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Live and Let Live
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Chinese Consul General bumping into neighbors
Phillip Matier, Andrew Ross

Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Monterey Heights neighbors don't like expansion plans for the consul general's St. Elmo Way home. Chronicle photo by Chris Stewart

The People's Republic of China and the people of San Francisco's Monterey Heights are in the midst of a showdown that could have international implications.

At issue: a home addition.

Not just any addition, mind you -- a 35-foot-tall, seven-bedroom, two-bathroom, two-sitting room and two-tearoom add-on connected by a walkway to the Chinese consul general's home out in the quiet, upscale and very property-conscious neighborhood of Monterey Heights.

"It's going to be massive -- a really massive addition,'' said Suzanne Wu-Zurinaga, president of the Monterey Homeowners Association, which is coming out against the expansion of the home on St. Elmo Way.

Even by San Francisco standards, the consul general's digs - originally built for the developer of Monterey Heights -- are some of the most tasteful you'll find. Located on the biggest residential lot in the city, at nearly an acre, the house includes a huge banquet room, sitting room and two master bedrooms, according to people who have been there.

But for all the space, Consul General Peng Keyu wants more room for staff and guests.

As one might expect, in a city where views are at a premium and property values are jealously guarded, neighbors were not overjoyed -- especially when they learned that the add-on would come within 8 feet of the property line.

And when Planning Department staff recommended approval (with conditions) -- saying the addition wouldn't have a significant effect on the neighborhood -- residents turned shades of red, with the next stop being a fight at the Planning Commission.

Some even talked about the proverbial fix being in at City Hall.

"I'm just wondering if part of the interest that San Francisco is paying on the national debt to the great nation of China is in the form of granting special favors. As in, granting conditional-use the permits and variances so that the Chinese consul general can build luxury condos on his property," resident Laura Chandler wrote in an open letter to Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Normally, neighbors could appeal all the way to the Board of Supervisors. But this case is a bit different.

As city Planning Director Dean Macris explained, "Consulates are technically on foreign land, so they have special status." And this extends to the consul general's house.

Even if the city imposed conditions on the building permits, for example, inspectors wouldn't be able to go on the property to check out the work without the consulate's permission.

As for an appeal to the Board of Supervisors, at that point the State Department would probably get involved, Macris said.

"There are a lot of treaties and agreements that deal with this sort of thing -- and we don't have an understanding about all of that," Macris said.

And maybe that's why Chinese officials asked at the 11th hour that Thursday's hearing before the Planning Commission be continued until May 25 in hopes of reaching a more diplomatic settlement with the neighbors.

Good luck.
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