Corona Heights: Testing Ground For Effort To Block More 'Monster Homes'

Corona Heights: Testing Ground For Effort To Block More 'Monster Homes'
Photo by Districtinroads/Flickr
By Alisa Scerrato - Published on February 14, 2016.

While some neighborhoods battle over the size of condo towers and office buildings, a different sort of debate has been occupying a couple of scenic residential hillsides above the Castro during the current development boom. 

Large new home developments have been mostly blocked in the area, due to legislation sponsored by District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener that passed last March.

These "interim zoning controls" are temporary, expiring this September.

Yet they're popular with locals, and are of great interest to people trying to stop the development of large homes on other scenic city hillsides.

So the legislation, depending on the next nine months, could be left to expire — or it could be made permanent, and citywide. 

The latter outcome would slow new construction of mostly large, expensive, single-family homes across the city.

Here's a look at the first nine months of the "interim zoning controls" in Corona Heights and in its smaller neighbor Corbett Heights, and what they could mean for the future. 

The Fight Against "Monster Homes"

San Francisco is still dotted with vacant lots and older buildings that are either condemned, or not old enough to qualify for any historical preservation status. 

Hoping to capitalize on the demand for high-end homes, developers have bought up many of these properties and planned homes of newfangled shapes and sizes that capitalize on the views, the space and the location — and sometimes have a very different sense of aesthetics.

An outdated draft of the Upper Terrace proposal. Image by Dawson & Clinton

"They come in — on Ord Street, and Ord Court, States Street," explains Corbett Height Neighbors president Gary Weiss, who has led local opposition to these types of development. "Even without building up they have views. Once they build up they have spectacular views. They know that. That’s why it’s such a hotspot." 

Weiss, his neighborhood association, and hundreds of other nearby residents convinced local supervisor Scott Wiener to pass the March legislation. It requires a developer to seek "conditional use" authorization for, among other things, single-family homes that would increase the square footage to at least 75% more than the existing square footage.

What are the opponents fighting for?

“If you walk down Corbett or Roosevelt, you find yourself looking up and down and back and forth at all the interesting homes and gardens—maybe seeing some strange idiosyncratic detail that catches your eye," Weiss says. "This makes walking through the neighborhood a pleasant experience.”

He believes that the size and design of what he calls "monster homes" in turn “diminishes the integrity of the neighborhood.” Weiss and others say they are open to new developments that "fit" the scope of existing houses.

The Google Maps version of Corona Heights, which includes Corbett Heights. Image via Google Maps

He adds that residents of other neighborhoods who are experiencing the same issues and concerns have been reaching out to see if interim legislation could be possible there as well.

Dirk Aguilar and his wife have lived on Ord Street (not to be confused with Ord Court), for two and a half years, and are now in the middle of fighting the 32 Ord Street project via the interim zoning legislation. 

They thought they were moving to a freshly-remodeled house on a lovely street. Then, a developer bought the house next door and started planning a large new home that would shade their living room during more than half of the year. And then the same thing happened on the other side of the house — they are now what he calls “the meat in the sandwich.” 

“Development is on many peoples’ minds around here," Aguilar says. “My wife and I are pretty pragmatic when it comes to fixing up houses, we get it — it contributes to the beauty of a neighborhood. It makes us look at nicer houses every day. And if the developers do a good job, then good for them! They can sell at a profit and that’s all good."

The problem is excess, he explains. "For example, the giant house on States Street, that was the tipping point. It makes people realize how far developers will go. I think a lot of people woke up to the reality that their homes will be affected, and if not now, then in five years.” 

Some of the new houses on States Street. Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

“People (including renters) are spending tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to hire engineers, lawyers, architects, to protect their home,” he adds. “Some people have lived here their entire life and have seen a lot of change. But the past two years has been exponential change. It’s a short-term type of thinking. There isn’t interest for the greater good of the neighborhood…. You cannot undo these kinds of actions." 

The neighborhood rarely has any homes for sale these days given its popularity and low existing stock. The ones that do sell typically go for well over $1 million if not a lot more.

But there is a body of renters, mostly in the lower areas or scattered across small older multi-unit apartments on the hillside. And in fact, rents on Corona Heights have trended a bit lower, with 1-bedrooms at $2,595 versus the citywide $3,600 per month, according to real estate site Zumper.

Weiss says that over time, entire blocks of older, smaller homes can be converted to much larger, newer ones. Property owners, seeing the bounties their neighbors are reaping consider doing the same. Over the long term, any sense of affordability disappears along with the existing sense of place.

