As Bad As It Gets: Some Cities have it worse:
THIS is West Coast-Style Planning, ladies and Gentlemen. Any similar tales
Planning chief accused of strong-arm tactics
Lawyer says S.F. official tried to force hiring of consultant
Lance Williams, Chuck Finnie, Chronicle Staff Writers Monday, November 18, 2002
San Francisco's planning director scuttled an Outer Mission District retail project after its owners refused to hire a politically connected development consultant, a lawyer for the owners says.
Lawyer Joseph Breall charged that in a July 2001 meeting, city planning director Gerald Green suggested his clients hire consultant Walter Wong to obtain permits to convert the old Apollo Theater on Geneva Avenue into a Walgreens drugstore.
Green told the owners, who include Chinatown business executive Pius Lee: "I would expect to see Walter Wong on this project. . . . I would think it would be hard to get approval of this project without Walter," the lawyer said in an interview.
Green denied the account, saying he handled the issue appropriately and accusing the lawyer of telling "desperate" lies.
Wong's office said he was out of the country and not available to comment for this story. Lee referred queries to his lawyer, Breall.
Breall said he was not present at the meeting, but based his allegations on what his clients told him had occurred.
The lawyer said that when his clients balked at hiring Wong, Green began raising an escalating series of objections to the project.
That culminated last month, Breall said, when at a city permit hearing, Green insisted on a design change that has caused Walgreens to threaten to pull out of the project.
"My clients have met roadblocks ever since they said they wouldn't use Walter," the lawyer said. He contended that similar theater-conversion projects on which Wong has been hired as a consultant have breezed to approval.
City records appeared to support his position.
The lawyer said he intended to complain to the Board of Supervisors about the issue at an appeal of Green's ruling set for today.
Breall said Green never told his clients why he pushed the hiring of Wong, a millionaire consultant whose work as a permit expediter has made him a controversial figure in local politics.
But the lawyer contended that Green and Wong have a cozy relationship -- "They are like Frick and Frack," he said -- and have traveled together to China twice this year, most recently this month.
Green acknowledged vacationing in the Far East twice this year but said he never traveled with Wong. In April, he said, he met Wong in Shanghai. He said he did not see Wong on his recent trip.
Breall contended there was "an avalanche of circumstantial evidence that suggests there is a relationship between Mr. Green and Mr. Wong that enables Mr. Wong to get things done . . ."
"It doesn't make sense there would be no problems when Walter is working on a project and huge problems when he's not," he said.
For his part, Green denied telling anyone to hire Wong, saying, "That is a lie." He said he makes all permit decisions, including this one, on merit, and Wong's presence or absence on a project has nothing to do with it.
Green accused Breall of "throwing dirt" in an attempt to stampede the supervisors into reversing his ruling on the permit.
Breall's allegations raise new concerns about the Apollo Theater project, which already is at the center of what District Attorney Terence Hallinan has called a major case of public corruption.
This month, the district attorney charged former Planning Commission President Hector Chinchilla with seven misdemeanor violations of city and state clean-government laws for allegedly hiring himself out to developers seeking permits at the commission.
Of the charges, three involved the Apollo project and a $20,000 consulting fee that Chinchilla allegedly solicited from Lee and his son Lawrence Lee to run "political interference" in a failed attempt to win planning commission approval for the project.
Green is a veteran city planner who Mayor Willie Brown named to head the Planning Department in 1996. Wong is a permit expediter -- a consultant paid to ramrod his clients' building permits through the city bureaucracy -- who also is a political donor and confidant of the mayor.
Wong and Green have known each other for years. When Green applied for the position of planning director, he told The Chronicle, Wong helped him prepare a required videotaped job interview.
For more than a year, the Planning Department has been considering the fate of the Apollo, a single-screen movie house that has stood vacant for 20 years.
Developers say that with a dramatic remodeling, the building could accommodate a new Walgreens that would be a boon to a neighborhood that has few stores. Walgreens agreed to lease the space if permits could be obtained.
Breall said that in July 2001, the two Lees and their architect met with Green in hopes of getting an expedited review.
In an account that Green denied, Breall said Green immediately asked, "Why isn't Walter on this project?" and said, "If you're doing a Walgreens, I would assume you'd have Walter," noting that Wong was consultant on several other Walgreens projects approved in the city.
Breall said his clients explained that Wong was expensive -- his fee was more than $50,000, they said -- and that his services seemed unnecessary for a straightforward project that would give the neighborhood a much-needed economic boost.
Breall said Green "became negative" after learning Wong was not being hired.
Green declined to recommend the project for expedited review, Breall said, and in the months that followed imposed "one hurdle after another" to the project.
At first, he said, Green said there was no neighborhood support for the drugstore. The lawyer said his clients then obtained 2,000 signatures on petitions of support.
Later, he said, Green demanded that the project include housing units, so his clients redesigned the second floor of the theater building to include eight apartments.
Still later, the lawyer said that Green, citing traffic concerns, wanted a loading dock for the store. Once again, the project was redesigned, he said.
Breall said his clients were willing to meet Green's objections so they could get their project going. Nevertheless, two similar projects won city permits with far less city scrutiny, he said.
Breall said the Planning Department raised few objections to the conversion of the old Coliseum Theater on Clement Street into a Walgreens and had given quick approval to the conversion of the old Alhambra Theater on Polk Street into a Gorilla Sports fitness club. Owners hired Wong on both projects, he said. City records show Wong was a consultant on the Coliseum project.
Meanwhile, in March, Breall said, Wong called Walgreens, urging it to "drop this project like a hot potato" because of the problems it was incurring with its permit. A Walgreens spokeswoman acknowledged Wong had contacted the firm about problems with the project's permits.
When the permit came up for a vote in June, it failed to win approval.
Then the project was stalled because of voters' approval of Proposition D, which dissolved the commission as of June 30 and changed the way new commissioners are appointed. A new commission wasn't sworn in until last week, and in the hiatus Green himself took on the powers of the commission.
Last month, Breall said, Green demanded yet another change, insisting the owners retain three old storefronts in the remodeled building so other businesses could occupy them.
In a letter, the lawyer told Green that Walgreens would never agree to lease the building with the storefronts. At an Oct. 12 hearing, Green granted the permit for the project on the condition that the storefronts be retained.
Unless that decision is reversed, Walgreens said, it is pulling out the the deal.
Green said all design changes he requested were made to guarantee that the city gets a quality development. As to the storefronts, the planning code prefers preservation of existing retail outlets, Green said.
"My only motivation was to find a project consistent with city policy." he said. ". . . And I don't care if Walter Wong is involved or not."