Naked City

The Waiting Game

Danger: Low Clearance
Danger: Low Clearance (By Doug Potter)

Victory at last?

Well, it's hard to say. Feelings were mixed among Hyde Park neighborhood supporters when the City Council handed down a 5-0 decision (with Mayor Kirk Watson absent and Council Member Bill Spelman abstaining) that, among other provisions, sent the neighbors back for 30 more days of negotiations with Hyde Park Baptist Church, giving both parties until March 2 to work out their differences on a proposed five-story parking garage on Avenue D. While HPBC attorney Richard Suttle's indignant sputterings about the lack of "normal process" may have lent the appearance of a neighborhood victory to the drawn-out proceedings, some neighbors -- including many who had sat in the council's temporary chambers at the airport for over nine hours before being limited to 10 minutes of total comment time -- were feeling less than vindicated by the outcome.

After all, they pointed out, the first six weeks of negotiations produced only two actual meetings with the church, whose representatives cut off talks before the two sides could reach a compromise on garage height and setbacks from adjacent streets. Worse still, the decision froze progress on a neighborhood plan which could have pulled the church's property in line with compatibility standards in place everywhere else in the neighborhood, potentially forcing church leaders to reconsider the scale and scope of their plans -- a move they have been thus far unwilling to make on their own.

According to Ramona Perrault, aide to Council Member Daryl Slusher, the council decided to halt the neighborhood plan in order to ensure "fairness" during the negotiations. "We want everybody to be holding the same cards," says Perrault. "The neighborhood needs to remember that there's been a feeling that the church holds all the cards because they have the [garage site plan] applications in, but that's not really true. If we open this whole thing up, there are some things [the church] would like to revisit that they didn't get to the first time around, and that will be on the table too."

The dissension, which is likely to continue well past the March 2 cutoff for negotiations, centers on a zoning ordinance enacted by the city in 1990; that ordinance, establishing what is known (somewhat ironically) as a Neighborhood Conservation Combining District, allows the proposed parking garage to be built on the half-block adjacent to the current five-story facility. But neighbors say that ordinance, which like any other ordinance can only be repealed by a vote of the City Council, was passed under spurious circumstances and with limited information.

"The neighborhood voted on the conceptual plan [on which the ordinance was based], but they didn't get into the details of the ordinance," says neighborhood attorney Rachael Rawlins. "The ordinance was rushed through without the ordinary 60-day [review] requirement because the church was holding demolition permits on several houses in the neighborhood."

Even worse, Hyde Park residents say, the ordinance allows the church to violate compatibility standards, in place since 1985, which require new structures anywhere in the city to meet height and setback requirements appropriate to the surrounding area. And nothing in the conceptual plan had indicated that the compatibility standards wouldn't apply. "These standards, which had been in place for five years at the time [of the agreement] and remain in place today, would allow a two-to-three story garage height at most, with sizable setbacks, substantial impervious cover restrictions, and a human scale appropriate for residential use," said Alliance to Save Hyde Park representative Susan Moffat at the meeting. (Moffat is the wife of Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro.)

But the church was having none of that on Thursday night, when council members reached an agreement on the ordinance after a lengthy executive session. HPBC attorney Richard Suttle said that by extending the period for negotiations, the city was "reneging on its 1990 agreement" and placing "the integrity of all the neighborhood plans and agreements of our city ... in jeopardy." (Suttle did not return calls for comment on the council's decision.)

And while council members didn't exactly agree with Suttle's allegations, they saved most of their ire for the neighbors, not the church. "When I went and met with members of the church and Mr. Suttle, I can tell you from some of the tone of some of the [neighborhood association] newsletters and the rhetoric, I think [church representatives] have the idea that you all aren't necessarily interested in negotiation and accommodation, so I would encourage a moratorium on that sort of rhetoric during this time as well," Slusher told neighborhood reps.

The ordinance adopted by the council, which acknowledges that "ambiguities may exist" in the 1990 agreement between the church and the neighbors as well as in the existing NCCD, was toned down substantially from the city staff-drafted version, which would have required the city manager to complete an ongoing planning study and make zoning recommendations before any further construction or demolition could take place. The original ordinance "actually started the process of making changes to the NCCD, and we weren't ready to do that yet," says Slusher aide Perrault.

Neighborhood attorney Rawlins says that while she is "optimistic" that the renewed negotiations will succeed, the decision to compromise will ultimately be up to the church. "The church has said, 'We've got the right to build whatever we're going to build; why should we budge?' And the only thing we've been able to say in response is that the City Council might decide to amend the ordinance to force them to comply with compatibility guidelines; and they're saying, 'Okay, we'll wait for that to happen,'" Rawlins says.

Meanwhile, neighbors continue to question whether the church needs a new garage at all. According to the church's promotional materials, they need the new garage to combat a "parking shortage" caused by increased Sunday school attendance. But according to neighborhood residents who have canvassed the garage, the top two floors are virtually empty even during the peak hours of 9am-noon on Sundays. Moreover, figures in the church's own newsletter indicate that average Sunday school attendance has, if anything, declined since before the garage was built -- from an average of 2,802 reported Dec. 2, 1984 to an average of 2,720 in 1999.

Neighbors point to another reason church members want a new parking garage: Their cars are getting too big to fit into the existing facility. It's an allegation church officials don't deny: As church representative Bob Liverman pointed out back in October, SUVs, particularly the bigger ones like Suburbans and Expeditions, are almost too tall to clear the entrance of the current garage.

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