When it comes to solving San Francisco’s housing crisis, it’s onwards and upwards.
More specifically, it’s upwards for Westside San Francisco which, under a proposed rezoning, could see buildings in commercial corridors rising to between six and eight stories, an attempt by San Francisco officials to build in areas that have historically underproduced when it comes to housing.
On Thursday, the Planning Commission heard an informational presentation about where San Francisco planners should rezone to allow taller or denser buildings.
Legally raising these limits enables developers to squeeze more homes into buildings, which gets San Francisco closer to meeting its state-mandated goal of planning for 82,000 homes by 2031.
But the question is: How?
“How’s it going to feel? What will it look like, and how will we transition for some of these neighborhoods?” asked Commission President Rachael Tanner.
Though nothing is final, San Francisco planners have two drafts of the possible citywide rezoning in the works. The drafts aren’t competing but, as with the city’s redistricting process, will be used to create feedback and hone a final rezoning plan. The drafts are due by January 2024, per Mayor London Breed’s executive directive, and are due to the state by 2026.
San Francisco will then have just five years to start building homes. The task is a monumental one. Moreso because at no time in the city’s history have so many units been built so quickly. And, with interest rates moving up, development nationwide has slowed.
Nevertheless, San Francisco has been instructed to map out possible development regardless, and it is moving apace.
Two proposals: Higher heights vs. greater density
In both zoning drafts, most of the changes would affect the Westside neighborhoods, like the Outer Sunset and Richmond, as well as some wealthier eastern neighborhoods, like Russian Hill, Nob Hill, and Noe Valley.
Historically, these regions have shirked their share of housing production. Planners want to raise height limits along main commercial or transit corridors, such as Geary Boulevard, Fulton Avenue, the west part of 24th Street, Van Ness Avenue and Church Street.
Thanks to recent and pending legislation, building four-plexes across most of the Westside is possible, with six-plexes legal on street corners. Under the new proposals, areas in the Westside could see buildings with many more units and heights between 65 and 85 feet or six to eight stories.
Some commercial streets on the northeast could go higher to build 24- to 30-story towers.
For context: The Alamo Square apartment building next to the Painted Ladies, 1895 Pacific Ave., is six stories tall, and the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet.
With the state threatening to pull funding or sue if San Francisco doesn’t rezone, it’s not up for debate. To better reflect residents’ desires, planners have been holding neighborhood outreach meetings to explain the pros and cons of both rezoning drafts.
The two drafts mainly differ on whether increasing heights should be restricted to transit and commercial corridors. “I think we saw people really grappling with some of the trade-offs,” Chen said.
The first draft, called Concept One, has slightly lower heights along commercial corridors, mostly between 65 and 85 feet. To compensate, however, that proposal permits parcels a block away from main corridors to have “decontrolled” density — essentially keeping the height limits the same, but maximizing density.
The “decontrolled” areas of Concept One “bring some advantages, in terms of just distributing the growth more broadly” beyond main corridors, and “maybe creating a transition from the corridors down into the neighborhoods,” said Lisa Chen, a principal city planner.
Because of density decontrol, Concept One decreases height limits along main corridors. Chen pointed out that if the project is under a certain size, it is not required to include affordable units. Thus, Concept One may “not pay into our inclusionary program,” she said, a potential disadvantage to meeting the 46,000 affordable home goal.
In Concept Two, commercial corridors see significantly higher height limits — more streets with 85-foot height limits, and some even taller. No areas beyond the commercial corridors, such as the nearby blocks of single-family homes, would see changes.
Map by Will Jarrett. Data from the San Francisco Planning Department. The dashed line indicates the boundary of the city’s “Housing Opportunity Areas,” also known as well-resourced areas, which the state generally defines as areas that typically have more wealth and economic opportunities.
Concerns about character, displacement, feasibility
State law may preempt these plans, however. Commissioner Sue Diamond expressed concern that if the city were to eliminate density in areas currently limited to four stories, the state’s so-called Density Bonus Law may allow developers to go up to six stories, provided they include a certain number of affordable units.
“If we move forward with zoning Concept One, I need sort of complete reassurance that we don’t end up with state density bonus projects, because that then just undermines what we’re telling people,” Diamond said.
She also worried about Clement Street, which is near her Westside home, and other neighborhood corridors.
“I am deeply worried that if we increase the density on this street in both scenarios, that the only way to really do that is to tear the stores down and build 65-foot new buildings,” Diamond said. “Even if we put retail in at the bottom, the rents may be significantly higher than they are now.”
Tanner echoed the idea of investigating potential development impact on businesses, including displacement. “It’d be curious to know what [business owners] feel would help them have more place-based stability for their enterprise,” Tanner said.
Experts are looking into the feasibility of these drafts. Rezoning a parcel doesn’t necessarily mean a developer would build a project with the maximum height, potentially running the risk of under-producing the homes needed to meet the 82,000 goal.
City planners also identified “soft” parcels, where a rezoning change would substantially differ from what is now on site. The drafts estimate some 50,000 to 65,000 more homes could be built in so-called Housing Opportunity Areas, or well-resourced neighborhoods. The city is only required to zone for 36,000, however.
“I guess there is some wiggle room to play with here,” Commissioner Derek Braun said.
High construction costs and other fees could deter and delay any plan. Chen said new legislation aimed at decreasing costs and permitting could help.
Planners emphasized the zoning concepts will continue to evolve as analysis and discussions follow. Chen said, “Once we get the feedback, we’ll have a clearer idea.”