Noe Valley Voice September 2003

City Approves 'Lunny House' Development

By Corrie M. Anders

In the end, one of Noe Valley's most contentious recent battles over neighborhood development played out in the halls of City Planning with some give-and-take on both sides.

Not that there weren't some hard feelings; there usually are when Noe Valley activists face off with developers whose projects don't seem to fit in with the neighborhood.

But come next spring, a four-story housing and commercial complex will rise on 24th Street across from Bell Market. It will be the tallest structure on that side of the street and replace a two-story house, now vacant and rundown, that was built some 100 years ago.

The controversial project proved to be no big deal for members of the San Francisco Planning Commission. At its Aug. 21 meeting, the commission unanimously approved the project on a 4-0 vote following two hours of public testimony.

The commission okayed these major provisions:

--The new building will be a four-story structure with a Victorian-style facade, rather than the modern-industrial architecture originally proposed.

--To keep the building from appearing so large, the top story along 24th Street will be set back 15 feet from the front of the building. It will also be set back another 15 feet at the rear, as a concession to residents living on Jersey Street.

--Two commercial spaces of 1,200 feet each, instead of one big commercial space, will be required. One storefront will be located on the ground floor of 24th Street, and the second at the rear of the building.

--The six residential units on the upper floors will house seniors aged 62 and older. Although built as condominiums, the units will be used as apartments with market-rate rents, the developers say.

--Because the area has good public transit--the 48 bus runs right by the door--the senior residents will not be permitted to own cars, and the building will not have a parking garage.

Top Floor Carved Up, But Still There

The neighborhood fight erupted after a team of developers unveiled plans in the spring for the site. The developers--Jeremiah Cullinane, Denis Cullinane, and Eileen Long--last year purchased the property at 3953 24th Street for $700,000, from the estate of Robert and Evelyn Lunny.

Located between two-story neighbors on either side--Tien Fu Restaurant and Colorcrane Arts--the boarded-up house had been an eyesore for some time on Noe Valley's busiest commercial corridor.

The initial proposal to replace the Lunny House called for four luxury condominiums, an underground garage, and two commercial spaces. Merchants and nearby residents challenged the plan, contending that additional cars would add to 24th Street's notorious congestion and the four-story structure was far too mammoth for the block, with mostly two- and three-story buildings.

During numerous neighborhood meetings and at last month's Planning Commission hearing, residents demanded that the top floor be lopped off. But the developers warned that their project wouldn't be economically viable if they had to eliminate the top story. That argument carried weight with the commission.

"I think it all came down to removing the top floor," said city planner Dan Sirois. "The commission didn't want to do that.... We felt we wouldn't get the senior housing out of the project."

Local merchants fretted over the lack of parking on 24th Street. But they compromised on the parking issue in favor of having smaller commercial spaces. They had worried that a single commercial space would either attract large chain stores that tend to undercut small merchants or traffic-generating office uses.

"Everyone had to give up something," said Carol Yenne, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association and owner of Small Frys, a children's clothing store on 24th Street.

"We gave up parking. The developers gave up half of a floor with setbacks. It was a compromise everywhere. It shows we can work together," Yenne said.

Architecture Hearkens Back to 1910

Consider the building's exterior. The contemporary design originally proposed could have created an architectural clash with the other Victorian and Edwardian-style buildings along the block. And opponents contended that it would have drawn even more negative attention to the considerable height of the building.

The revised Victorian-style façade should blend in easily with the street's architectural character, says Lu Blazej, a consultant representing the developers.

"For someone who just came into town and saw that building, they'd never realize it was a month old," Blazej said. "They'd think that building was built in 1910."

'Mesmerized' by Senior Housing

But Paul Kantus, president of the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club, remains dismayed over the Planning Commission approval.

"It was really rubber-stamped," said Kantus. "I think the commissioners were mesmerized by the senior housing component. [We argued] that these people were developers and they were building this monster, to sell and get out, and we'd be stuck with it for the next 20 years."

Kantus says he is not impressed with the requirement that seniors who move into the building must give up their automobiles.

"Get real," Kantus said. "No one is going to get out of their cars until they improve the transportation system."

Yvonne Borg lives on Jersey Street, directly behind the Lunny House. Because her home is on a downslope from 24th Street, the new structure will loom over the small Victorian she has owned since 1972.

"We all lost," Borg said, after speaking at the public hearing against the project. "We did the best we could."

Undercurrent of Tension

Blazej responds that the real estate entrepreneurs "worked hard to satisfy the concerns" of residents and merchants. He said the developers made numerous changes over the course of five months, and "after all was said and done, I think everyone was satisfied."

Still, there was an undercurrent of tension as the Planning Commission got ready to consider the matter.

In a letter to commissioners outlining the concerns of Friends of Noe Valley, group president Jeannene Przyblyski took note of the many community meetings held with developers to resolve their differences.

"In our experience, this was one of the most unsatisfactory and unproductive examples of the public process in which we have been involved," Przyblyski wrote.

That prompted building owner Long, a sales agent with B.J. Droubi Real Estate, to fire off a chilly retort. "...We are left feeling very hurt and insulted" because "we left no stone unturned to work with the associations."

What comes next depends on the mood of neighborhood activists. They could appeal the Planning Commission's decision to the Board of Supervisors. Absent that, the developers say construction is set to start early next year. h