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With friends like the city attorney in its corner, it's little wonder that the Presidio Heights Association of Neighbors usually seems to get its way.
For the last two decades, PHAN has rigorously enforced its code of genteel quaintness along Sacramento Street, opposing anything that might possibly undermine its tree-lined vision of what makes a proper neighborhood.
PHAN's latest target is Anthony La Cavera, owner of the Tuba Garden restaurant. At PHAN's urging, the city may revoke La Cavera's conditional-use permit for the cottage at the rear of the Tuba Garden, part of the restaurant's seating area, unless La Cavera converts office space to residences in two other buildings he owns on Sacramento Street.
PHAN's frustration with La Cavera is understandable. In 1987, the city changed its zoning laws and placed controls on commercial development in S.F.'s neighborhoods. The new rules were designed to restore Presidio Heights to mostly residential use. Sacramento Street, the neighborhood's chichi shopping strip, was downzoned from commercial to residential, requiring property owners to convert second-story offices back to apartments.
Two years later, though, only a few of the properties had been converted. So in 1989 PHAN hired several students to record the addresses of each of the second-story offices. The neighborhood group then took the survey to the Planning Department and urged the city to determine which of the properties were in violation of the rules.
At the same time, PHAN enlisted the help of a certain high-powered neighbor -- City Attorney Louise Renne, whose husband, Paul, a partner at the law firm Cooley Godward, was once president of the residents' group. At a PHAN annual meeting at Temple Emmanu-el, sources say Renne stood up and gave PHAN advice about how to pressure landlords to comply with the zoning code. "She told them she was all for supporting the closing down of the second-floor offices," recalls one longtime Presidio Heights resident. "I was astonished."
City officials too found Renne a great resource when it came to Presidio Heights. She was "very helpful" in the crackdown, according to City Zoning Administrator Bob Passmore. "What moved it along primarily was having the survey," he says. "It must have come in at a fortunate time, when the City Attorney's Office had time to work on it, and the Planning and Building departments had time to work on it."
It was a fortunate time indeed -- the city cracked down on Sacramento Street landlords, citing at least 10 property owners, including La Cavera, and evicting numerous psychotherapists' offices from illegal second-floor units in what had become known as "Couch Hollow."
But Renne insists that even though she was living in Presidio Heights, her personal role in the second-floor office issue did not present a conflict of interest.
"That doesn't make sense," she says. "It would mean that law enforcement officers like Terence Hallinan and myself could never enforce the law in the areas in which we live. These were code enforcement matters, and there were clear violations."
All the property owners cited by PHAN and the Planning Department have since converted the units back to residential use, or brought them up to code and applied for special permits to use them as offices. All, that is, except La Cavera.
Still, the city has dozens -- if not hundreds -- of other illegal second-story suites. Why single out La Cavera and his restaurant, a daytime business that has operated relatively trouble free for more than 20 years?
The restaurant was drawn into the PHAN/La Cavera battle only recently. Sources say PHAN alerted the city to the fact that La Cavera did not have a permit to use the cottage as part of his restaurant. The city's Planning Commission granted La Cavera the permit on the condition that he make the required changes to his other properties. But La Cavera complains that the city, backed by PHAN, is holding his restaurant hostage.
Zoning Administrator Passmore explains that it's perfectly legal to use one property as leverage against another -- much the same way the Department of Motor Vehicles can withhold a driver's automobile registration until outstanding parking tickets are paid. "I guess they can, because they did," he says.
Renne or no Renne, he adds, other neighborhoods have not devoted as much effort to the second-story office issue as PHAN.
For his part, La Cavera claims he has finished the residential conversions and is merely awaiting final inspection by the city. PHAN members still patronize his restaurant, a popular spot for breakfast and Sunday brunch. He says they assure him it's "nothing personal."
The city attorney has since moved out of Presidio Heights; she now lives in St. Francis Wood. If a code enforcement issue arises in her new neighborhood, Renne may well get involved.
"Well, there's no way to give immunity to one part of the city," she says. "I have to live somewhere.