Purchased as an “Awesome Victorian Fixer with Spectacular Downtown Views” for $1.45 million in March of 2017, a permit to remove some decayed siding and a rotted door from the Eureka Valley home at 4547 20th Street, but not to address the home’s known foundational issues, was secured by the new owner, a local contractor named Thomas McGrath. And that’s when things went south, or rather north, quite literally.

With no additional permits nor plans having been reviewed by the City nor approved, what appeared to be the making of an illegal demolition was subsequently observed. And with said unpermitted work having possibly contributed to the site becoming an active slide zone, a permit for the “emergency demolition” of the 110-year-old home was quickly issued, sans any additional review.

And yes, plans for a new a five-story, two-unit building to rise on the now “vacant” site have since materialized and are working their way through Planning. We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by aerel

    A rotting house with a bad foundation should have no trouble getting a demo permit from planning in the first place. The fact that the owner felt the need to go through these shenanigans for a completely common-sense project is the real issue.

    • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

      If the house was rotten to the core then I’d agree. But if the rot was limited to the foundation and cripple wall then the home could have been salvaged. It would be expensive and the profit margins not as high as what will be built now though.

      • Posted by jwb

        What would have been the use of saving this architectural mashup if it had rotten cripple walls? I see nothing very meritorious here. In a sane world it would have been trivial to get a demo permit for this property regardless of its condition.

        • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

          I’m not making a comment on the architectural merit of the house. I agree the facade is an ugly mess. Just saying that it is possible that the rot was not enough to condemn the whole structure. Judging from the interior photos it looks like the house was well kept.

          Repairing the known foundation issues would have required lifting the house onto temporary supports. Once that expensive operation is done, replacing the cripple walls is a cheap and quick job.

          I doubt that this house was beyond hope. Even the clunky facade could have been fixed. Just remove that goofy lattice from the semicircular porches and replace that Home Depot front door. More likely a complete teardown and rebuild was deemed to provide the highest return to the investor.

          • Posted by Futurist

            I agree completely. Virtually, almost all older houses can be fully remodeled including new structural footings and columns. It’s not rocket science.

            But, once again, this is clearly the case of a contractor and or owner who simply did not want to play by the rules and demolished this decent house to expedite their own illegal construction.

      • Posted by Ohlone Californio

        The house was indeed in very bad shape.

        • Posted by Socket2You

          The SF planning rules blow. Planning is bloated. Planning Commission is corrupt. Why make it so hard to build in SF?

          • Posted by Stop Driving

            Nobody is forcing anyone to build here. You can always build in Concord if you don’t like SF’s rules.

          • Posted by Ohlone Californio

            Can you build in Concord? What do you like about its Planning department better than San Francisco’s ?

    • Posted by that_dude

      agree

    • Posted by Kevin Smith

      Agree also. The bureaucracy in this city has jumped the shark.

      • Posted by Sierrajeff

        Yeah, how dare they penalize someone for a complete teardown that was conducted under a permit issued for some *siding* and a door replacement.

        (Now, if you want to criticize the city for requiring a permit for the mere replacing of a door and some siding … then I’m all ears. But if that’s the legal regime we’re under, exceeding that permit should face punishment.)

    • Posted by scott f

      Yup. And same if it wasn’t rotting and the foundation was fine. The idea that buildings have to stay forever is toxic to a growing city.

      • Posted by Mark

        You mean a growing toxic city.

      • Posted by Sierrajeff

        Yeah, no one goes to Paris or London to see the old buildings. And no one spends tourist dollars in San Francisco taking pictures of old Victorians, such as near Alamo Square, or the Full House house. Tourists want to see bland quasi-suburban architecture!

  2. Posted by Adam

    Planning should deny construction of any garage, and require that the facade be reconstructed. The city needs to put a stop to these backdoor demolitions, and the only way to do that will be to stop rewarding the bad actors. If you want to build a five story building with parking, don’t try and sneak it through – jump through the same hoops everyone else has to. Anyone who thinks they are too clever to follow the rules should not be rewarded.

