State gives S.F. 30 days to explain why it blocked 800 housing units in recent months

“(Housing and Community Development) is concerned that the (city’s) actions are indicative of review processes that may be constraining the provision of housing in San Francisco,” said West in the letter. “It is well known that California is experiencing a housing crisis, and the provision of housing remains of the utmost priority.”

The letter comes less than a month after the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to uphold an appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval of 469 Stevenson, a proposed 27-story high rise with 495 housing units. The vote didn’t kill the project outright, but it asked the city to redo the development’s 1,100 page environmental impact report, which could delay the housing approvals by two years. Environmental impact reports — which studies a development’s impact on subjects like wind, shadow, traffic, air quality — are required under the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.

A month earlier the board voted unanimously to uphold an appeal of 450 O’Farrell, a 316-unit tower of studios that would be erected on the site owned by First Church of Christ, Scientist. That project, which has 43 affordable units, would also include a new church and Christian Science reading room.

Planning Department Chief of Staff Dan Sider said the department had been expecting the letter and would complete “findings” well within the 30 day time limit.

“It’s a fair request and something we are on track to provide,” he said. “The department strongly supported both projects and the board clearly felt otherwise. That is their right and prerogative.”

Lou Vasquez, whose company Build Inc. is the developer of the Stevenson Street project, said that he is eagerly awaiting a concrete explanation as to why the board felt the project’s environmental study was inadequate.

“We think it was an abuse of CEQA — nobody has pointed to something specific in the EIR,” he said. “We are eager to get this thing back on track.”

In the letter West said the Board of Supervisors “cited various vague concerns” — including seismic concerns, shadows and gentrification — but “no written findings have been published or provided to the project applicant nor has any substantial evidence in support of these findings been identified.”

The letter comes at a time when the state is finalizing each city and county’s housing production requirements for the next eight years, a process called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA. But unlike past RHNA cycles, when the majority of cities ignored their production goals, the state now has an enforcement unit which is tasked with making sure housing is approved as long as it meets local zoning and general plan goals.

In her letter West said the state “has significant concerns” that the votes may have violated the state Housing Accountability Act, which forces cities to approve any project that “complies with applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards.”

“While these projects have sought different types of approval, they share the circumstance of having prior Planning Commission approvals of significant housing projects being overturned by the Board of Supervisors without any documented findings,” wrote West.

On the O’Farrell vote West’s letter suggests that forcing the developer to hold further public hearings on the housing proposal would also violate a state law that restricts municipalities from holding more than five public meetings on any given residential development. There have already been six public hearings on the O’Farrell project, she said.

Also on Monday the lead appellant in the Stevenson project, the South of Market nonprofit landlord TODCO, filed a lawsuit against the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) over its 2050 Plan Bay Area, mean to be a long-term roadmap for real estate development and transit in the nine-county region.

The suit argues that the plan fails to “adequately address the chief crises facing the region: homelessness, housing and protecting the frontline communities of color most at risk of climate change-related displacement.”

“PBA 2050 completely misses the mark,” said TODCO John Elberling. “It fails to include protection for vulnerable inner- city communities and offers no substantive strategy to invest in our affordable housing stock. If adopted as written, the plan will almost certainly result in the disappearance of the Bay Area’s working class communities of color, and displace hundreds of thousands of long-term residents from their homes.”

J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @sfjkdineen

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