San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Friday announced he is suing the Academy of Art University, alleging the for-profit art school has illegally converted 23 buildings around the city.
The suit, first reported by Matier and Ross in the San Francisco Chronicle, alleges the school, one of the city’s biggest landlords, is amassing a real estate empire. At a news conference Friday, Herrera called it an egregious land use scofflaw.
“Again and again, AAU acquired residential and commercial properties only to convert them into student dorms and facilities,” said Herrera. “In doing so, AAU unlawfully deprived San Francisco of 300 residential dwellings.”
More than a third of the buildings that Herrera cites in the lawsuit would need changes in the city’s planning code to come into compliance — something that would require a vote of the Board of Supervisors.
“In implementing their real estate scheme for profit,” the suit alleges, Academy of Art President Elisa Stephens and her family “have flagrantly ignored and flouted the zoning and planning restrictions applicable to their properties that govern all San Francisco property owners.”
In the suit's list of 23 buildings, the city has included historic properties like the cannery on Fisherman’s Wharf, part of which the academy has converted to administrative offices, the suit alleges.
“Everyone in San Francisco is aware they’re not playing by the rules and enough is enough,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said.
But James Brosnahan, an attorney for the Academy of Art, said Herrera’s lawsuit is politically motivated and that he should be advising the planning commission, not acting in place of it.
“They have commissioners; they have a staff of people who are experts in urban design," Brosnahan said. "He has just taken that over now, and he shouldn’t do that."
Brosnahan said the university has spent nine years and $8 million working on an environmental impact report that it must produce before any of the properties can be legalized. That document is expected to be done by June 29, he said.
“The idea that a lawsuit would be plunked down in the middle of all this is extremely surprising,” Brosnahan said.
Brosnahan also said that AAU offered the city $10 million and a building with 87 low-income housing units to help mitigate its expansion.