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Rumors Behind the News
FRIENDS, RELATIVES, AND HOUSEGUESTS from back east have probably left by now, after marveling at our quaint little valley nestled into one of the hilliest cities in the world.
Did you enjoy taking them on those walks in Downtown Noe Valley? Of course, you had to apologize for the cold weather (except when we had that three-day heat spell). I'll bet you also explained that summer arrives in San Francisco somewhere around Sept. 15 and departs by Halloween, when the winds sweep down from Alaska.
It was easy to load your visitors on the J-Church so they could ride downtown to the cable cars, then over to Fisherman's Wharf. Yes, I know they laughed when you told them to dress warmly. But they were glad you did.
Oh, and congratulations on convincing your friends to make that hike up 24th Street to Grand View. I'd like to think many of you continued the climb up to Twin Peaks, to catch that absolutely fantastic view of Noe Valley from the vista point. Personally, I try to be kind and offer to drive my friends in the car, so they can make full use of their digital cameras. Of course, whenever I do, the fog comes rolling in, turning the photo-ops to whiteouts.
Well, I know you are happy they are finally gone, and believe me, they are happy to be gone too, and to be back in their own little beds on the Right Coast (not that we're wrong).
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BUCKLING UP THE BELTWAY: This summer it was my turn to go back east to visit the relatives and friends. And I've got to tell you, I was longing for my own bed, and for the fog, from my very first night on foreign soil. We (the family and I) landed at Newark International Airport and scurried to an air-conditioned Marriott Hotel in sweltering Jersey City, N.J.
From there it was on to the Big Apple (Manhattan), and then up to blueblood country (Connecticut) by car, then down to Washington by train, wrapping things up with a flight to the Bible Belt (west Georgia).
The heat followed us wherever we went. Temperatures were in the 90s to the 100s, with the humidity and the mosquitoes in the 1,000s.
Despite the weather, New York City was great -- the New Yorkers make it that way. And Connecticut was nice. We went to a wedding in Redding, Conn., and I got the feeling I was somewhere between Mill Valley and Bolinas, both physically and spiritually. But I'll tell you, folks, being inside the Beltway (D.C.) was like being somewhere between Belarus and Bombay, both psychologically and politically. Washington is leaderless.
Still, we saw one shining light, Sen. Barbara Boxer. She was hosting her weekly tea, where she spoke of matters of the day and gave everyone the opportunity to have a picture taken with her. When we told her we were from Noe Valley, she said she knew our neighborhood and sent her regards.
By the way, you too can invite yourself to this function, which is held every Wednesday in the Senate Office Building while Congress is in session. Her office was very accommodating and gave us gallery passes for the Senate and House of Representatives. Senator Boxer definitely has her finger on the pulse, and we are lucky to have her in Washington.
After brief encounters with both chambers (and four security checks), we came away thinking that most of our legislators have no plans to solve our national problems. The name of the game is: Get reelected. That's it.
In the House, they were debating an issue -- federal sanctions for partial-birth abortions -- that should only be discussed in private, between doctor and patient. This was certainly not the kind of debate my 9- and 10-year-old should be listening to, but then neither were the impeachment hearings a few years ago.
Over in the Senate, we saw a quorum call to vote on a measure that would put limits on drug prices for the elderly and disabled. The drug companies are against this legislation, and they buy off the legislators with big bucks. So there were no senators on the floor, nor would they answer the roll call, because they did not want to go on record with a "no" vote. The measure never came to a vote...and probably never will.
We left the Senate gallery totally disgusted and went down to the Capitol rotunda in hopes of rekindling some faith in our democracy. There we gazed at our forefathers, depicted in numerous paintings and sculptures.
After looking at a beautiful painting of the brave men who signed the Declaration of Independence, I went to the middle of the hall and peered up at the heavenly images painted on the dome. Engravings over the door mantels declared "In God We Trust." Just as I was starting to believe again that our form of government is the best in the world, a guard came up and informed me that the building's security video system had been monitoring my family from the Senate chambers. They had observed that we were neither on a guided tour nor were we being escorted by a staffer, so we would have to leave "uh, now." I had seen enough barricades and security checks to know to say "Yes, sir!"
I knew it was time to get out of town. It seems everyone in Washington is thinking they will be attacked again and that it won't be just the Pentagon next time. Days later, I was happy to see Dulles Airport getting smaller and smaller as we rose up in the air.