    • Posted by Bayview_Rising

      agreed.

      • Posted by JustLooking

        I agree with B_R. My first thought is that the owner/developer did not want to take the “risk” that a demolition permit would be rejected and therefore asked for the easier permit, which was followed by the “Whoops!”

    • Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

      The other way to stop bad actors like this one would be for the city attorney to go after his contractor’s license. Most contractors I know (hell, even know of) have multiple jobs underway at any given time. If his license was in question, and it jeopardized his entire income stream for the forseeable future, this guy wouldn’t have taken the risk on this house.

    • Posted by civ-e

      maybe the backdoor demolitions would stop if they would be reasonable about allowing frontdoor demolitions.

      • Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

        Contractors are licensed based on their ability to know the rules and abide by them. If contractors aren’t going to abide by the rules and decide what rules they will and won’t obey based on what they individually decide, on a case-by-case basis, is “reasonable” (and said reasoning being largely based on maximizing expected profit), then what you end up with is an anarchy and in that case there’s no reason for licensing contractors.

        Anybody can point at any rule in the building code, or any procedure at DBI, in this or in any other jurisdiction, and say “that’s not reasonable. I’m going to ignore it so I can make this project I’m working on now pay off more, because I and my spouse want to spend more time on the beach in Ibiza this summer.”

        • Posted by civ-e

          it’s not the building code but planning regulations which are unnecessarily restrictive and mostly subjective.

          also it’s two separate issues, to agree that a permittee should follow the established rules but to also think that the larger issue (one that extends beyond this particular house) is that Planning makes it too prohibitive / impossible to want to rebuild to have a nicer, newer house.

      • Posted by scott f

        Amen.

  3. Posted by Frank

    Seems difficult to believe that the developer was able to pull this off without “friends” in the Planning Department

    • Posted by SFRealist

      Contractor would be a complete idiot to do this…
      If he didn’t already have connections lined up inside Planning to smooth his way through.

  4. Posted by Kevin Smith

    It gets tiring figuring out who has the right to ignore laws and rules in this town and who has to follow them to the letter.

  5. Posted by Torger Cobus

    Isn’t there a five-year moratorium on any construction after an illegal demolition?

    • Posted by Joel Green

      It was deemed to be not an illegal demo, because an emergency demo order was issued. Seems really suspect, since a complaint about illegal demo was filed days before the order was issued.

      • Posted by Adam

        How about the architectural drawings for an entirely new five-story two-unit building set aside in a drawer in the unlikely event that the removal of some rotten siding brought the entire house down. Convenient.

      • Posted by Notcom

        Isn’t it a basic premise of Law that you can’t benefit form a condition you’ve wrongfully created (e.g. you can’t start a fight and then argue you acted in self-defense). If, as SS is arguing, “unpermitted work having possibly contributed to the site becoming an active slide zone” then I would think that the demo permit itself was licit isn’t mitigating.

        • Posted by Joel Green

          There’s also the premise of innocent until proven guilty… unless the City obtains documented evidence that there was unpermitted work prior to the demo (hard to get because they don’t want to be liable for not issuing the emergency permit in a timely fashion), then the property owner is cleared because there certainly won’t be any evidence after the demo.

          • Posted by Notcom

            As a practical matter, I believe you’re likely correct, as there wouldn’t seem to be much reason to pursue things further: i.e. nothing here has suggested a demolition permit wouldn’t have been issued had one been requested, so that one was issued (somewhat) ‘ex post facto’ seems academic.

            OTOH, someone seemingly reported this, and I don’t know why or what evidence they have…this isn’t a criminal matter, so “documented” seems a rather high threshold: perhaps a few photos are enough to cause trouble. Or not.

