Two hours into the proceedings, Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya asked Planning Department manager Delvin Washington why this project wasn't simply a de facto demolition. "This was evaluated by our demolition experts on our staff," Washington replied. Based on the percentage of exterior walls and floor plates being retained, the project "did not qualify." Sugaya followed up: Would the floor plates, the joists, the foundation "have to remain?"

Washington's answer was intriguing. He replied that they both would — and would not. Elements must stay "in their current location. ... You can conceivably take a wall down, repair it, replace it, and as long as you're locating it in its exact same location it will be a qualifying wall."

The mind-blowing concept of subatomic particles apparently existing, simultaneously, in multiple states led to the "Schrödinger's cat" paradox. In this city, however, it's walls that can simultaneously be retained and replaced. Walls can be both there and not there. San Francisco has devised Schrödinger's walls.

Drake Gardner’s design to replace this building at 125 Crown Terrace has been approved. The next step: “Build it — and not get in trouble with the inspector for taking out more than you designated you were going to.”
Photo on left by Andrew J. Nilsen
Drake Gardner’s design to replace this building at 125 Crown Terrace has been approved. The next step: “Build it — and not get in trouble with the inspector for taking out more than you designated you were going to.”
Former Supervisor Aaron Peskin says the Planning Department’s take on metamorphosing buildings “is tortured beyond a Kafka novel.”
Paul Trapani
Former Supervisor Aaron Peskin says the Planning Department’s take on metamorphosing buildings “is tortured beyond a Kafka novel.”

The Planning Department's enigmatic pronouncement also parallels the "Ship of Theseus" conundrum proposed by Plutarch 2,000 years ago. If the Athenian ruler's vessel is wholly rebuilt over the course of a journey, with the crew removing "the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place" — is it still the same ship? Per the city, the answer is yes — Theseus would get his building permit. By a 5-2 vote, so did Mel Murphy.

Reached on his cell, Murphy said, "I have absolutely no comment on the matter. This is in the hands of the city of San Francisco." That's undeniably so. Murphy is pushing the envelope. But the city has deemed it can be pushed rather far.

Solving ancient Greek logic puzzles was not the intended purpose of Section 317 of the Planning Code, which addresses the "loss of dwelling units through merger, conversion, and demolition." Subsection nine of this code states that "where exterior elements of a building are removed and replaced for repair or maintenance," they shall not count against the threshold for determining a demolition. The intention, says Aaron Peskin, is clear. A homeowner or builder who discovers dry rot or some other malady in their walls ought to be able to replace them without triggering a demolition. This was not intended as a means to dismantle starter homes and erect monster homes. "There is only one way a reasonable human being should read this — the way the people who wrote it intended," says the former supervisor. "It takes a lot of chutzpah to interpret this the way they're interpreting it today."

Interpreting the planning code, however, isn't Peskin's job — and, he notes ruefully, the notion of "legislative intent" doesn't exist on the local level in California. Interpreting the code is the responsibility of zoning administrator Scott Sanchez. And he says his department's definition of "removal" allows "replacement of a wall in its location as long as it's not changing in its position." The department isn't concerned with why walls are replaced. "Repair and maintenance" could permit the removal of a sturdy wall that's perfectly suitable in a smaller structure — but would need to be brought up to code to support the much larger building envisioned for the site. This, says Sanchez, is how the department has been interpreting the rules since their implementation in 2008. But that doesn't ring a bell for the former senior planner who wrote the rules and served as the department's "demolition guru" until 2010.

"Remember," says Craig Nikitas, "the key word is 'repair.' If the wall is functional or competent and you remove and replace it, it should count toward the demolition threshold." If a wall is being removed, he continues, there ought to be something demonstrably wrong with it — and the Planning Department can request a test report. "There needs to be a reason to remove and repair the wall other than just replacing it in kind." A desire to build a far larger structure requiring sturdier walls without triggering a project-killing demolition shouldn't be good enough. But, per the department, it now is.

If you can remove and replace the parts of the building you're retaining, aren't you simply taking a building down to the ground and calling it a remodel? Sanchez doesn't deny this. But in such a scenario, he claims, the Building Department would intervene. "The Building Department always has the first crack at this," he says. "I'd assume that if they were reviewing plans, and if everything was being taken down ... they'd require a demolition permit regardless of where the walls were being reinstalled."