By the time we got off the midnight plane to Georgia, I was ready to meet the "we" who trust in God. My wife and kids and I were staying with some in-laws in a west Georgia county where there are 180 churches serving the 35,000 residents. That's 194.4 parishioners per house of worship.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a Kiwanis Club breakfast attended by over 60 people, where the area's district attorney spoke. There I met a local who asked if I knew the difference between a Georgia redneck and a Alabama redneck. His answer: "The state line." I also met the retired Navy officer whose name appeared in Ripley's Believe It or Not: Commander Commander. He said, "You can call me Buck." I said, "Yes, sir."
The last "Yes, sir!" I uttered was at the Atlanta Airport, when the ticket taker asked for boarding passes. I could hardly wait to get back to our valley. But upon my return, I realized that things around here had turned a bit, shall we say, ugly.
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THE LOWDOWN ON THE SHOWDOWN: The nastiness stemmed from a proposed multi-unit development on the corner of 29th and Dolores streets, where Reilly's Mortuary is now. As usual, the neighbors were lined up on one side, and the developer and crew on the other. And they were destined to battle it out before the Board of Supervisors.
Still, before summer started, it seemed as if the builder and the neighbors were working things out. However, during your summer vacation, negotiations went south, like to the South Pole. On June 20, the Planning Commission voted 5 0 (two were absent) in favor of the builder, Joe Cassidy, after a heated public hearing that sent shock waves through our placid little valley.
Before getting to the dirt, here's a short history of the situation: A year and a half ago, the operation of a mortuary on that corner became a dead issue, as it were. The owner of the property wanted to sell it to a developer, who proposed to demolish the existing structures and build a four-story residential building on the site. The developer eventually abandoned the project when he found himself at loggerheads with the neighbors.
About four months ago, Joe Cassidy, most famous locally for his complex next to Bell Market, entered the scene with plans to build a 13-unit residential building on the 10,850-square-foot lot.
According to Cassidy, he has made at least 10 major changes to the original plans just to appease the neighbors. He says he removed 5,000 square feet of commercial use on the ground floor (which it is zoned for) and doubled the parking by excavating another below-ground floor, at an additional cost of $500,000 to $1 million. He removed the white passenger loading zone, set back the fourth floor on Dolores Street by six feet, and also set back the upper floor at the rear of the building along the 29th Street side. For privacy, he included an eight-foot fence in the complex's newly designed backyard, and will plant 15 mature trees. A landscape architect was hired and a color consultant was consulted, and high-quality exterior finishes and wooden windows were added to the plans. Cassidy also agreed to "notch the end corners on both facades," at the request of the Planning Commission.
"We believed that we did as much as we could to accommodate the neighbors and to include affordable housing to comply with, if not exceed, city requirements. But they wanted me to remove most of the fourth floor, which makes the project not economically feasible," said Cassidy.
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NOT JUST TALKING NOTCHES: Vicki Rosen, who is president of Upper Noe Neighbors, admits Cassidy has a point. "They doubled the parking, which is great, and we're happy about that. But there were still some major height and bulk issues. I mean, the neighbors simply don't want buildings which are massive when compared to the rest of the neighborhood. It's basically two 40-foot buildings, each four stories high.
"To make the facade more in character with the surrounding buildings," she said, "the neighbors would have been satisfied with an unprecedented four-floor height if Cassidy had just reduced the height of the end unit of each building to three stories. He refused, but said he was willing to create a 'notching' of the end corners of the buildings."
But it was his friends' testimony at the June hearing that raised her ire. "By the time we got to the Planning Commission meeting, it appeared that the Residential Builders Association was supporting this project and was well organized. They started attacking me personally, showing pictures of my house and making me an issue...and the commission did nothing to stop them," fumed Rosen.
Rosen said the other members of her group were even more stunned than she was by the personal attacks. "That goes with the territory of being a president of a neighborhood group, but what really got a lot of people going was when an individual who appeared to be associated with the RBA started making attacks on our neighborhood as being against the affordable housing in this project because we didn't want African-American, Hispanic, or Asian people in our neighborhood, and that we were basically a bunch of racists, who did not want apartments and affordable units in Noe Valley. That's outrageous."
Racial slurs or not, the commission voted to approve Cassidy's project -- as long as he included those pesky notches.
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CIVILITY RETURNS: Many of the neighbors within 100 yards of the mortuary either saw or heard about the confrontation at the Planning Commission. They were so incensed they appealed the ruling to the Board of Supervisors. In August, Upper Noe Neighbors wrote a letter in support of the appeal, and so did Friends of Noe Valley and the Duncan Newburg Association.
By Aug. 26, the hearing date for the appeal, everybody thought the proceedings would again turn nasty. Many TV sets in Noe Valley were tuned to Channel 26 at 3 p.m. for the supervisors' kickoff and those first plays from scrimmage. Amazingly, everybody was cool, calm, and cogent. It was democracy in action.
