the Ministry 40 percent ownership and create a parking lot." The lot would provide Sunday parking for the church and hourly weekday parking for the public, said Kelsey. The Sanchez Street church, located two blocks away from Dan's, has a 50-member congregation but often attracts 200-capacity crowds to community events, including the heralded Noe Valley Music Series.

"I don't know if it will come to fruition, but it's pretty exciting,'' said Kelsey, the Ministry's pastor for the past two years. "And frankly, we can dream. If we had this property, it would initially be a flat parking lot. But I can see, down the road, partnering with the city or with Network Ministry to put in some truly affordable housing over this parking lot.''

The Ministry's bid has the enthusiastic support of Robert Roddick, an attorney and president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, who said members were unhappy with the proposal Naughton's team presented to them. Parking is "really bad on 24th Street. That's all the merchants talk about. There's not enough parking for customers," Roddick said. "I think this is an ideal way for a church and community center to serve its neighbors, and we support that.''

Pilcher, however, said the Naughton purchase was a virtual lock to close escrow--and that the veteran developer was focused on "possible changes [in the plan] to meet neighborhood requirements." And the community indeed wants considerable revisions--if reckoned by the fears and passions raised at the Friends meeting and an earlier gathering of merchants and professionals.

Environmental Questions

Consider the environmental saga of Roberta and Maurice McGowan. Since 1976, they have owned a Vicksburg Street home whose backyard is adjacent to Dan's garage. The couple, who have two teen daughters, had battled with Dan's owners for years to remove or bury toxic chemicals stemming from underground gas tanks that had ruptured in the 1980s. Now, the McGowans remain wary of what an underground garage portends.

"We lived with this cleanup for 11 years.... We just got rid of one toxin,'' Roberta McGowan said of the contaminated soil that was buried over, "and now they're going to vent [carbon monoxide] from underground parking for 32 cars at my kitchen window." At the very least, McGowan said, she wants the car fumes dispersed through vents scattered around the development rather than concentrated at a single location near her backyard. "We've reached our limit,'' she said.

Jean Roby lives on Jersey Street directly behind Dan's garage--and was one of the first residents when her six-unit apartment building was constructed in 1964. From the top floors of the proposed apartment development, new residents would enjoy beautiful, unobstructed southern panoramas--including direct views into Roby's downslope home.

"I'm not happy,'' said Roby. "They'll be looking into my living room and my bedroom, and I don't want to keep my drapes closed all the time. I feel I'd have absolutely no privacy."

Historian Jeannene Przyblyski of the Collingwood Hill Neighborhood Association said Noe Valley needs additional apartment housing for residents who can't afford the neighborhood's gilded home prices. And the 24th Street commercial strip is probably the best location for a dense apartment complex--since the residential streets have mostly single-family homes. But Przyblyski said the Naughton design is less than ideal, and suggested that the structure be pulled back more from the street and the retail space be made more inviting. Otherwise, the building could end up resembling Cassidy's development, with long, narrow shops that "feel like caves."

That Naughton's proposed complex had a fortress-like quality was a persistent complaint--and some at the Friends meeting called it a "monster building."

Keep Shops Small, Say Merchants

Because of the city's preference for new construction to conform with other nearby buildings, Pilcher said Naughton could provide only a "minor setback" from the sidewalk. But she said the developer has agreed to carve up the 4,950 square feet of ground-floor space into three to five shops--with a maximum 2,500 square feet for any one store. Residents "don't want to have any large spaces that would facilitate a chain-style store, and [we] are in agreement with that," Pilcher said.

The Noe Valley Merchants Association, however, prefers stores no larger than 1,250 square feet. "If they are going to be larger than that, we are going to be adamantly opposed to the project as a matter of policy,'' Roddick said.

Look for Naughton to present any revisions to concerned Noe Valleyans this month or next. Then it's on to public hearings before City Planning officials, who ultimately will decide Dan's fate. At any rate, the long saga of Dan's garage is coming to an end more than 70 years after the business was first established. It now awaits a new vision and new soul.