437 Duncan Rendering

With neighbors having organized to “just say no to the penthouse,” complete with an eleven page Powerpoint presentation prepared by someone at Cisco and a website dedicated to their cause, the fight over the proposed modern home to rise at 437 Duncan Street will be refereed by San Francisco’s Planning Commission this afternoon.

437 Duncan Rendering

As designed by Iwamoto Scott Architecture, the existing 816-square foot, single-story home on the Noe Valley parcel will be replaced with a 3,972-square-foot home rising three stories over a garage, with the top floor setback 15 feet from the street and a 42″ front parapet wall designed to be slightly lower than the height of the parapet of the upsloping property at 445 Duncan Street in order to match the contextual step-down along the slope.

437 Duncan Site

Characterizing the project as “out of scale” with the neighborhood (and the Planning Department’s response to their concerns as “wimpy”), it’s the top floor “penthouse” and deck which the opposition wants removed, not simply setback from the street.

437 Duncan Opposition

The Planning Department’s recommendation: remove the front parapet over the second floor, setback the roof deck railing an additional five feet, and otherwise approve the development, a development which they continue to characterize as “compatible with the height and depth of surrounding buildings,” as proposed.

Of course, if the Department’s position is that the existing design is “compatible with the height and depth of surrounding buildings,” one might wonder why they’re calling for the design to be modified at all.

85 thoughts on “Noe Valley “Penthouse” Battle: Neighbors Say No, Planning Says…”
  1. Imagine if people made websites and PowerPoint presentations for *actual* problems, like the homeless public decay epidemic.

    Silly City.

  2. Trying to follow correctly: the house to the left is underbuilt at the front and the back. The house to the right is underbuilt at the back. Is this the owner’s problem if the houses on both sides weren’t built up to their potential? Do you also have to respect the depressing lack of style or personality of your neighbors’ houses?

    Someone wants to build something nice in your street. It makes your house look crappy. Yeah I understand why you’d be upset.

    1. With every house on the street presumably about six to ten feet lower than the adjacent property uphill, I would guess views would be “ruined” and anyone on the roof deck would have to stand up — as opposed to sit down in a lovely deck chair — to see over the penthouse downhill.

      What a tragedy that would be…

  3. So what’s going to happen when the downhill neighbor decides to ‘remodel’ their house into a matching 4-story monolith? Those ‘penthouse’ views will be blocked by a blank wall and the view will then be enjoyed by the new house. Until their own downhill neighbor follows suit….

    1. I live on this block. The likelihood of either downhill neighbor transforming into a 4 story monolith is extremely low.

  4. I have to say- that website is so obsessive it borders on scary stalker behavior. What lovely neighbors.

  5. I live near here and fully support the project as designed. Not everyone in Noe Valley is as completely obsessed with any changes to the neighborhood as the opposition is. There are good people here.

    By current planning codes almost every house is “underbuilt” here. And new and/or existing owners have every right to build within the allowable envelope.

    1. Wow, sfs, Futurist and I all agree on something for once. Must be the fourth sign of the housing apocalypse.

      1. No, it’s really just when logic, understanding of the current codes and property rights come into play.:)
        But yes, people need to realize that EVERY one of the adjacent houses on that street can also build to that allowable limit as well. We will see more of this as newer generations move into our neighborhoods and want to remodel. It’s a healthy and normal evolution of a city.

  6. One of the planning department notices posted on and highlighted by the NIMBY neighbor’s website states on page 3:


    “Windows. To comply with the guidelines on pages 44-46, the proportion and size of the
    windows should relate to the existing buildings on the blockface, and the features and
    materials should also be compatible with those in the surrounding area. ”

    Regarding “features and materials” – what does compatible mean, exactly?

    If every other house in the area has old, drafty windows does that mean they can’t have larger, more energy efficient windows???

    1. This is the part where you look up at the planner and you say,

      “Wait, I want to replace my windows in my house that are old and wooden and rotten, and I want to use energy efficient vinyl or fiberglass that will last way way longer and be more energy efficient, but instead you are going to require me to buy modern wood windows that might last 10 years if they are painted every 4, or else I can’t get my permit?”

      And the planner nods, trying not to betray the pleasure he takes in bringing you down a notch.

      Because those are the design guidelines he can and does enforce.

      1. And that’s why most of us replace our windows on the sly. But maybe harder to do in schmoe valley, where every neighbor is up your ass. Gotta wait until they’re out of town.

          1. As a whole I have very little respect for DBI, planning and fire depts. (many of the individual inspectors/workers are decent people though.) Too many rules are arbitrary and some downright asinine, not to mention selectively enforced. So I deal with them when I have to, and manipulate them when I need to.

