Robert Tillman Laundromat

Robert Tillman in his Mission District Laundromat.

Interference and possible misconduct by the Vice President of the Planning Commission may complicate the latest delay facing the controversial 2918 Mission project.

Robert Tillman has been trying to build a 75-unit apartment building at 2918 Mission for the last five years. Approved by the San Francisco Planning Commission last November, the project is opposed by well-organized neighborhood groups in the Mission District, like the Plaza 16 Coalition and board members of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, which have filed a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) appeal to try and stop it. Recently, a leading member of the Planning Commission lent a hand to their cause, potentially in violation of longstanding city government regulations.

In the past, Tillman had also been in negotiations with the local nonprofit housing provider Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) to sell the property for use as as affordable housing, but neither party could come to an agreement.

Up until last month, it had been assumed that the Board of Supervisors would be the final local hurdle for the project: either they would go ahead and deny the appeal based on the recommendation of the Planning Department, or they would uphold it, and Tillman would end up suing the city under the Housing Accountability Act, a suit which he would almost certainly win.

But what ended up happening on February 13 seemed like a bolt from the blue: instead of the Board of Supervisors voting on the appeal, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen moved to delay the vote in light of an ongoing historical study for the property. The study was recommended at the beginning of February by the Planning Department and agreed to by Tillman, and will likely delay the entire process another 4 to 5 months. In the meantime, the move has become yet another widely-discussed example of the City’s barriers to building housing. 

When Tillman first heard of the study, his attorneys at the firm Reuben & Junius inquired with the Planning Department about its justification. And that’s where things got messy.

As it turns out, new information was supplied to the Department regarding the site being used as workspace for a number of grassroots groups associated with the Mission Coalition of Organizations, an umbrella group organized to address concerns of Mission District residents over redevelopment policies during the early 1970s. As such, the Department had no choice but to go ahead and recommend the study.

The question in many minds became who supplied the information, and why now, in such a way as to delay the project even further? Tillman asked Scott Weaver, attorney for the appellants, about it.  “He said they had nothing to do with it,” says Tillman. “He said it came from within the Planning Department.”

Meanwhile, rumors were circulating that in late January, Planning Commission Vice President Myrna Melgar had a conversation over brunch with a longtime Mission District activist, who mentioned remembering working with MCO-allied organizations during the 1970s at 2918 Mission.

When the project was voted on in November by the Planning Commission, Melgar voted against it, offering a number of objections to it during deliberations. Some of those objections could be best described as tangential, such as how the project could compound the high rate of childhood obesity found in the census tract.

In the course of following up on the rumors, Commissioner Melgar contacted the Beacon, and admitted bringing the new information to the attention of Planning Department Director John Rahaim in a telephone call.

Melgar said that she felt compelled to do so after the brunch conversation, as well as subsequent inquiries she made with members of the Mission activist community who were active during the 1960s and 70s.

"I felt it was part of my duty as a commissioner to make sure that the new information was considered now that I had found out about it," says Melgar.  “It's important that the history of activism in the community is recognized."

The problem is that under the City Charter, what Commissioner Melgar did may constitute misconduct that could potentially disqualify her from holding public office.

For instance, in City Charter Section 15.103, it says that:

"in some cases, commissioners, by law, must be selected from certain neighborhood, community or professional groups. But such commissioners all their duty of loyalty to the entire city. They do not just represent a neighborhood, community or profession, although they may bring their to their service a greater knowledge of or appreciation for the needs of that group. These commissioners, like all commissioners must act in the city's interest." 

The Charter also stresses the "quasi-judicial" role of certain commissions, including the Planning Commission, emphasizing that the conduct of commissioners on these bodies must take into account due process. Specifically, Charter Section 4.102 provides that: 

"any dictation, suggestion or interference [in administrative affairs] herein prohibited on the part of any member of a board or commission shall constitute official misconduct." 

In addition to requiring that a board or commission deal with administrative matter solely through the department head or their designees, section 4.102 prohibits individual commissioners from “dictation, suggestion, or interference” in administrative matters.

It's been speculated that at least one possible motive for delaying the project further with the historical study is to provide additional room for MEDA to make another offer for the property, while increasing pressure on Tillman to lower the price, given the continuing delays in the entitlement process.

It just so happens that Commissioner Melgar, currently Executive Director of the Jamestown Community Center, is a former Deputy Director of MEDA.

Melgar maintains that while she was aware that MEDA and Tillman had been in negotiations over the property, she had no communications with the nonprofit on the matter.

While it's certainly not improper for a City department to change course in a policy decision based on new information, the fact that it was supplied through independent research by the Vice President of the Planning Commission, after that body had already voted to approve the project, could open up the City to further liability.

Jim Sutton, a leading political and election lawyer in the City, weighed in with skepticism: “This kind of action taken after the fact, as a result of independent research by a member of a commission which has already adjudicated the issue, represents a fundamental due process violation,” says Sutton.

Whether or not the history of local activism at the site justifies holding up its demolition and redevelopment into dense, transit-adjacent housing remains an open question.

It's worth noting that Mike Miller, an early lead organizer with the MCO, was recently quoted in a MissionLocal article as having"no reason to think that building is a historic resource." In addition, the MCO and its allied organizations also occupied other locations in the neighborhood, both before and after their time at 2918 – 2922 Mission, with no historic recognition.

As it stands today, 2918 Mission carries no remaining evidence of the organizations that were there during this period. This includes a mural, “Latinoamerica,” painted by women activists during that time, but which had been subsequently removed long before Tillman acquired the property.

Was Melgar implicitly using her position as Vice President of the Planning Commission to compel the department to further delay the project? Ultimately, that question can only be answered by knowing the context of the conversation she had with Director Rahaim, who has not responded to our inquiries by press time.

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