  6. Posted by Noodle

    As a neighbor who properly followed the process for a remodel, it was particularly frustrating to watch this mess unfold. IIRC it started over a holiday weekend – presumably to delay any response to any complaint – with a demolition company from outside SF.

    Everyone I spoke to had realistic expectations that this house would be completely remodeled. People who cut corners like this jerk make things harder for everyone else.

  7. Posted by Patrick

    The Planning Department should deny any application to build anything. The developer should be stuck with a vacant lot for not going through the process.

    • Posted by Torger Cobus

      It’s a catch 22. An empty lot is a blight on the neighborhood.

  8. Posted by NOPA

    Great get rid of that dump home. I cannot understand why people think there is something wrong with tearing down a home. It’s their property, they paid the big bucks for it, they should be able to do what they want. You don’t like it, fine, go ahead and buy it and keep that rotting ghetto in place.

    • Posted by Michael

      This wasn’t a dump or ghetto. Don’t like the rules? Fine, don’t buy the property or complain about the laws if you do…

  9. Posted by Christopher McMahon

    Good for McGrath.
    Take on the Police State Planning Dept!
    And others hiding behind avatars: don’t complain if you can’t even use your real name please.

  10. Posted by MDG399

    I 200% agree with NOPA. Too many people here with too much time on their hands, zoning is WAAAAY too restrictive and, frankly, people need to get a hobby. Busy Bodies!

  11. Posted by Brisket

    That was a really big door they removed.

    • Posted by SFMichael

      It wasn’t the removal of the door that caused the collapse, it was the removal of the load-bearing siding.

      • Posted by Brisket

        Well in their defense, the door was rotted, and was connected to the door frame, which was connected to the wall studs, which connected to the roof and the head bone’s connected to the neck bone, etc. etc.

  12. Posted by Miraloma Man

    Its sad to me that no one who lives in San Francisco even likes San Francisco anymore. RIP my old city.

    • Posted by sethgreen34

      exacltly…without folks following the rules the street ends up looking like the sad apt buildings on either side of this house…there’s a reason behind historic preservation and it’s the reason most folks are drawn to SF in the first place.

      • Posted by Joel Goodson

        Historic preservation of that which is worthy of preserving…. In SF, just being old qualifies as an historic resource. No. I agree with Miraloma Man – this is the city I love to hate and I still live here. Before anyone asks – mostly for the climate and my job.

  13. Posted by JB10

    I wonder what the “foundation issues” were and whether they were anything other than routine. Many of the posters on this site imply that it is OK to wreck a house and then file a permit for a replacement. However, that penalizes reputable contractors playing by the rules.

  14. Posted by Torger Cobus

    A few years back, I was hired as architect for a project where the 3-unit house had been burned about 50%. There was no roof, and because of the age, the exterior walls tilted about 12″ out of plumb. We inquired about a demolition permit. The planner who visited the site said that the vertical walls were still in place and the floor (the one that did not burn) felt solid. It was made clear that a demolition permit was not possible.

    The Planning Department is as capricious as the day is long. Looking backward, I could have probably spent a large bundle of my client’s money on getting a demo permit, but you have to consider reality. In the end, she spent as much rehabilitating that mess as she would have building a new building.

    I’ve learned much more about dealing with Planning, and that is do not take no for an answer. But don’t go behind their backs.

  15. Posted by SFCitizen

    I have a theory and I would like for the more knowledgeable commenters to support or denounce my thoughts.

    I’m going to assume that the new construction will be issued a new Certificate of Occupancy once completed. I understand that a CoC resets the date of construction. If this is correct, one possible reason for the City to deny demo permits is to retain units that would be covered under the Rent Ordinance. New construction is not covered by the Rent Ordinance. The possibility of ever having rent control on these two new units goes away.

    • Posted by yoyo

      sounds plausible.

    • Posted by Neighborhood Activist

      That certainly makes sense to me.

