Robert Tillman's idea of converting a coin-operated laundromat into a new apartment building initially had a lot of things going for it.
Except for his laundromat—one of three within a 100-yard radius in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District—no businesses or tenants were located on his property, meaning no one would be displaced by its redevelopment. The site was already zoned for housing and was close to a major commuter rail stop, big pluses in a highly regulated, transit-obsessed city. Best of all, the new building would bring 75 additional apartment units to a city suffering from a severe housing shortage and some of the highest rents in the country.
But instead of sailing through the permitting process, Tillman has spent five years and over $1 million just trying to get approval to redevelop his own property. Anti-gentrification activists and city politicians have gone to extreme lengths to stop him.
"My site is the easiest site in the city to build," he says, and yet "it's taken me longer to get to this point than it took for the United States to win World War II."
Tillman's troubles started in 2014, when he first sought permission to redevelop his property. Though San Francisco has a well-earned reputation for being a hard place to develop, Tillman says staff at the city's Planning Department were initially very enthusiastic about his project.
The real opposition came from the neighbors. The Mission is a historically working-class district that, less than two decades ago, was still mostly Latino. But that population has been shrinking as wealthier white residents move in, and housing prices are rising even faster there than in the rest of San Francisco.
This situation has sparked a backlash from anti-gentrification activists who oppose almost any new construction in their neighborhood. But the activists' obstruction isn't helping the displaced, says Todd David, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.
"There is displacement in the Mission. Latinos are moving out. Nobody's arguing about that. The reason that the displacement is taking place in the Mission is because we haven't built any housing there in 15 years," says David. "When you have people with resources competing with people with fewer resources for a limited commodity, who's going to end up with that commodity?"
Mission activists have rejected this reasoning, instead choosing to oppose any new development that is not completely reserved for low-income renters. That would, of course, include Tillman's mostly market-rate project, which attracted increasingly heated opposition as it worked its way through the city bureaucracy.
One 2018 community meeting saw these tensions bubble over.
"There was an activist at that meeting who literally told my daughter that she wished my daughter had been blown up in the Boston bombing," Tillman says. "There was another activist at that meeting who said to one of my gay supporters, publicly, 'We don't want people like you in the Mission. Go back to the Castro,'" a neighborhood known as San Francisco's gay district.
Opponents at the meeting argued that Tillman's project was too big and bulky to fit with the neighborhood's character. Others demanded he sell the property to the city or a community developer that would then build affordable housing.
When voluntary suasion proved unsuccessful, these activists appealed to the San Francisco Planning Commission—tasked with approving new development—to delay or stop the project.
The commissioners parroted many of the activists' complaints about the size and bulk of the proposed apartment block, with one arguing that letting Tillman go forward would be like "plopping a foreign object into this area and not thinking about the consequences." But thanks to a state-level "density bonus" law—which allows developers to build more units than would otherwise be allowed under certain circumstances and limits the ability of local governments to reject new development—the Planning Commission was largely unable to impose new conditions on Tillman. In November 2017, the body reluctantly voted to greenlight the project.
This did not mean that Tillman could start construction, however. The approval kicked off a second round of delays driven by the infamous California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires almost all new projects to go through extensive reviews of their potential environmental impacts.
Crucially, CEQA allows third parties to appeal the approval of a project if they feel a particular impact has not been sufficiently examined. Because the list of eligible impacts is long and the cost of filing an appeal is low—$617 in San Francisco—anti-development groups can easily use the law to slow or stop projects they don't like. That's exactly what happened to Tillman.
In January 2018, a lawyer representing Calle 24, a Latino merchants' association, filed a CEQA appeal. It claimed that the city had not done enough to study the planned apartment building's impact on the cultural character of the Mission neighborhood and on the health effects on nearby students.
The San Francisco Planning Department recommended the appeal be rejected, stating that Calle 24 had "not demonstrated nor provided substantial evidence" to back up their claims of insufficient environmental review.
At the same time it was taking issue with Calle 24's appeal, though, the Planning Department also said that new information had come to light suggesting that Tillman's laundromat might be of historical significance because several community groups had occupied the space for brief periods in the 1970s and 1980s, and because a Chicano mural once graced the side of the building.
Even though the very same Planning Department had deemed his laundromat of no historical significance as recently as 2011, Tillman was required to spend $23,000 on a 137-page report confirming that the building was not, in fact, a landmark worth preserving.
The project was then stalled a third time by yet another CEQA appeal from Calle 24. This one argued that there could be negative health effects from the shadows cast by his building on the playground of the nearby Zaida T. Rodriguez Early Education School and that these potential health effects had not been sufficiently examined.
Two shadow studies, mind you, had already been performed on the project; the playground in question was already shaded by several trees; and shadows are not even an impact that have to be studied under CEQA. What's more, in the four years that Tillman's project had been going through an incredibly public and contentious development battle, the school district had never once complained about the potential shadow impact of a new apartment building.
Nonetheless, after yet another hearing in June 2018, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—led by Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission District and who had privately pressured Tillman to sell his property at a steep discount to a nonprofit community developer—voted to delay his project yet again so that another shadow study could be conducted.
At this point, Tillman reached the end of his rope.
"They made up new CEQA grounds," he says. "I followed the laws for four and a half years. I've spent $1.2 million following the laws and now at the last minute, they break their own laws."
Last August, Tillman sued the city of San Francisco for $17 million, claiming it had violated the law as well as his Fifth Amendment right to due process.
Less than two months later, the Planning Commission delivered a surprise. It said it had independently studied the potential shadow issue identified by the supervisors and determined that the building wouldn't have a significant negative impact. It also said that such shadows were not in fact valid grounds for appeal under CEQA.
The commissioners scheduled a new hearing in October 2018, and Tillman's project was quickly reapproved.
Unsurprisingly, Californians are starting to question the housing policy wisdom of the last few decades. Voters in 2018 resoundingly rejected Proposition 10, an effort to reinstate rent control statewide, and new San Francisco Mayor London Breed was elected on an explicitly pro-housing platform. She has since proposed streamlining the regulatory process for new construction.
Tillman is skeptical of this new political rhetoric. One of the last votes Breed cast in her former job as a member of the Board of Supervisors was to delay his project so the third shadow study could be done. Had the city government gotten out of the way sooner, the Mission could have had more housing years ago.
"We're in a hole," he sighs. "And the first rule of holes is when you're in a hole, stop digging."
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This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Most Contested Apartment Building in America".
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.