        1. I was just looking at the permit process (thinking to do some remodeling myself) and it appears to actually be the law that you have to replace windows with double-paned in order to be energy efficient if the project scope includes adding or enlarging windows.

  7. Just guessing, but it seems likely that the penthouse gets deleted. They are putting Richmond Special volumes into the building envelope.

    That the house (with penthouse) will be out of scale with the neighbors seems safe to say to me….

    I don’t have a strong opinion as to the architectural merits, but it doesn’t really fit the residential design guidelines.

  8. You would think that a city with so little open space and such small yards would welcome the use of rooftops for outdoor space, public and personal.

    But no.

  9. “one might wonder why they’re calling for the design to be modified at all”

    Because of a ridiculous belief that it’s their job to encourage “compromise” instead of apply the rules.

    1. Indeed. Years after the Church of Satan closed on Cal St., we’re getting more black houses. Good thing SF is not very dusty. The same would look terrible just a few more miles inland.

  10. If this were my house and they told me I couldn’t do the penthouse, I’d come back with a plan that includes a full attic — a FREQUENT feature on the street, at full height from front to back.

    1. So disappointing. So many people attending against the project with the belief they deserve a say in someone else’s compliant building.

  11. Just let them build it!
    Why are folks who know nothing about architecture , and can’t read a massing diagram for what it is – have so much say. How about letting an architectural panel vote on what get’s build, there might be better design.

  12. An architectural panel is no better. It might also include Kathrin Moore.
    The best advice is to buy a single family house that will not need additions, that has no tenants, and then live in it. If you want to invest in rental property, buy outside of San Francisco. If you nevertheless do buy in SF, do not complain about intrusions into your property rights. You have to share property rights with the “people” through their elected and appointed representatives. There is no good reason for “mom & pop” to buy residential rental property in SF; those days are gone.

  13. I for one am extremely pleased about the planning commission’s decision. Good neighbors don’t blow out and max out everything they can do with their property — they show restraint a concern for the sentiments of their neighbors, especially if they are newcomers. Its just old fashioned good manners.

    Houses built with this in mind read as more graceful, they age better, and they create a better feeling in the neighborhood overall. They also create a better example as more buildings are inevitably torn down and rebuilt. The best part of this decision is that ten other developers that might have been tempted to ram this kind of thing through will now temper their ambitions and leave us with buildings having a more modest scale and graceful character. Its a shame that the force of authority was required to accomplish this, rather than good judgement from the developer in the first place.

    1. I disagree. The Planning Commissions changes were very minor, mostly in an attempt to placate the opposing neighbors. The proposed design was not “blown out and maxed out”. It is within the ALLOWABLE zoning envelope. Time and time again adjacent neighbors simply do not understand what the allowable envelope means. If they don’t like the current planning code and allowable buildable areas, then they should lobby for changes to the code.

      In reality, this new project is, in fact, of modest scale. Compare it to the white house next to it up the hill: very similar massing and bulk. Nothing radical. “Graceful character” is extremely subjective in opinion. There are plenty of houses just on that block that are hardly graceful, but merely older, smaller cottages stuccoed over.

      1. One wonders what the neighbors on the block would say if Planning decreed that the block was now and forever limited to one-story above garage with attic (but no liveable space).

        Imagine the howls over the “taking”.

    2. god, you sound like an a$$hol3. Are you honestly into this so that the house seems more graceful? An entirely subjective measure?

      Good old fashioned manners can also apply to minding your business, If you want to control what people can do with their own private property, then move to a gated community.

      1. Wow bob! Is name calling really necessary? Where did I say that the subject property seems “more graceful”? And yes, “graceful” is really very subjective.

        You’re all over the map with your emotions. Controlling private property is what our planning and building codes are all about: To allow for reasonable changes while at the same time reflecting the good of the larger community. Not sure how that notion applies to moving to a gated community.

    3. I agree with around1905 here. Even though can it doesn’t mean you should. It is a matter of courtesy. Now of course the law allows you to do things that can annoy the neighbors. If you do then no surprise that there will be opposition.

      Of course some neighbors will take it to the extreme and not like any change, even modest changes. In that case the neighbors are the ones without courtesy.

      Expect change but don’t be greedy.

      1. I just can’t grasp the word “courtesy” as have ANY relevance to this matter. I would ask how is the subject property “dis-courteous” to the neighbors in any way, shape or form? They may not “like” the addition, but not courteous? help me out.

