Staggering in the shadows of a vastly divided community, what was once First St. John’s United Methodist Church, now sits a boarded up eyesore at the corner of Larkin and Clay streets that the residents of Middle Polk and Nob Hill see conflicting visions for the future.
First St. John’s United Methodist Church was built in 1911 by architect George Washington Kramer. It was used for religious services until 2002, but turned into a day care due to a declining congregation. In 2003 the First St. John’s congregation voted to sell the building.
The California Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, owner of the property, decided that the money would be used for new congregational developments in San Francisco. Pacific Polk Properties LLC, the developer, proposed a large streamlined dwelling-unit building to replace the abandon church which was disapproved by the planning commission in 2010 and 2012. Reason being, the design wasn’t cohesive to the area and didn’t have support from the community or the planning department.
The newest plan proposes to demolish the vacant church and construct a five-story building which contains 27 dwelling units and 32 off-street parking spaces.
The project was heard for a third time by the planning commission on Oct. 3. Both the conditional use authorization and a variance were approved, but an appeal was filed against the variant requiring another hearing which will again slow down the process of the sponsor obtaining a building permit.
“This has been a controversial project that has been around for quite some time- in one form or another, it’s been around 10 years,” said Kevin Guy, the staff contact of the planning department.
The two main issues that kept the community passionately involved were the differing opinions about the existing historic church and the modern design of the new proposal.
Some people in the community wanted to preserve the church as much as possible, because although it had been deteriorating for years, it was still part of the neighborhood fabric and remained architecturally significant.
“Unfortunately we are stuck with a situation in which we have a building, which has some obvious historic and architectural merit, [that] is being put before you on a yes or no vote,” said Steven Taber to the Planning Commission on Oct. 3.
Taber, a prominent historic preservationists, is the legal pro bono advisor to the opposing Nob Hill Neighbors, a group that has spoken out the loudest against the demolition of the Larkin Street church and the new 27-unit plan.
“Illegal strategies to remove a historic resource and permit luxury condos, threaten the public process that all depend on for neighborhood integrity and historic or architectural preservation,” said Linda Chapman, head of the Nob Hill Neighbors.
Their plan is to save the salvageable parts of the existing structure and build senior housing with an “appropriate design” to fit the community.
“Just half a block south another eight units are facing Ellis Act evictions and I believe up to 6 of them are elderly, which underscores the importance of senior housing in this neighborhood,” said Henry Pan, a 20-year resident of Nob Hill and active member of the Nob Hill Neighbors.
For him, senior housing would slow down the gentrification process of the neighbourhood.
Other community members thought that the neighbourhood was in need of more housing and had concerns about crime and vandalism at the existing site. They wanted to see the church go entirely.
Since being abandoned, the homeless have begun to inhabit the area around the graffiti painted doorways and falling down arches outside. It has also been increasingly deteriorating and things have fallen off the building and onto the sidewalks, making it an unsafe nuisance to the neighbors living next door.
The project sponsor has been accused of intentionally speeding up the deterioration process, adding to the frustration and distaste for the developers and the project plan.
“Having kept the building in a deteriorating state for all these years…has contributed to its continued deterioration, and so you [would] hate to reward that kind of behavior within a project approval”, said Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya.
The lack of neighborhood support was one of the most important reasons why the planning commission disapproved the project in the past. A vast majority of owners, whose buildings directly neighbor the existing church, are in favor of the new plan.
Another important issue to the commissioners was the support of the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association (MPNA). Previously the MPNA has been opposed to the project because of its out-of-scale design. By meeting several times with the project architect, the MPNA was able to voice their concerns about the design.
“Initially we wanted to save the church in any way possible and have it benefit the community,” said Frank Cantana, an officer of the MPNA, “but the church is beyond repair and we need to find a new solution.”
The leaders of the neighborhood association were split on the design of the new building. They cast a vote to their members which came back with a 55% approval for the project.
The project sponsor has also been accused of bribing the MPNA into agreeing to their most recent plan with a $60,000 donation to the beautification of the neighbourhood and a consolation to losing a historic resource. Members of the MNPA disagree with that statement saying the money is for the neighborhood and not their neighborhood association.
“I think this has come a long way and I give a lot of credit to my fellow commissioners and to the public for working with the developer to shape this into something that’s a very good project,” said Commissioner Michael Antonini at the planning commission meeting on Oct. 3.
Although passed, this project still casts waves of tension through the Middle Polk and Nob Hill community. Although passionately divided, this issue has proven how much the members of these communities care about their neighborhood.