Sunday, November 29, 2020
Uncategorized The city's giant planning scofflaw

The city’s giant planning scofflaw


A full 75 percent of all Academy of Art buildings are currently illegal, city planning report shows

This chart shows the nine properties operated by AAU than can't be made legal under current zoning laws
This chart shows the nine properties operated by AAU than can’t be made legal under current zoning laws

By Tim Redmond

SEPTEMBER 29, 2015 — The City Planning Department will hear a report on one of the most flagrant land-use scofflaws in San Francisco Thursday/1 – and the evidence presented in the staff report is stunning.

The report, which you can read here, shows that there are nine properties operated by the Academy of Art University that are not currently legal – and that can’t be made legal under existing codes.

In other words, the city would have to change its current planning laws to allow AAU to continue using those properties for student housing and institutional school use.

In fact, a full 75 percent of the buildings the school owns or leases are currently illegal. (Socketsite has a nice chart here.)

AAU is developing an institutional master plan, which it’s required to present to the planners. But in the meantime, the school doesn’t seem to have a problem taking existing apartments, adding a lot more beds, and turning them into student dorms – or taking light-industrial property and turning it into classrooms.

Only 10 of the school’s 40 properties currently follow existing law.

The city has known about this for years; in fact, the Planning Department has filed notices of violation for 22 sites. City Attorney Dennis Herrera has weighed in, but still most of the sites are in violation. (Check out that link and the picture of Mayor Ed Lee and former Mayor Willie Brown celebrating with the school’s president if you wander why this is happening.)

So the Planning Department has to either (1) recommend that the zoning laws are changed all over town to allow student housing in areas that are zoned for lower density dwellings and allow school uses to displace light industrial, or (2) force this giant institution to make dramatic changes to its citywide campus, including shutting down some dorms and classrooms.

There will be no action this week; it’s just a presentation. But the commissioners ought to have some questions for AAU and for staff, starting with: How long is this going to continue?

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. Most, not all, and I don’t think the Union 2’s interests are at the forefront of the concerns about AirBnB.

  2. We’ll know next month. If the pro-growth, pro-development, pro-jobs Ed Lee wins the election, then we will know that being anti-growth is not a majority view.

    Want a wager on it?

  3. Does CCSF build homes for their students?

    AAU isn’t taking other peoples’ housing to use for their students. They are using non-residential buildings, which frees up the sites you think they should use for other residential build

    Only a small percentage of students in SF live in homes that are built by colleges.

  4. I want AAU to use some of the $250 million a year they take in from their student tuition, $200 million of it from federal student loans, and build dorms for their students to take pressure off our already tight housing market. If SF State and USF and UCSF and every other secondary school in SF can build dorms, why can’t AAU?

  5. Yes, and particularly if they threaten those with comfortable union jobs who know in their heart that they are overpaid and disposable.

  6. ” AirBnB, Uber & AAU are businesses, that’s all. They need to play by the same rules as everyone else”

    Agreed, but it’s also apparent the city is targeting any new forms of business that are thriving.

  7. Did you notice that the phrase “sharing economy” is actually two words? One of those words is “economy”. That is the giveaway to understanding its importance and why it is such a paradigm shift. It is sharing and it is an economy. Simple really.

    The sharing economy allows ordinary people to use ordinary assets to compete with monopolies like the yellow cabs and the hotel chains. It emancipates ordinary people from corporate monopolies.

    In fact, it’s really a form of a socialist revolution, just like stock options have succeeded where Marx’s workers’ ownership failed

  8. Enough about the so called “sharing economy”. Sharing is giving people things because they need them or because you like them and want to do something nice for them. Sharing isn’t about surge pricing, making a profit or breaking the law. AirBnB, Uber & AAU are businesses, that’s all. They need to play by the same rules as everyone else. That’s all we ask.

  9. The “vast majority of San Franciscans” do not wish to be involved with minor day-to-day planning issues. That is why the voters support a system where our elected representatives make appointments to reflect the views of that silent majority.

    Those who squeal for the local “community” to make such decisions (conveniently ignoring that planning is a city-wide issue anyway) are really yearning for a situation where local meetings can be packed with activists who shout down anyone who wants more new homes.

    Anyone who holds this alleged power that you claim does so only with the implied support and consent of the people. You can change that by removing Ed Lee from office in November. I’m not betting on that.

  10. But what if AAU’s use of a building increases the value of my property? I’d rather live next to a residential building housing artists than to many industrially uses.

    Do I have to pay the city for that benefit?

    Supposedly we have a housing crisis and students are low income. Are progressives ignoring that just so that they can hate on a college whose only crime is to be private? IF CCSF were doing this, the silence here would be deafening.

  11. That’s a good idea. And if the city is going to legalize, or ignore, unlawful uses of property by AAU, it should compensate adjacent property owners/renters whose property values or convenient use of their homes and businesses suffers as a result.

  12. And yet just a short time ago, the MTA was busy making money off the sale of Taxi medallions for $250,000 a pop. Now those poor driver/enterpreneurs can’t make a buck, while the City does nothing to stench the *unregulated* competition that is Uber-et-al.

    I say the MTA ought to be forced to buy back every medallion offered for surrender at the price purchased.

    Maybe a fee on driver/driver-less “shares” could help pay for it.

  13. The major problem here is that those who have latched onto PDR, the Flower Market and AAU are themselves politically connected, many of them are quite wealthy. When politics is one set of connected, conflicted operators negotiating with the in-power elite operators with the vast majority of San Franciscans kept away with a political cordon sanitaire, then all that remains is to negotiate the rate of political loss.

    Including PDR in the shoddily crafted Mission Moratorium initiative invoked the ire of which is also seeking to convert its operation into more profitable land uses given the condom in porn legislation as part of the incipient sex panic.

  14. Perhaps because our laws were designed for a traditional business hierarchy of us and them.

    And not for the new sharing economy paradigm where we are all entrepreneurs.

    In much the same ways as feudal laws laws are outdated became irrelevant and moot when the industrial revolution happened.

    When the people see that laws are unreasonable and outdated, they are much less likely to follow them. Governments can leap about trying to patch things up, but we really need a new set of operating rules for the revolution in business that we are witnessing.

    Regular cabs will go the way of travel agents

  15. We are a city of rule except for the wealthy and politically connected. Uber, AirBnB, Lyft, Academy of Art all profit by breaking the law.

    And by the way, in Australia, they just revoked the car registrations from 40 Uber drivers for not paying the applicable fees. Uber is in knots over that.

  16. Seeing the spreadsheet like that really trivializes the idea these are illegal uses.

    Housing for students…made out of residential? Uh. So the problem is red tape?

  17. I get that they are planning scofflaws, but honestly – who cares?
    It’s kind of interesting that any large entity in SF just says eff it to the 4 thousand planning hoops we have for even the most miniscule of building change.

  18. And yet when CCSF breaks the rules, you give them a pass. Funny that.

    But wait, I thought you supported cheaper housing for lower income folks. Aren’t students “lower income”?

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