Planned Growth or Unplanned Strife?


Will San Francisco follow through on its carefully laid plans to accommodate a growing population, or will it continue to fight the same battles time and time again?


In November 2013, San Francisco voters rejected two ballot initiatives that upheld existing planning approvals to build luxury housing on a surface parking lot in the Financial District. The victorious opponents of the proposal wasted no time trying to turn this into an anti-development movement[1], but for activists it highlights the limits of a democratic process in urban planning decisions.


It is clear that we need a much better informed public to make a democratic process viable. The 8 Washington propositions saw the lowest election turnout in twelve years[2], and those who did vote tended towards self-interest; “no” votes on Proposition C were significantly higher by percentage in neighborhoods near the project site and with desirable views. Opponents relied on the public’s lack of awareness by implying that the project’s process was undemocratic and reminiscent of the notorious redevelopment blunders of the mid-20th century.


In reality, 8 Washington had been in the city planning process for approximately seven years. The project passed numerous layers of government review, and was even approved by the Board of Supervisors. Its most contentious issue was its proposed height, yet that was suggested by the Planning Department as a compromise to create more open space at ground level and relate the project to the much taller residential building across the street. The height was also thoroughly examined as part of Northeast Embarcadero Study, which sought consensus on development in the area [3].


The challenges to densifying San Francisco neighborhoods have deep roots. In many U.S. cities a project complying with relevant planning requirements is issued permits by the Planning Department as of right. This is not the case here due to a number of overlapping laws. For large projects, California’s Environmental Quality Review Act (CEQA) is the main reason for extended review.


Passed in 1970, CEQA sought to incorporate environmental protection in local decision making. Intended to apply only to government projects, it was extended to nearly all projects requiring entitlement by a California Supreme Court ruling. In San Francisco, every project submitted for a permit is evaluated to see if it requires environmental review. Larger projects typically require a lengthy and expensive Environmental Impact Report (EIR). This takes at least 18 months and can be appealed even if it has been approved[4].


Small projects here can also trigger the Discretionary Review (DR) process if any neighbor requests a hearing—a possibility, as neighbor notification is required for almost any permit. These reviews are heard by the Planning Commission at public meetings. Projects of all scales and types are examined—including, in one notable case, disability access improvements to a local park[5]. As that case showed, even an issued construction permit can be appealed within 15 days of its issuance.




The complexity and dysfunctional, ad-hoc nature of development during the late 1990s led San Francisco to make sweeping changes to the planning system, the most significant of which are the neighborhood plans intended to guide development for future decades. The showpiece of these reforms is the Eastern Neighborhoods Program, which created area plans for the East SOMA, Showplace Square, Potrero Hill, Central Waterfront, and Mission neighborhoods. They were adopted as law by the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor in January 2009.


The program grew out of land-use conflicts arising from residential and office developments in these traditionally industrial neighborhoods. Analysis by the Planning Department and feedback from the community over several years shaped mutually acceptable proposals for new zoning, density, and land use. The Planning Department refined the proposals with input from multiple workshops and hundreds of meetings with community groups and individuals. Although initially envisioned as a procedural reform, the program’s community planning process was expanded to address affordable housing, open space and transit. The Eastern Neighborhoods process created a new zoning category, PDR (Production, Distribution and Repair), to preserve industrial businesses in the city, set parking maximums (instead of minimums), and increase affordable housing requirements for redeveloped industrial land. Some height limits were adjusted with resident input, and unit mixes were mandated to provide a diversity of housing types.


The approved Eastern Neighborhoods Plan streamlined development in the eastern portion of the city by certifying rezoning under a single EIR. Since area plans have been created for the neighborhoods, CEQA does not require additional environmental review for individual projects that comply with the adopted development regulations. The plan gives developers clear guidelines and a vital degree of certainty for the production of large projects. It represents an effective and considered process for adding density and rebuilding neighborhoods In San Francisco.




Additional plans have been adopted for the Transbay Terminal and the Market and Octavia neighborhood, and a plan for the Central Subway area in SOMA is in the works. Development in San Francisco has been concentrated in these areas. Where it is generally not happening is in the remaining two thirds of the city. This concentration into a few visible square miles of the city gives the mistaken impression of a city that is rapidly growing, an impression that has predictably fueled a backlash against development. This in turn has emboldened those who oppose neighborhood plan-compliant projects. Sadly, the city is giving in to them, undermining the certainty that underlies the letter and spirit of planning reform.


