Academy of Art: Read City Attorney Letter Blasting Planning Department, University

Categories: Government
AAU buses Jared Gruenwald.jpg
Jared Gruenwald
All of your bus are belong to us
Last week, the Chronicle's John Cote got his hands on a confidential memo sent from City Attorney Dennis Herrera to Planning Director John Rahaim -- a literal "Dear John" letter.

In it, Herrera excoriates Rahaim for "your decision to forego taking administrative enforcement action against the Academy of Art University" despite the for-profit school's "consistent and repeated violations of the San Francisco Planning Code." In turning a blind eye, charged Herrera, "you are potentially undermining the City's entitlement to monetary penalties in this matter, and, even more significantly, sending the message to this large and powerful property owner that it can violate city codes with impunity and making the City vulnerable to claims that other code violators may assert the Department is selectively enforcing the Planning Code."

You can read the entire letter here.

You can read the many exhibits here: A, B, C, D, E, F

See below for the highlights of Herrera's missive.

See Also: Academy of Art's New Sports Program Allows Chance to Break Even More Rules

City Policy Lets Academy of Art Do as It Pleases

The Academy owns more than 40 buildings throughout the city. For decades, the city was unaware of how many structures the school owned, let alone that it had, repeatedly, illegally converted structures into student housing without bothering to obtain city permission.

Knowing it can cram multiple students into non-rent-controlled rooms, the Academy can easily outbid other would-be property buyers. Hundreds of millions of dollars pour in via students' pricey tuition payments each year, with much of it coming from the government via student loans.

Highlights from Herrera:

Over the past couple of years, the city has given the AAU numerous chances to rectify its pervasive noncompliance with the Planning Code, all to no avail. ... The AAU has already squandered too many previous 'last chances,' and giving it yet another 'last chance' serves only to send the message the City is not serious about achieving compliance with its Planning Code. And as you have recognized, given this course of the AAU's conduct, one has to question the AAU's good faith to reach a resolution that addresses the City's interests.

Over the past weeks, your staff has spent considerable time and effort preparing draft [Notices of Violations and Penalties] ... I understand they are all ready to issue. Yet, you have made clear to me that, despite my Office's advice, you decided not to issue or direct issuance of the NOVPs and instead you with to give the AAU yet another chance and more time to provide the city with additional information, and that you will forestall any administrative enforcement action in the meanwhile.

Because administrative penalties do not begin accruing until the NOVPs issue, the AAU does not have any incentive to come into compliance with the Planning Code and faces no serious consequences for its longstanding and pervasive action of violations. And its past conduct shows the AAU does not seriously intend to resolve the violations and is engaged in a game of obfuscation and delay. I find it inexplicable that despite the AAU's repeated disregard of you, your Department, and the laws you are charged to enforce, you would allow the AAU to continue to violate the law without consequence. And I still have not heard any sound reason for your doing so.

You have informed my Office that there have been other, separate negotiations and offers being communicated to the AAU purportedly on behalf of the City. But those communications were made without my Office's knowledge or involvement. I am disturbed by these multiple and contemporaneous negotiations.

The City's Charter vests me with responsibility to protect the City's interests in legal proceedings and settlement negotiations. You should understand that our Office will not recommend, and indeed, will publicly oppose any "settlement" purportedly reached by you or other City officials that does not protect the City's interests...


My Voice Nation Help

I wonder if the negotiations with Pearce mentioned in Herrera's letter are with Mayor Ed Lee, who happens to also be one of Pearce's clients. The Mayor Ed Lee for San Francisco committee paid Pearce's Left Coast consulting firm $23,000 in October 2012, the same period when these negotiations over Pearce's other client, the Academy of Art, was taking place.

I would hazard a guess that it would take the Mayor and/or his office to convince the Planning Director to ignore his responsibilities of office. After all, Mayor Lee says it is up to him to decide whether someone should be charged with Official Misconduct, which puts everyone on probation until they prove their loyalty.

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