AAU Property Breakdown

Of the 40 known properties now operated by the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, 75 percent appear to be operating illegally without necessary permits or approvals.

And according to a Planning Department report slated to be presented to San Francisco’s Planning Commission next week, the following nine buildings, which include over 330 rooms of student housing, are ineligible to even be permitted or legalized for their current uses without legislative amendments to San Francisco’s existing Planning Code:

AAU Property Table 2

The legislative amendments, however, would result in the loss of at-risk uses the City is on the record as fighting to preserve, including residential housing and Production, Repair and Distribution (PDR) space.  And as such, Planning Department Staff plans to seek the Commission’s guidance on how to approach these sites and whether the Commission would support amendments to permit the losses.

An updated Master Plan for the Academy of Art is due this November and the University’s long-overdue Environmental Impact Report is expected to the certified next April, after which Planning Department Staff “will embark on the processing of AAU’s [buildings] that require legalization.”

33 thoughts on “75% Of Academy Of Art University Buildings Are Operating Illegally”
  1. I hope the Planning Commission will vote against supporting legislative changes to legalize AAU’s illegal uses. They have showed complete disdain for the law for years, and legalizing their uses would just encourage them to continue with past practices. And we cannot afford to lose more non-luxury housing and the very scarce PDR space in SF.

  2. They have acted illegally for some many years simply because the City has ALLOWED them too, and turned the other way. It’s corruption in the Planning and Building Departments once again.

    And how long will this continue, Mr. Mayor?

    1. Better for ambulance-chaser attorneys to use their search for greed to target these non compliant, illegal buildings. With all those students and lots of liability and blame…many many someones have been harmed for many many years, right 🙂

      1. and the non sequitur award of the day goes to….

        The city attorney’s office would handle enforcement, not private personal injury lawyers, or as you refer to them “ambulance-chaser attorneys to use their search for greed”

  3. When are they going to treat this organization they way they treat individual homeowners?? Why does a for-profit enterprise have cart blanche to remain out of compliance for so long after so many warnings, when any normal individual would find themselves facing penalties and real consequences. When you add in their dismal graduation rate, I see no reason why the Academy is an asset to the city worth protecting.

    1. Completely agree.
      City council & planning are completely hypocritical.
      Dam the homeowner or small landlord trying to keep peace, but let the faceless corporations get away with all this!

  4. The risk of San Francisco losing “Production, Repair and Distribution” (“PDR”) space if Academy of Art College is allowed to continue its existing uses of its own property is an artificial risk entirely of the city government’s own making.

    We would not even be wasting time on this were it not for the inefficient, complicated, and top-down system of “zoning laws” via which bureaucrats attempt to micromanage what goes where instead of letting people do their thing and allowing the city to grow and change organically.

    San Francisco, indeed the entire Bay Area, has a severe housing shortage, especially of low-cost housing — also due to government planning regulations restricting what can be built and allowing NIMBYs to delay projects and make them more expensive — and Academy of Art providing lots of housing units for students on its property is clearly in the public interest.

      1. About the only system that would be worse than what we have now is the kind of unbridled libertarianism espoused by Starchild and SFBARF.

  5. So what? These are AAU owned and maintained buildings in which their paying students are living in. In fact, their students spend money in SF and maybe some of them are talented enough to contribute to society. What is the alternative? Keep these buildings solely for low-income rent controlled tenants who bring net zero dollars to the city. Maybe I’ll offer my buildings for sale to AAU when the time comes and the price is right.

    1. Yes, the “students spend money in SF,” while they accrue mountains of debt while less and less of them are “talented enough to contribute to society,” as graduation rates have steadily fallen (bringing increased scrutiny from accreditors) over the past few years (assuming the high tuition helps pay for the real estate costs). This sounds less like an institution of higher education and more a for-profit business made easier with lax enforcement on zoning laws (and knowing the right people). If the sources are correct, AAU has accrued over 1.2M sq feet of space in SF of all flavors (commercial, hotels, churches, a bakery, as just a sample), with little forethought on compliance and long term planning for the city as a whole.

      Forbes has a couple of pieces on AAU and this topic w/good detail.

      “But behind the shiny façade is a less than lustrous business: luring starry-eyed art students into taking on massive amounts of debt based on the “revolutionary principle” (Stephens’ phrase) that anyone can make a career as a professional artist. No observable talent is required to gain admission to AAU. The school will accept anyone who has a high school diploma and is willing to pay the $22,000 annual tuition (excluding room and board), no art portfolio required. It would be easy to accuse AAU of being a diploma mill, except the school doesn’t manufacture many diplomas. Just 32% of full-time students graduate in six years, versus 59% for colleges nationally, and that rate drops to 6% for online-only students and 3% for part-time students. (Selective art schools like the Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons graduate 90% of their students; see “Why Art School Can Be A Smart Career Move.”) The few AAU students who manage to collect a degree are often left to their own devices in finding employment in a related field. In marketing itself to dreamy prospects, the school touts its success at placing students at Pixar, Apple and Electronic Arts. But the morning shift at the local Starbucks is just as likely for some students. That and a mountain of debt. In the 2013-14 academic year 55% of the school’s roughly 10,700 undergraduates had federal student loans totaling $45 million.”

