Noe Valley Voice June 2001

Reilly Mortuary Project May Be Downsized

By Pat Rose

A controversial Noe Valley residential project may be going back to the drawing board.

In a meeting last month with concerned neighbors at Supervisor Mark Leno's office, Reilly Mortuary owner Steven Welch agreed to consider reducing the height of the buildings he has proposed to replace the funeral home at 1598 Dolores Street.

The project, which has generated heated debate for the past several months, would demolish the 1920s-era mortuary and nearby morticians school, and create two new four-story buildings. One, facing Dolores Street, would house four single-family townhomes. The other, around the corner on 29th Street, would house nine apartments, to be sold as condominiums. The height on both buildings would be the maximum allowable for the area: 40 feet.

After the meeting with Leno, Welch said that although he still believes his project has the support of a majority of nearby residents, he would rethink the height of at least one of the buildings to bring peace to the neighborhood.

"We're going to have to redesign the 29th Street building," Welch said. "Reduction may mean fewer units, but we hope to be able to keep the two affordable [below market rate] units included in the current plan."

Welch said he was disturbed by the rancor surrounding a project that would provide new family housing in Noe Valley. He also was sorry that his previous efforts to accommodate the opposition had been rejected. "We're lucky to have Mark Leno as a supervisor," said Welch. "He was able to get both sides to move toward some kind of settlement."

Upper Noe Neighbors president Vicki Rosen, who also attended the meeting, described it as productive as well. "But one thing we're adamant about is the 29th Street building," she said. "We want them to lower the height from four to three stories. A fourth story on that building, which is not a corner building, would set a bad precedent for the street."

Still, Rosen insisted her group was not trying to block the project. "We want to work with these people. We're not trying to hold this up."

For his part, Supervisor Leno confirmed that he had asked the building owner to bend a bit. "I tried to help clarify to the developers that the concerns of the neighborhood must be attended to if the project is to successfully move forward," Leno said. "My position is that the present proposal is unacceptable, and the neighbors' concerns about the height and bulk of this project must be heard."

The meeting with Leno came on the heels of a boisterous April 26 meeting of Upper Noe Neighbors, in which more than 40 members turned out to hear Welch talk about his project. Welch told the group he had met with neighbors several times and incorporated their concerns into a set of revised plans. The revisions included reducing the number of bedrooms in some of the Dolores Street units to make room for four additional parking spaces, and adding a second affordable unit and more bay windows to the 29th Street building.

Members, who mumbled their disapproval while Welch presented his changes, began to object loudly when he claimed that the 40-foot height of his proposed buildings was characteristic of corner buildings in Noe Valley and that a majority of neighbors had given him letters of support. "I did not give a letter of support," said Palma Trentacoste, who lives at 1580 Dolores Street. "What about the people on the block? We don't want the building. You're building a modern tenement!" she said.

"The general appearance of almost everything in that area is three stories high," argued Rosen at the meeting. "Your building will be considerably higher than everything around it."

Others complained that the influx of new residents would exacerbate congestion and parking problems.

"The main objection we have is the size and impact of these buildings on the neighborhood," said Dianne Grant, president of Baja Noe Neighbors, a neighborhood watch group started three years ago which represents a four-block area bordered by Dolores, 29th, and San Jose streets. "This will have a major impact in a neighborhood that has a parking problem already."

Neighbors asked Welch if he had considered remodeling the existing mortuary and saving the façade. "The building is illegal to begin with," replied Welch. "And it would cost over a million dollars to retrofit. The foundations are crumbling, and it's in very poor physical condition."

The group asked Welch for an extension of the project's May 10 hearing date before the city's Planning Commission to May 24. He later agreed to that extension.

Kevin Warner, who lives on Valley Street directly behind the project, was at both the April 26 meeting and the meeting with Supervisor Leno. Like many of his neighbors, he has serious reservations about Welch's plans. "I am opposed to this project because of the pure size of it," he said. "And we're also going from a daytime-use facility [the mortuary and school] to a full-time housing project, which creates more parking problems for the neighborhood in the evening.

"In the environmental review, the city estimated that with 34 bedrooms in this project, there would be 46 additional residents," Warner continued. "And they were only creating 13 parking spaces."

Warner admitted, however, that Leno's intervention had helped both sides make some progress. "Leno was supportive of the neighbors. Especially in District 8, a lot of neighbors have been assaulted by projects like this recently. And not through any fault of their own, the developers are getting hit with a backlash reaction to this trend."

Meanwhile, city planner Tina Tam confirmed that Reilly's request for a conditional use permit was set for a May 24 hearing before the Planning Commission. She also said written testimony on the project was piling up. "So far, we have over 50 letters of support and 50 letters of opposition," said Tam.

At press time, the Voice learned that the May 24 hearing had been postponed and no new date scheduled. However, discussions were continuing between the neighbors and developer. The issue also was to be taken up at the regular meeting of Upper Noe Neighbors, June 28, 7:30 p.m., at Upper Noe Rec Center.