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On the Border of a Proposed Residential Tower and a Preschool, a Lesson in Sharing

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In a city so starved for new housing that there are only 193 new units permitted for every 1,000 new residents, increasing density is a talking point in everything from gallery exhibits to Planning Department videos. But while many San Franciscans may agree on density in principle, hammering out its particular shape gets complicated, especially when different populations find themselves in painstaking negotiations over inches of light and air.

Today, Emerald Fund, the developer behind the Civic Center high-rise apartment buildings 100 Van Ness and the forthcoming 101 Polk, will go before Planning with its proposal for a 13-story mixed-use apartment building at 150 Van Ness. The project falls within a residential special use district outlined by the Market and Octavia Area Plan, which aims to create a high-density mixed-use neighborhood around Market and Van Ness to take advantage of the area's transit connections. For critics of the project, the argument is not about density per se, but the protection of urban elbow room: At issue are the five feet, six inches of space that would separate 150 Van Ness from a neighboring Montessori preschool.

The school's Bay Area executive director, Heike Larson, plans to speak at the Planning hearing today; the pro-development renters' group SFBARF will also be in attendance. Parents and school administrators have raised concerns about safety, disruptive construction, and blocked views. Though Emerald Fund filed preliminary plans with Planning in July 2013, Larson says the school community only found out about the project two weeks ago. LePort moved in in January, whereas Emerald Fund conducted the bulk of its community outreach last summer, according to Emerald Fund principal Marc Babsin. However, LePort had begun renovating their building in February 2014, according to a school press release, months before the outreach period began. (The school's impending arrival was noted on Curbed in January 2014, as you may recall.) "We didn't know if their deal would happen; we heard many times that it was falling apart," Babsin says, adding that Emerald Fund's outreach had included the school's landlord. "As is standard practice, we reached out to the building owner," he adds. "We really weren't trying to hide the ball from the school."

LePort occupies a historic four-story building at 50 Fell Street, and its rear wall abuts the 150 Van Ness site. Part of the school's back wall is already obstructed by the existing eight-story office complex at 150 Van Ness, which Emerald Fund plans to demolish. The developer is proposing to put up a T-shaped structure with 420 apartments (12 percent—about 50 units—will be below market rate) and two ground-floor retail spaces totaling 9,000 square feet. The project, designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz, would rise on a long parcel that also includes three parking lots along Hayes Street. The school's unobstructed windows look out onto one of those lots. In the new scheme, 150 Van Ness would offer a buffer of five feet, six inches—much more room than the vacant office building leaves, but far less than the wide open space currently left by the parking lot.

The new building would rise to its full 13 stories along a portion of the school's rear wall; the remaining portion would look onto a three-story fitness center with a pool deck, leaving only the fourth and part of the third stories with any sort of view.

Larson says that while she welcomes the addition of a residential building, she is concerned about daylight access and the close proximity of the new structure. "Our ideal outcome would be to get a similar setback as the other buildings"—40 or 50 feet—"but we're not sure how realistic that is this late in the game," she says.

According to Babsin, that kind of setback would remove the nub of the T and create a long bar of a building along Hayes Street. "You'd lose all those units that are on the T," or about 90 apartments, says Babsin. "If you lose those 90 units, you go against the plan, which calls for density. And you lose 11 income-restricted units." The placement of the building's courtyards, which offer breathing room to adjacent rental buildings but not the school, is necessary to bring sufficient light and air to the 13 stories of units on the rear nub of the T, explains Babsin. "Given the configuration of the site, this is how you lay it out," he says. "Any architect would come up with this site plan. It wasn't meant to snub the school or 50 Fell."

Babsin and his team met with parents and members of the school Tuesday and Wednesday to work on resolving their concerns. To lessen the effect of the new building on its neighbor, Emerald Fund and SCB devised a light court for the gap between the buildings, finished in reflective white terracotta—a change from the rest of the building's plain terracotta designed to improve the quality of daylighting. They're also offering to open up 11 windows on the school's rear wall, where several the historic windows were bricked in when the old 150 Van Ness went up.

"What we're making is a big reflective light well," says Babsin. "No, it's not super deep, but it spans across the entire length of the school." Babsin's team completed a light study, which, he says, found that the light well would provide more even natural light across the facade and more uniform interior light than the current window configuration does. "When you have midblock property line windows, you could just go up and put a wall right next to it, which is what the original design from the architect actually did," says Babsin, referring to the existing 150 Van Ness building. "But we wanted to set it back five feet so those windows can stay there."

On the old 150 Van Ness, Emerald Fund has begun removing the building skin to dispose of asbestos and other contaminants. Demolition can't begin, however, until Emerald Fund wins approval for the proposed development. If all goes according to plan, crews would begin demolishing the old 150 Van Ness in the next few months.

· Bay Area Housing Prices Are Being Driven Up By Very Low Supply, Says Math [Curbed SF]
· Amid SF's Housing Crisis, New SPUR Show Explores Adding Density on the Margins [Curbed SF]
· SF Planning Explains the Housing Crisis in Activisty New Video [Curbed SF]
· Previous Coverage of 100 Van Ness [Curbed SF]
· Civic Center Rental Project Looking for a Green Light [Curbed SF]
· Market and Octavia Area Plan [SF Planning]
· New Preschool Opens in Historic Building in Mid-Market Area [LePort Schools]
· LePort School Moving into Civic Center's Historic 50 Fell Street [Curbed SF]