It’s been nearly four years since news emerged that developer David Kriozere — best known for the luxury, 390-unit behemoth One Rincon Hill — had bought the large Touchless Car Wash site at Oak and Divisadero streets, and planned to turn the site into housing. On Thursday, the Planning Commission voted to approve the development 5-2, giving it a final green light.
It’ll be a massive change for the neighborhood, and that specific corner, which has been home to a gas station for at least six decades. But unlike other efforts to preserve the corridor’s integrity — like when Madrone Art Bar almost became a Burger King, or a Domino’s Pizza was headed to the BASA site — no one seems to mind the loss of one gas station, no doubt because there are two more a mere block away. The car wash is one of the last in the city, but neighborhood needs housing, and the addition of ground-floor commercial space on a dead block that divides bustling Divisadero into two sections will no doubt be good for the local economy.
However nothing of this size gets through Planning without controversy, and at Thursday’s hearing, the issue was, of course, affordability. No one who took the mic protested the construction of 186 rental units coming to the area, but many voiced their dismay that Kriozere is getting away with the bare minimum of affordable units. Under Divisadero’s current zoning law 20 percent of units must be offered below-market-rate, which comes out to only 37 in the massive development.
The vast majority of the units — 89 — will be studios, which Kriozere claims are “affordable by design” due to their small square footage, despite the fact that studio apartments seldom go for less $2,000 these days.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment, stating that 80 percent of the units are “totally unaffordable.” Many who commented at the Planning Commission hearing cited a 2016 plan for future developments along Divisadero created after the neighborhood was upzoned, which stated that any project with more than 10 units would have to offer 50 percent at affordable rates. More than 500 people from the neighborhood signed on, but their voices appear to have been bulldozed over when it comes to 400 Divisadero.
“Put simply, San Francisco can do better for its residents at this location,” District 5 supervisor candidate Dean Preston stated in a letter to the Commission, in which he asked for 33 percent BMR. “This is a large development that will have a lasting impact on the neighborhood for years to come. This is one of the largest developable sites in District 5. The Planning Commission has an opportunity to improve the project to make it an asset to the neighborhood instead of a liability.”
While increased affordability was central to the opposition, there also appears to be significant support for the design as it stands. Planning Commissioner Rich Hill, who lives in the neighborhood, says he would love to see more affordability, but pointed out that San Francisco doesn’t often see projects with 50 or 100 percent affordable housing “unless the city is involved.”
Instead, he highlighted the rare success of local neighborhood groups — the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association, the North of the Panhandle Neighborhood Association, and the Lower Haight Merchants and Neighbors Association — in agreeing on the design as it stands.
The Divisadero Merchants Association is also in support, citing the disruption that the 400 block of Divisadero — with all its gas stations — has on the businesses along the corridor. Small locally-owned businesses on the ground floor of the development could provide a valuable link in connecting the shops and restaurants between the northern and southern ends of the street.
Michael Krouse, owner of Madrone Art Bar on Fell and Divisadero streets, says he’s 15 years into a 20-year lease and supports the project — even though he fears he won’t be able to live or work in his building by the time people move into the new development.
“At the end of the day we need more housing,” he said. “Is it perfect? No. When I first heard about this project I thought it was too high, but if you’re going to get as many affordable housing units as you can into it you have to make compromises.”