        A neighbor paints their house a color I despise: dis-courteous?
        A neighbor plants a tree in their yard that shades part of my yard: dis-courteous?
        A neighbor keeps a political sign that opposes my views, in their front window which I can see every time I see my house: dis-courteous? or freedom of speech?

        I think your overall comment MSD just speaks of the provincialism and overbearing opinions of how OTHERS should live, that is (unfortunately) a part of our culture here in SF.

        There is nothing “greedy” about this project.

      2. Of course courtesy has no relevance if you consider this to be just a legal matter. But it is more than that because it involves community. There’s no law that says you have to be nice to your neighbor. But those neighbors who are nice to one another are the ones who build great communities.

        How you value individual gain versus community is a personal decision.

        1. You’re simply confusing “courtesy” with a property owner who wishes to build a new house. A lot of people, some in Noe Valley simply do not like change of any kind. Others may simply be jealous or envious of newer and larger properties with higher price tags that they may not be able to afford.

          As our houses in SF continue to age, we will see many remodels or new homes being built which adapt to newer life styles and goals. This is simply how cities evolve and it’s all good.

  14. So very sad! I agree with Futurist 100%! Its jealousy pure and simple, people can’t afford to do it themselves or are stuck in the past and want to live in this neighborhood. Once the people die out like around1905, change will happen and people will be able to build with in the envelope. The building was larger compared tot he neighbors but following all city codes for the lot and should have been allowed to proceed! I hope the owner builds and sells for tons of money and gets of of that neighborhood, since it sounds horrible! This type of things has happened in The Marina before and I usually 100% of the time support the person building the property if they are following code and guidelines of the building envelope.

    1. The problem is that there is more than one ‘code’ that applies. The zoning code is substantially more lenient than the Residential Design Guidelines, which is the primary tool for planning and DR requestors. Again, I am agnostic on the design, but it seems like it meets zoning codes but runs into trouble with the residential design guidelines.

  15. One must assume that the lawyers for the developer are shrewd, and they proposed the penthouse knowing they might lose it, but thereby protecting the rest of the project.

    The inimitable soon-to-be-former Commissioner Sugaya compared the walk-in closet in this project to the size of his own bedroom. The politics are envy are alive and well in SF: “if you want anything better than what I have, even if you can afford it and I cannot, if I have anything to say about it, I will try to turn it down.”
    He has been doing this for years.

    By the way, they approved 344 3rd Avenue merger of two 800 square feet units, returning the house to its original single-family configuration. The discussion was infused with irrelevant discussion about what the couple “needed” because they have a baby. This theory of policy making comes from the Marx’s 1875 prediction of the bounty of socialism, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need.”
    The vote was lopsided, with only Commissioner Wu voting against. Moore, Sugaya, Hollis and Fong all made the point that this sets no precedent.

    A woman who spoke against the penthouse, and then in favor of the merger, came back to say she knew of several de facto mergers of use, in Noe Valley, not legally approved by the City. That was truly shocking.

  16. Actually, I think that ‘bob’ was attacking me, not Futurist.

    The limits outlined in the planning code are not incontestable rights that any builder may claim. The planning department has the final say in order to prevent the kinds of gaming of the system we would see if the limits really were incontestable.

    In any case, these kinds of situations seem to come up more often when enterprising small-time developers pick up a small building, ram a monster house in its place, sell, and move on. These folks have no interest in the neighborhood other than as a field that they can strip mine for wealth. Its a very good thing the planning department is there to stand against this.

    And by the way, the kind of neighborhood ‘Nimbiism’ is just the kind of thing that saved the character of many of the historic buildings in SF, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when they were being demolished as a matter of course. Its never a matter of two sides with different taste — it is a matter of one side standing to make a lot of easy money, and the other having to live with the consequences.

    Well behaved neighbors negotiate these things. They do not assert ‘rights’ and just ram things through. Look around SF and note that the nicest neighborhoods are not the ones where every house slams up against the limits — they are the neighborhoods where the houses respond to the character and scale of the others.

    1. LOL…Born and raised in SF and District Two my entire life! I think I know a thing or two about neighborhoods, glad you don’t live in my District! But I will agree with you each District has its own character.

    2. These folks have no interest in the neighborhood other than as a field that they can strip mine for wealth.

      I am almost certain that 75% of all housing stock in America was built with profit in mind. You have to look at history to understand where we come from and this in turn might give us a clue of where we are going.

      My point: regarding “strip mining”, when you see old pictures of NV, the area was literally stripped mined for housing. Situation before: farmland. Situation after: row after row of houses. Now, some lots were purchase by people with lesser means or ambitions (bad timing?) and this restricted the housing potential of SF. This anomaly is being corrected little by little during boom years. Way too slowly if you ask me.

