Opposition to the Central SoMa Plan, which clears the way for development of almost 16 million square feet of office space and housing on the blocks between Moscone Center and Caltrain, has escalated. The fight has moved from City Hall to the courts, with CEQA lawsuits filed against the City and County by multiple parties, with differing perspectives over whether the Plan does too much—or too little.
Back in October, we reported on the rejection by the Board of Supervisors of appeals regarding the Environmental Impact Report made under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for the Central SoMa Plan. They were filed by a number of parties, including self-styled representatives of the homeowners’ association at the BLU SF condominium project at 631 Folsom Street, who have threatened continued litigation. But by the time lawsuits against the City were filed in January, the overall shape of the opposition had changed.
Jonathan Berk, a finance professor at Stanford who lives in a penthouse at the top of BLU SF and had been a main opposition organizer, filed suit on January 14. His petition claims that the Central SoMa Plan will create "50,000 more jobs than housing units, exacerbating the City’s already critical jobs-housing imbalance, resulting in still higher housing prices, more displacement, and more gentrification."
The brief also repeats claims Berk made earlier about impacts on air quality, as "the inevitable consequence of introducing a massive new population of commuting workers and new residents into a dense, tightly congested area already suffering from nearly constant workday traffic jams that have only worsened with the proliferation of ride sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft—an impact that the city's EIR absolutely failed to consider.”
Notably, Berk no longer claims to represent the membership of the homeowners’ association at BLU SF, as he did when initially threatening litigation, but is instead filing suit on his own behalf. The same goes another brief filed by BLU SF HOA board members Paul Phillips, Genia Phillips, and Regina Cariaga. Phillips and Cariaga mention being active in the HOA as well as Central SoMa Neighbors, another group involved in the original Board of Supervisors appeal, in their brief, but as of now their suit is filed on their own behalf only.
According to other building residents speaking under condition of anonymity, Berk apparently resigned his position at the HOA before filing his suit. As reported earlier, a number of building residents had objected to Berk and other board members litigating the Plan in the Association's name, and using its funds for the litigation.
Among the reasons voiced for the objection were that BLU SF residents were already facing assessments to pay for construction defect litigation undertaken earlier by the HOA, as well as concerns that litigation over the Central SoMa Plan was really driven by preserving views enjoyed by a small number of residents. Berk, Phillips, and Cariaga reportedly all have higher floor units with views overlooking the Plan boundaries.
Local housing development advocates have denounced the two lawsuits. Both YIMBY Action and the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition sent letters to the City Attorney’s Office arguing that neither suit has standing because the parties failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.
"They hid behind their condo association and thereby gave up their right to sue under CEQA,” wrote Laura Foote, Executive Director of YIMBY Action, in her letter. “None of the organizations that did participate in the process – and which these individuals claim to be a part of—were willing to file a lawsuit. The time for games is over."
The letter further notes that, “If the City does not challenge the standing of the individuals who brought these two lawsuits, it will be setting a dangerous precedent encouraging individuals to swoop in at the last minute to sue and further abuse CEQA,” signaling that "San Francisco is unwilling to fight to defend its housing laws."
Mark Wolfe, attorney for Jonathan Berk, did not return requests for comment by press time.
Another brief has been filed by the Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium LLC, an affiliate organization of the Tenants Owners and Development Corporation (TODCO), a nonprofit housing provider owned and operated by John Elberling. This brief claims that the EIR "failed to serve as an adequate public disclosure document in its analysis of significant environmental impacts and identification of mitigation measures and alternatives to Plan-related and cumulative demand for public services such as police, fire, and recreation, or to address Plan-specific and cumulative—unstudied and unmitigated—grave earthquake dangers and impacts in SoMa," among other points.
The organizational purpose of the Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium is not entirely clear. The organization was incorporated as an LLC in 2013 after losing its 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit organization in 2011 for delinquent filings. During the November 2016 campaign cycle, then-Supervisor Mark Farrell and others alleged that the organization was used to launder revenues from TODCO into political campaign donations.
Meanwhile, developers of One Vassar, a mixed-use project under the auspices of the Central Soma Plan, has also filed a brief. As with their earlier administrative appeal, One Vassar claims the plan violates CEQA by failing to consider higher housing density alternatives that would make it more consistent with the City’s Housing Element.
Notably, they allege the plan fails to "properly address environmental impacts arising from inconsistencies between the Housing Sustainability District ordinance (enacted as part of the Central Soma Plan), which disincentivizes—and therefore will likely reduce—the number of affordable housing for buildings taller than 160 feet.”
"One Vassar continues to believe that more housing will reduce environmental impacts, and strongly disagrees with some of the litigants on lowering density," says Sharon Lai, Senior Director of Development at One Vassar.
Related case filings have been made by the City and most of the litigants, so it is likely that all of the suits will be heard eventually, under one judge. The City Attorney’s filing notes that “because the four cases challenge the same administrative approvals, this record—which is expected to be substantial—will be identical in all four cases. The cases present essentially the same question of law: whether, based on the administrative record of proceedings, San Francisco prejudicially abused its discretion in approving the Central SoMa Plan.”
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