I've been out of print for so long since leaving Pat Murphy's Sentinel that getting my first column together for the Bulldog has been driving me nuts. I've got some great second, third and fourth ones in me, but not a good first one. Well, I've been putting up with so much crap from the developer next door that he's currently at the top of my shit list ... and maybe he's worth my first good rant.
All of my good progressive friends have development-related horror stories to tell. Stories of displacement. The loss of neighborhood character. The decline of working class culture. The machinations of Joe ...
Chris Camberlango, of Camberlango Properties (http://camberlango.com) has been my cross to bear. With all my experience in community planning, mediating neighbor/nightclub disputes, maneuvering through the minutia of the Planning Code, building workable coalitions and -- well for Christ's sake, I count most of the members of the Planning Commission as friends -- you'd think I could handle a little old development right next door to me, but ...
My story began innocently enough. One day my neighbor, the old Frank Stuber Transmissions, suddenly morphed into one of those ubiquitous faux-antique shops that dot the South of Market these days. My driveway became their parking spot ("oh, I'm just running in next door for a minute") and my sidewalk the dumping ground for all their unwanted junk.
Somebody should tell the Planning Department, these furniture stores are a sorry excuse for a "PDR" use. A transmission shop that once employed 35 people gave way to a furniture barn populated by an owner and his slightly retarded nephew. But just as fast as they appear, they're gone, and before long a woefully inept construction company was picking apart the corrugated and stuccoed remains of part of SoMa's industrial past.
For months a tiny tractor and a little back-hoe (better suited for landscaping) nibbled away. With the crew frequently passing a bowl of pot back and forth, the back-hoe driver would occasionally spin the machine in magnificent circles and bump into things. Smokin' good stuff, apparently. At one point, a twenty foot section of the front wall gave way, crashing down on the unsecured sidewalk and leveling a parking meter.
As they peeled away the wall that ran parallel to my building, my corrugated siding came off with it. (It hadn't seen the light of day since approximately 1909). Then they took a circular saw and roughly hacked apart the shared roofing material from where our peaked roofs met. Sunshine streamed in, along with pigeons, and one skylight cracked. "Negligence," charged the contractor. MY negligence, he said. The Small Claims Court awarded me the maximum judgement allowed by law.
The sand dunes left behind revealed the charred remains of brick foundations dating back to before the 1906 earthquake. All traces vanished, however, over one long holiday weekend. For three days, without a building inspector in sight, a steady stream of dump trucks pulled away loaded with the debris, returning minutes later with fresh dirt to fill in the holes.
That seemed to coincide with my termite infestation. The redwood framing of my building has lasted for nearly 100 years unscathed but suddenly an army of the critters found their way through one gaping hole and consumed everything edible in sight.
A strapping young street person we nicknamed Tarzan moved in. During his year long occupancy, he cobbled together a lean-to structure with basement and sun-porch that became a chop shop for stolen bicycles, a shooting gallery for his friends, a night-time tryst for all manners of sexual partners and, beneath my window, his toilet. I dubbed it Camp Camberlango.
When excavation finally began for Camberlango's 30 unit live/work project, I thought the end of this ordeal was in sight. But as they dug alongside my foundation, the footings holding up my south wall began to separate from the rest of the building. After shoring up my second floor they began pumping chemical grout under my building. The first application did no good. Too deep, they concluded, as the milky white liquid apparently flowed into the creek beneath me and down towards 16th and Mission Streets. A second application more than did the job. It also bubbled up through cracks in my floor, three inches deep in some places, necessitating a week long cleanup.
Small cracks upstairs in my living room plaster grew exponentially over time and it's difficult to say where normal wear and tear ends and Camberlango's damage begins.
An army of construction workers descended on my roof. Carpenters. Plumbers. Electricians. Painters. Stopping them was like trying to hold back water. "Oh, we'll fix any damage," they swore, as one skylight after another cracked and my roof sagged. Then came the winter of 2003-04. Rain poured down the insides of my walls throughout that nasty rainy season, often forming a 20 foot puddle, which we called Lake Camberlango.
Finally the new yuppie loft dwellers arrived. Not a very friendly bunch, mostly averting their eyes or nodding curtly. One seldom saw them during daylight hours and it seemed the only contribution they were making to the community was what their dogs were leaving behind. One favored us with a letter, a registered one, informing us that our TV was too loud and that we shouldn't smoke cigars.
It was beginning to look like a pretty bad year, what with that out-of-control school bus that hit my building and the collapse of the sewer under my sidewalk (can't blame Camberlango for that). But at least there was some good to come out of all of this ...
Camberlango inherited a set of entitlements which included a promise that 10% of the units would be affordable. That predated the Leno inclusionary housing legislation and, since it was offered voluntarily, I thought it was a pretty good deal. You're gonna honor that, right Chris? I'll do whatever was promised, he replied.
Kevin Hughey, from the esteemed law firm of Reuben & Alter, wrote: "The project sponsor submits this letter to inform the Planning Commission that it intends to voluntarily provide three below-market-rate units as part of the project. BMR unit requirements do not apply to live/work projects and neither the Commission nor the Planning Department requested that the project sponsor provide any such units as part of this project. Notwithstanding, as a gesture of goodwill to the South of Market community and the City of San Francisco, the project sponsor will provide three BMR units."
See, it was all worth it, right? Oh wait, Camberlango had his own attorneys look that over and they decided he was "not bound by that agreement." No affordable units? That gesture was meant to prevent me from filing an appeal of the site permit. Grrrrrr ...
Well, at least I could look forward to a nice restaurant in that ground floor commercial space. Camberlango's eyes would gleam as he spoke of the vibrancy he'd bring to this little corner of Tenth Street.
Well, I don't care what you put there Chris, just so long as you don't sell that space to my competitors, I said. After all that I've gone through, I just don't want to be put out of business too.
I have a struggling little print shop here and the last thing I need is a Kinkos, Sir Speedy or print shop next door. "I promise," said Camberlango. And that was rare because Chris is a wee bit shy of commitments. When pressed, he looks away, nervously glancing over his shoulder, as if he had a tiny attorney whispering into his ear. But, "no competition" was an easy promise for him because he was sure somebody would want to put a restaurant at the corner of 10th and Harrison Streets.
Until the space sat vacant for two years.
Last week they moved in a 5-color 28 inch offset printing press.
A 28 inch press sounds like a locomotive and stinks when it's being washed up. That was Camberlango's parting shot at me ... and at the homeowners association for the project he just built. When they start running three shifts on that thing (and you've gotta run those things round the clock to make them pay), when the walls start vibrating and the toxics waft upwards on a still summer night, the neighbors will go nuts.
Chris Camberlango. The name might not be familiar in local development circles because he's based in Phoenix, Arizona. But his heart (I use the term loosely) is in San Francisco, where he was once a member of a garage band right up the street from me in the 1980s. I remember them. They threatened my neighbor's life once and then left. Damn nuisance.
You might be more familiar with the name Vanguard Properties. Camberlango builds 'em, Vanguard sells 'em. They're partnered in a joint venture in Phoenix right now and, as one former employee puts it, they're joined at the hip.
So, if a Camberlango project comes your way, remember this: Chris Camberlango lies. Fight that project for all you're worth. He's smooth. He's wealthy. He's used to getting his way. But he just can't seem to tell the truth. Chris Camberlango is one hell of a piece of work.
Jim Meko is a South of Market activist, currently serving as chair of both the SoMa Leadership Council and the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force and is a member of San Francisco's Entertainment Commission. Here at the Bulldog, of course, he's expressing his own personal opinions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.