Going for Gold

Academy of Art’s new sports program is about spirit, marketing — and the chance to break even more rules.

At that time, Hestor noted that the academy was 29 years overdue in producing its Institutional Master Plan, a voluminous document dozens of colleges, hospitals, and other San Francisco organizations must file periodically with the city to disclose their holdings and lay out future goals. When, months later, the school finally turned in a draft, city planners began visiting the scores of addresses listed within — and the academy rapidly became the Michael Phelps of amassing planning violations. Paul Correa, the school's planning director, says the academy didn't realize it was breaking rules right and left. City code enforcer Scott Sanchez scoffs at that claim. Even after being hit with a flurry of violations in 2006, the school continued acquiring property and converting it without permits through last year — which "blows their alibi about being ignorant out of the water," he says. One of those 2007 acquisitions was the Star Motel.

While the academy's conversions are not prohibited by San Francisco law, each should have required a Conditional Use Application, which can be granted only following public hearings and adjudication from the Planning Commission. In September 2007, the academy filed a barrage of such applications for the Star Motel and 13 other residential properties, some of which it had converted into student housing more than a decade ago. On Aug. 8, the Star was the first to have its day in court.

From the outset, the application looked like an easy win for the academy. Unlike other Stephens purchases, no residential housing was lost when the school took over the Star. The motel's clientele wasn't exactly A-list in recent years, and neighbors whispered about prostitution rings. At the hearing, Marina merchant organizations pushed the commission to approve the conversion, noting the academy had promised to pump money into local schools and aid with graffiti abatement. Officer John Gallagher of the Northern Police Station claimed neighborhood crime has dipped 50 percent since the academy took over the motel. Finally, Correa noted that if the commission didn't grant the permit — which affects only the rear portion of the motel — the cross-country team would have nowhere to live.

The Academy of Art’s administrative headquarters is at 79 New Montgomery.
Jared Gruenwald
The Academy of Art’s administrative headquarters is at 79 New Montgomery.
With 32 buildings scattered throughout the city, the academy is an omnipresent institution.
Jared Gruenwald
With 32 buildings scattered throughout the city, the academy is an omnipresent institution.

By that point, Commissioner Ron Miguel had heard enough. He abruptly curtailed the debate and moved to vote on the project. "In my mind, you have thumbed your nose at the city and have done so for some time. You've been able to hire excellent counsel over the years, but it seems that you change counsel rather than comply with the law," he said, shooting a glance at David Cincotta, the school's third attorney in roughly a year.

One by one, the commissioners rebuked the academy before giving it the thumbs down. "You've improved the property, but it's a terrible precedent we set when an institution continues to break the law and we support that," said Gwyneth Borden, setting off a bout of head-nodding among her colleagues. The academy's application to convert the Star Motel was spiked 7-0. "That," said Hestor moments after the final tally, "was a kick in the teeth."

Correa is unsure if the school will appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors, and says he now has no idea how to persuade the commission to approve conversions in which the city actually lost housing stock. Sanchez predicts it will take years to deal with the academy's 13 remaining contested properties. But he adds that if its retroactive applications to convert buildings into dorms are eventually denied, there's no reason the school should be allowed to continue operating those dorms.

The debacle at the Planning Commission was just one of several recent setbacks befalling the academy. In late July, the NCAA Division II Membership Committee officially informed the school that its request to begin the process of becoming a member had been denied. While the NCAA would not disclose its rationale, Hogue said the governing body wanted to observe the school's sports teams in action for a year before offering an invitation. The academy has filed an appeal, but it's likely the three-year process of gaining membership won't even start until next season — if then. And on Aug. 11, Supervisor Chris Daly introduced an "urgency ordinance" which would temporarily forbid the conversion of residential rental units into student housing. That legislation could be reviewed as early as mid-September at the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee.

The day before the planning commission meeting, academy coaches Peter Thibeaux and Lindsey Yamasaki ran a dozen men's and women's basketball players through a full practice at the Treasure Island YMCA. And a notable thing happened at that workout — aside from the fact it took place more than two months earlier than the mandated NCAA opening date for a hoops practice.

Thibeaux, a 6-foot-7 former Golden State Warrior, kept a watchful eye on his big men, both of whom towered over him as they banged bodies in the paint. Something — perhaps a lazy lob pass or bad footwork — caught his eye. "You're doing that shit again!" he shouted before banishing his team to run a set of punitive windsprints.

As Thibeaux' team lumbered back and forth across the hardwood, it was apparent the coach and players were well aware of a concept that is apparently only now dawning upon the academy: If you behave badly, you may be punished for it.

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