Hearing nears for Diamond Street housing project

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 12, 2022
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This updated rendering shows the units set back farther to preserve 10 Monterey cypress trees such as those shown near the crosswalk. Photo: Courtesy On Diamond LLC
This updated rendering shows the units set back farther to preserve 10 Monterey cypress trees such as those shown near the crosswalk. Photo: Courtesy On Diamond LLC

Set to take place in early February is the long-delayed hearing before the city's planning commission about a controversial market-rate housing project proposed for the hillside at the intersection of Diamond Heights Boulevard and Diamond Street. In recent weeks an agreement was reached to allow for it to come up for review at the oversight panel between the project proponent and several neighborhood leaders who had opposed it.

Developer On Diamond LLC is seeking approval to build 24 new luxury homes and intends to pay close to $3 million to the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development so it doesn't have to set aside some as affordable housing. Nearby residents had argued that the entire project should be affordable and voiced criticisms about its impact to the trees on site and views afforded by the hilly property.

The planning commission was initially set to weigh in on the project in August. But in light of the controversy surrounding the development, city planning staff postponed the hearing to give the developer and neighbors more time to work out a compromise. The hearing is now scheduled to take place Thursday, February 3.

One of the biggest changes made to the project is that the housing is being pushed back onto the hillside rather than fronting the sidewalk in order to preserve 10 of the existing Monterey cypress trees. There had been 16 trees of significance on the hillside but a Monterey pine toppled during a storm late last year; the five others will be removed.

A Google Street View of the project site. Photo: Google Street View  

The number of driveways is being reduced from 15 to eight. A staircase will run the length of the hillside from Diamond Street up to Diamond Heights Boulevard in order to provide a pedestrian connection between the Upper Noe and Diamond Heights neighborhoods. A publicly accessible deck will also be built above one of the residences to provide views spanning from downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge south to the San Mateo Bridge.

"This public deck is going to have monster views," said developer Marc Babsin.

The changes to the project design will result in a few less bedrooms overall but not require a reduction in the number of housing units. Babsin also told the Bay Area Reporter he has agreed to fund various pedestrian improvements in the area, from new crosswalks and sidewalk bulbouts to funds for ongoing maintenance of plantings in the street median.

"We basically, through these dozens of meetings over many months, we redesigned the project so that it delivers to the community their top priorities to preserve the Monterey cypress trees and the panoramic view and to reduce the number of driveways," said Babsin. "Those were their three most important items."

Signing on to the agreement not to oppose the project are Betsy Eddy, co-president of the Diamond Heights Community Association; Diamond Street resident Steve Chaffin; and Olga Milan-Howells, president of the Upper Noe Neighbors residential association. They had formed the 1900 Diamond for All group that was organizing against the project and had formed a website with a petition for people to sign opposing it.

In a brief phone interview January 12, Eddy told the B.A.R. that due to the changes Babsin has agreed to make, the trio of community leaders will no longer oppose the development. She shared the statement they intend to email to the people who signed the petition to let them know about the compromise they have negotiated.

"Although some may be disappointed, there has been a considerable investment in time and money in this effort. After 1.5 years pushing for a better outcome; addressing environmental, neighborhood and legal concerns at a cost of +$100k in legal, architects and expert fees, significant changes have been made by the Emerald Fund to the project which benefit the neighborhood," it reads in part.

If approved, the project will be the first sizeable family housing development to be built in that section of the city's eighth supervisorial district in years.

Family housing
"We are in desperate need of housing in San Francisco, particularly family housing," Babsin said. "This project is all three-bedroom homes, which is family housing. Noe Valley, Glen Park, and Diamond Heights have produced no projects of 20 or more homes in the last four decades."

Gay District 8 resident Jim Chappell, an urban planner and the former executive director and president of the urban planning think tank SPUR, had made a similar argument in a guest opinion piece for the B.A.R. last summer. He also pointed out that lack of housing built in the area has had a negative impact on his LGBTQ neighbors.

"As population has increased and the supply has stayed static, homes have become scarcer and prices continue to rise, forcing out many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters," wrote Chappell.

The agreement reached on the project is "really exciting," he told the B.A.R., especially since it will still result in the same number of residential units.

"They were able to come up with a plan that really meets everybody's needs and has the same number of units," said Chappell, who expects the project to be approved next month. "This is San Francisco. Anybody can sue and anybody can appeal and someone else might, but I am sure this will get approved by the commission."

On Diamond LLC, an affiliate of the San Francisco-based Emerald Fund, is purchasing the Diamond Heights site from the Cesar Chavez Foundation. It plans to construct 10 duplexes and four single-family residences for a total of 24 new homes, most likely to sell for around $2 million, Babsin estimated.

"This is the place to locate family housing," he said. "It will also lead to the creation of 11 affordable homes in San Francisco that would not be created otherwise."

The developer intends to pay close to $3 million to the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development to be used to build below-market-rate housing elsewhere in the city. Opponents of the project had sought last year to see the Diamond Heights land used for an affordable housing project.

They had contended since the Cesar Chavez Foundation used more than $20 million in tax-exempt affordable housing bonds issued by the California Statewide Communities Development Authority to purchase and rehabilitate the property in 2004, including the Vista Del Monte affordable housing community, it must abide by the stipulation included in a deed restriction that requires it to maintain the property for affordable multifamily rental uses for a period of 55 years.

The Chavez foundation countered that the existing affordable housing will remain as such until at least 2061 and that it has the right to sell the vacant hillside in order to funnel the proceeds into new affordable housing developments. It has told the Diamond Heights Community Association the money will be earmarked to build affordable housing in California.

More than a thousand people had expressed support or opposition to the project via letters to the planning commission and a petition denouncing the development in recent months. No matter what the planning commission decides next month, its decision could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which would then decide its fate.

Because of that gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has not taken a stance of support or opposition on the proposed development. In the fall he had said there were "definitely" some "pluses and minuses" to the plans.

"It is a site, for example, of why it is hard to get more affordable development in Noe Valley, maybe because of neighbor response but also the difficulty of developing the site," noted Mandelman, who commissioned a report last year examining how to build more housing throughout his district. "What is left to build on in District 8, developers are finding, are these very steep hillsides."

UPDATED 1/13/2022 with comments from Jim Chappell.

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