Opponents of S.F. Navigation Center Sue City, State Over Controversial Development

South Beach, Rincon Hill and Mission Bay residents who oppose the proposed Embarcadero navigation center demonstrate at a neighborhood association meeting with city officials on April 15, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Opponents of a planned multiservice homeless shelter on San Francisco's Embarcadero filed a lawsuit against the city and state on Wednesday in a bid to stop the development from moving forward.

Filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by a group of residents who live near the proposed site, the lawsuit alleges that the city of San Francisco violated California law by not seeking permission from the State Lands Commission before deciding to develop the property. They have asked the court for a temporary restraining order against the project.

The San Francisco City Attorney's Office said it was reviewing the lawsuit and would address the allegations in court.

The San Francisco Port Commission in late April approved leasing the 2.3-acre lot to the city to build the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center, a 200-bed facility that would provide a range of round-the-clock supportive housing and rehabilitative services to the homeless.

Safe Embarcadero for All, the neighborhood group, then appealed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), objecting to an exemption from environmental review issued by the city's Planning Department. The board, however, rejected that appeal in June.

"We want to block the current proposed project and we intend to take it as far as we can in the courts — as far as necessary," Wallace Lee, a member of the group who lives two blocks from the proposed site, said in June after the board's vote. "The way that the city runs navigation centers now in other parts of the city doesn't make us feel confident that they'll be able to run an even larger navigation center here."

Peter Prows, the group's attorney, said he hopes to get the case before a judge by next week.

The proposed site for the city's controversial new navigation center for the homeless, on San Francisco's Embarcadero. (Courtesy of SFGov)

A key legal argument, he said, will center on the land, which was state property until the late 1960s — when the state granted it to the city in trust for public use.

As one of the grant conditions, Prows said, the state told the city that if it wanted to "lease this property for non-trust uses — which is what housing is — it's got to be for a maximum profit that would then get reinvested into harbor works or fisheries or other sorts of traditional public trust uses."

The city would also have to get approval from the State Lands Commission, which has ultimate responsibility for public trust property in the state, and would have to prove it was getting fair market value for the site, Prows added.

"I think the city probably realized it couldn’t get the commission's approval," he said.

The State Lands Commission declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

John Coté, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, said the project had undergone all of the required environmental reviews and appropriate land use laws were followed.

"San Francisco has a homeless crisis on its hands. The City is ready to put roofs over people’s heads and get them indoors," he said Thursday in an email. "Others are filing baseless lawsuits to keep people out in the cold. Rather than trying to shift the problem to someone else’s backyard, everyone needs to do their part.”

After the board's vote in June to move forward with the project, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who first proposed the center in March, said the city planned to break ground later this summer, with hopes of opening it by year's end.

A spokesman for Breed, Jeff Cretan, didn't respond to KQED questions about when construction would begin.

"We have a homelessness crisis in our city and the entire Bay Area, and we need to move forward with more housing, more shelter beds, and more solutions for people suffering on our streets," he said in an email.

San Francisco opened its first navigation center in 2015 and currently operates six throughout the city. Unlike traditional shelters, the centers allow occupants to bring their pets and don't require them to leave in the morning.

Navigation Centers in San Francisco
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The proposed navigation center, which would be located at the end of Bryant Street, is a critical part of Breed's campaign pledge to open 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020.

"Creating new shelter beds is critical to the City’s response to homelessness," Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said in a statement after the board's vote.

The navigation center, which would be the city's largest, elicited a succession of heated and sometimes vitriolic community meetings about the project, attended by staunch advocates for and against the plan. The strongest pushback comes from residents of the South Beach, Rincon Hill and Mission Bay neighborhoods, amid concerns that the facility would transform the tourist-heavy neighborhood into a dirty, crime-ridden area and reduce property values.

The city is leasing the port-owned land for two years for nearly $37,000 a month, and will have the option of renewing for an additional two years if it can show the center has helped reduce homelessness. The port said it still plans to later develop the prime piece of real estate — Seawall Lot 330 — for longer-term, more profitable use.

KQED News' Kate Wolffe contributed to this report.

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