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City HallThe AgendaWill all new housing development in SF be exempt from environmental review?

Will all new housing development in SF be exempt from environmental review?

Plus: Yimby leader calls for rents to go higher. That's The Agenda for Jan. 22-28.

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The Board of Supes will hear an appeal Tuesday/23 of an issue involving a modest historic building on Sacramento Street that could raise much larger issues about the future of environmental review, not just in this city but in the state of California.

In essence, a developer and the City Planning Department are arguing that any project that falls under the Housing Element—that is, all future residential development in the city—is exempt from all review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Architect rendering of the library and new tower, from Planning Department documents.

That, city planners say, is because the city already did an Environmental Impact Report on the latest Housing Element, a plan that happens to be based largely on fantasy.

Richard Drury, the lawyer for the appellant, notes in his letter that

“If the [Planning Department] approach is condoned, then arguably, CEQA review will never be required for any residential project in the City ever again.”

That may be what the Yimbys want, but it’s still a pretty radical change, particularly since the Housing Element EIR, which you can download here, specifically states that it’s a “programmatic EIR,” not a project-specific EIR, and that individual projects that might have a significant impact on the environment beyond what was analyzed in the program EIR would still need further CEQA review.

From the appeal letter:

What the [Environmental Review Officer] fails to mention is that the Housing Element EIR did not analyze this Project at all. It analyzed the Housing Element that applies to the entire City of San Francisco. The analysis was at a very general programmatic level, analyzing the impacts of adding 50,000 new residents to the City. The Housing Element EIR specifically stated that it was not conducting any project-level CEQA analysis and that further CEQA analysis would be required for specific projects when they are proposed.

The Housing Element EIR never considered this project, which hadn’t even been proposed when that work was underway.

Developers all over the city are watching this otherwise obscure appeal, because if it succeeds, they will be able to bypass CEQA at will.

In this case, the issue is the potential damage to an historic landmark, the Lane Medical Library, at 2395 Sacramento St. When the building was finished in 1906, it was part of the first medical school in the Western US, the Cooper Medical College, later taken over by Stanford University.

There’s no question that the building has historic value; the city designated it as a landmark in 1980, and it’s eligible for consideration as a federal landmark.

The appeal letter notes:

The Project will also have project-specific impacts related to wind, vibration, air pollution, biological impacts and others – none of which were adequately analyzed or mitigated in the Housing Element EIR. Even under CEQA section 15183, such impacts that are peculiar to the Project must be analyzed in a streamlined EIR.

The developer is called Gokovacandir, LLC, which is run by Bora Ozturk, who is the director of March Capital Management. The plan calls for upgrading and preserving the facade of the library, while building a 78-foot building on one side and an 87-foot building on the other.

The zoning in the area, as envisioned in the Housing Element, is 40 feet.

It’s entirely possible that the “adaptive reuse” would improve the historic building. It’s possible that even a preliminary CEQA review would find that there are no significant impacts around vibration, air pollution, and biological impacts, in which case the Planning Department could issue what’s known as a “negative declaration” and the project could move forward.

In fact, when planners first evaluated it, they found that there were, in fact, potential CEQA issues. An email from Environmental Review Officer Lisa Gibson to the developer’s lawyer notes that:

After consultation with department staff and the city attorney’s office, it is my conclusion that staff appropriately determined that modification to the building interior areas is subject to CEQA review in this particular case. …

As explained in the Historic Resource Evaluation Response Part 1 for this project, some of the interior areas have been publicly advertised as rental event spaces. [See this.] This suggests that these interior areas can be (and have been) accessible and visible by certain members of the public (e.g., anyone at events held in the existing building) and thus are publicly accessible under CEQA.

Drury obtained that letter under the California Public Records Act and shared it with me.

Now, however, the Planning Department, in a letter to the supes, argues that

Based on this analysis, the department determined that the project is exempt from further environmental review beyond what was conducted in the GPE initial study and the Housing Element 2022 Update EIR.

Again: Maybe the issues with the interior aren’t enough to derail the project; that’s what a preliminary CEQA review is for. The department issues “neg decs” all the time, sometime, I think, too easily.

But in this case, the issue isn’t a neg dec; it’s the department and the developer arguing that any residential project, of any type and size, anywhere in the city, is from now on exempt from any project-specific environmental review.

That would be a profound change in public policy—again, perhaps one the Yimbys would like, but one that at least deserves some open public debate.

That hearing starts at 3pm.

This one is weird: I thought the main Yimby argument was that more housing, including more market-rate housing, will eventually bring down rents. That’s the central reason that the state is mandating so much new housing—because a housing shortage, which can best be solved by the private sector, drives costs up for everyone.

I’m not against density or more housing, but I’ve always said that the way the housing development market works, new housing can’t bring rents down, because if rents start to fall to affordable levels, developers won’t get the return their investors demand, so they’ll stop building housing.

Now one of the leaders in the Yimby movement has confirmed that, in a bizarre statement to the City Planning Comission.

On Jan. 18, Corey Smith, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, told the commissioners that “we need the rent to go back up” if new housing is going to be built. “I know that’s counter-intuitive and insane to say out loud, but it’s the truth,” he testified.

Correct: If rents and housing prices go up, more developers will see more profit, and will be more likely to build more. But that’s the opposite of what the Yimbys have always said.

From Lee Hepner on Twitter:

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
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.

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