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Concerns Over Historic Sidewalks, Endangered Garter Snakes Hold Up Construction of San Francisco Home

Troy Kashanipour's experience trying to erect a code-compliant home on his own property shows how stacked San Francisco's approval process is against builders.

Screenshot via San Francisco Planning DepartmentScreenshot via San Francisco Planning DepartmentBuilding a code-compliant, owner-occupied home on a vacant lot should be a pretty easy affair. In most of America, it is. In San Francisco, it can be a nightmare.

Ask Troy Kashanipour. He's been trying to build a home since 2015.

Despite working closely with city planning staff to design a structure that meets the onerous requirements of San Francisco's zoning code and design guidelines, Kashanipour has been stalled by recalcitrant neighbors claiming injury over everything from excessive shadow to the possible presence of a historic pathway.

Thanks to the labyrinthine nature of San Francisco's permitting process, these complaints have added years to a project that city staff say would otherwise be getting a rubber stamp.

Ever since Kashanipour first acquired the small lot on Diamond Street, he says, his intention was to buy it and build a home for his family. The lot in question had sat empty for many years, save for a small, overgrown community garden planted in the 1990s. Its unusually small size and triangular shape make it a difficult place to build. For Kashanipour, an architect by trade, those features made it an interesting challenge.

"Building on a small lot takes more creativity," he tells Reason. "Understanding that you can build rooms that don't have to be square or rectangular to be functional is an important part of understanding what you can do with a small parcel."

Kashanipour spent a good deal of time designing a home that would conform to the parcel's geometry. He also spent time ensuring the structure would conform with San Francisco's codes. Before even purchasing the lot, Kashanipour worked with officials at the city's Planning Department to understand what exactly could be done with the property, to ensure he was interpreting the code correctly, and to change his design where needed.

In fall of 2015, confident in the legality of his design, he purchased the property with the expectation that he would have an easy journey through the planning process. That was before his future neighbors got wind of his plan.

San Francisco law requires that any sponsors of new construction projects hold a pre-application meeting to give adjoining property owners and neighborhood groups "the opportunity to express concerns about a project" and "identify issues" early on.

In December 2015, some 40 people attended the pre-application meeting Kashanipour held at the Glen Park Public Library. The results were explosive.

Even before the meeting, flyers had gone up around the neighborhood claiming Kashanipour planned to build a "monster house" and calling on neighbors to show up and tell him "no you won't!!!" This passion carried over to the pre-application meeting.

Said Dr. Michelle Birch—an attendee who supported Kashanipour's development—at a March public hearing, "I was quite appalled when I attended the meeting."

"The level of aggression toward Mr. Kashanipour at the community meeting was exceptional," Birch said. "It seemed to me there were no substantive complaints about the building."

Project opponents don't deny the meeting became heated, instead arguing that their rage was justified. "People started shouting not because they are rude, but because [Kashanipour] refused to listen," said one opponent.

Not everyone at the meeting was opposed to the project, with many of the attendees merely expressing curiosity. He also went to great efforts to reach out his soon-to-be neighbors, handing out his contact information and offering to meet with anyone on an individual basis to address concerns.

Opposition to his project continued however. A sign posted on the lot notifying residents of planned public hearings was defaced with graffiti reading "no McMansions here" and simply just "no, no, no."

Neighbors also sought to use the process against Kashanipour. In October 2016, Jeff Cerf, the owner of the property next door, filed for a Discretionary Review of the project—essentially a request to have the city's Planning Commission mandate changes or impose conditions that are not otherwise required by the city's zoning codes. Discretionary Reviews can add months if not years to a project's timetable. The added time and expense can be used as a cudgel to extract concessions from project sponsors or even stop projects entirely.

This was certainly the expressed hope of some Glen Park neighbors, who at a March 2017 Planning Commission hearing urged commissioners to approve the Discretionary Review on the grounds that it would allow enough time for the city to stop development by purchasing the property from Kashanipour, using eminent domain if need be.