A perfect example can be found at 1050 Valencia Street, home to a single-story 1970s fast food restaurant and a surface parking lot. A proposed 12-unit condo project fulfilled the planning guidelines: no on-site car parking in a transit-rich neighborhood, 1:1 bike parking, on-site affordable units, and ground floor retail. The Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association fiercely opposed its development. Despite narrowly surviving a CEQA appeal to the Board of Supervisors, the project was recently cut down to nine units—removing the affordable unit requirement—by the Board of Appeals, which found it “out of scale” despite its compliance with the 55-foot height limit set by the plan and its proximity to similarly sized public and private mixed-use buildings above the Valencia corridor[6].


Despite the development activity seen in the Mid-Market, Transbay, Hayes Valley, and Eastern Neighborhoods and the 48,000 housing units currently in the development pipeline, 83% of which are targeted for Neighborhood Plan areas, San Francisco has only managed to complete an average of 2,100 units a year in the last six years[7]. In the same period—the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression—the city created an average of 5,400 new jobs a year[8]. As the economy strengthens, this gap will intensify. We are 35% below the statutory demand for new housing units set by the regional Bay Area Plan. [9]


Despite the recent construction boom, San Francisco still struggles to create housing proportionate to demand. Image: Andrew Faulkner.
Despite the recent construction boom, San Francisco still struggles to create housing proportionate to demand. Image: Andrew Faulkner.


Over the next 30 years, San Francisco needs 100,000 new housing units. Contrary to current rhetoric, there is plenty of room for them. Despite existing dense areas like Chinatown, the Tenderloin, and Nob Hill, the city has an overall density of 14.4 dwelling units per acre (DUA) [10], which is less than minimum average density necessary for efficient bus service with ten minute headways—15.0 DUA—and way below the density of at least 50 DUA that is needed to support livable, walkable urbanity. [11]




By enabling density in outlying areas and improving existing transit infrastructure and management, the city will benefit from far better overall service and greater livability. These increases need not be dramatic; we should seek inspiration in Barcelona rather than Manhattan. With a continuous urban fabric built of 4-6 story buildings that would fit comfortably in most San Francisco neighborhoods, Barcelona balances livability with an overall density six times greater. [12]


San Francisco is at a crucial point; we can take bold action to defend our pluralist and inclusive culture by promoting a higher density that allows sufficient new housing production or we can allow outdated perspectives and amoral economic forces hollow us into an unattainably exclusive enclave of uninhabited third homes and vacation rentals. To date, progressive popular policy has inadvertently resulted in years of housing underproduction and has effectively exported affordable housing beyond the limits of a reasonable commute. [14]


A higher density would also provide the means to improve public transit. SFMTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), which would improve reliability and efficiency and reduce travel times, is currently mired in environmental review and is significantly underfunded. Despite calls for action over the past three years[13], Mayor Lee’s administration has lacked the political courage to back many of the larger changes that TEP demands. TEP has mostly been used to guide service cuts and restorations as the budget fluctuates. Fully funded and implemented, TEP’s rapid service corridors and other major improvements like bus rapid transit on Geary and Van Ness would open up many more neighborhoods for infill housing redevelopment. Transit and density go hand in hand.


As the Bay Area’s cultural center and a rising source of regional employment, San Francisco has to set an example through urbane, transit-centered redevelopment at a density sufficient to generate housing at a sustainable pace. The current crisis of housing affordability is as much a product of housing scarcity as it is of income inequality. This shouldn’t be seen as a sacrifice—who wouldn’t want to live in Barcelona?  The leadership we need on these issues should point us toward a city of livable, equitable, and sustainable neighborhoods.





[1] “8 Washington Critics Take Aim at Warriors Arena,” last modified November 11, 2013,


[2] For in-depth data, see the excel files for “November 5, 2013 Official Election Results” at


[3] For more information on height limits around the 8 Washington site, see the height map on p.59 of the Northeast Embarcadero Study at


[4] Thorough information on CEQA and current planning processes is provided by the San Francisco Planning Department:


[5] ”1 dissenting voice holds up park upgrade,” last modified July 26, 2012,


[6] ”Marsh wins tentative changes to Mission condo project,” last modified December 12, 2013,


[7] Unit production data is culled from “San Francisco Housing Inventory Reports” 2007-2011 available at


[8] Job creation data is culled from “San Francisco County Economic Forecast: 2013” available in pdf form,


[9] “One Bay Area Plan” as amended July 18, 2013,


[10] San Francisco Net Density calculated using total units from “2011 Housing Inventory Report” available at, less Federal acreage and 4090 acres of Open Space and from “San Francisco General Plan” available at


[11] Planning criteria for transit effectiveness varies, see “Sustainability, Urban Density, and Land-Use Density” available at for a broad cross section of indicators


[12] “Case Study: Example (Ensanche)” available at


[13] “Mayor Lee Must Make SFMTA Act Quickly on TEP Implementation,” last modified February 24, 2011,


[14] See “The San Francisco Exodus,”, for an extended discussion of this subject.


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