Letter from PHAN President, Charlie Ferguson

Dear Neighbors,

To begin, I will remind everyone that our annual neighborhood meeting will be held on May 15 at 7:00 p.m. at the old Presidio Golf Clubhouse.  Doors will be open at 6:30. Please come.  Our new supervisor, Catherine Stefani, is our featured speaker.  And, we will also be addressed by members of the San Francisco Fire Department which provides the staff and equipment for firefighting within the Presidio under contract with the Presidio Trust.  The PHAN board has asked the SFFD to address our concerns about a wildfire, should one breakout in the Presidio on one of those six or seven very hot, windy days that we typically see every summer and fall.  We have also asked a fire prevention consultant PHAN retained to speak to us that evening about the same topic.

In advance of our annual meeting, as always, it is my pleasure to update you on issues that your PHAN board has been studying and, when appropriate, acting on since my previous letter last fall. There is no particular order in which I am presenting the issues. So, without further ado, here are the matters to which the PHAN Board has been paying attention.

Renaming Julius Kahn Playground

Recently PHAN was approached by a representative of the Chinese Historical Society of America and Chinese for Affirmative Action seeking our commitment not to oppose the Park and Recreation Commission should that Commission decide to withdraw Julius Kahn’s name from our nearby playground and conduct public hearings on what to rename it.  PHAN has committed not to oppose such an action by the Park and Recreation Commission should it do so, but PHAN also asked for the right to participate in the renaming process should there be one. The general feeling amongst PHAN board members is that, if the playground is to be renamed, a geographic type name should be used.  An effort to research why the City named the playground for Kahn came up emptyhanded. The organizations mentioned above are seeking removal of Julius Kahn’s name because, while serving in the US Congress, he introduced certain federal laws that for years prevented Chinese immigration to the United States. If the name is changed, there will be a public process for renaming the playground.

SB 827

This legislation has recently received a significant amount of press coverage.  It was introduced into the California Senate by former SF Supervisor, now state Senator Scott Wiener.  The idea behind the proposed legislation, which has been withdrawn for the time being in the face of enormous opposition from across the whole the state, is to increase the amount of affordable housing for both low and middle-income Californians.  

While that is a laudable goal, particularly given the spike in the population of new residents coming to California on top of the natural population growth, the means Wiener initially chose to accomplish his goal was found to be quite objectionable.  Basically, his idea was to strip all cities, towns, counties and neighborhoods in the whole state of any ability to oppose development of higher heights and higher density within one quarter mile of any “transit corridor” in California.

In rural or suburban areas, that standard wouldn’t matter much, but in a city like San Francisco, it means that virtually the whole City would be open to higher height, higher density residential development, namely 85-foot high buildings with one and two-bedroom apartments or condos.  Specifically, the zoning laws would be automatically preempted in all cities if they limited housing to one, two or three-units per residential lot. Presidio Heights is entirely within one quarter mile of California Street, a so-called “transit corridor” due to the bus line(s) on it and we are zoned RH-1, 2 and 3. The multi-unit apartment buildings exist due to Conditional Use Permits that the originally developer had to procure from the Zoning Administrator; SB 827 would do away with that process and let anyone develop an 85-foot building with more than 3 units in it on any lot that falls within a transit corridor area.  

After introducing his bill and recognizing the incredibly negative reaction it got, Wiener withdrew it and then revised it and began selling the revised version to whoever would listen before re-introducing it. On behalf of PHAN, I opposed his initial bill and then after he withdrew it, I met with him to discuss how he should be treating neighborhoods like ours. His current draft of the revised bill contains protection for neighborhoods like Presidio Heights. The revised bill maintains current height limits (40 feet in Presidio Heights unless the Planning Commission grants a Conditional Use Permit) in all neighborhoods located on bus transit corridors, as opposed rail transit corridors (e.g., the Muni N Judah line).  

The relaxation of density restrictions (i.e., RH-1, 2 or 3) is still a part of his revised bill, which means that a 40-foot high structure on a lot that has been zoned for just one housing unit, can now be any number of units without having to seek a Conditional Use Permit but the building itself cannot exceed 40 feet.  Wiener assured me that he would not add into his revised bill any provision that would dilute the stringent laws in San Francisco that prohibit the demolition of existing historical buildings (virtually every residence in Presidio Heights is Class A or B for historic preservation purposes).

So, what this means is that under the revised bill that he will introduce a resident of a single-family home in Presidio Heights could conceivably renovate the interior of the home to break it up into as many separate housing units as he/she desires without having to go through the usual public hearing process to obtain a Conditional Use Permit.  It’s a much better situation than the bill as originally designed, but PHAN will be meeting with Wiener and his staff again to promote the idea that the density provisions of his revised bill should not be applicable to Presidio Heights either.

