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Neighborhood Lockdown 

The Mission may be getting its first gated housing development

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
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If all goes according to plan, a few of the young and wealthy in the Mission soon will be able to avoid the always disagreeable prospect of tripping over a bum on their front steps when they leave for work in the morning. A local landlord is planning to build the first upscale gated community in the Mission, not to mention one of the first in San Francisco.

Edward Litke, who owns dozens of buildings throughout the city, has come up with designs for an enclosed little square of town houses and apartments -- 44 units in all -- called Park Dolores at 19th and Guerrero streets.

The property on which Litke plans to build is one of only a few in the city that extends far into the interior of a block, a little less than an acre tucked in behind the buildings running along 18th, Guerrero, 19th and Oakwood streets. Building on the property will be like filling in the hole of a doughnut.

If Litke's dream is realized, tenants would enter the enclave through an underground parking lot on 19th Street, and ascend to a cloister of houses facing each other across a courtyard, insulated from the outside world by the surrounding buildings. Access to the houses, through the garage or a street-level gate on 19th, would be locked to the public.

Although Michael Stanton, the project's architect, objects to the "gated community" label -- he says it's typical these days for multibuilding developments to limit public entry -- he concedes that few projects are as fortified as his creation. "I recognize that this is controversial, but I'm proud of our design," he says. "What I see here is a unique opportunity to build new housing, to fill in this broken tooth on the block. And I believe it's consistent with the needs of the neighborhood. Do the neighbors want the space left open, allowing people to crawl into their back yards?"

Judging from the property's history, it's a miracle that anything fruitful should come from this unique piece of land, an eyesore and the focus of contention in the neighborhood for years. If Litke succeeds in building his garrisoned enclave (he still needs approval from the Planning Commission), it could be seen as a fitting end, a final insult to an already injured little slice of the city. This property has been the subject of so much acrimony, and so much red tape, that it serves as a good example of how San Francisco has become something of a gated community itself. Gated communities are, after all, the manifestations of a siege mentality, an us-vs.-them approach to urban planning.

"They're contrary to the whole spirit of living in a city," says Planning Commissioner Dennis Antenore. "They change the politics in a neighborhood, separating people and keeping them disconnected, and that really bothers me."

Litke and previous owners of the property have gone head to head with the neighborhood for decades, trying to build condominiums on the site, only to have their plans rejected by the Planning Commission over one technicality or another.

For many years, a huge, crumbling warehouse occupied the land, and neighbors always had a complex relationship with the concrete monolith. Once an auto repair garage, later a Bob Ostrow meatpacking plant, the warehouse was often at odds with its surroundings simply because it was an industrial building in a residential neighborhood. The neighbors used to file complaints about the warehouse with the Department of Building Inspection, especially when it began to collapse, until they realized that the sagging structure was better than the alternative: a towering condominium project blocking out the sun. So the neighbors switched tactics and fought to keep the thing standing.

Then Litke wised up, they say. Rather than trying to ram his condo projects through, Litke, and another landlord who owned the building for a short time, simply allowed the warehouse to fall apart. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake helped it along quite nicely. Following the earthquake, the building was hit with numerous citations for unsafe conditions, from both building inspectors and the Fire Department. The building owners repeatedly promised to shore up the walls, repair the ceiling, and remove the oil trap and underground gas tank left over from the auto shop, but didn't do much to fulfill their promises, the neighbors say. And the city let the situation slide until 1997, when building inspectors issued an emergency order for the warehouse to be demolished, sparing Litke some of the technicalities that stood in the way of his development plans.

"The owners intentionally let the building go to hell, so that the city would have no choice but to declare it a hazard," says Daniel Gundlach, an artist who lives next door. "Litke's been a real scofflaw." Litke did not return numerous phone calls to his office.

With an order to demolish the warehouse, it should have been easy for Litke to move ahead with his plans, except the demolition did not go smoothly. One neighbor whose house was damaged during the bulldozing of the warehouse sued Litke and won a $5,000 award. Gundlach says the back of his garage was dented in, and in the winter, water from the leveled site, black and iridescent, spewed into his building. The contractor hired to do the demolition sued Litke for reportedly failing to pay her. Litke filed a cross-complaint, blaming her for damaging the neighboring properties. Both were settled.

Now, with Litke planning to finally build on the property -- and a gated community to boot -- the neighbors are pissed off, not just with Litke, but also with each other. Some of the property owners have split from nearby renters. Apparently one bad apple has tainted the neighborhood barrel, spamming the Internet community of neighbors. As a result, no one is allowed to speak for the neighborhood without a vote deciding what should be said.

From all this divisiveness, a gated community has been conceived. Given the city's tremendous need for housing, the project has a good chance of getting built. The Planning Department is now in its final phase of checking the property for environmental hazards, with the project expected to go before the Planning Commission sometime after the new year. The development will be almost all market-rate rental housing, with a few units set aside, as required by the city, for low-income tenants.

Only a few such secured communities exist in San Francisco. One is the opulent Presidio Terrace, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein owns a house. But that circular hamlet has no security beyond a sign declaring it private property. The suites at Walton and Golden Gate plazas, situated above offices and retail stores around Walton Square, are secured from the public. And a few nonprofit, subsidized housing complexes have gates to limit pedestrian traffic and loitering.

Perhaps not surprisingly, San Francisco has built very few gated developments compared to other cities and suburbs across the nation. As of 1997, 20,000 gated communities, comprising an estimated 3 million units, had sprung up across the country, according to Fortress America by Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder, and not just in suburban strongholds like Orange County or the San Fernando Valley; New York City and Chicago have many secured neighborhoods as well.

Regardless of location, the gated community reflects the suburban movement toward homogeneity and exclusion, the book says. "They are the outgrowth of decades of suburban design and public land-use policy. Gates are firmly within the suburban tradition: they enhance and harden the suburbanness of the suburbs, and they attempt to suburbanize the city."

Ado Schulzeff, a renter who lives across the street from Litke's planned development, says he doesn't mind the fact that the project will lock out the public. He says he thinks of it like an apartment complex where he wouldn't be allowed entrance to swim in the pool. "This is America," he says. "Private property rules."

But while Schulzeff accepts that the neighborhood is bound to grow and evolve around him, he says he regrets the loss of the little things he's become accustomed to; there will be even less parking in the neighborhood, and less light in the shadow of the new buildings, some as high as four stories. "I'll miss the little intangible things, the quality-of-life issues," he says.

Russ Charpentier, whose house was damaged in the demolition, says he doesn't believe that every plot of open space in the city should be developed. "This is the beginning of what they call urban infill," he says. "Fill up every vacant space, every back yard. I left Manhattan to get away from the sardine principle. We have to face the fact that not everyone who wants to live here can live here."

But it is precisely this attitude that has contributed to San Francisco becoming its own kind of gated community, says Jim Chappell, director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association and a Dolores Park neighbor. Chappell say he disapproves of the locked-up settlements on principle, but this one, he says, because of the unique shape of the property with its interior shielded from the street, would benefit from extra protection. Chappell says the neighbors are being just as provincial in this case as anyone from the suburbs. He tells a story from one of the neighborhood meetings concerning the proposed development. Michael Stanton, the architect, came to the meeting to show his plans, introducing himself and his daughter as members of the neighborhood, living on 22nd and Church streets, just a few blocks away. Chappell says the neighbors took issue with the architect's claim of membership.

"To them, 22nd Street was not the same neighborhood, and they made that loud and clear," he says. "It was very sad."

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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