There's a little street called Kensington Way on San Francisco's Westside. It runs along the base of Edgehill Mountain, hidden between the more famous Twin Peaks and taller Mt. Davidson.
People live on one side of the single-lane road. A steep hillside looms on the other, less than 50 feet from the front doors of 1920s-era homes.
Urban hikers would enjoy venturing in the area, tucked behind the West Portal tunnel under a mature stand of Monterey Cypress trees. But this article is not a travelogue.
It's a cautionary tale for every San Franciscan who considers their home a refuge after trying to make it through a day unscathed by the growing miseries of our city.
Smashed car windows. Heroin needles underfoot. Muni meltdowns. We're lucky to escape any of it before getting home to discover a package stolen from our doorstep. At least we can feel a sense of respite inside.
But that's not the case for the residents of Kensington Way. Nonsensical city planning has threatened their homes.
A developer wants to cut open the side of the mountain and insert a row of giant single-family mansions. At 5,900 square feet each and five stories high, they would be triple the size of the houses across the narrow street.
City planners say it's all within zoning parameters, though the unique topography of the mountain will trigger a special review. A geotechnical report commissioned by the developer describes the "near-vertical rock cliff face" of a mountain "plagued with slope stability problems for the past 50 plus years."
Kensington Way residents are worried the hillside will collapse on them during the excavation for the new homes. The people who live at the top of Edgehill Mountain are nervous, too.
Some longtime residents have witnessed all the significant rock and landslides that happened in 1952, 1967, 1982, 1995, and 1997. A multimillion-dollar slope stabilization effort of the former rock quarry didn't include the Kensington Way side of the mountain.
A matter of trust
A recent community meeting about the development was held in a church on Edgehill Mountain that had been damaged by several rockslides.
The developer, SIA Consulting, made the case that they're using the best engineers, geologists, and architects to ensure the project is built safe and sound.
But Kensington Way resident Ann Wei pointed out a disclaimer in the geotechnical report by Divis Consulting that said it was "based on limited data review, widely spaced exploration points and preliminary development plans."
"They don't have all the information to tell us more horrible things that can go wrong," Wei told the crowd.
The project's developer, geotechnical engineering firm, and landowner did not respond to requests for comment in this article.
At the community meeting, Wei recounted recent engineering debacles like the sinking Millennium Tower, the Transbay Terminal's cracked beams, and a host of structural issues and corrosion problems on the new Bay Bridge.
"Did they not have the top engineers? The best architect firms? City permits and all the resources any developer can humanly get?" Wei asked. "We're not a high profile location. How can we trust any better result?"
Fighting City Hall
Mix water saturation with an unstable hill and it's a recipe for a landslide. A developer-commissioned report includes the claim "there is no sign of groundwater" on Edgehill Mountain, but "there may be a seasonal spring."
Residents don't believe it. They see water percolate and gurgle from the base of a utility pole near the mountain every day. The intersection of Kensington Way and Ulloa Street is perpetually wet even when there hasn't been rain for weeks or months.
"We need a comprehensive, geological, hydrologic study of the entire mountain to understand the true, full impact of any development in this area," Wei said.
But that type of study can be prohibitively expensive for a developer trying to meet a profit margin or a City Hall focused on other budget priorities.
There are powerful incentives to build single-family mansions on the five lots city planners have drawn on the face of Edgehill Mountain: each will sell for $5 million. That's pretty significant profit for the developers and top property taxes for City Hall.
That's why Kensington Way residents have to fend for themselves. Wei and her neighbors, including Sallie McKenna, are trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars to hire attorneys and consultants. They created a group called Community Action to Rescue Edgehill (CARE) and created a simple website to solicit support.
"We're in a very imbalanced situation to fight City Hall," McKenna said. "Most of us have day jobs. We're random neighbors without the relevant skill sets and political power to stop forces aimed at rendering us irrelevant."
A need for housing
Any proposal for new housing in San Francisco is politically fraught. While everyone agrees there is a shortage of affordable housing, it's hard to argue that the Kensington Way multi-million-dollar mansions meet that need.
One argument against the Kensington Way development is that shadow-casting behemoths clash with neighborhood character. There's a larger moral question of whether we should build mansions for millionaires when apartments can house multiple middle-income families in the same footprint.
The instability of Edgehill Mountain makes both arguments moot. It just isn't an appropriate location for housing of any type.
Some residents pointed out they would accept new housing nearby. Stonestown Mall was mentioned. So was the merchant corridor along West Portal Avenue, which has been anchored by an Art Deco apartment building for 90 years. I've written previous columns about housing potential in those locations.
Paula Baum, 74, lives a block away from Edgehill Mountain. Her two daughters had to leave San Francisco to find housing, which means Baum doesn't get to see her grandchildren as often as she would like. Her 32-year-old son still lives at home.
"My kids could never buy a house in West Portal and start a family the way my husband and I did 40 years ago," Baum said. "That's why we need affordable duplexes and apartments next to transportation."
Baum also said she is concerned about a lack of housing for seniors who can't climb stairs.
"Life happens in a flash and we need to plan for how to age in place in our neighborhood," she said. "We need to think outside the box."
We're all residents of Kensington Way
At the community meeting, residents learned about several large, unstable boulders that have been identified on Edgehill Mountain. An earthquake or mere gravity could cause the rocks to crash onto the homes below.
The developer was quick to point out that excavating the mountain for the new housing would solve the boulder threat.
But there is a less invasive way. City Hall should use some of its $12 billion budget to clear the mountain of dangerous rocks and preserve the area as open space.
Former supervisor Tony Hall suggested that City Hall could fix the entire situation by offering a land swap with the owner to build the proposed housing elsewhere.
The Kensington Way residents pay property taxes. They deserve protection from runaway boulders and a nonsensical development plan that jeopardizes an entire neighborhood.
That's why homeowners across San Francisco should care about what's happening on Kensington Way. We feel besieged by crime, potholes, and quality of life issues.
But to City Hall, we're just an ATM. We're left to wonder who will have our back when the next landslide, real or metaphorical, threatens our home.
Joel Engardio is vice president of Stop Crime SF. He lives with his husband, Lionel Hsu, in District 7's Lakeshore neighborhood on the Westside.