Planners approve massive project at Fifth and Mission, but appeals are still ahead
By Tim Redmond
SEPTEMBER 21, 2015 — About nine hours into the Planning Commission’s hearing on the giant project at Fifth and Mission, after hundreds of community people had testified for and against the plan, Commissioner Cindy Wu raised a point that had been missing for most of the discussion.
Why, she asked, are three different objectives – the creation of a Filipino-American Heritage District, the preservation of affordable housing, and the desire of a developer to make a huge amount of money – not discussed in the same context? Why isn’t there any real planning for this part of town?
“I know there are no developer fees [to fund planning for a heritage district] and we don’t get any General Fund money,” she said. But there must be a better way to do this.
Indeed, that was the message of the testimony and the ultimate decision to approve the project: When it comes to conflicting needs and demands on the city’s limited real estate, the ones with the most money always get their way.
The developers of the so-called 5M project – including the Hearst Corp, which owns the Chronicle – are more savvy than many of the heavy-handed types we see in this town. They went out and got community input. They agreed to increase the level of affordable housing (and agreed to give a big check to the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Center to build some of that housing). They promised a substantial package of community benefits — $74 million worth, although it’s not clear when that money would be available and who would control it.
But the essential problem with the deal was pointed out late in the discussion, when one of the opponents noted that “this project is forever. At some point, the $74million will be gone. The Filipino community will be displaced. And the only real winner will be the developer.”
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That’s the sentiment we heard over and over: The people who currently live in the area where the project will be constructed aren’t happy with it.
This thing is giant:
The 5M project is an attempt by the developer to “Supersize Soma” by constructing a 470-foot tower with 400 market-rate (aka rich people) condos, a 395- and 350-foot towers with 600,000 square feet of office space, along with a 200-foot tower with 230 market-rate and 58 affordable units. The height and density limits that would preclude such a project would be circumvented by spot zoning and special carve-outs that would allow the developer to build despite zoning regulations and construct these buildings that are totally out of scale with the rest of Soma, both physically and in character.
The Planning Commission and the Recreation and Parks Commission had to hold a joint hearing on the project, since it will add significant shadows to a local park. But the commissioners didn’t seem all that concerned – the joint body gave the necessary waivers.
Then the Planning Commission had to approve a long series of resolutions – to approve the environmental impact report, to grant conditional-use authorization to one of the buildings, and to authorize all of this within the city’s annual limit on office space.
Community activists in the audience were furious as the project won approval after approval. At one point, a “people’s filibuster” sought to shut down the process, with dozens of people chanting “who are you building for?”
There was no response from the commission.
In the end, the vote in favor of the project was 5-2, with Commissioners Kathrin Moore and Cindy Wu objecting. But it’s nowhere near over: All three key elements, the EIR, the CU, and the office allocation – can and will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which has to vote on zoning changes anyway.
So that will be a huge battle — at some point.
When? That gets interesting. If the board takes its time addressing the appeals, legally this could probably go into January, 2016, when there could be a big change in the balance of power.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the opponents of the project getting more than five votes. In January, if Aaron Peskin replaces Julie Christensen in D3, I can see them getting six.
So the developers will be pushing to get this heard at the board as soon as possible. Which, of course, would again put Christensen in the position of voting in favor of something that a lot of her constituents won’t like – or defying the mayor and the development community that has been a major funder of her campaign.
This is a project that could change Soma forever. And the battle isn’t over yet.