Feeling hamstrung by new state housing laws, South San Francisco officials reluctantly approved an 800-unit development Wednesday — the largest the city has seen in decades. 

After more than five hours of public testimony and deliberations, the City Council voted 4-1 for the massive mixed-use project that spans 6 acres at 1051 Mission Road. Councilman Rich Garbarino dissented because the project includes buildings as tall as eight stories. 

Garbarino’s colleagues also had concerns about the height and density of the proposal, but felt they had no choice but to approve it because of state law.

“The state Legislature is forcing our hand,” said Councilman Mark Addiego. “For the most part, when it comes to housing, we’re not in control of our own destiny.” 

Senate Bill 35, which prevents cities from denying a project based on height or density if it conforms to the general plan and zoning, was cited numerous times throughout the meeting. 

The proposal is in an area that allows buildings as tall as 14 stories and councilmembers were worried that a “no” vote could trigger a lawsuit followed by an even larger development proposal — similar to what has occurred in San Bruno. After San Bruno officials rejected a 425-unit development proposal in July, the developer has unveiled plans to construct taller, 600-unit project instead, claiming SB 35 gives it the authority to do so. 

“If we deny this project, another developer can come back and use SB 35 and they can go to maximum height and our ability to limit that height is minimal to none,” said Councilman Mark Nagales. “It happened to San Bruno and it’ll happen to us. I’m trying to protect the city as much as I can. … As much as I don’t want to see eight stories, I don’t have much to go against it.”

The plans submitted by developer L37/KASA include three seven-and-eight story buildings, 13,000 square feet of retail space, 879 mostly underground parking stalls and 1 acre of public open space. The project also includes an 8,300-square-foot child care facility with subsidies for close to a third of the children it can accommodate.

Of the 800 housing units in the development, 158 or 20% of them will be set aside for low-income residents earning between 25% and 80% of area median income, which comes out to incomes between $34,200 a year and $129,150 a year for a family of four. Preference for the affordable units will be given to those who already live and work in the city. 

The project is proposed near where Westborough Boulevard turns into Chestnut Avenue just west of downtown on land previously owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, a short distance from the city’s BART station. 

A roughly equal number of supporters and opponents of the project took to the microphone during the public comment period of the meeting, with supporters arguing that increasing the supply of housing and affordable units will help residents remain in the area.

“We rent and can’t afford to buy. These homes will help us stay,” said resident John Baker, also president of the South San Francisco Unified School District, but speaking on his own behalf. “It’s important to consider what happens if [the homes] are not built: more than 800 potential residents who would’ve been there will instead be competing with those of us who are already here, further driving up rents and exacerbating an already dire displacement crisis.”

Opponents argued that the height and size of the development does not fit with the city’s character, with many calling for between three and five stories instead of eight.

“Forcing Sunshine Gardens residents to put up with the luxury apartments, which in some cases are larger than their single-family homes, towering over them, blocking their sunlight and view, will harm their quality of life and property’s resale value,” said resident Matt Butler. “It will permanently harm the character of this neighborhood. It’s out of place and out of scale.”

Opponents are also worried the project will significantly worsen traffic congestion and skeptical of third-party traffic studies claiming delays will only go up by a matter of three to four seconds as a result of the project. 

The proposal includes a traffic demand management program that requires about a third of residents to commute via transit and not cars.

Addiego praised his city for the amount of housing construction that has taken place of late, noting 540 units are currently under construction and 279 are fully approved and expected to break ground early next year.

At the same time, the city is home to a growing biotech job market as tech company Stripe last month announced it’s moving to the city with roughly 1,000 employees.

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