Controversial waterfront condo tower approved by Planning Commission

By Cory Weinberg

After years of political and financial maneuvers that tinkered with heights and affordable housing schemes, New York-based Paramount Group got the green light to build one of San Francisco’s most contentious towers Thursday.

The 75 Howard residential tower will include 130 high-priced units rising 220 feet on prime real estate next to the Embarcadero, replacing a parking garage that adds “blight to the neighborhood,” according to the project architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The project has attracted heavy opposition from neighbors and nearby condominium owners who object to the building’s height, its potential to cast shadows on neighboring Rincon Park, and the lack of below-market-rate housing. It’s been compared to another “Wall on the Waterfront,” like the 8 Washington project voted down at the ballot in 2013.

Opponents – like former mayor Art Agnos and environmental attorney Jon Golinger from that “No Wall” campaign – have threatened another ballot measure against this project and others as a result of its approval.

But those objections rang hollow in front of the Planning Commission.

The opposition was mostly drowned out late Thursday night by a string of public commenters from emerging groups like San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation advocating for more housing supply regardless of price points. “We’ve torn down the Embarcadero freeway and the real wall on the waterfront. Everyone agrees it’s a good thing. That parking garage is one of the only relics left,” said Kyle Huey, a member of SFBARF who works near 75 Howard.

Paramount Group also showed that the building would contribute shadows of less than 1 percent on Rincon Park – known for its Cupid Span sculpture and as one of South of Market’s few green spaces. At 220 feet tall, 75 Howard would also be shorter than the three buildings surrounding it directly to the north, south and west.

“It’s not on the waterfront. It’s a street away. There’s a parcel in front of it. It’s not on port property,” said Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards, who voted to approve the project. “I was interested in shadows and how they affect Rincon Park…I don’t think it’s that significant.”

‘Through the ringer’

The project passed by a 5-1 vote. The Planning Commission also granted a 10 percent height increase and more parking. Commission Vice Chair Cindy Wu opposed the project.

The site sits on private land that Paramount bought from Morgan Stanley Real Estate in 2007, even then considered one of the best places to build in San Francisco. But the project has given Paramount fits and starts, especially since the developer pitched a 350-foot version of the tower in 2013 and kicked up more height aversion complaints from opponents.

Paramount tried to trade extra height for added affordable housing dollarsearlier this year, but those talks fell through. The developer will instead contribute the minimum required affordable housing fee to the city – about $9 million – and lowered heights to 220 feet. It will also add about $15 million to fund open space near the future Transbay Transit Center.

“This project has been through the ringer, it deserves your support,” urged Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

More battles loom

The project elicited opposition from groups like Save Rincon Park, the Coalition of SF Neighborhoods, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and the Sierra Club for what they saw as outdated height limits, inadequate setbacks and too many shadows cast on the park.

The park is what San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King called the “the green punctuation on the stroll from the Ferry Building toward the Bay Bridge — a distance, by the way, of barely half a mile.” Opponents have also levied opposition against Tishman Speyer’s 160 Folsom St. tower because of Rincon Park shadow issues.

But Rincon Park is exempt from the 1984 “sunlight ordinance” that states a project taller than 40 feet can’t make a “significant” impact on additional shadows on a park under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Parks Department. Earlier this year, that 1980s ordinance led to the rejection of a six-story, 10-unit project in South of Market that would increase shadows by only 0.07 percent a year.

Golinger, a 75 Howard opponent, has said he is looking to go to the ballot to expand that ordinance to all city parks.

“This is just the first skirmish in what will be a long battle over whether an uber-luxury condo tower should block this important part of San Francisco’s waterfront,” he said. “ This vote has exposed a gaping loophole in the Sunlight law that voters enacted 30 years ago to protect San Francisco’s parks for everyone to enjoy.”

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