Noe Valley Voice May 2003

Senior Housing--The Latest Plan for the Lunny House

By Corrie M. Anders

There is a new vision for the small uninhabited house across from Bell Market which developers want to tear down and replace with a four-story housing and retail complex.

Instead of four luxury condominiums and a parking garage--which were part of the original scenario (see February 2003 Voice)--the developers now plan to build six apartments for low-income seniors, on the site of the old Lunny house at 3953 24th Street. In this incarnation, the building would still have retail on the ground floor, but the project would be car-free.

Developers floated the new plan during a joint meeting of Friends of Noe Valley and the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club. A crowd of 50 to 60 people attended the April 2 gathering at the Noe Valley­Sally Brunn Library on Jersey Street.

The senior housing idea resonated with many meeting participants.

"It's a lovely idea, as long as they keep the no-car provision," said Elizabeth Street resident and longtime activist Jean Amos. Affordable housing is always welcome in the neighborhood, she said, especially at a location such as this, where residents have easy access to bus routes, grocery stores, the post office, and other shops and services. "That's the beauty of 24th Street."

Friends President Jeannene Przyblyski agreed. "Twenty-fourth Street is a good place to do something like this." She noted that the building is only a couple of blocks from a CarShare spot, and the City College campus at James Lick Middle School, where seniors might teach or attend classes.

To Some, It's Too Big

But the overall proposal did not satisfy everyone, and many merchants and residents expressed reservations, particularly about the size of the project. The four-level building would be the tallest in the block and would tower over its two-story neighbors on either side--Tien Fu Restaurant and Colorcrane Arts Supply.

"It'll stand out like a sore thumb because it's so big," said Peter Gass, a Jersey Street resident who lives one block from the proposed development. Gass, a medical office manager, moved into Noe Valley in 1980.

The project's backyard neighbors on Jersey Street complained that the structure would appear even larger to them because their downslope properties are six to eight feet lower than those on 24th Street.

"I will have a 48-foot building smack in my back yard, but it will look like 75 feet," said Yvonne Borg, who since 1972 has lived in a small Victorian directly behind the proposed project. "It's going to be out of scale for everyone on this side."

As a compromise, several residents urged the developers to drop the retail plan and convert the space into "two nice garden apartments." Such a move would allow the developers to lop off the top floor and still have six apartments.

But Lu Blazej, a consultant who represented the developers, said getting rid of the retail was unlikely, because it would lessen the economic viability of the project. "Eliminating [the businesses on the ground floor] would be too severe," he said.

Critics also complained that the contemporary architectural design of the building was out of sync with the historical character of 24th Street. But the neighbors may gain some concessions on this point.

Blazej said the design plans, as well as other features, were still being refined. Those revisions will be presented to local residents once again at a May 7 joint meeting of the two activist organizations. Then, in six to eight weeks, the developers will file new plans to demolish the modest home, built in 1900, and start construction.

Rent Would Be $1,200 a Month

Noe Valley's latest development tug-of-war started after real estate developers Jeremiah Cullinane, Denis Cullinane, and Eileen Long filed plans earlier this year with the city's Planning Department. The group paid $700,000 in May 2002 to purchase the five-room, 1,040-square-foot property from the estate of Robert and Evelyn Lunny.

Their initial plans called for construction of four condos, two ground-floor commercial spaces, and an underground garage with four parking spaces.

The alternative proposal Blazej presented at the joint community meeting did not change the height of the building--the development's most controversial feature. Its 40-foot height is the maximum allowed under city regulations.

The parking garage, however, was eliminated. Blazej said the commercial spaces would remain, but the condos would give way to one-bedroom apartments that would rent for approximately $1,200 a month.

To be eligible for the apartments, renters would have to be at least 55 years old, earn no more than 60 percent of San Francisco's median income (translated to $46,000 for a family of two), and forego car ownership. "A condition of the lease would be no car," Blazej said.

Developers Skirt Parking Problem

Blazej said the parking problems presented by the original condo scheme--each market-rate unit would require one parking space--were what pushed the developers to switch to senior housing and a ban on cars. For one, the driveway and special elevator for the underground garage ate up most of the storefront space.

Safety was another issue, he said, because cars entering the garage could not turn around. That would have forced drivers to back out of the garage along the busiest pedestrian block of upper 24th Street, as well as compete with delivery trucks and auto traffic from grocery shoppers driving in and out of Bell Market.

Because the building is in a "transit corridor," where city policy encourages the use of public transportation, the developers could have sought a parking exemption, Blazej said. But to ask buyers "to pay half a million bucks for a condo and you can't have a parking space" would have been a hard sell, he said. "So the notion occurred, why don't we make it senior affordable units?" Blazej said. "Twenty-fourth Street has terrific transportation and all your shopping needs. That would be the attraction to live there."

'Wolf in Sheep's Clothing'

But for some neighbors, the senior housing aspect failed to sweeten the pot. Borg said she worried that renters would own cars despite the prohibition and add to Noe Valley's notorious traffic congestion.

"I'm totally against it," said Borg. "How can we check [to see that the renters don't have cars]? Do we have to ask for ID every time a new person moves in?" she asked rhetorically.

And Gass called the senior housing proposal "a wolf in sheep's clothing." Constructing six units on such a small lot, he said, would create crowded conditions, noise, and other nettlesome problems for the residents, as well as for nearby neighbors.

Several aspects of the architectural drawings also left many in the crowd cold. For one, the modern, industrial loft-style design featured sharply angled windows.

"There is a lot of window space looking out on the back," said Paul Kantus, head of the East & West Club. "Other buildings [in the block] only have one or two windows facing back. We felt this was an invasion of privacy" for families living on Jersey Street.

In order to make the building less imposing to viewers along 24th Street, the design calls for setting the top floor back towards the rear. But Kantus said the semi-rounded roof looked "sort of like the top part of a Quonset hut." Przyblyski described it as being shaped like a barrel.

Przyblyski said Friends planned to focus much of the group's attention on how the building looks and fits into the community.

Most people "felt the design wasn't there yet" and needed more work, said Przyblyski. "We felt that since it's going to be large, it might as well be attractive."

Blazej said the developers were amenable to rethinking the architectural design of the building. He suggested the building might take on a Victorian flavor, a style the developers have used at other projects.

"Clearly, we're open to working with neighbors on the design," Blazej said. "That's flexible and open." h

The developers will present their revised plans at the next joint meeting of the East & West of Castro Club and Friends of Noe Valley, on Wednesday, May 7, 7 p.m., at the Noe Valley­Sally Brunn Library, 451 Jersey Street.