The elders of the block were the most eloquent in their appeals for light and air, and buildings that maintain the character of the neighborhood. The other residents expressed their concern that four stories would set an unwanted precedent in the neighborhood.
The developer's cohorts argued that the project was in conformance with the code, in both height and bulk, and that it sits on a corner lot on one of the widest streets in San Francisco. It will provide much-needed family housing in Noe Valley, and the builder has met many of the neighbors' concerns (14 by his latest count). "This kind of development should be encouraged," they said.
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A VOTE TO VOTE: After more than four hours of public discussion, the vote was to, well, take another vote, on Sept. 17. But that decision came after the supes had already voted on the appeal. (Mark Leno made a motion to rescind the vote.)
The original vote was seven for the appellants (neighbors) and four against the appeal (for the Planning Commission). In order to win the appeal, the neighbors needed eight votes.
The four supervisors in favor of the development were, predictably, Tony Hall, Gavin Newsom, Leland Yee, and, very unpredictably, Chris Daly. Chris Daly, who is perceived to be pro-neighborhood, seemed to be the wild card. Methinks that if all 11 supervisors are there on the 17th, the vote will be the same, and the old wrecking ball will be swinging at the mortuary soon thereafter.
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PERUSING THE AGENDA can provide you with lots of news. On the Board of Supervisors' Aug. 5 agenda was a proposed enlargement of the Area Z parking permit area to include 27th Street between Noe and Sanchez.
It also appears that Sanchez Street between Hill and Liberty streets, as well as Hill Street between Church and Sanchez, have joined a permit parking area called "S." Cars without stickers in those areas will be allowed to park no longer than two hours.
I was also reading the Friends of Noe Valley's agenda for their Sept. 12 general meeting, at which there will be an election of officers. If you want to become involved, you can join one of their committees: Planning, Parks, Open Space and Trees, Kids and Schools, Parking, Traffic and Transit, Library, or Social Events and Membership. This is your neighborhood: go for it.
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THERE'S NOE TRUTH to the rumor that an Italian bistro will occupy the hallowed grounds that once housed Star Bakery, on the corner of Church and 29th streets. This is the word from Richard Beale, a real estate agent from San Mateo County who is managing the property for a new owner.
"The whole building is for lease," notes Beale. "The owner is asking five thousand dollars a month for the store, and either $1,600 or $1,700 a month for the two newly renovated one-bedroom apartments on the second floor. Or you can just buy the whole building for $1.375 million."
In the five days that he has been managing the property, Beale says he has received numerous inquiries about the residences, and interest in the commercial space from a restaurant and a mail-order bakery.
Our French bistro, Le Zinc, is featured in the just-released The Cafes of San Francisco, authored by several reviewers. "It looks like a place where you can eat a long slow savory meal followed by a soothing tea or relaxing espresso." Somehow I can never get that espresso to relax me.
Diamond Corner Café and Savor got honorable mentions. "Completely down-to-earth" Diamond Corner is known for "great light, a nice view of the nearby hills, [and] is located in the residential part of desirable Noe Valley."
"Savor," said the reviewers, "has THE best pancakes in San Francisco, infused with spices such as vanilla and who knows what else to pretty much make you want to fight the lines waiting outside on the weekends."
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24TH STREET STRIP: The vacancy created when Getups got up out of their digs next to Elisa's Health Spa is now filled by a woman's clothing boutique called Yoya.
"We should be opening sometime around the beginning of September," says owner Phoebe Jacobson. "We are going to feature local designers and bring in some European designers and a lot of high-quality active wear."
Jacobson lives in the Inner Sunset but was delighted that a suitable location opened up for her new venture. She was formerly a designer of computer software.
I had to laugh as I walked up the block from Yoya, when I looked in the window of Twin Peaks Realty and saw what proprietor Harry Aleo had put in his now-famous front window: an old campaign placard, "Goldwater for President."
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ONE COOL SCHOOL: Kudos to Alvarado Elementary School, right here in the heart of Noe Valley. The parental involvement in the school over the last couple of years is finally getting the recognition it deserves. The Chronicle's Aug. 11 back-to-school story, "It Takes a Neighborhood," noted that "a decade ago, residents say few people from the neighborhood wanted to send their children [to Alvarado]. Today, it's one of the toughest schools to get into in the San Francisco Unified School District's open enrollment program."
The big reason: parental involvement. As the paper pointed out, the role model at Alvarado has for years been Ruth Asawa, founder of the arts programs. Now her son Paul Lanier teaches at Alvarado, and there are dedicated parents like Andy Grimstad, who sets up a card table on 24th Street to do community outreach.
Reach out and do your community this month by signing up to volunteer for your favorite group...and let's start thinking about tomorrow. Ciao for now.