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Thursday, March 21, 2013

City Rules "Remodeling" 850-Square-Foot House to 5,139 Square Feet Is A-Okay

Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 10:35 AM

click to enlarge The current structure at 125 Crown Terrace, in yellow, and the plan for a "remodeled" home seven times its size - ANDREW J. NILSEN
  • Andrew J. Nilsen
  • The current structure at 125 Crown Terrace, in yellow, and the plan for a "remodeled" home seven times its size

Readers may recall a December SF Weekly article about the surreal city rules builders exploit to blow up small homes into mansions, and blow away what's left of San Francisco's dwindling affordable housing stock.

That article turned out to be Exhibit 17 in a hearing last night at the Board of Appeals.

At issue was a central example cited in our December article: a home at 125 Crown Terrace owned by developer, former Building Inspection Commission president, and Port Commissioner to-be Mel Murphy. He hopes to "remodel" it from 854-square feet to 5,139 square feet; previously, Murphy had been denied a demolition permit when he only hoped to expand to 4,019 square feet.

The complaint, pushed by Murphy's next-door neighbor Ramona Albright, involved gripes about blocked views and felled trees of the sort you'd expect in an upscale enclave like Twin Peaks. But it also brought into question the city's reading of a statute that allows savvy builders to demolish the very elements of a building they retained to avoid being classified as a demolition.

See Also: Bringing Down the Housing: How Builders Game the System

click to enlarge The structure as it now appears, and plans for its future - ANDREW J. NILSEN
  • Andrew J. Nilsen
  • The structure as it now appears, and plans for its future

Section 317 of the city's Planning Code wasn't meant to be a means for allowing starter homes to be repurposed into mansions. But multiple claims were made before the Board of Appeals last night that this is just what is happening.

"We tried to insert honesty and integrity into the Planning Code," said former Supervisor Jake McGoldrick. Faced with middle-class families' flight from the city and a history of modest homes being de-facto demolished to make way for much larger ones, "We wrote Section 317 to attempt to get a handle on this thing."

The clause in question allows a builder who discovers dry rot or some other problem within a structure to replace walls or other elements without triggering a demolition. Under the Planning Department's current interpretation, however, the "repair and maintenance" clause could allow a builder to remove a wall that's perfectly suitable for a smaller structure -- but would need to be brought up to code to support a far larger structure on the site. This opens up the possibility to remove and replace the portions of a building you're supposedly maintaining and completely tear down a building you're ostensibly only "remodeling."

From our December story:

Asked if it's possible to level a building, construct a new one, and define this as an "alteration" or "remodel," 125 Crown Terrace designer Drake Gardner confirms it is. "But you can't do it all at once," he says. "You'd have to do it piecemeal. ... They've got codes that overlap and cross each other. So you try to fish through it all, get it approved, build it -- and then not get in trouble with the inspector for taking out more than you designated you were going to."

This quote caught the attention of Board of Appeals President Chris Hwang. "The article quotes the developer planning a way around a demolition," she asked city Zoning Administrator Scott Sanchez. "Doesn't this ... smack of trying to circumvent" the rules?

Sanchez would only note that the threshold of any rule is going to be pushed, and that this case "meets the letter of the law." He questioned, however, the efficacy of the city's laws, which are "cumbersome to implement and able to be exploited -- you saw that in the article. If the Board of Supervisors' goal was to prevent houses becoming megamansions, Section 317 could have been written to prohibit that. It doesn't."

In other words, considering the inherent loopholes in any law, and considering the Planning Department believes it's applicable to simultaneously replace and retain key elements of a structure, this is a code-conforming project.

And that was the opinion of three of the members of the Board of Appeals; Hwang and Arcelia Hurtado voted in the minority against the project. Murphy's quest to move his family into the future mansion -- thus far a tortured, six-year process -- has cleared yet another hurdle.

Stephen Williams, the attorney for neighbor Ramona Albright, said his client could still "appeal all sorts of things" within the structure of the city's development process. But he's advising against it. "This is a matter of statute interpretation, and the city is not interpreting it properly," he says. "Ramona may sue him. I'd like to take this one to court. Then we'd get a real hearing."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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