      I think the city could (and, in this case, absolutely should) require that the developer voluntarily agree to put the new units under rent control, as a condition of approval. There is precedent for this on other projects, where newly-built replacement units are covered by rent control based on a Notice of Special Restrictions or something similar that the owner agrees to and that exists in perpetuity.

    • Posted by folderpete

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but the prop in question was a SFH – not a set of rental units. Thus, and as it was vacant, it was not subject to RC. And in the likelihood of new construction of 2-units, they would (under present law) also not be subject to RC – whether they were constructed as condos or not.

      Naw, likely its a case of maximizing profit.

      It looks like the interior was worthy of preservation. I’ve seen several “renovations” that destroyed good, old work in favor of schlocky ‘open concept’ space. Sad.

      • Posted by Kevin Smith

        Not everyone wants to live in a museum.

      • Posted by SFcitizen

        I appreciate your comment. You are focusing on this one property, I am looking at the bigger picture. I also like that you realize that Proposition 10 could change the impact of rent control.

  16. Posted by Crones81

    Does this contractor have a known history of illegal remodels, similar to those Socketsite has highlighted in recent weeks? Because if he does not it feels like he is being villianized on this comment stream with no actual proof, starting with the website host himself.

    • Posted by Anon123

      If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck… it might still be a swan. True.

    • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

      What’s the Socketsite policy on naming individuals in blog posts?

      • Posted by Anon123

        If it is public record, is it a big deal? I am sure the contractor is more concerned about the city’s approval of his work than some comments on a blog post.

        • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

          Does the editor publish his own name?

          • Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

            b_e_o, you’re not getting it. The editor’s name isn’t in the public record for doing a demolition without a permit, the guy named in this post does have his name in the public record for doing a demolition. And he’s a contractor, no less.

  17. Posted by Stop Driving

    Reminds me of the house on Pine @ Webster where the builder pulled a similar fast one. That house sat for years before construction resumed. I’m sure SS has plenty of interesting details about what happened to that contractor.

  18. Posted by Joel Green

    Yesterday, the planning director called out SS for inaccurate reporting on this story. Turns out the problems with the foundation were known and documented months prior. If the editor isn’t even going to do thorough reporting or own up to his mistake, it’s no wonder he’s remaining anonymous.

    • Posted by SocketSite

      As we reported in our first sentence above, despite the “known foundational issues,” the building permits which were requested by the new owner and issued by the city were not to address said issues.

      And with “no additional permits nor plans having been reviewed by the City nor approved, what appeared to be the making of an illegal demolition was subsequently observed,” after which the emergency demolition was approved and effectively legalized.

      If there’s an actual/factual error, other than with respect to reading comprehension, we’re all ears. But when it’s simply an attempt to CYA, such is life.

    • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

      The fact that the owner knew about the foundation problems is damning. If you know that there are problems down there, you don’t start hacking away at some adjacent superficial and “break” the structure to the point that an emergency demo permit is required. That’s either gross incompetence or intentional fraud.

      • Posted by Ohlone Californio

        Can you furnish your credentials as to being able to distill this question to a case of gross incompetence or intentional fraud? thanks in advance.

        • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

          Years of maintenance and modification of a house of this style of construction, including work on a century old foundation. It really is not that hard to figure out how the load is transferred. That information allows you to avoid meddling with load bearing structural elements before shoring up the frame to transfer the load elsewhere.

          The same basic skills which enable safe structural modification can be applied in the opposite direction to cause irreversible damage. Or maybe the contractor was just a reckless idiot.

  19. Posted by pal

    F***ing unbelivable

  20. Posted by NoeValleyHomeOwner

    the real problem we face in SF is the lack of aesthetically pleasing house. we need more rules, not more affordable places for people to live.

    if only we had more smug liberals who bought years ago, instead of new people who bring their tax revenue to the city. we shouldn’t add housing units, because that might help solve the homeless problem. and then what would we do with that quarter of a billion dollars the city wastes every year?

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