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Friday, January 8, 2010

No City Suit Vs. Academy of Art -- Yet. School's Critics Look to Plan B.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 8, 2010 at 1:05 PM

click to enlarge academy_of_art_university_logo.gif
After huddling yesterday for hours with members of the City Attorney's office, San Francisco's planning commission opted to not file a suit against Academy of Art University at this time, despite the for-profit school's history of code violations and evasion of city rules and laws.

Planning Department sources we spoke with who were in the room didn't say much, but also didn't rule out the possibility of taking legal action sometime down the road. Our calls to the Academy, of late, are not getting returned.

Critics of the school -- who characterize it as a thinly veiled real estate scheme that's cannibalizing the city's housing stock -- weren't thrilled. But they told SF Weekly that a lawsuit is just one method of getting tough with the Academy -- if that's what the city really wants to do.

Brad Paul was the deputy mayor for housing under Art Agnos and is now a housing consultant. He's also one of the Academy's most persistent critics. And he pointed out a method of altering the Academy's behavior potentially far more damaging than a lawsuit.

The crux of the conflict between the city and the Academy centers around the fact that, once you buy or otherwise obtain a building, you can't just do whatever you please with it. Going back to the 1990s, the Academy has obtained dozens of San Francisco structures, and converted them to residential or academic use without obtaining any permits from the city. In 2007, the school filed a bevy of applications for conditional use permits to legalize these conversions -- but it has been obtaining and converting properties since then, too.

Paul has an idea regarding these conditional use permits -- deny them. Period. While the planning department can't approve those permits until the Academy completes its long-gestating Institutional Master Plan and Environmental Impact Report, Paul says there's no reason the permits can't be denied right now. And it's not like this has never happened before. Last year, the city denied a conditional use permit for the rear half of the former Star Motel, which the Academy had converted into a dorm. There's no reason the planning commission couldn't nix the other 10 pending conditional use permits in short order -- if it wanted to get tough, Paul maintained.

So far, however, the planning department has been content to allow the Academy to exist in a kind of lucrative limbo; the rent is still pouring in from its four-to-a-room, non-rent controlled dormitories, even if the city hasn't yet approved the conversion of these buildings to dorms.

Since the city has been waiting for the completion of the Institutional Master Plan and Environmental Impact Report before ruling either way, Paul contends that the Academy has been given "an incentive to never finish. Why would they want to? As long as the city lets them get away with illegal uses, they can go on for years." Other developers, who have illegally converted hotels and apartments to offices are also playing this game, alleges the former deputy mayor.

"The problem with the city's system is it rewards people who break the law."

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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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