City policy lets Academy of Art do as it pleases

The city recently started talking tough regarding the ever-expanding real-estate acquisitions of Academy of Art University, hinting at a lawsuit over its serial violations of planning and building codes. And yet a nominal planning department policy appears to have allowed the academy to flout the law for years and then get city planners' help to put everything right — again and again and again.

Considered at the level of a homeowner unwittingly making illegal additions to his porch, the nominal policy seems well-meaning — if there's a "path to legalization" for a project, city planners work diligently with property owners to ensure this happens. "It is our goal to work with a project sponsor to bring the property into compliance," city planner Scott Sanchez says. "We rely on the sponsors to make a good-faith effort to bring the property into compliance."

Yet what if the property owner doesn't make a good-faith effort — repeatedly? At a planning commission meeting last month, the academy's director of planning candidly admitted that the school had, once again, moved into a building — this time a hulking SOMA structure — and begun using it for academic purposes, a violation of city law the academy's higher-ups should have been well aware of, barring amnesia.

It was a similar admission to one the school made last year regarding its conversion of a motel into a dormitory without bothering to fill out any paperwork — or more than a dozen oft-lucrative property conversions going back to the 1990s for which it only officially filed applications in 2007. It wasn't until '06 that the city even knew how many buildings the academy owned, let alone what it was doing with them, when city officials insisted it complete an "Institutional Master Plan" — a move that was roughly 30 years overdue.

Doing what it pleases and then leaning upon city planners to shepherd the academy down the "path to legalization" appears to be an institutional specialty.

"People can always take advantage of the city's goodwill," said zoning administrator Larry Badiner in defense of the nominal policy. When asked whether the academy was gaming the system, he replied, "I think some people could argue that."

Some people are. Brad Paul, a former deputy mayor for housing and a sharp critic of the academy, calls the planning department's beneficence "an invitation for people to break the law.

"If you have to go before the planning commission to get a conditional use permit and you think it's 50-50, you'd be crazy to do things that way," he continued. "This policy allows you to break the law and then say, 'Oh, sorry,' and work with staff and get them to do the homework."

Our calls to the academy's planning director, Paul Correa, were not returned, so we have no idea how the school is spinning its repeated flouting of city laws and policies. Perhaps it'll claim artistic license?

 
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