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Drama-rama Over a One-Story Addition Near Buena Vista Park

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611 Buena Vista West and neighbors (click to enlarge)

One of the craziest things about CEQA rules as enforced in San Francisco: when you want to appeal an exemption from environmental review, it can go all the way to the Board of Supervisors. Take 611 Buena Vista West Avenue – the project calls for a one-story vertical addition to an existing two-story single-family house recently featured in Dwell. Sandwiched between taller houses, the neighbors are not happy about the plans, saying it doesn't jive with their older style homes. After they filed for Discretionary Review back in September, the Planning Commission went ahead and approved the project anyway, as long as the addition was set back a little further. That wasn't enough for the neighbors, so the group filed an appeal with the Board of Appeals over the building permit. They decided to go ahead and file another appeal on the exemption from environmental review, just for good measure. Now this little project is going all the way to the Board of Supervisors hearing.

The appellants include a group that formed after the project was approved calling themselves the Buena Vista Historical Preservation Association. The appeal claims the proposed one-story addition with roof deck will have "potentially significant environmental impacts relating to aesthetics, views, and shadow" and requires full environmental review. They think the project will block the public views of a Victorian-era turret on the adjacent 601 Buena Vista West. Nevermind the fact that the project house is sandwiched between two significantly taller three-story houses, making it the same height or shorter than its neighbors. Some of the issues listed in the neighbors' DR complaint: the proposed third-story would block the public's views from the park (but your houses are taller?...), the extra space will probably be used to house extra tenants, and the addition will block light into their houses. They also filed separate complaints claiming the property owner wasn't using their garage for parking and illegally had a second residential unit in the basement – both of which proved to be false and were thrown out. If you're in the mood for some drama, go ahead and read through all the crazy mud-slinging.

Third-story addition on 611 Buena Vista West (apologies for the grainy photo copy quality – blame the BOS case report) [Photo: SF Gov]

Our personal favorite complaint in the DR - the project house is "contemporary architecture" and is "aberrant with the surrounding earlier Twentieth Century architecture." Nevermind that the Planning Department describes the neighborhood as "a variety of building scales, forms and details and are generally described as having an architecturally mixed visual character" dating from 1900-1950. That project sponsor's "contemporary architecture" just happened to be courtesy of a 2003 revamp designed by hot-shot Cass Calder Smith of CCS Architecture and featured on the cover of Dwell Magazine. But in this town, it's Victorian or Bust!

Remember that post we did last week about how permits can get real expensive real fast when neighbors get in a tizzy? Yeah, here's a perfect example. The Planning Commission didn't really agree with the complaints, but told the project sponsor to move the setback an extra foot for the sake of compromise. Their CEQA lawyer is arguing that if a project has conditions intended to address environmental impacts (ie. the setback condition from the Planning Commission so the turret wouldn't be blocked) then it can't be exempt from environmental review. Because the Planning Commission is mayor-appointed, the exemption can be appealed to "the agency's elected decisionmaking body" – the Board of Supervisors. All of this over a single-story addition to a house. We're going to go ahead and place a bet that this whole situation will be used by Supervisor Weiner as fodder for his CEQA reform campaign.

· Appeal of Determination of Exemption from Environmental Review - 611 Buena Vista West Avenue (pdf) [SF Gov]
· Discretionary Review – 611 Buena Vista West (pdf) [SF Planning]
· Standout in a Crowd [Dwell]
· Cass Calder Smith Architecture – Haus Martin[CCS]