      Is that a bad thing? Someone in 100 years will praise the person who decided to risk his money to build a nice house. I am currently in a very well built house and I know the history of the original owner. He was really shooting for quality. Praise that guy, he is a doer and a builder.

  17. This house is a spec house and the developer probably doesn’t care about relations with neighbors. It still looks much too big to me and I agree with around1905. His words were wise. Soccer mom made a lot of valid points too. If these people were truly NIMBYs they would have opposed anything on the site. They made a compromise to allow a very consequential building that will make a lot of money for the developer and all involved. Check out the sales price on the property back in 2011 and see if you still feel like crying for the developer. I just looked it up and it is pretty astounding.

    Let us see how it looks when it is built and how much it sells for. That will tell the tale.

    1. It’s irrelevant that:

      the house is a spec house.
      the developer owner may make a “lot of money”. Anyone today who sells in Noe will make a LOT of money.

      I hope it sells over asking, because it probably will. This is not a bad thing.

    2. Who are you to decide what “a lot of money is” and how much the developer should be happy with?

      1. I think you’re misreading what I wrote. I am all for the free market, and all for the owner/developer to make as much money as they can. The market will tell them that. I am not deciding what a “lot of money” is. I have no idea, but you and I know it will be substantial.

        What property owner in SF would not think the same? it’s not immoral to make a profit.

      2. Certainly it is possible to make a profit morally. But many are tempted to turn their backs on ethics to squeeze a little more profit out of a sale. Surely we’ve all been hoodwinked into buying something that’s overpriced or we didn’t really need. Just because the sale is legal doesn’t mean that the seller is ethical.

        The grabbing hands grab all they can.

        1. Oh please. Spare us the sob story. A seller doesn’t “squeeze” anything out of a sale unless there is a willing buyer. It’s all business.

          I’ve never been “hoodwinked” in my life. Those who feel they have are in denial.

          1. Ugh, this new format sucks – I was replying to noemom, not you, Futurist. I’m in complete agreement with you.

  18. Neighbors met with the developers, their permit expediters, their architects and the city planner assigned to the project for two and a half years. The project sponsors’ treatment of the neighborhood often felt contemptuous and dismissive. (Watch the beginning of the 7/10/14 Planning Commission meeting to hear about some of the shenanigance.) Dozens of neighbors organized, wrote letters, signed petitions, filed a DR and showed up to plead our case at the Planning Commission. At issue was whether the proposed structure complied with the Planning Department’s Residential Design Guidelines, specifically regarding the building’s scale and massing in its immediate and neighborhood contexts and the design’s (lack of) respect for the topography of the site.

  19. Anyone in San Francisco that proposes a 4,000 sf house in a neighborhood of sub 2000 sf homes and doesn’t expect opposition has rocks in his head. The purchase price of the property as-is had development challenges baked into the price. Moreover when I sell my 2000 SF san francisco home it will be priced as just that…not as the 40 foot high 4000 SF palace it might be if the planning code were pushed to its limits on all parameters.

    1. You mean that you are afraid that wealthier people will lower your property’s value??? Following that logic you would also want as many decrepit tear down crack houses on your street because they would make your property look good and therefore more valuable.

      This sounds very convoluted, and it reeks of class envy rationalizations. You are afraid that wealthier folks will make look you poor. Just say it and move on already.

      Selfish old coots with too much time and too much bile drive opposition in NV. I spent some time in NV and have seen so many of these retired envious pri@ks I could write a book on Nimbyism. The rich do not want the less rich to have something close to what they have, and the less rich do want to be belittled and will fight to stay in their comfort zone. It’s a miracle you can get anything done in there.

      These are worker row houses that happen to be in a market of big cash. They have nothing special apart from the ZIP code. Anyone who makes the house actually fit with the value is OK in my book. Stop whining and enjoy the new gilded age. You’re on the right side of it and you do not even realize it.

      1. Wow. You went, “following that logic” i.e. insert blatant strawman —> draw conclusion —> pass moral judgment —> for an example use a stretch of an anecdote in another market — > then said something actually somewhat worthwhile, albeit IMO a reasoned, accurate opinion. Why not start with the last part? The other stuff was weak.

        1. Another market? Actually close enough to that place. I have been in this battlefield. I might be judgmental but at some point I have seen enough of my share of angry older guys who want to show they’re still the kings of the anthill, even if it means randomly punishing neighbors.