3333 California Street

This project has slowed down while the developer and UCSF, the landowner, negotiated a new deal.  Originally, UCSF only agreed to lease the land (10 acres) to the project developers. The term of the lease was 99 years.  That has changed; UCSF has now agreed to sell the land to the developers.

By owning the land, the developers can now sell fee simple title to buyers of the housing units (one and two-bedroom units).  This will make the units more valuable and desirable to the buyers. Under the original scheme the buyers could only sell the remainder of the 99-year lease term to subsequent buyers. PHAN has monitored this project closely from its inception and PHAN will continue to do so.  

Both my predecessor as president and I have met with the developers on several occasions to discuss the design features of the project. Now that the developers have complete title those discussions will pick up again. Currently, PHAN is generally in favor of the project but would like to see a relocation of some of the retail space along California Street near the intersection with Laurel and some modification of the architecture in that are pf the project as well. The developers have just recently submitted another plan to the Planning Department which PHAN will study and ask to discuss with them in the next few weeks.

CPMC Campus

The TMG group which is the developer on the CPMC California Street Campus has submitted plans to the Planning Department, which plans PHAN, and every surrounding neighborhood association, supports.  The remaining question is: How will the City Planning Department react to TMG’s plan? If the City demands more housing be built (a likely response), PHAN will join with the developers, and probably all the other neighborhoods, to oppose it. This will require a written submittal to the Planning Commission and appearance before the Commission to argue our position.

Renovation Projects within Presidio Heights

Several years ago, PHAN published on its website a list of suggested steps for how to elicit the support and good will of your neighbors when renovating your home/building.  The basic concepts were (1) give notice as early as possible to your immediate neighbors about your project’s design and your contractor’s plans for how to manage construction of your project; and (2) be courteous to your neighbors and see that your contractor’s employees do the same.  It seems that the time has come to re-publish our suggestions. The PHAN board has lately received complaints from neighbors about construction projects, so we will revise our prior suggested steps for renovating and publish them on our website soon.

Fire Prevention and Protection  

As mentioned above, an ad hoc committee of the board has been addressing the Board’s concerns about a wildfire breaking out in the Presidio.  The sheer number of wildfires that broke out last summer throughout the state and especially the Santa Rosa fires was a warning to everyone that wildfires can invade urban areas.  We expect the SFFD to explain to us at our annual meeting how it is that they assess the danger and what they would do if a wildfire did breakout in the Presidio. As an added precaution, PHAN’s Board solicited an assessment from a highly respected fire prevention consultant who will also share his views on the topic at our annual meeting.  

Wireless Carrier Antennas

As many of you realize, our neighborhood has been invaded by the wireless carriers, at least by the two giants of the industry, AT&T and Verizon.  Several of you, with help from PHAN, have written protests, appeared in department hearings and even before the Board of Permit Appeals to oppose installation of the antennas on light poles in front of your homes. These antennas are for data transmission, not voice communications.  There is a monumental struggle going on across the United States and throughout California, including Presidio Heights over how to site these antennas. Some of you have identified health hazards as the reason for your opposition to the installations, but the federal government for the time being has preempted any such arguments, so they fall on deaf ears.  Others of you have cited the disturbing aesthetics of the antennas, which look like alien pods on the top of the light poles in our neighborhood and which, again by fiat of the federal government, can be enlarged at will by the wireless companies without the need for further local approval.

The fight over the aesthetics has been an uphill battle so far.  The City, despite having enacted legislation to protect neighborhoods from the disfiguring effect of installing scores of antennas in a neighborhood, has not yet rejected a single request from the wireless companies to install their antennas, and there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of antennas already installed in the City.  Perhaps the City’s reluctance to reject a permit is because the City receives $4,000/year in rent for each light pole it allows Verizon or AT&T to use.

As many of you have found, the City typically issues a permit to the wireless companies before the public knows anything about it.  Even then, the City only requires the wireless companies to notify a few neighbors of the fact that a permit has already been issued.  Accordingly, PHAN encourages those who do receive notice of an antenna installation to immediately pass along the information to PHAN by email at info@phansf.org so that we may assist you if we can.  PHAN is on record at City Hall that it does not object to technological advancement rather it objects to being cut out of the process of deciding where the antennas should be sited from an aesthetic standpoint.  

I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible on Tuesday evening, May 15 at our annual meeting.


Charlie Ferguson


Presidio Heights Association of Neighbors