SF Planning 101: How Community Input Affects The Building Process

The San Francisco city planning process gives residents a far greater say over new building developments than what you'll find in similar cities. 

Meanwhile, long-term demand for more housing across income ranges is widely expected to continue, regardless of the short-term ups and downs of the local tech industry.

With this future in mind, planners and politicians have already upzoned some neighborhood main streets—like Divisadero, controversially

Another Planning Department program, still in the works, would allow developers to build higher in more neighborhoods if they include more affordable housing. 

We expect that more readers will want to have a say about the new developments likely headed to their neighborhoods, so we've put together this quick guide to the planning process basics.

San Francisco's Process, In Context

There are six main steps required for a developer to begin construction a typical multi-unit building, and almost every step along the way provides some course of action for a concerned citizen (although certain options are more effective than others).

Existing and proposed neighborhood building heights, via SF Planning.

What's more, every single building permit can be subject to discretionary review, which means that the Planning Commission (an unpaid panel of seven people, four nominated by the mayor and three nominated by the president of the Board of Supervisors) has the power to turn down any building permit.

Which means no development is ever a sure thing. This is different from most cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where many permits are issued as-of-right, meaning that you can get them as long as you meet zoning and height restrictions.

If you've ever had to slog through survey responses or a community meeting, you know that feedback is invaluable, but has its costs—one of which is time.

Both the 75 Howard high-rise and Forest City's 5M Project, approved last week, took eight years to get the green light. In contrast, Seattle's Department of Planning estimates it will take 17 weeks to get a building permit; there, 7,400 new units were built last year and an estimated 11,000 will open both this year and the next—so many that developers are actually worried that rents will no longer increase as quickly.

For context, a net 3,500 new units were built last year in San Francisco, and an estimated 3,600 new units will open each year for the foreseeable future. 

75 Howard renderings, via the Paramount Group, Inc.

Even developments that are 100-percent affordable housing can face the same wait times. Take for instance the 50 units of 100-percent affordable housing at 800 Presidio Ave., which just broke ground last week.

It took eight years to approve, a fact that Supervisor Scott Wiener has called "ungodly." He is trying to pass legislation to streamline the process for affordable housing specifically. "We are in a housing crisis, and it takes way too long—and is too expensive—to get affordable housing approved" he told us.

The time and labor that goes into the approval process might also contribute to the cost of building—architect Mark Hogan estimates that 10% of the total cost of a unit comes from permits, city fess, and professional-services fees.

Rob Poole, Project Manager at the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, also argued that "our complicated system skews toward the big developers." He told us, "If you're a small developer and you are trying to build a modest 30-unit project in San Francisco, and you can't afford to hire a public affair firm or land-use attorney, it's going to be more difficult." 

So the process is not perfect. 

The proposed new development on Grove and Divisadero, after zoning changes. Rendering by Forum Design.

But it means residents have more say here than the residents of many other cities. Without that public input, Alamo Square would have been leveled, Madrone Art Bar would have been a Burger King, the Bay Club would have been razed, and developments would face less pressure to create benefits for the community.

For example, after heated public hearing over its environmental review and an appeal filed by the various neighborhood associations, the Forest City 5M project increased its affordable units to 40 percent of the building and eventually agreed to put $800,000 toward creating a Filipino Cultural Heritage District.

Seattle's breakneck building may have slowed rising rents, but the city is still facing problems with building affordable housing and the loss of character in iconic neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill—problems which residents have fewer tools to address.

The Six Stages Of Planning (Input)

All that being said, here are the general steps developments go through from preliminary project assessments to realization, and when in the process the community can have input. The hope is that breaking this down will help you understand how you fit into the system as it is now and have a more informed discussion about what the process should look like in the future.

Preliminary Project Assessment Application

For projects larger than six units, developers must put together a Preliminary Project Assessment application (PPA). This is what has already been submitted by developers who wish to build at Touchless Car Wash  and the former site of Alouis Radiator.

The renderings for the building that will replace Touchless Car Wash, by Solomon Cordwell Buenz. 

Just like the name indicates, a PPA provides information for a preliminary assessment—it is not a development application, and will not get approved or denied. What it will get is feedback from the Planning Department on things that it will need to take into consideration before filing for permits.

The PPA will include a site plan, a drawing that shows the elevations, or heights, of the building, and often a floor plan. The application will also ask questions that may flag potential concerns that would need to be addressed before they can get the green light to build, for example, “Would the project result in excavation or soil disturbance/modification?” or “Would the project impact any public property or right(s)-of-way?” You can see the complete application here

Community Input: Pre-Application Meeting

Developments involving new construction, significant expansion, or formula retail require a Pre-Application Meeting. The neighbors and businesses next door and across the street from the proposed development, as well as any relevant neighborhood associations, must be mailed an invitation. 

The meeting allows the community to give input to the project sponsor, who is then supposed to summarize neighborhood concerns and provide responses to the Planning Department. The department hopes the meeting will “initiate neighbor communication” and provide an “opportunity to address neighbor concerns” prior to submitting an application, reducing the number of Discretionary Reviews down the road. However, the project sponsor is not obligated to modify the project based on community input.