      1. We have all read the Forbes articles and both links have been cited and debated extensively on Socketsite.

        The same can be said of any private university in the U.S. (unless it is ranked in the Top 10 for its field,) and of any liberal arts major. Are you recommending shutting all those schools down? The throngs of baristas in SF and/or entry level bank tellers are college graduates of those schools, not limited to AAU.

        1. “The same can be said of any private university in the U.S. . . ”

          “Just 32% of (AAU) full-time students graduate in six years, versus 59% for colleges nationally . . . ” How do you reconcile this w/the above?

          “Are you recommending shutting all those schools down?”

          No, not at all. if someone’s willing to pay for a product/service (as low quality as it may be), by all means; but, this doesn’t equate to giving AAU full license to flout compliance w/the law (how are the two connected again?). From a broader view, they’re probably a number of business in SF that anyone here might take issue with, but there’s a basic understanding that everyone plays by the same rules. This is the part people take issue with on this thread.

          Are you advocating that they don’t play by the rules?

          1. Easy. This is art, not medicine or engineering.

            I don’t care what type of publicly disclosed or not dealings AAU had with the Building and Planning Department. It seems highly self-serving and arbitrary the way the City has decided to come down on a known “problem” since it is politically favorable to do so. Why didn’t the City raise a ruckus during the last recession back in 2007-2010 when it may have made more sense? That is my problem.

        2. “The same can be said of any private university”… You are freaking kidding right? There is a real difference between a real university and a fake diploma mill like this. And your anecdote about some baristas you have met proves nothing.

    2. What makes you think rent-controlled tenants don’t bring money to the city? They pay rent, and many of them pay rent at near-market levels (which certainly puts money into the landlords’ pockets). And what about all the high-income rent-controllers that much of SS wails about? One can imagine they are using their ill-gotten housing subsidy on high-end dining, luxury cars, classy escorts – all putting more money into the SF economy than debt-laden students who eat ramen made on a hotplate.

      Typical SS libertarian view – all rent-controlled tenants are either unproductive free loading loafers who should move elsewhere, or rich people scamming the system. My guess (maybe Jake has real data on this?) is that there is a typical bell curve of tenants incomes and rents covered by rent control, which likely skews a bit to the lower-income/lower rent side, but not wildly.

      I think AAU should not be allowed to convert these units, given their history of illegal behavior. They can either sell or rent them (at very high market rates) and use the money to actually buy or build housing for their students. Sorry, no get out of jail free card. There is no way to convert them to affordable housing unless the City is prepared to buy them.

  6. I’ve always been impressed by their business model including their ability to skirt rent control and planning codes. I would guess they have about $500m in RE in the City at this point? Kudos for them for making money as a landlord and not taking much punishment from the City or tenant groups for it…

  7. Good Grief! Dr. Stephens, the founder & dad of that wench who has, for her own entree into SF society [NOT], turned a great LITTLE Art School, which I came here to attend, in 1969, all the way from WV. I chose it, & not the other [more prestigious] Art School to which I applied & was accepted, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, because of the small size, the “professional working artists” as Instructors, the constant ads in the back of Vogue (I was a Fashion Illustration major), & because, natch, it was in SF – in 1969 – yahoo!

    Anyway, although I remember when one of our Instructors designed that red A logo, & I like it, it has become like a pariah, a symbol or greed & PURE Real Estate (along w/being, seemingly, an entree to Asians into the country, IF they can afford the egregious fees. That woman, Elizabeth Stephens, will GO DOWN (in the annals of SF) as the disingenuous twit which she sure the hell is! BOO! ACK! BFTTTTTT!!

  8. Why are we paying anyone to write laws that are never enforced? This is a prime example. The City Attorney should be able to devote some energy on this most glaring case of illegal activities by one of the biggest landlords in town. Where are the zoning enforcement officers?

  9. They should be building housing for their students, not taking over residential properties and removing the units from the market.

    1. They probably don’t want spend ten years in dialogue with some group of “neighbors”, then fight a lawsuit against the little clique they failed to placate, in order to get Planning Commission approval for that.

    2. HAHAHAHA “building” — you must be new here. We don’t allow “building” things here, that would damage the character of the neighborhood to demolish the rundown flophouses, decrepit faux-“Victorians”, husks of defunct manufacturing operations, etc.

  10. The Art Academy University is a prime example of arbitrary enforcement, or should I say, lack of enforcement of illegal uses. There is a call for enforcement of illegal uses as residents become increasingly alarmed by the pace changes being forced on them by developer-friendly city authorities.

    Demands for change are making their way onto the ballot as three brave souls go up against the Mayor and his policies by saying, “vote for anyone by Ed Lee” if you don’t approve of his housing policies.

    1. How about making a start by enforcing planning codes in the Sunset…..how many illegal garage/in law conversions? Not a speck of green grass to be seen as concrete takes over front lawns.

  11. A lot of the “findings” are BS. Saying “student housing” is not a residential use? Good luck on the City winning that in court. California courts have ruled pretty consistently that students are people with rights also.

    The City may not like it – they may want to reserve that housing for a different interest group – but it doesn’t mean they will win in court. The reason enforcement is arbitrary in the City compared to other California jurisdictions is that many of the land use laws are arbitrary and capricious.

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