Developer Mel Murphy's House Tumbles, and a Metaphor for S.F. Arises

All too often, it feels like San Francisco just ain't that friendly of a town.

Folks on your block, or even in your building, may not bother to say hello. Why would they? They don't know your name and you don't know theirs.

The neighbors never drop in to visit.

Actually, that's not necessarily so. In one tony subdivision, a prominent resident has, most assuredly, dropped in on the neighbors. And, wouldn't you know it, everyone complained.

That's because, while influential developer Mel Murphy was purportedly enjoying himself in Hawaii, large portions of the Twin Peaks home at 125 Crown Terrace he was remodeling collapsed and plunged downhill into the streets below.

Actually, Murphy was remodeling more than just a home; he was remodeling the definition of the term “remodeling.” After multiple attempts to obtain a demolition permit to raze an 854-square-foot home and erect a 4,019-square-foot residence, he came back with a plan to “remodel” it — to 5,139 square feet.

Naturally, the city approved this; Murphy's engineer Rodrigo Santos claimed he could retain 90 percent of the home's existing walls and foundations even while sextupling its size. Last week, however, a goodly percentage of this percentage crumbled, spewing detritus down onto Graystone Terrace and giving an upscale enclave the appearance of a drone strike.

It warrants mentioning that this occurred on a temperate, dry, lovely San Francisco evening. It also warrants mentioning that both Murphy and Santos are former members of the city's Building Inspection Commission, a body for which both men served as president.

Sudden and utter loss of structural integrity at a Mel Murphy property is something of an Amy Winehouse moment: It's a shock. But it's no surprise.

A decade ago, an unknown caller informed the Building Inspection Department that an ostensibly sound property recently obtained by Murphy on 26th Street was, suddenly, “falling over” and at risk of imminent collapse. A demolition permit for that structure was later approved on the very day an aggrieved complainant claimed half the building had already been demolished sans permit. Earlier this year, after the Chronicle asked why work had been under way on the property for months without the necessary permitting, Murphy shelled out $167,833 for the required paperwork one day later.

Almost exactly one year to the day before the house at 125 Crown Terrace took itself for a walk, it was the centerpiece of an SF Weekly cover story about the gaping loopholes that certain builders, long on knowledge and connections and short on qualms, can use to essentially demolish small, (somewhat) affordable family housing and erect monster homes for ascendent San Francisco buyers flush with cash.

Murphy's definition of the term “remodel” stretched the limits of semantics and credulity. But the city acquiesced. San Francisco, however, exercises little control over the laws of physics and gravity. As such, the home is a pile of twisted wreckage. But it's also much more than that.

It's a metaphor for a time and place where things have grown rather twisted indeed.

Distilled to its essence, the parable of Mel Murphy's dream home is a recurring San Francisco theme: A wealthy, powerful, and connected player conjures up a self-serving proposition that's crazy on its face. Far from leading to derision or reproach, the proposition is approved and even advocated by the city. And yet, when exposed to the harsh light of reality, it disintegrates.

It's a disturbingly common motif. Think of the America's Cup sold to San Francisco as a $1.4 billion economic engine attracting 15 free-spending yachting syndicates and millions upon millions of spendthrift yachting aficionados. Think of the lockstep support from developers, city politicos, members of the building trades, and downtown groups behind erecting condos for the super-rich in a waterfront tower at 8 Washington St., at nearly triple the height limits. Think of the indulgent tax breaks and generous incentives piled upon technology companies at the behest of those very companies, their heavy investors, and politicians favored by both.

The city buys the notion that transforming a cottage into a square-mile fortress qualifies as a “remodel,” provided aging, worthless, and superficial elements of the original structure are retained. Many city planners and self-interested parties can — and will — parse codes to explain how this works; they'll even explain how you can actually replace the very elements you're retaining in order to fall under the aegis of a “remodel” and still not qualify as a “demolition.”

Yes: Parts of a building can be simultaneously replaced and retained. And, in the end, that kind of logic crumbles as assuredly as 125 Crown Terrace.

As it does with America's Cup: The yachting syndicates didn't come, a sailor died, the economic numbers were continually downgraded and remain highly uncertain, and the crowds were modest. Taxpayers are still on the hook for millions of dollars.

And as it does with 8 Washington: Voters rejected the proposed pillar of pied-à-terres by a 2-to-1 margin.

The logic has also collapsed, to a degree, regarding the incestuous relationship between the tech industry and a city government largely espousing the notion that what's good for tech is good for San Francisco. To an extent, it's true — depending upon one's definition of “good” and “San Francisco.” The city's unemployment rate keeps shrinking and the amount of cash rolling around keeps growing. But we're reaching unequaled levels of inequality, and the city is showing its fault lines. Tension grows when corporate shuttles idle in Muni stops, forcing actual Muni riders to run like hell for the bus; when rents and home prices soar to parodic levels; when residents are left to ponder just whom this city is for and whom its government serves. The millions of dollars shunted away from city coffers via tax breaks are calculable. The benefit this has supposedly delivered to the city remains more abstract.

Your humble narrator reached Mel Murphy on his cellphone last week. The developer said he was boarding a plane in Hawaii and had no comment for us.

It's always sobering news to learn that your house isn't where you left it. But, for Murphy, it may not be such a bad thing. He might just end up getting that demolition permit he was after.

In San Francisco, after all, logic can be both retained and replaced.

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