  20. That is a very odd definition of courtsey. I am not sure how the penthouse as proposed has much of any impact on the neighbors. My mother lives in a two-story house and one side her neighbors have a three-story house–I suppose 60 years ago, the homebuilders could have exercised “courtesy” by only building a two-story house next door to mom’s house, but I think 60 years ago that would have been considered a very distorted view of the word courtesey, much as I think most people today would find it a weird use of the word.

    The law allows what it allows. If people think it permits buildings that somehow too negatively impact others, then the proper thing to do is request that the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors rezone the area.

  21. Too bad the Giants got swept by the Dodgers. Of course the Dodgers have a much larger payroll and and a much more talented roster…My point is IF neighbors, not just these neighbors, but neighbors throughout the City, had a lot of money or a lot of clout or a lot of inclination then maybe they would try and get the code changed, but that is a down zoning and that is never going to happen in this town, so all they have got is their right to complain and do what they can, when they can. They just play the game as best they can, trying to “beat” the opposition, once in awhile….this was really a very minor victory and I don’t think the flippers, or the contractors, or whomever has too much to worry about. I wasn’t criticizing the fact they will make a lot of money, I was just stating a fact. Sometimes I think that the only people on this site are a just bunch of paranoid libertarians.

  22. I am a neighbor and I was invited to join the protest. I declined when I saw emails ranting about the fact that this house has an interior elevator. I don’t need an elevator, I would never add an elevator, but what people do within their own property is their own business. I wanted no part of that lynch mob.

    1. The interior elevator increased the envelope of the proposed structure and thus was in violation of a Notice of Planning Department Requirements that had been give to the developers by SF Planning in response to earlier plans. Had the elevator not expanded the building’s envelope, the neighbors opposing the penthouse had no problem with the elevator per se.

      From the beginning the developer and their expediters strove to push the limits, whether out of arrogance, greed or just sloppiness. All the neighbors ever wanted was for the proposed development to comply with the Planning Code and the Residential Design Guidelines. To their credit, Iwamoto Scott architects felt like they were genuinely stuck between their clients who wanted BIG BIG BIG and the neighborhood which wanted something fair and reasonable. Not once did the neighbors critique elements of their design the were not related to size and massing. Elements of the design were required to be removed or changed by SF Planning that the neighbors never expressed issue with.

      Let’s dial down the rhetoric here, because the facts of the neighbors’ conflict with the developers are actually rather subtler than the NIMBY-vs-libertarian narrative being worked up in these comments.

      1. To be fair, there’s a bit of ghetto-pride on the street, too, and lets not mention how the original call-to-opposition mailer portrayed the house intentionally (or, more charitably, amateurishly) out of scale.

          1. Actually, the first flyer — for the 7/10 Planning Commission DR hearing, the hearing for which the project owners’ attorney “forgot” to post the site notice for — was illustrated with the front elevation of the proposed structure, as provided by the project sponsor in the 311 notification mailing.
            Nothing “out of scale,” simply a standard architectural view. What’s the issue here?

      2. Except that those emails didn’t talk about the building envelope or the code. It ranted about the existence of an elevator.

        1. ORLY? SciLaw, please copy and paste the email in question here for all to see. I’m calling your bluff.

          1. Here you go…

            Date: September 4, 2013
            Subject: URGENT ALERT!

            They’re building an ELEVATOR! Can you believe it?!
            There’s going to be an ELEVATOR in the building!
            This is the worst!
            A penthouse AND an elevator!
            I’m beside myself!
            Everybody, write another letter to Planning ASAP.
            And we should meet to strategize what else we can do.
            Can everyone make it tomorrow night?
            Let’s meet at the Valley Tavern at 8pm, OK?
            We cannot let this stand!!
            Those greedy villains!

  23. A big thank you to real estate agent Cathy Sharetg for speaking on behalf of the project at the planning commission. We couldn’t have done it without you!

  24. My God, San Francisco is a poster child for the term “First World Problems”. Not even sure which side is “right” here, but the passion and energy and self righteoussness over this house is amazing. On both sides.

  25. There is an elevator at 525 28th Street. Where did all these email come from about the elevator???? Meetings at Valley Tavern??? That all sounds very odd??? Who would write such a thing if you were trying to generate genuine opposition??? That September email sounds like a “spoof riff” on what a developer would think a neighborhood person would talk like. What is meant by “ghetto pride”???? I did not know that Noe Valley was considered a “ghetto”!!! This last batch of emails in the last few hours and days are kind of odd…

  26. If you don’t know what ghetto pride is I don’t know what to say. I think you should be able to figure it out, though. That said, I doubt the meetings were at Valley Tavern since the jukebox and TVs drown pretty much everything out. It ain’t no Rat, that’s for sure.

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