The same March hearing saw all sorts of complaints levied at Kashanipour's planned home. A woman who owned a nearby property said she felt Kashanipour's four-story house would be an undue invasion on her privacy, telling Commissioners that she was an expectant mother looking forward to "lots of summer days in the yard with the baby. I don't think the occupants of the new building should have such a direct view of our family."

One claimed that the land was inhabited by endangered garter snakes. Another argued that the roof deck in Kashanipour's design was "not part of the character of this working-class neighborhood." Others said that replacing the lot's current community garden with the home would "take away valuable joy" from passersby. Another neighbor, in emailed comments sent a few days prior, claimed that Kashanipour's proposed "'piece of pie' shaped home, nestled inappropriately where it clearly does not belong," would be a draw for tourists, worsening traffic congestions.

Supportive neighbors were present as well, arguing that the city needed more housing, that Kashanipour's design was creative and interesting, and the relocation of his family to Glen Park would add to the vibrancy of the community.

The city's Planning Department—which is overseen by the seven-member Planning Commission—likewise recommended that the Discretionary Review be denied and that Kashanipour be allowed to build his home with no additional alternations. This did not sit right with some of the planning commissioners, including Dennis Richards, who said Kashanipour's design "reminds me of Tokyo." This was not a compliment, as his elaboration made clear.

"I walked on a street, there's a footpath, then there's this gargantuan building with all these rooftop apartments on it. And I just go holy cow, it's slapping me in the face," said Richards.

He and the three other commissioners present that day imposed seven conditions on Kashanipour's project, including requirements to install a lightwell around his neighbor's windows, reduce the house from four floors to three, change the façade, redesign the windows, and shrink the roof deck.

Says Kashanipour of the Commission's decision: "I think as a group, they make fair decisions. I think sometimes when all the commissioners are not present, the views get a little skewed toward individual idiosyncrasies."

Kashanipour appealed that decision to San Francisco Board of Appeals, agreeing to four of the seven conditions but asking that he be allowed to expand his roof deck, ditch the lightwells, and keep the fourth floor.

This appeal sparked another round of backlash from Glen Park residents, with Cerf demanding that even more conditions be put on Kashanipour's permits as a punitive measure, saying in a letter to the Board of Appeals that more restrictions "would put future sponsors on notice that appealing their own permit carries significant risk they may want to avoid."

Others made the case before the Board of Appeals that Kashanipour's empty lot was deserving of landmark status because a path that exists on it now—which Kashanipour's planned construction would not touch—was possibly part of the historic El Camino Real, a trail that connected the early Spanish missions in the area.

On February 28, 2018, the Board of Appeals threw out some of the conditions imposed on Kashanipour's property but kept the prohibition on building a fourth floor.

Both Kashanipour and Cerf have until March 12 to re-appeal this decision. As of March 8, neither has done so.

Should both parties let the decision stand, Kashanipour will have to present new plans to Board of Appeals staff, who would then send them off to the Planning and Building Inspection Departments for another round of approvals, after which he would be allowed to build his home.

A Board of Appeals staffer told Reason there is no set time for how long that can take.

Kashanipour's planned home did not require any code variances. It will not displace any tenants. It is even exempt from California's environmental review process. Nevertheless, neighborhood opponents were able to delay the project, dragging it through review by two separate government bodies whose members arbitrarily piled condition after condition onto the permits.

This is how you create a housing shortage.

Photo Credit: Screenshot via San Francisco Planning Department

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  • Sevo||

    "I walked on a street, there's a footpath, then there's this gargantuan building with all these rooftop apartments on it. And I just go holy cow, it's slapping me in the face," said Richards."

    Shoulda' used a 2X4 on him.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, and:

    "This is how you create a housing shortage."

    This is but one arrow in the quiver.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    San Francisco is not afraid to combine byzantine construction regulations, semi-rent control, and a complete inability to remove a tenant to create a perfect storm of hatefucking the poor.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I don't see why Kashanipour didn't just pitch a tent, start building his house, then the second anyone tried to move him, claim he had squatter's rights.

