By Phil Matier

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — If you live or work in San Francisco, it’s hard to miss the Academy of Art, which is the largest private art school in the country, and one of the largest property owners in the city, occupying 40 buildings – many of them historic.

The problem – the Academy rarely gets permits to convert them into classrooms and dorms. The fines have been piling up for close to ten years, potentially totaling in the millions. But so far, the university’s owner and operator, Dr. Elisa Stephens, hasn’t paid a dime.

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“I think it’s something that the city and county should be embarrassed about,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera. He told KPIX 5 the planning department has let the Academy, in his words, “get away with murder.”

It’s where regular people come to get a permit for a home remodel or to open up a business.

We have to ask for permission first. Dr. Stephens usually skips that step. We asked the Planning Department’s Scott Sanchez about that. “Perhaps we have a bit more patience than the city attorney may in this matter,” he said.

Sanchez admits he’s allowed the academy some breaks, most recently so that it can finish an Environmental Impact Report that’s already five years behind schedule. “The goal is to get them through the enforcement process. It is complicated,” he said.

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Meanwhile Stephens, an influential bay area philanthropist and friend of Mayor Ed Lee, has continued her buying spree, doubling the academy’s real estate holdings in just ten years. We asked Sanchez if anybody has approached him and said lay off. His answer, “Absolutely not.”

Sanchez insists this year no more mr. nice guy. He just sent out 22 new notices of violation with a deadline to comply by July 1st, or face fines of $250 per building, per day. But, Stephens is already appealing, which could delay the fines again.

She turned down our request for an interview, referring us instead to her 7th attorney on the case. “Our plan is to wrap all this up in a resolution that is satisfactory to the planning commission,” said Jim Brosnahan with the prestigious firm Morrison and Foerster. He told us a resolution is in the works, though he wouldn’t go into details. “It’s a somewhat fluid matter at this time,” he said.

The main sticking point: nine properties violate a new city ordinance that limits conversions of residential units. The law would literally have to change to make them legal. Some other schools in the city had the same problem. But, their buildings were grandfathered in. “The academy was not. We want to be treated the same as everybody else,” said Brosnahan.

Back at City Hall there is a sense that’s not going to happen any time soon. “Here you have a politically powerful entity; one that has vast economic and political resources at its disposal, that is treated differently than the average homeowner or business owner. This totally takes away from the public’s confidence in the integrity of government,” said Herrera.

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The academy turned in a key document to the planning department Wednesday night that it hopes will prove it’s acting in good faith to resolve issues. Attorney Jim Brosnahan says the long awaited Environmental Impact Report will also be completed in time for this month’s planning commission meeting.