In San Francisco, a Home Renovation Can Become a Battle Royale - The World News

In San Francisco, a Home Renovation Can Become a Battle Royale

San Francisco’s top governing body will spend time on Tuesday discussing what most residents surely would not consider a major priority for the city: whether Julie Park and Tom McDonald can raise the roof of their $2.1 million Victorian home by 7 feet and 3 inches.

The project complies with city codes, and the San Francisco Planning Commission gave unanimous approval months ago; in many cities that would have been good enough for the remodel to move forward. But in San Francisco, neighbors wield unusual power over next-door renovations and modest improvements and can appeal even the replacement of rotted front steps.

So on Tuesday, 11 members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will serve as judges in home construction, hearing from Ms. Park and Mr. McDonald, their neighbors, lawyers, Planning Department experts and any members of the public who care to weigh in.

The feud between wealthy neighbors is emblematic of the city’s languor when it comes to building anything. San Francisco has already drawn the ire of state housing officials, who have demanded that the city add 82,000 units in the next seven years, a goal that seems out of reach when many projects draw multiple rounds of challenges and years of delays.

“This isn’t to say that other California cities don’t have similar planning battles royale, but historically speaking, San Francisco has distinguished itself as the leader of the pack,” Dan Sider, chief of staff for the San Francisco Planning Department, said.

Ms. Park, a 40-year-old consultant for start-ups and small businesses, began her quest during the pandemic when she and Mr. McDonald, a 38-year-old climate researcher, bought their three-story home on Harper Street on the edge of Noe Valley in 2020. The neighborhood is popular with families and close to hilltop hikes that provide stunning views.

The four-bedroom, one-bath home was built in 1905 and still had its original foundation and old plumbing. The couple’s idea was to turn the ground level into a separate living unit for Mr. McDonald’s parents and the middle level into the family’s living space and kitchen.

The plan was to raise the upper level’s gabled roof to make way for two bathrooms and three bedrooms for the couple and hoped-for children.

As required by city law, Ms. Park and Mr. McDonald notified their neighbors in February 2023 and quickly learned that several of them worried that a taller building would affect their views of the city, cast shadows and allow the couple to peer into their homes.

In a city full of tech workers, the squabble led one neighbor to post signs with a QR code and the words “SAVE THE NEIGHBORHOOD” on utility poles. The QR code led to a website,, which encouraged people to sign a petition opposing the renovation, to attend Tuesday’s meeting and to fight the “monster home.”

“This whole thing has become a legal and financial nightmare,” Ms. Park said, adding that she had already spent $250,000 on architecture fees, the permit application and a lawyer.

Building new projects in San Francisco can be famously expensive and time-consuming. A new public toilet was slated to cost $1.7 million and take up to three years until a donor gave the city a free one. Constructing 1.7 miles for the new Central Subway line took 12 years and went hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

The state and city have recently enacted laws to rubber-stamp some housing projects without the say of neighbors, but getting approval for changes to single-family homes can still be excruciating.

The Planning Department approved Ms. Park’s plans in October, but a month later four neighbors filed an appeal, which went to the Planning Commission for review. The commission unanimously approved the project, calling it “modest” and “lovely” and applauding it for adding another housing unit to the city.

The neighbors, however, said that the Planning Department erred by exempting the project from the California Environmental Quality Act and that the Harper home must account for various impacts.

The neighbors want the city’s top leaders to consider on Tuesday, among other things, that it should be preserved intact because of “the property’s history as a post-Civil War era home for working class San Franciscans.”

Ryan Patterson, the attorney for the neighbors fighting the project, declined to comment and said that the neighbors should speak for themselves. Just one of them did.

David Garofoli owns a home next door. He doubled the size of the home, which was built in 1908, with a big remodel eight years ago but said that he did a better job of preserving the historic facade. Mr. Garofoli, a former developer who is now a business coach, said that he had since moved to Boston and was renting out his house.

But he remains invested in his old neighborhood. He paid for a light expert to study shadows that would be cast by Ms. Park’s raised roof; an architect to study whether her house was historic; and lawyers to work on the appeals.

“I care about the neighborhood, and I care about the historic nature of our homes,” he said.

Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco, used to represent the neighborhood on the Board of Supervisors and said he had spent a lot of time mediating disputes among neighbors. He said that most California cities automatically approve projects that abide by city code.

“Good government means setting clear rules ahead of time, and if you comply with the rules, you get your permit,” Mr. Wiener said. “In San Francisco, we’ve chosen to make everything political instead of predictable. It creates a lot of bad blood.”

Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors and a candidate for mayor, largely supports the current system. He said that project reviews do not take up too much of the supervisors’ time and do recognize the due process rights of residents.

“There are people who file frivolous lawsuits, but they get their day in court, and the judge can tell them to pound sand,” he said. “This has not been a distraction.”

The neighborhood has had similar disputes before. Several years ago, behind the home owned by Ms. Park and Mr. McDonald, property owners wanted to tear down an 875-square-foot cottage from the early 1900s and turn it into a 5,100-square-foot home with an elevator, two outdoor kitchens and walls of glass. Neighbors intensely fought that project but lost.

The home was built and dubbed the “Noe Looking Glass” before it was sold for $7.4 million in 2018.

Its current owners, who did not respond to a request for comment, are among those disputing Ms. Park’s and Mr. McDonald’s project.

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