Housing Policy

San Francisco Delays Building 4 Years in the Making Because New Apartments Will Cast Shadows?!

The owner of a "historic" laundromat has been thwarted at every turn in his bid to build apartments in a city in the midst of a housing crisis.


Anti-development activists in San Francisco are raising an increasingly ridiculous set of objections to prevent the owner of a laundromat in the city's Mission District from converting his building into an apartment complex.

When Reason last spoke with Robert Tillman in February, the city of San Francisco was demanding that he study the historical significance of his coin-operated laundry before he be allowed to demolish it and put up a 75-unit, mixed-use housing development.

Tillman consented, paying $23,000 for a 135-page report which determined, several months later, that his property was not in fact a historic resource. In a sane world Tillman would be allowed to proceed with his project. In San Francisco, he is now being asked to perform yet another study, this time to measure the effect of shadow on a nearby school.

"You could just as easily ask me to do a study on the breakfast eating habits of the kids, or whether the building might affect their texting use," says Tillman.

Two shadow studies have already been conducted, finding that Tillman's project, if built, would cast shadow on a quarter of the playground of the nearby Zaida T. Rodriguez school for two hours a day.

According to Mission District activists from the city-recognized Latino cultural district Calle 24 however, neither study spent enough time considering the developmental impacts of asking children to spend recess in the shade.

"We know that the children will be forced to play in the shadows," said one impassioned activist at a recent public hearing on the project. "Whatever damage that is done to these children by the project will be permanent, irreversible, and detrimental." Said another, "we need housing, but let's get busy and creative. This project is not creative. It's not even respecting shadows."

In June these activists filed an environmental appeal asking for the third shadow study.

Last Tuesday, the city's Board of Supervisors led by Supervisor Hillary Ronen (D–Mission District) sided with these activists, mandating that another study be done before Tillman be allowed to proceed with building an otherwise zone-compliant housing project that would create 75 apartment units in a city suffering from a severe housing shortage.

"If what they want to do is say 'ah well we want to actually delay your project while we do another study, my answer is no," he tells Reason. "My answer is I'm going to court."

Tillman says that this latest delay is a violation of the laws governing the environmental review process in San Francisco, and that he plans on suing. On his side are the very bureaucrats tasked with reviewing and approving his project.

The environmental review process Tillman went through is governed by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires that new developments like his be studied for any potential environmental impacts they might have.

The list of possible impacts is long, as is the CEQA review process itself. This is especially true in San Francisco, where local law requires additional impacts be studied beyond what is demanded by state law. Making the process longer still is the ability of parties to appeal an environmental review they feel did not significantly examine this or that impact.

For the last six months Tillman has been delayed by these appeals, the first one demanding that potential historic impacts be studied more thoroughly, and second asking the same of potential shadow impacts.

The problem is that the shadow Tillman's theoretical apartments would throw off is not an impact either CEQA or San Francisco law requires him to study.

According to the city's Planning Department, shadow is only considered an environmental impact when it might fall on a public park maintained by the city's Parks Department. Since the previous two shadow studies performed on Tillman's project found that his project would only cast shadow on the nearby Zaida T. Rodriguez school playground owned by the city's school district, he is not required to mitigate this impact.

For this reason, the Planning Department recommended that Calle 24's appeal be rejected.

Nevertheless Ronan pushed her colleagues to accept the appeal, arguing that the Zaida T. Rodriguez playground could be made accessible to the general public at some point, thus warranting further shadow study.

"What they did is they basically made up a CEQA effect out of whole cloth," says Tillman, who was left flabbergasted by the Board of Supervisors decision.

The endless series of studies he's been forced to complete, he maintains, has a lot more to do with extracting concessions from him than it does with any actual concern about shadows.

Notably the San Francisco Unified School District—whose kids are supposedly at risk from additional shadows—did not sign on to Calle 24's appeal. Tillman says no one from the Zaida T. Rodriguez school has ever brought up any concern about shadows from his project.

"What they want to do is use the pressure of the delay to force me to sell below market value which I'm not going to do," says Tillman. "It's kind of the old-time equivalent of 'nice little project you got there, it would be a shame if something happened to it.'"

Tillman says he would be willing to sell his land, but only for fair market value.

Mission activist groups opposed to Tillman's project have been explicit about their desire to turn his laundromat into an affordable housing project. This includes the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA)—a non-profit affordable housing developer—which wrote in a 2016 blog post, "it was good news to hear Tillman express that he would consider selling his property to the City, so that the latter could then designate it for 100 percent affordable housing. The bad news was Tillman's price of $250,000 per unit"—a price they are unwilling to pay.

Tillman says that on the morning of last Tuesday's Board of Supervisors hearing where the CEQA appeal against his project was considered, he received a phone call from Ronen asking him once again if he'd be willing to sell his land. He said yes on the condition that he be paid fair market value for it. He then spoke with a representative from Calle 24 where a similar conversation played out; Tillman expressing openness to selling his land but Calle 24 not willing or able to pay his asking price.

Having reached an impasse, Calle 24 representatives lined up before the Board of Supervisors several hours later to denounce the shadow impacts from Tillman's project, and the Board, led by Ronan, voted to delay his project.

These kinds of delays have proven effective in shaking down other Mission developers. For instance, about a block from Tillman's laundromat is the site of a planned 157-unit housing development being built by apartment developer Lennar Multifamily Communities. In order to get approval for its project Lennar—that had already been hamstrung by delays—hammered out a deal with Calle 24 and Ronen to rent out 25 percent of its new apartment units at below market value, and pay $1 million to Calle 24.

So far Tillman has refused to bend. He says that because he owns his land outright, and still has a profitable business in the laundromat, it is cheaper for him to go through litigation. As a one-off developer, he is less concerned about pissing off the powers that be.

Indeed, isolated from the typical pressures faced by more professional developers, Tillman has almost become a housing activist in his own right. The experience however has left him jaded about his or anyone's ability to change San Francisco's steadfast refusal to allow people to build housing for those who want to live there.

"There actually was a time when I thought I could change things. I've come to the conclusion that I won't, so many I'm just trying to get my project through," he says.

In that sense at least he is optimistic. The city attorney must provide Tillman with the legal reasoning for the latest delay within a month. Once that is unveiled, Tillman says he'll file his lawsuit, and could expect a decision by March 2019.

Provided the court sides with him, he will at last be allowed to begin construction.