Noe Valley Voice June 2002

Funeral School Breathes Its Last at Reilly's, But Condos Revived

By Corrie M. Anders

Goodbye, mortuary chums. So long, new condos at 29th and Dolores streets. The eulogies seemed appropriate late last year as the intertwined fates of a funeral school and a proposed condo development all but slipped six feet under.

Indeed, the life and good times of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science are over in this city. The revered, 72-year-old private funeral school has succumbed to an unnatural death caused by San Francisco's exorbitant economics.

After the last class graduates on June 8, the college will close down its campus at the Reilly Co./Goodwin & Scannell Funeral Home at 1598 Dolores Street. The school will then merge with a community college in Sacramento, where the financial environment is more accommodating for both students and faculty.

"We're in our waning days, so I'm sad," says Susan Maher, a member of the school's board of directors and a certified public accountant who works a few blocks from the school. "The college has done some wonderful things, and I'm sad to see it go."

But fading plans to demolish the two-story Romanesque building that houses Reilly's funeral home and construct 13 condos on the site have been resuscitated. The condos' new life came after developer Joe Cassidy, who built the large retail-apartment complex next to Bell Market on 24th Street, purchased the Reilly mortuary building last month.

Condo Project Alive and Kicking

Cassidy says his project will follow in the footsteps of plans offered in January 2001 by real estate developer Patrick McManus and Steven Welch. Welch, a member of the Duggan-Welch family, fifth-generation Mission District funeral directors and longtime Noe Valley residents, had purchased the property in 1997. (Welch said last spring that if the condos were okayed, Reilly's funeral business would be absorbed by Duggan's Funeral Service at 3434 17th Street.)

If Cassidy gets the go-ahead from City Planning, he will build four single-family townhouses facing Dolores Street, and nine condos facing 29th Street. Each of the two new residential buildings will be four stories high.

Cassidy says firm prices for the homes have not been established, but he guesstimates they will range from $450,000 to $750,000. Two of the units will be classified as affordable housing, in other words, sold at below market rate.

"The whole project hasn't changed very much [from last year]," Cassidy says.

Lack of adequate parking was one of the more contentious issues in the original Welch proposal, which called for one parking space per unit. That is the maximum allowed under the city's "transit first" policy, which encourages the use of public transportation.

To address neighbors' concerns, Cassidy says he would "love to double that if the [Planning] Commission allows us. It would free up space for the number of people parking on the street."

Cassidy adds that his firm would be willing to spend an extra $1 million to pay for the extra parking, shoring, and underpinning of the complex.

The first step in the bureaucratic process comes June 12. That's when the Planning Department is set to hear the neighbors' appeal of its preliminary ruling last year that the original Welch proposal did not pose a significant environmental impact.

"The hearing is being held on the exact same plans. Whether those plans will change, we don't know," says Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors, which had fought to save the mortuary from the wrecking ball.

Then on June 13 at 1:30 p.m. (Room 400, City Hall), Cassidy's project will go before the Planning Commission.

Mortician School Can't Afford to Stay

There is no question about the fate of the mortuary college, which opened its doors in the city on June 6, 1930, and has graduated more than 5,000 students since then. It was previously located on Post Street and moved to Dolores Street in the early 1990s, taking up the top floor of Reilly's funeral home.

Maher is particularly distraught because she and her family have had a long and close association with the Reilly family. Her father was a florist and provided funeral wreaths for Reilly's and many other funeral homes in San Francisco.

"The college has done a really wonderful job," she says. "We fought this [move] for a long time."

But the school found it more and more difficult to attract faculty in a city where housing costs are among the highest in the nation. Expensive rental prices hampered student enrollment; and many students were forced to double and triple up. "The economic reality is that no one can afford to live here," Maher says.

That reality led the school last year to announce its merger with the American River College in Sacramento. The San Francisco College curriculum will be incorporated into the American River College's course offerings this fall.

"We've had a lot of illustrious graduates over the years," Maher says about the long history of the Dolores Street school. "A lot of students have gone on to work as coroners and deputy coroners."

The school also combined classroom instruction with hands-on experience, handling 350 funeral services each year at its College Chapel Mortuary. Low-income families frequently were the benefactors of the students' services.

By the end of June, however, it will be all over for the San Francisco campus atop the funeral home.

"It's had a wonderful tradition."