Housing project mired in fresh litigation
Updated at 5:45 p.m. Monday, August 6 in bold
A proposed housing development that would line a stretch of waterfront near the Park Street Bridge is once again tied up in litigation, with the city insisting the blighted property be cleaned up and its owners saying those cleanup demands are inhibiting their efforts to sell.
City officials are suing Catherine and Francis Collins in an effort to force them clean up the 9.48-acre property they own at 2235 Clement Street and to demolish the dilapidated buildings that remain there. But the Collinses have countersued, claiming the city is overreaching in its cleanup demands and that the demands have stalled efforts to sell and redevelop the property where the planned Boatworks housing development is to be built. And they may seek to reopen a nearly two-year-old settlement agreement in a prior court case over development there.
“Mr. and Mrs. Collins want nothing more than to be able to move forward with the development of their property, replacing the vacant buildings the City is so concerned about with new homes,” the Collins’ attorney, Kathy Sher, wrote the city on August 17, 2011. “That cannot happen if the City continues to waylay them with unreasonable demands for action during the time they need to pursue their plans and see them to fruition.”
But city officials said the trash and weed-strewn property – which has since seen a host of court-ordered cleanup efforts – had become a haven for vagrants and that the dilapidated buildings there are unsafe and should be torn down. And they said they’ve done everything they agreed to do and that it’s up to the couple to see the sale of the property through.
“The end of the story is, he was reaching out and saying he wanted to re-enter into settlement agreement negotiations. And our response was, no. If you want to change project, submit a new plan,” Planning Services Manager Andrew Thomas said.
Last year city leaders okayed a development plan for the site that included 153 homes, a 29-unit apartment building and a park, which was contingent on a list of more than 90 conditions. The City Council’s July 2011 approval of the project came on the heels of a 2010 settlement of one of the three lawsuits the Collinses filed to try to win permission for an earlier development plan.
Legal filings from a 2007 case say the couple had sought to develop the property since 1991, but that they had been consistently stymied by the city’s refusal to zone the property for residential development and to accept a 242-unit development with dozens of affordable units they said were permitted under the state’s density bonus law, which allows developers a pass on some development restrictions if they promise to build more affordable housing on a site than required.
The property had been idle since 2004, when they said the city forced them to cancel industrial leases there, the Collinses’ filings say. The city in 2006 agreed to zone a little more than half the property for residential development, leaving the rest zoned for a park city leaders hoped to build there one day. But the funding for such a park never materialized.
A month after the City Council unanimously approved the new, 182-unit Boatworks project, the city’s building officer ordered the Collinses to demolish the four abandoned buildings on their property, saying they were dangerous and a draw for vagrants and criminals. The property had been the site of three fires since 2007, court records show, including one that destroyed a fifth building in 2011 that was later demolished, and that June pieces of one of the buildings had blown onto a sidewalk and parking lot on Oak Street, case filings show.
The couple lost a September 2011 appeal to a city hearing officer and the city sued in an effort to get a court order requiring a cleanup along with $750,000 in legal fees and $500,000 for monitoring. In December, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Delbert Gee granted the city a preliminary injunction requiring the Collinses to clean up the property.
The Collinses countersued, saying the city should have given them an opportunity to fix up the buildings instead of forcing the couple to tear them down. And they said the liens the city imposed on their property as it’s being cleaned up have diminished its value.
“The recording of the Notice and Order on the property title, as well as the citations issued for failure to abate the conditions cited, the fines imposed, and the liens resulting from fines, have made it extremely difficult for petitioners to sell the property for redevelopment, and have greatly reduced the value of the property in the eyes of potential buyers,” Sher wrote in a December 20 court filing.
Francis Collins didn’t return a call seeking comment on the lawsuits or his progress in obtaining a buyer for the site or moving forward on development plans. But the couple may face other obstacles to proceeding with their plans.
Thomas said one of the conditions of moving forward with the project was gaining the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s approval on a plan to remove a dock owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and replacing it with a smaller pier and stairs for kayak access. But Collins was unable to secure that approval for his project, he said.
Commission staffers drafted a December 22, 2010 report to the commission seeking their thoughts on the proposal, but the commission’s website contained no record of the project moving forward. The commission’s executive director, Steve Goldbeck, said the commission issued a letter to the Collinses last September seeking more information on their application and that staff is waiting for the information to proceed.
"We'd like to act on it, but we haven't got it back," Goldbeck said Monday evening.
The Collinses have been held in contempt of court orders twice for failing to follow through on required cleanup, though court records from March show that the property had been cleared of weeds, debris, graffiti and loose roofing and siding materials.
“Fortunately, once plaintiff brought certain concerns to the defendants’ attention, defendants have generally undertaken the needed repair work,” Judge Gee wrote in an April 5 ruling finding the Collinses in contempt of his earlier orders, though he said the couple had applied for a building permit and was in the process of erecting additional fencing around their property.
A hearing on whether to consolidate the court cases is set for September 25, while a trial in the case the city filed is set for September 28. The next hearing in Collins’s case is set for October 18, contingent on whether the cases are combined.