Brief Re-cap of 55 Laguna Planning History

By Jason Henderson

There continues to be a lot of uncertainty swirling around 55 Laguna (the former UC Extension campus bounded by Laguna, Hermann, Haight, and Buchanan Streets.) Many new people to the neighborhood may not be aware of the planning history of the site. Longtime residents might not remember how much went into neighborhood discussion of the site.

A brief recap can be helpful. In 2003 the UC Extension (aka 55 Laguna) was shuttered. A year later the AF Evans Company proposed to redevelop the six-acre site with an emphasis on housing but presented a plan that involved very little community input. HVNA passed a resolution protesting the urban design plan for the campus and requested that the UC and AF Evans work with the neighborhood. HVNA did not object to the reuse of the site, but there were many concerns with the bland design, the car-oriented nature of the proposal, and with the proposal’s razing of valuable historic buildings. So in spring 2005 HVNA’s Transportation and Planning Committee hosted six community meetings to fully discuss all available options for the use of the site. Around the same time HVNA also provided extensive comments to the environmental review for the proposal, specifically outlining concerns about automobile traffic and how it would undermine the goals of the Market and Octavia Plan. We urged the developer to allow good, mixed income housing, adaptive re-use of the site, but with more emphasis on walking, bicycling, and public transit.

In July 2006 HVNA passed two resolutions on the UC Extension site and asked the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission to intervene on behalf of the neighborhood. The first resolution outlined that we supported redevelopment of the site but only if it preserved public uses, reused existing buildings to the greatest extent possible (with the exception of the dental school), included more affordable housing, and aligned with the parking and zoning standards in the Market and Octavia Plan. Our rationale was that this is a publicly owned site and so should continue to serve the public good through sustainable urbanism and affordability, and not simply be redeveloped to make profit for a real estate developer using public land. The second resolution asked that the site be nominated to the National Historic Register. HVNA continued to work with AF Evans on the community benefits component of the project as well.

The project remained controversial but was approved at the planning commission in April 2008. The EIR was certified and the planning code amended to allow a special use district (SUD). However, no development occurred as AF Evans was hit by the national real estate lending downturn. No building permit was ever granted and by March 2009 AF Evans filed for bankruptcy.

According to the planning department, the special use district zoning has a five-year lifespan, although it can be extended by the planning commission. Technically the SUD will expire in April 2013. Additionally, if the development does proceed with little modification from the original proposal, the EIR is still valid. However if the development proposal was changed dramatically, a new EIR would be needed. If a new developer took over the site, all they would have to do is follow the original AF Evans proposal to get the project built. They would still need to get building permits. These have not been granted by the city yet. Inquiries to the planning department in late September suggest that the project proposal remains dormant at this time.