A noise map put together by the Planning Department

Environmental Evaluation Application

The developer is also required to fill out a Environmental Evaluation (EE) Application before filing for any permits. The Environmental Planning staff or a consultant will review the development’s impact on the environment—including those on historic, archeological, or tribal cultural resources, transportation, noise, air quality, greenhouse gases, shadow, geology, hazardous materials, and trees.

Community Input: Public Hearing And Appeal

According to the Planning Department, “In California, environmental review is two-fold in purpose: to disclose the impacts of a project and to ensure public participation.” If the Environmental Planning staff think it is necessary, they will do an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the project and there will be a public hearing in which the community can voice their opinions. However, an EIR takes at least 18 months, and most projects don’t reach that point. 

Instead, there are a series of decisions on whether or not the project’s impact needs to be examined further.

If the Environmental Planning staff determines that the project will not have a significant impact, it’s possible that the project could get an exemption from the environmental review. The most likely way a development with over six dwelling units would be exempt is if it’s considered an in-fill development project (broadly put, a project surrounded by urban developments) by the California Environmental Quality Act.

If you disagree with the exemption, it may be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

If a project is considered in-fill development, it may be exempt from environmental review. In this case, the Touchless site on Divisadero.

If such a project is not subject to an exemption, then a preliminary negative declaration (PND) is posted online and advertised in a local newspaper. If the staff do an initial study and believe that the project would have a significant impact, but changes could bring that impact down to “a less-than-significant level,” then they’ll issue a preliminary mitigated negative declaration (PMND), which would force the developer to make those changes.

Those who question a PND or PMND have many ways to voice their opinions in the following 20 days. According the the Planning Department, “concerned parties may comment on the adequacy of the PND or PMD, request revisions or appeal the determination, and/or request preparation of an EIR.” Appeals will be decided by the Planning Commission at a public hearing, where proponents and opponents can voice their opinions. 

Without an appeal, the preliminary declarations become final declarations, which could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

However, if a project looks like it will have a major impact, the entire EIR is required—a time-consuming process. After the report is finished and an administrative draft is reviewed and revised internally, a draft of the EIR is published online and in a local newspaper. Then, there is a public hearing about the report’s accuracy and completeness. At that point, the report is revised to respond to the issues raised by the community’s testimony.

Neighborhood Notification Areas via SF Planning.

Finally, at a public meeting, the revised EIR will announce whether the project will significantly impact the environment. If it does significantly impact the environment, the Planning Commission can require the project to make changes to reduce that impact or it can allow the project to move forward anyway and write a statement explaining why.

Then there is a 20-day period allowing anyone who had previously commented at the public hearing to file an appeal to the Board of Supervisors. This is the point Forest City's 5M Project reached before the Board; after a seven-hour public hearing, the Supervisors struck down the appeal and approved the project.

Entitlements

Entitlements are approvals to develop a property. This encompasses everything from a Conditional Use Authorization to use a property for a certain purpose (such as franchise retail) to a Building Permit to construct or demolish property. The Pre-Application Meeting and Environmental Review Process must take place before the developer can fill out any entitlement application.

Community Input: Public Hearing, Neighborhood Notification, Discretionary Review, and Appeal

If the project triggers conditional use, there is a public hearing before the Planning Commission, which will make a ruling after listening to concerns from both sides.

"If the project triggers conditional use, this is a key opportunity for community input," said neighborhood activist Dean Preston, who fought to prevent Domino's from moving into the Divisadero area before conditional use hearings became required for all chain store franchises in Neighborhood Commercial Districts in 2006.

The Planning Commission can grant conditional use and allow the project to proceed as proposed, grant conditional use if certain stipulations are met, or deny conditional use.

A montage of Divisadero, past, present, and alternate present with the chains that never arrived, by R.A. Schuetz.

Aspects of these proposed projects that may trigger conditional use within Divisadero's current zoning include:

  • Residential demolition
  • Lot size of 10,000 square feet and above
  • Non-residential use of 4,000 square feet and above (for both projects, commercial spaces are proposed)
  • Planned unit development for a lot area exceeding one-half acre
  • Inclusion of between 0.5 and 0.75 parking spaces per unit (less than 0.5 is always allowed; over 0.75 is never allowed)

Building Permits Applications are reviewed by first the Planning Department, then the Department of Building Inspection.

A planner will make sure it meets code, design guidelines, and regulations. If it does, the neighborhood is notified and has 30 days to review it before the permit is actually issued.

During that time, any person can file for Discretionary Review, asking the Planning Commission to decide not to grant the permit. However, as the Planning Department explains , this process “is supposed to be used only when there are exceptional and extraordinary circumstances associated with a proposed project,” and the Commission only uses its powers “with utmost constraint.”

Then the Department of Building Inspection is able to review and issue a Building Permit. After a Building Permit is issued, there is a 15-day period during which it can be appealed to the Board of Appeals if there are concerns on how the work will be carried out.

After those 15 days, the developer has made it through San Francisco' extensive planning process and can begin construction.

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