The Controls In Action

While the city’s planning process already strongly favors community input, the additional rules appear to decisively put the power in the hands of neighbors.

Since the board of supervisors passed Wiener’s legislation in March, the flow of new projects has slowed to a trickle.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but neighbors told the Chronicle a year ago that around ten projects were in progress or planned. This past December, the first post-legislation project, at 22-24 Ord Court completed the approval process — a downsized compromise that opposing neighbors consider a key victory

The second planned development, at 32 Ord Street, was heard approved by the Planning Commission on January 7th, after the city planner in charge of the projected recommended to approve with conditions. The discussion was inconclusive, with the matter currently postponed to April 7. 

[Update: we've confirmed that 32 Ord Street's next hearing will be April 7th, rather than March 3rd as we had previously understood the timeline to be.]

The existing location for the proposal at 22-24 Ord Street. Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

A third project, covering 279, 301-303 Upper Terrace is earlier in the permitting process, and is already getting pushback from some in the neighborhood.

For the developer of that project, Dawson & Clinton, the legislation came as a bit of a surprise. 

"There are a lot of developers trying to get things through quickly with minimum neighborhood opposition — to max out the square footage, and get it built and sold," explains the firm's cofounder, Paul Dawson. "We design projects that we want to showcase our talents. We never take the easy track."

The track on Corona Heights has become especially hard. 

The small firm is based in the city, does most of its work here, and only takes on around one big project on its own per year, with the rest of its work being gut remodels. 

"We bought  the properties right before and put all this money into the plans, then there was this huge change in the planning code for the next 18 months," he says. "As a small firm, we don't have the padding" for many delays, additional fees or politicking. 

The firm has a sense of a bigger mission, anyway, he says. As a combined architecture and general contract firm, it sees itself as creating art as much as running a business. 

"The neighborhood pushback is good in some ways," according to Dawson, "but how do you balance that with creativity, trying to do something new and fresh and exciting? Does everything have to match, exact context? Doesn’t that stifle some architecture?"

Another angle on the outdated draft of the Upper Terrace proposal. Image by Dawson & Clinton 

Having spent some quality time talking to various neighborhood groups already, Dawson believes he has been building a good relationship with neighbors, and has accommodated concerns already in many of the designs. 

He also brings up who is opposed, and why, noting that the plans have already been changed based on community feedback to add in more, smaller homes, and leave more of the hillside intact — and that many of the remaining opponents are not neighbors to the Upper Terrace project.

A new set of designs are due out in coming weeks, with neighbors waiting expectantly.

They're not the only ones. 

Beyond Affordability

The controls only last through September of this year, but Wiener tells us that he's taking a closer look at how to proceed from here. 

“I continue to work with the Planning Department as they study the outcomes of the interim controls, and I’m participating in discussions around what permanent controls might look like," he says.

“[I]’m monitoring how the Planning Commission considers projects subject to the interim controls, and look forward to additional projects going through the process in order to inform the scope of permanent legislation.”

Wiener, who is running against fellow supervisor Jane Kim for the local state assembly seat this year, has also prominently supported more density across his district. He has also pushed legislation that allows certain types of affordable housing to bypass parts of the permitting process.

His interim controls referenced this. They allow new homes to be somewhat larger without needing a conditional use permit if they add in a second unit. 

The larger question about density and upzoning is already on the table, in a way that makes for a striking juxtaposition with these interim controls. 

The AHBP map showing parcels that are possibly eligible for upzoning, zoomed in on the Corona and greater Castro area. Image via SF Planning 

The big housing issue of the year so far in San Francisco has been about the Affordable Housing Bonus Program. It's a proposal from the Planning Department, currently hotly debated on the Planning Commission and across neighborhood groups, that would expand upon state law to allow developers to build more stories on new buildings if they include certain percentages of affordable ranges of units. The program targets neighborhood commercial areas near transit centers.

Parts of it could directly affect Castro Street and other city blocks directly downhill from Corona and Corbett Heights — or even the edges of those neighborhoods, depending on where you draw the boundaries. 

In a world where both AHBP got passed and the interim controls made permanent, you could imagine a lot more construction happening beneath a still-sleepy heights. 

"We're looking at the issue broadly," explains a spokesperson with Wiener's office. "We recognize that the neighborhood concerns the interim controls aimed to address are not unique to Corona Heights, but we have not made any decision as to what possible permanent controls will look like. Cases before the Planning Commission over the next few months will help inform any ultimate proposal."

The April 7th Planning Commission meeting is at noon in room 400 of City Hall. Dawson & Clinton plan to release their next version of the development on 279, 301-303 Upper Terrace in the coming weeks.