Noe Valley Voice July-August 2005

Vacant Lots on Castro to Be Filled by New Homes

By Corrie M. Anders

At the southwest corner of Castro and Valley streets, the first thing you notice are several desolate lots overgrown with weeds. Past the brush and debris are three neglected houses, standing empty and forlorn. A gap-toothed fence and a knocked-over "No Trespassing" sign, barely visible in the unkempt grass, symbolically guard the property.

This corner, an eyesore for many years, is set to be reclaimed by a residential developer who wants to build a trio of single-family homes. Each home would have a two-car garage, southern gardens, and a backyard vista that would let its owners gaze from the slopes of nearby Billy Goat Hill to the Bay and beyond.

Photo by Pamela Gerard

But the developer's plans have created mixed emotions for residents in the Upper Noe neighborhood: they're happy to get rid of the blighted landscape, but anxious that other developers might have more ambitious intentions for adjacent parcels awaiting development.

Janet Whalen, who lives a block away on Castro Street, says she favors plans to build the three homes.

"Obviously something is going to be built there, and the scale of what they're talking about seems okay. I really like what they are trying to do," says Whalen, a resident since 1978.

"But what is going to happen to the rest of the [block] I don't know," says Whalen. "We are very concerned about more monster homes. We're just so sick of it. They're ugly as hell...and we hate them."

The neighborhood's worries are rooted in a number of bloated homes that recently went up around the corner, on a Valley Street cul-de-sac. In the last two years, developers have renovated, or torn down and rebuilt from scratch, at least five homes on the pitched block between Castro and Diamond streets. The largest, a four-bedroom, 41/2-bath house with 4,400 square feet, sold in March for $2.7 million. That same month, another new house, with four bedrooms and 51/2 baths, sold for $2.3 million.

Estate Sells Off Seven Parcels

Now, with the cul-de-sac as a backdrop, the entire block on the west side of Castro Street, from Valley Street to 29th Street, is being readied for development. The properties became available after Margaret Mahoney Lynch, scion of a pioneer California family with substantial real estate holdings, died in 2003 at age 84. The estate taxes were considerable.

"My mother passed away and we had to settle the estate," by selling some assets in the family's portfolio, says Timothy Lynch, a real estate attorney and developer who lives in Palo Alto.

Lynch says the Castro Street package, which consists of seven contiguous parcels, was sold last June. Noting that his grandfather, Jeremiah Mahoney, was a civic leader and developer who built many residential properties in Noe Valley back in the late 1800s, Lynch says he hopes the neighbors will see the new development as a welcome improvement. "There are going to be beautiful homes, and it's going to add value to the area. It's going to attract new people."

Three separate development teams purchased the Lynch properties, and renters have been moving out of the homes over the past year.

"There is no one [living] in any of them," says Whalen. "The last people moved out a couple of weeks or so ago."

Homes Will Face Valley Street

Tony Kim, a land use consultant who represents developer Arthur Ng, has been showing residents his client's preliminary proposal for the vacant corner. A modest home, originally built around 1900, once sat on two of the lots facing Castro Street, but fell into disrepair and was demolished several years ago.

San Francisco's current zoning laws allow for the construction of four four-story condominiums--two on each lot. However, Ng's June 3 application for a building permit shows the developer prefers to build three three-story single-family houses. The three-bedroom homes would have approximately 2,600 square feet and face Valley Street rather than Castro.

Neither an architectural style nor market price has been determined for the homes, according to Kim. "Take into consideration this is all preliminary and we're still working with the Planning Department. By no means is this the end result of our application," says the consultant.

Kim also is working with another developer, who did not want to be identified, on two other parcels. His May 27 building permit application calls for a three-story house to replace a dilapidated dwelling that was razed for safety reasons earlier this year. Next door to that lot is a rundown cottage located at the rear of the property. Kim says the owner plans to renovate the small house and construct a three-story home in the front.

2 Remodeling Projects Put on Hold

The Copia Group, an architectural design firm, is representing another private developer who wants to make over the three remaining properties, including a duplex at the corner of Castro and 29th streets.

In March, the developer applied to the city for permission to spruce up the duplex with a rear addition. He also wants to install bay windows, and modify the building's façade. Edward Yuen, a Copia engineer working as a consultant for the developer, says the proposed addition consists of 12-foot rear decks. The units may carry price tags in the $800,000 range.

The developer has put a hold on plans to remodel two other residences purchased from the estate. Yuen says the developer initially intended to add a rear addition and a second story to the one-story-over-garage homes. The remodeled homes each would have about 3,000 square feet and cost in the neighborhood of $1.6 million.

"Junkyard" or Open Space?

The delay came after Yuen says neighbors expressed reservations about the extra height and suggested that the developer instead dig out subterranean garages. But an underground garage would be expensive, and "the client may not be willing to do that," Yuen says. Neighbors also wanted the developer to replace the current flat-top roofs with more stylish gabled roofs.

Yuen notes that squatters had taken over one of the houses and apparently were using it as a dope-shooting gallery. After finding needles, Yuen says the water was shut off and the interior gutted down to the framing studs to discourage trespassers.

"We cleaned up the place," says Yuen, displaying some disappointment that efforts to remodel the two homes stalled over the second-story issue.

"Right now it's just like a junkyard basically in the middle of Noe Valley," says Yuen. "People don't complain when they see an eyesore like that, but they complain when they see another story."

Devil in the Details

Sensitive to the fact that residential development is a touchy subject, both Yuen and Kim say they have held several meetings with residents to keep them informed of plans for the Castro Street block.

"I've been mailing out invitations to the community and making presentations and answering questions," says Kim.

A half-dozen people attended a June presentation at the home of a local resident, including Boe Hayward, Supervisor Bevan Dufty's legislative aide, who came to monitor the situation.

"Our objective is to be responsible developers," says Kim. "That's why we've been reaching out to the community and Supervisor Dufty's keep the line of communications open."

Meanwhile, Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors, says it's important for residents to stay informed about the proposed developments. "The devil is in the details," says Rosen. "We shall see if there is real collaboration here...a real intention to improve the neighborhood rather than maximize profits."

No complaints have been lodged through the residents' group. But with the huge Valley Street homes still a fresh memory, Rosen says, "I certainly won't blame people if they are skeptical or apprehensive."