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Controversial Store Project Burned by Arsonists in S.F.

Times Staff Writer

A five-alarm arson fire roared through San Francisco’s colorful Haight-Ashbury district before dawn on Thursday, destroying a controversial convenience store development project and damaging 10 other structures.

No one was injured in the blaze, which sparked bitter accusations by parties on both sides of a dispute over the commercial future of the neighborhood. The old Victorian-style buildings surrounding the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets were a haven for the hippies of the ‘60s, but lately they have been courted increasingly by developers.

The fire started at 4:30 a.m. in the basement of a partially completed Thrifty Jr. drugstore scheduled to open later this year. The store had been the focus of a hard-fought battle by neighborhood groups claiming such chain stores will destroy the offbeat character of the area.

Much of the criticism has been directed at project owner and developer John Brennan.

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When asked whether he thought opponents of the construction had set the fire, Brennan said: “I can only assume they did it.”

“These groups know more about it than I do,” Brennan said. “Draw any conclusions you will. They have incited the troops out there. It doesn’t take much to incite the troops in the Haight. . . . They have brought in people from Berkeley.”

The building project is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Haight-Ashbury Preservation Society, a neighborhood group that has lobbied against zoning for chain-store development. The suit names the San Francisco City Planning Commission, which last year approved a special permit for the project.

Chris Hall, a member of the society, denied that the group was responsible for the blaze.

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“People are going to think that because we opposed it we have some responsibility for burning the building,” Hall said. “We have never planned anything (except through) proper legal channels.”

Saying that the Thrifty project had been slated for a Superior Court hearing within a few weeks, Hall said: “We would have no reason to jeopardize our chances of getting (the special permit) overturned.”

“If anything, the developer stood to benefit,” Hall said. “He could get his losses reimbursed.”

Firefighters found two five-gallon cans containing traces of gasoline in the store basement, said Lt. Roger C. Elbeck of the San Francisco Arson Task Force. The cans were turned over to the Police Department, which will pursue a criminal investigation.

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Calvin Welch, a longtime resident of the district and a member of another neighborhood group, the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council, called owner Brennan’s remarks “absurd.” Welch said two members of his organization live in apartments damaged by the flames.

“HANC has been involved for 25 years in preserving the neighborhood. We don’t burn down buildings, we save buildings,” Welch said.

The Thrifty site, which also was to have included residential units, is the former location of a community theater, according to John Mulholland of the neighborhood council.

Elbeck said Brennan told him he occasionally had to roust unwilling transients from the site, but that no threats of arson were ever reported.

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“I think (the fire) was caused by someone opposed to the construction, considering all that has been going on there,” Elbeck said.

Elbeck said the Fire Department is not investigating any of the neighborhood groups.

Fire investigators said that damage figures would take several days to compute, but that the store property alone was worth nearly $2 million.

“It could be totally unrelated. We are hoping it is,” said Tim Tosta, an attorney for Thrifty. Tosta said representatives of Thrifty are hoping to schedule a meeting with San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos to discuss future action.

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About 150 firefighters--nearly half the city’s force--battled the flames for more than an hour and a half, Elbeck said. About 30 residents had to be evacuated from nearby homes.


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