The coming battle over neighborhood densification

The San Francisco Planning Department wants to densify residential neighborhoods in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases. The plan is to place new housing along major transit lines and to institute “density equity,” a new term coined by Planning to justify placing more of the expanded housing stock in existing neighborhoods.

Housing Element Updates
Each county of California is required, under state law, to have a general plan that maps and describes the density and legal use of each property. A general plan must also contain a Housing Element (HE) that spells out housing policy – a plan that guides residential growth in directions that are sustainable, preserve neighborhood character, and achieve state housing objectives. You can find San Francisco’s plan online at

The Housing Element must be updated every five years. In meeting this requirement, the City and County of San Francisco has struggled to put in place a comprehensive policy that is acceptable to city planning, local developers and the neighborhoods, while complying with state law. The 2009 HE is the five-year update adopted by the Planning Commission in March 2011, and it is now before the Board of Supervisors for adoption. It is being pushed hard by those in city government because it is overdue, but also because it acts as a free admission ticket to state coffers to fund programs for which San Francisco, frankly, does not have the money.

A group of 13 neighborhood organizations attacked the 2004 version because it failed to examine the impacts of proposed housing policies. The 2004 HE was largely nullified by the courts. This same group is again concerned about last minute changes placed into the 2009 version one month before the San Francisco Planning Commission adopted it. These subtle changes could allow new neighborhood housing with no parking or open space requirements and building heights that surpass zoning limits. The neighborhood groups claim it gives an unelected planning department and planning commission a much stronger hand in determining neighborhood housing matters, and weakens or eliminates the right of neighborhoods to participate in zoning decisions that may seriously affect their quality of life and property values.

Kearstin Dischinger, a six-year member of the S.F. Planning Department and project manager for the new housing element, says that the wishes of the community (neighborhood) and transit infrastructure are important considerations of Planning. She says that the 2009 HE does not change land use or neighborhood zoning. She points out that many neighborhoods such as Cow Hollow have architecture and street facade designs that may historically protect these neighborhoods from construction of buildings of greater height. “Also,” she says, “some neighborhoods that have undergone replanning in planned areas of the city, like Market-Octavia, have been allowed to keep current RH-1 and RH-2 density and height.” She adds, “Neighborhood design standards, which are part of the planning code, will be respected in any evaluation of future density or zoning change.”

What she says may be true. However, previous HE language used the word “maintain” when speaking of neighborhood character. Planning has now replaced it with the word “respect.” In spite of what Dischinger says, the new word is weaker and affords the City wide latitude in deciding what elements of character to keep, if any. In producing the 2009 HE, Planning held workshops with neighborhoods to get their comments, but in the end may have incorporated only comments that fit their internal agendas. This process may be an indicator of how they will “respect” neighborhood character in the future.

The final wording in the 2009 HE, while it may not change the zoning map, blurs established concepts allowing the City to change policy and uses without even changing the zoning. An example of this is the replacement of the phrase “neighborhood-supported planning” with the phrase “community-supported planning.” Planning says this is no big deal, but as Kathy Devincenzi, the attorney who won the neighborhood dispute nullifying much of the 2004 HE, points out, a neighborhood can only be defined by a location or area. A community can be almost anything, such as a community of developers and planners. Or it could be a community of several overlapping interest groups – none of which necessarily lives in or supports the interests of a particular neighborhood. The insertion of this concept/phrase into the general plan’s Housing Element could substantially take determination of a neighborhood’s appearance and character out of local hands and place it all within the Planning Department.

Charles Ferguson, an attorney and board member of the Presidio Heights Neighborhood Association, has been working with the City since 2004 on various versions of the housing element. He recognizes that the Planning Department must have a workable policy in place to address affordable, middle-income and market-rate housing. He believes that a reasonable compromise can be reached and has been fighting for a return to an earlier (June 2010) version of the HE, which he and others feel shares more equally the future determination of neighborhood zoning and character.

Density Equity Concerns
“Density equity,” a new policy term also bothers Ferguson. He points out, “San Francisco is already the second densest city in the country behind New York City, and certainly does not need to become denser just to fulfill an arbitrary wish of Planning staff.” He also states, “If they want density equity across the city, Planning should first continue developing and expanding major areas such as Treasure Island, Mission Bay and Candlestick so that these areas have at least the same density as the rest of the city. Large-scale neighborhood density increases are particularly inequitable for families who move into an established RH-1 or RH-2 neighborhood to raise a family, but then face a constant influx of midrise buildings with no parking or rear yard space. How is this equitable?”

Adding residential density along major transit routes, a 2009 Housing Element policy, would seem to be sensible, with the proper controls. But it now appears that San Francisco, desperate to keep state and federal funding spigots open, is mixing transportation and housing policy together into a brew that could drive more families and middle class residents from the city. Several supervisors have stated publicly that keeping middle-class families in San Francisco is important, but where are the policies that demonstrate this?

Sacrificing our beautiful neighborhoods – which are of major importance to our number one industry, tourism –probably is not the answer. Planning, if done creatively, can mitigate the impacts of growth while preserving the neighborhood scale in which many people want to live.

The Board of Supervisors considered the adoption of the 2009 Housing Element at their May 24, 2011 meeting, but by unanimous vote continued the ordinance for a vote at the June 14, 2011 board meeting.