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Bringing Down the Housing: How Builders Game the System 

Wednesday, Dec 19 2012
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In desirable neighborhoods — and few are more desirable than Noe Valley — the petition repeated a familiar refrain. Real or hypothetical families are trotted out to justify gargantuan home expansions. Potentially lucrative in-law units are pitched as a necessity, as the extended family intends on visiting — often! Once the projects are complete, the in-laws may or may not visit, and families may or may not take up residence in the homes supposedly built to keep them in this city. But smaller, more affordable housing is assuredly gone.

"Tons of people do this," says builder and contractor John Pollard. "You can dig six or nine feet in the basement and add 2,000 square feet. In the attic, you can put some dormers in and add 1,800 feet. A couple rooms in the attic, a little deck, a garage — hey, it's worth it."

Indeed: Fowler and Stephens purchased 479 Douglass for $850,000 in late 2009 and more than doubled its size to some 3,200 square feet, according to the realtor who facilitated its sale in April of this year for $3 million. Fowler is currently applying to demolish a 1,896-square-foot house and erect a 4,105-square-foot home and a 490-square-foot second unit in Mill Valley; in that nearby city, speculators needn't cloak the destruction of smaller homes and erection of larger ones under the rubric of a remodel. The transformation of San Francisco's most modest homes into high-end housing stock remains a thriving business — the city's demolition interdictum be damned.

The interplay between the city and those seeking to knock down and build up its housing stock has long resembled the relationship between a sports league and its doping athletes. The latter always seem to be one step ahead of the former.

Tearing down Victorian cottages was a cottage industry of its own for decades in San Francisco. By the 1980s, however, Westside neighborhood groups objected to the razing of single-family homes in favor of large, ungainly — and highly profitable — "Richmond Specials." Former longtime Residential Builders Association President Joe O'Donoghue smiles at the memory. When the city took steps to curtail demolitions, he and his colleagues began undertaking "de facto demolitions." O'Donoghue proudly notes that this is a term of his coinage.

"We were doing de facto demolitions all the time. We were building a new building because it was easier to just do it that way, you see? You knock the entire building down to just three studs — and that's how you'd get around the demolition ordinance," he recalls with a laugh. "The demolition ordinance was being circumvented. Legally!"

After the city's rules regarding demolitions tightened, builders' responses became more creative. When a heavier percentage of a structure was required to be retained, "You'd keep all the old studs. You'd move the new studs right up along the old ones," continues O'Donoghue. The load-bearing elements the city insisted on preserving were rendered merely cosmetic. O'Donoghue chuckles. "You see? You're keeping crap! But, again, we found a way around it. If you won't allow us to demolish it, then we're basically able to build a new building to take the place of the old."

This is still happening, even as San Francisco churns out more complex rules regarding demolitions. The morass of regulations add time and cost to construction jobs. Reckless or ignorant builders will be tripped up by the reams of arcane stipulations and may face the wrath of the city. But the well-read, well-connected, and well-heeled are able to pull off "major alterations" that triple, quadruple, even sextuple the size of a home.

"I always said there was nothing wrong with making the rules complex — because if you're the only ones who understand them, you do away with the competition," says O'Donoghue with a grin. With the city's current reading of its rules, "You'll have more of these de-facto demolitions happening, no question. And I'm in support of that."


A public hearing on Twin Peaks' 125 Crown Terrace project was held before the Planning Commission in late October. It was the final agenda item during a six-hour meeting and, itself, occupied more than two hours of the commission's time. In many ways, it was an exhibition typical of what you'd expect in a tony, residential San Francisco enclave: Neighbors harped on views and noise and doggie runs and the felling of much-beloved trees. There was little mention of the cognitive dissonance of a project rejected as a demolition growing larger as an alteration.

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.

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.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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