UC Berkeley’s Lease of SF Extension Subject of March 8 Hearing

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday February 27, 2007

The public hearing for UC Berkeley’s controversial plans to convert its historic six-acre Laguna Street Extension campus in San Francisco into a private rental-housing development is set for March 8. 

The San Francisco Planning Department will announce the time of the session next week. 

With the date of the hearing set—the only public process planned regarding the re-zoning of the campus—neighborhood groups and community activists are getting ready to voice their opposition to the proposed project. 

At a public screening of the documentary Uncommon Knowledge: Closing the Books at UC Berkeley Extension—a film which focuses on the Laguna Street property development—at the San Francisco Public Library on Saturday, director Eliza Hemenway put forward her concerns during a public forum. 

“We want to preserve the architectural significance of the place, especially the murals and the New Deal art inside it,” she said. “My main question is, Why is San Francisco even considering re-zoning it? What does the city have to gain from the redevelopment?” 

Hemenway added that the lack of media coverage on the important issue of rezoning the property on 55 Laguna St. was alarming.  

“We want UC to honor its mission as a land grant university and retain public use on it. The public hearing is the time to make that known,” she said. 

First used as a city orphanage from 1854 until the San Francisco State Normal School was established in the 1920s to accommodate public school teachers, the campus has also served as the original home of San Francisco State University (SFSU). SFSU will be screening the documentary on May 10 to raise awareness about preservation efforts for the campus. 

Citing prohibitive maintenance costs to bring the campus up to current seismic and disability codes, the UC Regents closed the UC Extension building in 2004 and it has been sitting empty since then. 

Warren Dewar, an attorney and board member of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association (HVNA), told the audience on Saturday that the portion of 55 Laguna St. where Waller Street formerly existed did not belong to the UC Regents. 

“After examining the real estate records on the property, my conclusion is that the city still owns the land where Waller Street crossed the property in the past. The city closed Waller Street in 1921 and according to the city charter, when the city closes a street, the title to the land remains with the city,” he said. “I have examined the records of deeds in the San Francisco registrar’s office, and no subsequent deed was executed by the city for Waller Street. If this be the case, then the Regents have no power to build on that 44-foot lot that runs right through the middle of the property.” 

Dewar told the Planet that he had sent this information to the UC Regents, SF Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and A.F. Evans—the Bay Area developers to which UC Berkeley has leased the property for 75 years for the proposed development—in August but had not heard back from any of them. 

“Their silence is deafening,” he said. 

HVNA has passed a resolution stating their opposition to the proposed development. “The Regents have no business to convert it into private property,” Dewar said. “If they can’t use it for public use, they should transfer it to another government agency who can.” 

Urban planner and co-chair of San Francisco-based Friends of 1800 Mark Paez told the Planet that the developer was using the affordable rental units in the plan as a ruse to gain favor for the proposed project. 

“They are not being very truthful. In reality, only a middle-income person will be able to afford a unit there,” he said. “The current plan calls for two of the buildings to be demolished. No public process was held when the university decided to put the property out on a bid for private development.” 

Friends of 1800 has nominated the UC Berkeley Extension Laguna Street Campus to the National Register of Historic Places and is currently collecting donations to landmark it locally. 

Although the project has met with sufficient opposition, Ruthy T. Bennett, vice president of S.F. Evans Development, wrote to the Planet in November that more than 400 letters were sent in its support to the board of supervisors. 

Bennett could not be reached for comment by press time Monday. Charles Chase, executive director of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage , said Monday that his organization found the scale and mass of the new construction to be appropriate to that of the neighborhood.