  • Bubba Jones||

    "Elusive Left-Wing Authoritarian"

  • sarcasmic||

    you can drop the mic now

  • Citizen X - #6||

    It's stuck to his fingers.

  • sarcasmic||

    That's Bubba, not Crusty.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    You don't want to know where Crusty puts the mic.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    *slow clap*

  • sarcasmic||

    Any links to what this house is supposed to look like when completed?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Just like this.

  • sarcasmic||

    Ah, well in that case I must side with the neighbors.

  • Hugh Akston||

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    "4-story monster house."

    Huh. Things are pretty wimpy in California apparently.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Tough talk, but I think we're all aware that if you ever saw a four-story triangular house in person you would literally shit yourself to death.

  • Griffin3||

    Looked at the designs, actually a pretty neat house.
    Then again, as obnoxious as the neighbors were ... I would get permission to plant a garden while waiting on the architectural review ... and fertilize it with fresh manure, rotting skunk assholes, and thioacetone.

  • Sevo||

    "Looked at the designs, actually a pretty neat house."
    I thought so too; good use of a small lot.

  • Bubba Jones||

    OMG A 4 story house in a 3 story neighborhood. The MONSTERS.

    I was heartened by some of the emails supporting the project.

    I was amused by the one purporting to write on behalf of a couple that actually lives on the street. Outrage by proxy.

    The obvious complaint is that someone is going to lose the benefit of a green space they didn't see fit to purchase.

    I LOVE THIS QUOTE:

    The project will not create shadows on the DR requestor's rental property
    because it is located to the north of this property. The sun travels through the
    southern sky so shadows are not created.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "The obvious complaint is that someone is going to lose the benefit of a green space they didn't see fit to purchase"

    Or maintain.

  • Gimlet Eye||

    Nitpick: It's Glen Park, not Glenn Park.

  • guy who doesn't care||

    "Nitpick: It's"

    Don't care

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Which neighbor are you?

  • JP88||

    I wish he would actually build a monstrous house now because these neighbors are the biggest dickweeds in the world.

  • Juice||

    All the complaints are bullshit. They think it'll lower their property values and that's all they really care about.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Not even that. They think it will be inconvenient during construction and there will be one more car driving on the street.

    And one dude is unclear how shadows work.

  • Jerryskids||

    In fall of 2015, confident in the legality of his design, he purchased the property with the expectation that he would have an easy journey through the planning process. That was before his future neighbors got wind of his plan.

    See, there's your problem - you should have checked to see if your neighbors were from San Francisco before planning on thinking about maybe proposing to do anything within a hundred miles of them.

  • JP88||

    "Understanding that you can build rooms that don't have to be square or rectangular to be functional is an important part of understanding what you can do with a small parcel."

    I read The Fountainhead too, bro.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Fact: irregularly-shaped rooms are the best for a little semiconsensual rape.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    "STEVE SMITH KNOW BEST SEMICONSENSUAL RAPE TAKE PLACE ON HIKING TRAIL!!"

  • DJF||

    How about a rule that since the owner can't use the property yet then they don't have to pay property tax until the government gives them a building permit.

  • DJF||

    Denying the government money could force them to hurry up their permit process.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Denying the government money could force them to hurry up their permit process.""

    Denying the government money could force them to fine you until your money runs out, and they get to keep the property.

    Geezzz, don't you know how government works! lol.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    "" For Kashanipour, an architect by trade, those features made it an interesting challenge."'

    Well, he got an interesting challenge. Just not the one he was hoping for.

  • Rich||

    "People started shouting not because they are rude, but because [Kashanipour] refused to listen," said one opponent,

    whose wife just won't fucking listen either.

  • Maddow's Fleshlight||

    No Irish kiss?

  • Maddow's Fleshlight||

    "This appeal sparked another round of backlash from Glen Park residents, with Cerf demanding that even more conditions be put on Kashanipour's permits as a punitive measure, saying in a letter to the Board of Appeals that more restrictions "would put future sponsors on notice that appealing their own permit carries significant risk they may want to avoid."

