Critics Wonder Why Potential S.F. Lawsuit Vs. Academy of Art Didn't Come Years Ago

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Ah, Academy of Art. This will go as planned.
As we've noted in this space before, real legal and political hearings don't often feature the Perry Mason specialty of the guilty party loudly and unambiguously admitting wrongdoing on the stand. And yet everything about the Academy of Art University seems to be surreal -- so why shouldn't it merrily violate this norm?

Last month, the Academy's planning director candidly admitted to the city's Planning Commission that, yes, the school occupied and began using a SoMa building for university purposes without attempting to obtain any of the necessary permits or undertaking any of the necessary legal steps -- even though the school knew damn well this was against the law.

On Thursday the Planning Commission will huddle in a closed-session meeting with members of the City Attorney's office and could potentially decide to sue the for-profit university. It's a move the Academy's many critics hope the city will make -- and wonder what the hell took so long.

"This is basically their style," said land-use attorney Sue Hestor of the Academy. "They do things and then ask for permission." Hestor claimed that the Academy has been knowingly skirting city laws and converting buildings into dorms and classrooms without obtaining conditional use permits from the city since at least 2005, and a lawsuit could have come any time since then.

Indeed, the wrongdoing Academy Planning Director Paul Correa baldly admitted to last month sounds alarmingly similar to wrongdoing he baldly admitted to last year. Your humble narrator watched the Planning Commission unanimously vote down the Academy's plea for a conditional use permit to convert the former Star Motel into a dormitory -- sans permit, the school had simply done so anyway.

Our call to Correa, the Academy's planning director, has not been returned.

While, in the past, the Academy has claimed it didn't know it wasn't legal to, say, buy an SRO hotel or apartment, boot everyone out, begin stuffing four students in a room, and then start counting the money, the planning department claimed the Academy knows exactly what it's doing. Last year, city planner Scott Sanchez told SF Weekly that the Academy was hit with a bevy of violations in 2006, yet continued obtaining properties and converting them without permits in 2007. That "blows their alibi about being ignorant out of the water," he said at the time. City planners we talked to on Monday reiterated that the Academy was "well aware" of what the legal requirements it blew off when obtaining and occupying subsequent properties.

Going back several decades, the Academy has at least 14 pending conditional use permits on file -- meaning they occupied that many structures and converted them to academic or residential uses without going through legal channels. In other words, the Academy's current situation -- which may finally get it sued by the city -- is almost as old as Perry Mason.  

"They're huge. If you go after them with a lawsuit they'll throw pretty good legal talent back at you," said Brad Paul, a former city deputy mayor, and staunch critic of the Academy. "Unless someone is pushing the city to do it, the city's opinion [may have been] 'Why get into that fight?' But now, I think outrage has built to the point where the city has got to act." 

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