Several veteran Building Department officials, however, said Sanchez was far too optimistic in his assumption. Plan reviews, they say, are often cursory at best, and documents are routinely forwarded along to the Planning Department essentially sight-unseen. One longtime building inspector, a former contractor, waxed nostalgic about the many homes he'd demolished and rebuilt under remodeling permits.

Asked if it's possible to level a building, construct a new one, and define this as an "alteration" or "remodel," 125 Crown Terrace designer Drake Gardner confirms it is. "But you can't do it all at once," he says. "You'd have to do it piecemeal. ... They've got codes that overlap and cross each other. So you try to fish through it all, get it approved, build it — and then not get in trouble with the inspector for taking out more than you designated you were going to."

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The "de facto" demolitions in this fine city are, however, not confined strictly to economic and policy bastardizations of residential properties. Ironically, both the Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspection are housed in built anew "remodeled" buildings brought to the City by a Texas developer. What is good for the goose is good for .......the rest of us?!?!


This has been the long standing joke in The City for years.  Once developers discovered they could build on the down side of the street, four and five stories in the back became common.  Look at Valley Street.  The major construction was down hill.   

There is a project on the 400 block that is truly reaching for China.  And that Cabana on Noe?  Protecting a couple of studs.  It is a well known game.  Shameless McGee (r.i.p.) was the best in the business. 

The new development on Diamond.  What a joke, the original developer wanted three houses of substance.  The building department recommended four.  

The developers enter public parks and cut down trees to jack up the speculated price for the new development.  Sometime for the good, but sometimes for the bad.  I doubt if they get fined like a resident does.  

This is a big time game, and you better find out, "On what side is your supervisor?"


It's business as usual in the corrupt SF Building and Housing Inspection Department. The top people have finally learned they must be more careful in their corruption after two of the heads had to resign in a row. One had condemned a property and then bought it, nothing new. It was rampant many decades ago so a system was implemented to help stop it allegedly. Inspectors were supposed to be rotated in what area of the city they cover every two years. Doubt they are still doing it and the senior people over them are not rotated and obviously the head person isn't. 

There are building inspectors who are contractors who are doing $1 million dollar remodels with just a $50K permit with the full knowledge of their boss and the top people at DBI. 

 The journalists and city supervisors are afraid to write an article for fear they will be targeted by the DBI for inspections of their property. The FBI is supposed to investigate corruption in local government but won't bother, they want headlines for their work.


If you are a wealthy developer or client of a developer, your connections to city hall will get you whatever you want in SF.  As the article mentioned, the system is literally designed for these folks.

It does not matter if it's permits, traffic tickets, or city jobs.Sure, it's a less blatant form of corruption...hidden behind forms, city departments, bogus hearings, and such.  However the amount of money involved with this institutionalized corruption dwarfs the overt petty bribery we self-righteously identify in other parts of the world.

If you are a person such as myself, without any connections, you are simply out of luck.  Trying to add one bedroom to a two bedroom house for our second baby has proved fruitless.  So like many others we are likely going to move.  One more family chased out of a city that only really pays lip service to wanting them to stay.


OK, so this is a nice little story but the argument that creative renovations of buildings on underutilized properties in supply constrained and highly demanded neighborhoods is destroying affordable housing how? stopping an expansion isn't going to somehow make the housing all that more affordable.  (relatively) affordable family housing is in the neighborhoods the big money avoids like bayview, portola, and ingleside, and vis valley. new megaprojects at hunters point and treasure island and the new units out at park merced will take some pressure off and provide people with modern places to live. we'll also build more affordable housing through prop C funds and other inclusionary sources.  is it enough?  probably not.  but to pass off the disagreements of reasonably wealthy people (and with only a passing mention of the tenants who are collateral damage) as some sort of big thing about affordable housing is just silly.

Tami Twarog
Tami Twarog

Great article. Love that pic of Aaron Peskin "tortured beyond a Kafka novel" Indeed.


Sounds like you got some skin in this game...

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