Concerns Over Historic Sidewalks, Endangered Garter Snakes Hold Up Construction of San Francisco Home

Building a code-compliant, owner-occupied home on a vacant lot should be a pretty easy affair. In most of America, it is. In San Francisco, it can be a nightmare.

Ask Troy Kashanipour. He's been trying to build a home since 2015.

Despite working closely with city planning staff to design a structure that meets the onerous requirements of San Francisco's zoning code and design guidelines, Kashanipour has been stalled by recalcitrant neighbors claiming injury over everything from excessive shadow to the possible presence of a historic pathway.

Thanks to the labyrinthine nature of San Francisco's permitting process, these complaints have added years to a project that city staff say would otherwise be getting a rubber stamp.

Ever since Kashanipour first acquired the small lot on Diamond Street, he says, his intention was to buy it and build a home for his family. The lot in question had sat empty for many years, save for a small, overgrown community garden planted in the 1990s. Its unusually small size and triangular shape make it a difficult place to build. For Kashanipour, an architect by trade, those features made it an interesting challenge.

"Building on a small lot takes more creativity," he tells Reason. "Understanding that you can build rooms that don't have to be square or rectangular to be functional is an important part of understanding what you can do with a small parcel."

Kashanipour spent a good deal of time designing a home that would conform to the parcel's geometry. He also spent time ensuring the structure would conform with San Francisco's codes. Before even purchasing the lot, Kashanipour worked with officials at the city's Planning Department to understand what exactly could be done with the property, to ensure he was interpreting the code correctly, and to change his design where needed.

In fall of 2015, confident in the legality of his design, he purchased the property with the expectation that he would have an easy journey through the planning process. That was before his future neighbors got wind of his plan.

San Francisco law requires that any sponsors of new construction projects hold a pre-application meeting to give adjoining property owners and neighborhood groups "the opportunity to express concerns about a project" and "identify issues" early on.

In December 2015, some 40 people attended the pre-application meeting Kashanipour held at the Glen Park Public Library. The results were explosive.

Even before the meeting, flyers had gone up around the neighborhood claiming Kashanipour planned to build a "monster house" and calling on neighbors to show up and tell him "no you won't!!!" This passion carried over to the pre-application meeting.

Said Dr. Michelle Birch—an attendee who supported Kashanipour's development—at a March public hearing, "I was quite appalled when I attended the meeting."

"The level of aggression toward Mr. Kashanipour at the community meeting was exceptional," Birch said. "It seemed to me there were no substantive complaints about the building."

Project opponents don't deny the meeting became heated, instead arguing that their rage was justified. "People started shouting not because they are rude, but because [Kashanipour] refused to listen," said one opponent.

Not everyone at the meeting was opposed to the project, with many of the attendees merely expressing curiosity. He also went to great efforts to reach out his soon-to-be neighbors, handing out his contact information and offering to meet with anyone on an individual basis to address concerns.

Opposition to his project continued however. A sign posted on the lot notifying residents of planned public hearings was defaced with graffiti reading "no McMansions here" and simply just "no, no, no."

Neighbors also sought to use the process against Kashanipour. In October 2016, Jeff Cerf, the owner of the property next door, filed for a Discretionary Review of the project—essentially a request to have the city's Planning Commission mandate changes or impose conditions that are not otherwise required by the city's zoning codes. Discretionary Reviews can add months if not years to a project's timetable. The added time and expense can be used as a cudgel to extract concessions from project sponsors or even stop projects entirely.

This was certainly the expressed hope of some Glen Park neighbors, who at a March 2017 Planning Commission hearing urged commissioners to approve the Discretionary Review on the grounds that it would allow enough time for the city to stop development by purchasing the property from Kashanipour, using eminent domain if need be.

The same March hearing saw all sorts of complaints levied at Kashanipour's planned home. A woman who owned a nearby property said she felt Kashanipour's four-story house would be an undue invasion on her privacy, telling Commissioners that she was an expectant mother looking forward to "lots of summer days in the yard with the baby. I don't think the occupants of the new building should have such a direct view of our family."

One claimed that the land was inhabited by endangered garter snakes. Another argued that the roof deck in Kashanipour's design was "not part of the character of this working-class neighborhood." Others said that replacing the lot's current community garden with the home would "take away valuable joy" from passersby. Another neighbor, in emailed comments sent a few days prior, claimed that Kashanipour's proposed "'piece of pie' shaped home, nestled inappropriately where it clearly does not belong," would be a draw for tourists, worsening traffic congestions.

Supportive neighbors were present as well, arguing that the city needed more housing, that Kashanipour's design was creative and interesting, and the relocation of his family to Glen Park would add to the vibrancy of the community.

The city's Planning Department—which is overseen by the seven-member Planning Commission—likewise recommended that the Discretionary Review be denied and that Kashanipour be allowed to build his home with no additional alternations. This did not sit right with some of the planning commissioners, including Dennis Richards, who said Kashanipour's design "reminds me of Tokyo." This was not a compliment, as his elaboration made clear.

"I walked on a street, there's a footpath, then there's this gargantuan building with all these rooftop apartments on it. And I just go holy cow, it's slapping me in the face," said Richards.

He and the three other commissioners present that day imposed seven conditions on Kashanipour's project, including requirements to install a lightwell around his neighbor's windows, reduce the house from four floors to three, change the façade, redesign the windows, and shrink the roof deck.

Says Kashanipour of the Commission's decision: "I think as a group, they make fair decisions. I think sometimes when all the commissioners are not present, the views get a little skewed toward individual idiosyncrasies."

Kashanipour appealed that decision to San Francisco Board of Appeals, agreeing to four of the seven conditions but asking that he be allowed to expand his roof deck, ditch the lightwells, and keep the fourth floor.

This appeal sparked another round of backlash from Glen Park residents, with Cerf demanding that even more conditions be put on Kashanipour's permits as a punitive measure, saying in a letter to the Board of Appeals that more restrictions "would put future sponsors on notice that appealing their own permit carries significant risk they may want to avoid."

Others made the case before the Board of Appeals that Kashanipour's empty lot was deserving of landmark status because a path that exists on it now—which Kashanipour's planned construction would not touch—was possibly part of the historic El Camino Real, a trail that connected the early Spanish missions in the area.

On February 28, 2018, the Board of Appeals threw out some of the conditions imposed on Kashanipour's property but kept the prohibition on building a fourth floor.

Both Kashanipour and Cerf have until March 12 to re-appeal this decision. As of March 8, neither has done so.

Should both parties let the decision stand, Kashanipour will have to present new plans to Board of Appeals staff, who would then send them off to the Planning and Building Inspection Departments for another round of approvals, after which he would be allowed to build his home.

A Board of Appeals staffer told Reason there is no set time for how long that can take.

Kashanipour's planned home did not require any code variances. It will not displace any tenants. It is even exempt from California's environmental review process. Nevertheless, neighborhood opponents were able to delay the project, dragging it through review by two separate government bodies whose members arbitrarily piled condition after condition onto the permits.

This is how you create a housing shortage.