Robert Tillman Laundromat

Robert Tillman in his Mission District Laundromat.

A Mission District property owner has faced years of neighborhood opposition for replacing his laundromat with housing, even after offering to sell his lot to the City to develop. If all else fails, he says he’ll sue.

Robert Tillman, the owner of the aging laundromat at 2918 Mission and “accidental developer” of a proposed 75-unit housing project for the site, recently shared his experiences of going through San Francisco's permitting process with the Beacon. His project yields valuable lessons on local government’s role in perpetuating—and potentially solving—the City's housing shortage.

As with other multi-family projects in the Mission, that process has been highly contentious. Activist groups like the Plaza 16 Coalition and now institutionalized Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, oppose the project for manifold reasons, ranging from gentrification concerns, to parking issues. While everyone agrees that Tillman has been completely transparent on his end, to the point of even posting his financials for the project on NextDoor, he’s received mixed signals from the opposition.

While the leaders of local activist groups are often cordial and give Mr. Tillman impression that their objections are of a pro forma nature, thelanguage at the grassroots level has often been quite ugly.

Tillman was led to this process quite by accident. Had the world not changed around the Mission, he’d be content continuing to operate his laundromat just like he does in other sites around the country. He’s adapting to history, just like everyone else. In fact, Tillman’s site even got a mention inthe Atlantic Monthly in a piece about  the disappearance of neighborhood laundromats. Globalization has made “White Goods” – things like washing machines – more affordable. More people are buying their own, or landlords are putting them into buildings and individual apartments.  

As a result, business isn’t great for coin-operated laundries. There are already six others in the neighborhood competing for the same shrinking base of customers. Go inside Tillman’s and you’ll see that it’s large, clean, and friendly, with a big screen TV and vending machines.  But many machines remain perpetually out of service. That’s because most of them are around 30 years old, and at the end of their service life. Some models aren’t even made anymore; when they break down, he obtains used machines to cannibalize for parts.

“There’s not enough business to justify renovating them,” according to Tillman. “Like everyone else, I’m responding to economic forces. For me, this is not a plan; it’s an accident.”

Tillman’s vision for the site is a mid-priced rental housing development that would work for people beginning their careers, young families, or paraprofessionals that the neighborhood has a compelling interest in keeping around – like teachers. The site is right next to a preschool, and he’s kept the entrance to his parking lot – which ironically is the largest part of the property – restricted to the Mission Street side, so as to keep the alley behind safe for walking traffic between the two preschool sites.

The fact that Tillman's property is close to schools in the neighborhood, and currently saddled with an underused parking lot, make the institutional opposition to redevelopment all the more vexing.

"I wouldn't be displacing anybody, not residents, no business except my own, nothing historical… we’re one block from BART, the neighborhood has a 99% walkability score, and we’re right next to a school. Wouldn't it be great to have teacher housing [here]?" he exclaims.

Tillman has offeredthe chance for the City to buy the property for affordable housing, including the option of a long-term ground lease. So far there are no takers. City officials aren’t willing to comment on the matter, citing, among other things, that the project is still going through the entitlement process.

Back in 2015, the City did buy a 72-unit project at 490 South Van Ness, for a cost similar to what Tillman is offering. But that project was already through with its entitlement process and was described by observers as "virtually turn-key."

Reluctance to take up the offer may also be due to upwards of 1200 affordable units already going through the pipeline for the Mission as of now, according to the dashboard put together by the Mayor's Office of Housing. That, at least in the City's mind, reduces the urgency to spend the extra money. There are also the political complications of dealing with annual approvals by the Board of Supervisors when dealing with any long-term lease.  

Tillman is also open to is trading units with another developer. 

But Tillman isn’t like other developers. Because he owns the property outright, he doesn't have to deal with a lot of things that other developers do, like the risk of maintaining carrying costs. All he really has to do is wait everyone else out.

Should the Planning Commission deny the permits when his project comes before them on September 14 (which is highly unlikely), he has the State's Density Bonus Law and the Housing Accountability Act to fall back on. It’s even grandfathered under AB915, Assemblymember Phil Ting’s bill designed to restrict implementation of the the Density Bonus Law within San Francisco, awaiting final approval by the State Senate.

"If Planning turns me down, I sue, and it's very easy to win… Everyone [against this project] has blinked multiple times,” Tillman says. “I'm here – let's negotiate.”

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