Supervisors Block Development That Threatened to Cast Shadow on SoMa Park

A years-long battle against a development across from Victoria Manalo Draves Park came to a head after hours of public testimony.

Shannon Stone plays fetch with her dog Koji at Victoria Manalo Draves Park in the South of Market neighborhood on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

After a dramatic three-and-half hour hearing resembling a courtroom battle on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to block a housing development that threatened to overshadow the only multi-use park in SoMa.

The vote marks a significant breakthrough for community advocates who fought the project to protect Victoria Manalo Draves Park, a two-acre open space heavily used by SoMa neighbors. More than 100 people — many being SoMa youth who rely on the park — spoke against the development-induced shadow for up to two hours. Many reiterated that VMD Park functions as the neighborhood’s backyard, as most residents are crowded into studio apartments or SROs.

“This is a big win for the community,” said Angelica Cabande, director of the South of Market Community Action Network, after the hearing. “It shows that our voices were not just tokenized.”

VMD Park, named after the first Filipina-American to compete in the Olympics, is one of two parks in the skyscraper-clad SoMa. It’s used during most hours of the day as an extension of Bessie Carmichael Elementary School next door, after-school programs for local youth with no yards to call their own, and refuge for the rest who frequent the neighborhood.

But a development threatened to cast a shadow for an average of 72 minutes for eight months of the year, covering more than 18 percent of the park on the longest day of the year. In turn, a seven-story building with 63 units — 15 being affordable — would sit at Folsom and Russ streets, across from the park’s entrance.

In a last-ditch appeal on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously sided with the community advocates to disapprove the Planning Commission’s approval in November. (Supervisor Ahsha Safaí recused himself, citing a conflict of interest.)

“VMD is their backyard,” said Carla Laurel, of the West Bay Multi-Service Center, of the dozens of SoMa youth who testified. “If this was another neighborhood we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Developers should not be setting the standards of equity.”

It was a stark difference from the roughly dozen — all three of whom were men in suits — who spoke in support of the project who called the housing desperately needed. 

“This developer has shown an exemplary sensitivity in dealing with the needs of existing affordable housing tenants,” said Steven Booth, an attorney with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. “We all agree that this city needs more housing.”

The Planning Department stood by their earlier assessment of the housing development having no significant impact. But many pointed out that a smaller version of the project was declared to have a significant impact by the Recreation and Parks Commission. Under the 1984 voter-approved Sunlight Ordinance, Rec and Park must review projects that may cast shadows on parks.

Tuesday’s vote sends the project back to the drawing board. Both developer Paul Iantorno of Golden Properties LLC and his attorney declined to comment about the decision or future plans.

“This isn’t a meaningless shadow in someone’s backyard,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the area. “The Filipino community showed up in droves. Ignoring their voices would be a tremendous mistake.”

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