Citizen Involvement Embedded in San Francisco’s Planning Process

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Whether related to demands for affordable housing, better aesthetics, or wider sidewalks, citizen input is an integral part of San Francisco’s building process. While participation slows the pace of development, civic advocates insist that community-molded modifications improves projects.

The argument over whether community input is critical to a better built environment or a blunt expression of nimbyism intensified as a result of introduction of Senate Bill 827, which would’ve superseded local zoning laws as a means to streamline housing development. The bill failed in committee.  Last month, Mayor Mark Farrell introduced legislation to standardize noticing requirements for planning decisions.  The bill would eliminate the need for multiple hearings, establish a process to approve minor building alterations without a hearing, and allow affordable housing projects to proceed without Planning Commission approval.

The San Francisco Planning Department’s current permitting process encourages public engagement in proposed construction activities as early as possible. In cases involving a change in use or something as small as a deck or addition, the Department may require a “pre-application meeting” prior to the sponsor even filing for a permit. The point of this public forum is to identify key concerns and eliminate delays that may result later if those worries aren’t addressed.

The Potrero Boosters and Dogpatch Neighborhood Association (DNA) have issued design guidelines to make developers aware of potential areas of contention well ahead of the permitting process. “We try to get better guidance to developers as to what would fit the community as a whole,” said DNA president Bruce Huie.

The two organizations have designated teams to meet with developers. According to Boosters president and District 10 Supervisor candidate, J.R. Eppler, such engagement helps expedite the process. “I think the neighborhood gets frustrated with the delays as well,” he said.

Eppler said that when it became apparent that land around the decommissioned Potrero Power Plant was to be redeveloped, “The Planning Department reached out to the neighborhood to discuss the project even before the preliminary application was filed.”

Once an application is submitted, the City solicits additional community input. A public hearing is required for projects that involve demolition of an existing structure, and, in most cases, such a scheme goes before the Planning Commission, which has the power to authorize, modify, or deny it. Neighbors within 300 feet, as well as registered neighborhood organizations, are notified of the proposal by mail, and the Planning Department collects public comments over a 30-day window. This is also the case if an applicant seeks a Conditional Use, which involves a usage not principally permitted in the particular zoning district.

For new construction, the notification requirement extends only 150 feet. However, within the 30-day notice period, anyone can request a “Discretionary Review” (DR), which requires that the Commission, rather than Planning staff, determine the project’s fate.

According to the Planning Department’s website, the DR process is intended to ensure that proposals comply with the Planning Code and design standards. However, the website notes that review can result in inconsistent outcomes, adds cost, and takes time away from the Commission to address larger planning issues. An attempt to reform the DR process seven years ago resulted in an expansion of pre-application meeting requirements.

Rich Hillis, Commission president, told the View that the Commission tends to err on the side of allowing greater public input, including delaying a hearing if neighbors aren’t aware of a project’s details.

If the Commission approves a project that’s been subject to a DR, the decision can be taken to the Board of Appeals for another review. In 2016, the Boosters did just that regarding the Commission’s interpretation of what constituted a two-bedroom apartment at a 127-unit development located at 88 Arkansas Street. The Boosters were unhappy that some of the bedrooms lacked an exterior window, a required amenity under the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. The Boosters lost the appeal, but got the definition tightened later through municipal legislation.

For all but the smallest projects, a sponsor is required to complete an Environmental Evaluation (EE). The Planning Department, following California Environmental Quality Act guidelines (CEQA), evaluates the EE to determine whether environmental impacts might be sufficiently large to require a more in depth, and expensive, Environmental Impact Report (EIR). If the Planning Department decides that impacts aren’t significant or can be mitigated easily, that decision can be appealed to, first, the Planning Commission, and then the Board of Supervisors.

The time and cost of an EIR varies widely.  Developing the document generally necessitates the developer hiring consultants and reimbursing the Planning Department for assistance in putting the analysis together. Public comment is solicited after a draft EIR is published, which is included in the final EIR, a document that’s presented to the Commission at a public hearing.

If the Commission approves a project, anyone who submitted comment can appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors. The Boosters did that over the Pier 70 development, as a means to push for more housing and less commercial space; an agreement with the developer was reached prior to a hearing on the matter.

EIRs are rare. According to the Rose Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental initiatives, only 14 out of 127 projects that were subject to CEQA review in San Francisco from 2013 to 2015 required a full EIR. More than half the projects were exempted because they were consistent with previously approved plans at the site.

The City doesn’t offer appeals past the Board of Supervisors; if opponents of a development want to continue to fight the final avenue is the courts. A suit brought on CEQA grounds last year by Save the Hill and Grow Potrero Responsibly over the Corovan project is working its way through the judicial system now. The project involves 395 housing units and 25,000 feet of commercial space in two buildings located at 901 16th Street and 1200 17th Street. The two advocacy groups want changes they say would be more in line with the neighborhood’s character and history.

Most proposed developments proceed more or less smoothly, within the context of a City in which citizen engagement is encouraged. When initial plans at Avalon at Mission Bay, a housing development at 255 King Street, showed a building that Huie said was “up against the freeway,” DNA successfully lobbied to lower its height, provide wider sidewalks and a public walkway. At O&M, at 680 Indiana Street, DNA succeeded in securing greater amounts of below market rate housing than initially planned. At Abaca, at 2660 Third Street, below market housing was also added after community input. In response to requests from the neighboring Hells Angels, Abaca’s developers also changed aesthetics to increase privacy.

According to Eppler, most of the time the community can work directly with the developer to resolve issues; the Planning Department only needs to get involved when there are specific technical issues. “We believe that local control of planning can add value to the process and I think we have demonstrated that neighborhood involvement and growth are not opposing forces,” he said.