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Going for Gold 

Academy of Art’s new sports program is about spirit, marketing — and the chance to break even more rules.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2008
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Page 4 of 5

Since the academy aims to join the NCAA but is not yet an official member, it is not strictly mandated to follow all of the organization's myriad rules. Hogue, however, said that all schools participating in the Pac West must follow NCAA rules regardless of membership status, and added he and Williams had reached an understanding about this by the end of June. Hogue thought that was the end of the matter, but word of the academy's early practices had been trickling through the conference. Williams' fellow athletic directors, understandably, are not amused. "Certainly this is an area of concern for me," says Dexter Irvin, the athletic director of Dixie State College in St. George, Utah. "What's the intent of the rule? To make the playing field level for everybody."

Staff at the Academy of Art did not answer queries as to why the school opted to practice early. But if it is hoping to turn heads by winning immediately, a few extra workouts couldn't hurt; Williams has ambitiously scheduled a men's basketball game vs. Division I USF on Nov. 21. "If you play [badly], it's not likely you're going to get much prestige out of having a doormat team," sums up Jonathan Brown, the president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

As for whether the academy's athletes are ready to play at an NCAA Division II level, many of them already have. A glance up and down the rosters of the dozen teams — men's and women's basketball, soccer and cross-country, women's tennis, softball, and volleyball and men's baseball, track, and golf — reveals a handful of players who have transferred from other colleges, some from within the Pac West. While the academy barred SF Weekly from speaking with its athletes, several gave interviews to their hometown papers. Morgan LeFever, a standout women's soccer player from Genoa, Nevada, told the Record-Courier, "I saw that they offered interior design and architecture in one degree, so I knew it was perfect for me." Brentwood's Debra Lafond, mother of softball player Shelby Lafond, told SF Weekly she and her daughter were familiar with the Academy of Art because "I see their commercials on TV all the time. I always thought it'd be really cool to go there." While other Division II schools recruited her daughter, Shelby had eyes only for the art school, which offered her a 25 percent scholarship. "Everybody in the family is saying 'What?' and looking at me asking, 'I thought she was going to play ball.' And I say, 'She is,'" Debra explains.

Most intriguingly, track and cross-country coach Mike Spino recruited "six to eight" Kenyans to run for his squad (the ambiguity results from uncertainty over whether a couple could afford plane tickets). On a recent Friday evening, the Kenyans strode out of the Star Motel on Lombard Street — the academy's latest acquisition — and headed for a waiting black bus. SF Weekly had time to ask one question — "You guys want to be artists?" — which was answered "Yes" before a man claiming to be an assistant coach bounded off the bus. "What's going on here?" he bellowed. "Come on, guys, let's go to dinner," he said, crowding the men onto the bus. Future interviews, he added, would have to be arranged by calling him. He refused to give his phone number.


Many a San Francisco developer has learned that land-use attorney Sue Hestor's first name doubles as a verb. Her Market Street office resembles a packed filing room in the moments following a grenade attack, yet she seems to be able to locate any document she wishes inside of 30 seconds. So, yeah, she can find the minutes for the 2006 meeting in Supervisor Peskin's office with the academy's lawyers and "what's her name?" — that'd be Elisa Stephens.

At that time, Hestor noted that the academy was 29 years overdue in producing its Institutional Master Plan, a voluminous document dozens of colleges, hospitals, and other San Francisco organizations must file periodically with the city to disclose their holdings and lay out future goals. When, months later, the school finally turned in a draft, city planners began visiting the scores of addresses listed within — and the academy rapidly became the Michael Phelps of amassing planning violations. Paul Correa, the school's planning director, says the academy didn't realize it was breaking rules right and left. City code enforcer Scott Sanchez scoffs at that claim. Even after being hit with a flurry of violations in 2006, the school continued acquiring property and converting it without permits through last year — which "blows their alibi about being ignorant out of the water," he says. One of those 2007 acquisitions was the Star Motel.

While the academy's conversions are not prohibited by San Francisco law, each should have required a Conditional Use Application, which can be granted only following public hearings and adjudication from the Planning Commission. In September 2007, the academy filed a barrage of such applications for the Star Motel and 13 other residential properties, some of which it had converted into student housing more than a decade ago. On Aug. 8, the Star was the first to have its day in court.

From the outset, the application looked like an easy win for the academy. Unlike other Stephens purchases, no residential housing was lost when the school took over the Star. The motel's clientele wasn't exactly A-list in recent years, and neighbors whispered about prostitution rings. At the hearing, Marina merchant organizations pushed the commission to approve the conversion, noting the academy had promised to pump money into local schools and aid with graffiti abatement. Officer John Gallagher of the Northern Police Station claimed neighborhood crime has dipped 50 percent since the academy took over the motel. Finally, Correa noted that if the commission didn't grant the permit — which affects only the rear portion of the motel — the cross-country team would have nowhere to live.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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