    What the fuck?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I don't know how people live with neighbors.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    We aren't allowed to shoot them.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    This story makes me glad I built my home in the regulation-free state of New Jersey.

  • H-daddy||

    Yup. Most of our country is NOT like SF. You get a permit and you build your house.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    What are the chances Mr. Kashanipour lives in SF because this type of governance is to his liking? If he is eating his own dog food I have no sympathy for him. He tried to play by the rules and his fellow citizens fucked him. Control freaks trying to slice each others' throats. Reap the whirlwind buddy.

  • Hugh Akston||

    You have zero idea what this guy's politics are. You have no reason to believe he's a progressive or even a Democrat. You are talking directly out of your ass.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Despite working closely with city planning staff to design a structure that meets the onerous requirements of San Francisco's zoning code and design guidelines, Kashanipour has been stalled by recalcitrant neighbors claiming injury over everything from excessive shadow to the possible presence of a historic pathway.

    Living next to San Francisco residents must be an exercise in self-restraint.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Said Dr. Michelle Birch—an attendee who supported Kashanipour's development—at a March public hearing, "I was quite appalled when I attended the meeting."

    From everything I've read about SF over the years, it makes me think Michelle Birch is new to the area.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "not part of the character of this working-class neighborhood."

    LOL.

  • ||

    Myself being from San Diego, SF residents remind me of people living in Coronado. Case in point, when the Coronado bridge was build in 1967, a toll was implemented in order to pay the cost of the bridge. After collecting enough money from the tolls, the toll booths would be removed because Naval Air Station was on the Coronado island, consequently, the toll would be a undue tax for the sailors.

    Well. . in 2002, the city of Coronado had surpassed the amount needed to pay for the construction of the bridge, however, (now getting to the point of the article), residents and the city government came up with very "odd" ideas about removing the toll booths, using the same silly ideas from this article. However, in 2008, the toll booths were finally removed.

    http://articles.latimes.com/20.....e-bridge27

  • Agammamon||

    I'm pretty sure they were unmanned by 2005. I was stationed at NAB at the end of 2005 and no one ever stopped to pay a toll.

  • Agammamon||

    On February 28, 2018, the Board of Appeals threw out some of the conditions imposed on Kashanipour's property but kept the prohibition on building a fourth floor.

    That's the secret to negotiations. Figure out what you want, ask for 25-50% more, and let the other dude talk it down so he feels like he was able to exercise his power.

  • gah87||

    Reason # 271 not to live in San Francisco. Voters there get the government they deserve.

  • Sugarsail||

    Trying to build since 2015...that's NOTHING. I have a buddy in Santa Barbara County that bought a lot back in 2009 and has been trying to build a house on it for NINE years. It took him 6 years just to get the design approved through the architectural review board, get the water and sewage signed off and get the engineering signed off. Now he's half done with the house and they're telling him he's building to outdated codes!!!!!! You can't make this shit up!

  • Mike d||

    So wait, hold on, I am confused.

    San Francisco's local government is against construction because they don't want land developers treading on endangered garter snakes. But us libertarians are for(?) treading on gartner snakes. What side are we on again?

  • Longtobefree||

    We be stompin' snakes since the garden, man.

  • STSA||

    This is why the rest of America hates San Francisco. Commie thugs the lot of them. You want to enforce rules? How about enforcing the vagrancy laws? Do they still exist? Shitting in a public park should be a CRIME! If dog owners have to pick after their pets, the homeless finks should USE A PUBLIC BATHROOM.

  • Mark22||

    Ask Troy Kashanipour.

    He wants to live in SF and he wants these people to be his neighbors. He deserves what he's getting.

    Besides, he's an Asian male oppressor.

  • Miter Broller||

    Cerf seems like a gem of a neighbor! He wants those who use an established repeal process punished for so doing. What an asshole!

  • Earth Skeptic||

    The next big SFC earthquake can't happen soon enough.

  • Longtobefree||

    Be careful what you ask for - - - - - - - - -

  • Bavak||

    I would serve the neighbor a cocktail named a Russian.

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