Spending an hour or so in the waiting line sitting in front of the San Francisco Planning Department information desk at 1660 Mission Street is not my idea of entertainment. I doubt it is something anyone would do for fun. I had the opportunity to do this because I was meeting a client who wanted to find out firsthand the rules and restrictions for building on four vacant lots in the North Waterfront area before he made an offer. Building on the lots located on a steep hill with a history of landslides in a historic district would be challenging at best and at worse too expensive to consider.
In the end the client coming from Santa Cruz was almost an hour and a half late due to freeway construction, gridlocked traffic, plus an unexpected stop to recharge his new electric car at Whole Foods. Between one thing and another, he did not want to chance running out of power on Highway 101.
Selling real estate for many years, I have come to expect delays. I tell new buyers the “three P’s” of successfully completing the purchase of a home are “patience, patience, and more patience.” When I realized how long I would be sitting at the Planning Department’s information desk, I did not spend time bemoaning my fate. I perked up my ears and began listening closely to what the planners had to say to homeowners, contractors, and architects as they asked detailed questions about their projects.
Over more than 30 years, I have made trips to the Planning Department’s information desk to ask questions about my own projects as well as with clients who needed a bit of hand-holding while planning a purchase or remodel. San Francisco has a well-earned reputation for being the most difficult city in the United States to build or remodel anything large or small.
At this point I must say I strongly feel that if you are a buyer, thinking about buying a home anything short of newly remodeled or new construction, an hour of eavesdropping at the city Planning Department’s information desk will be at the least interesting and at best well-spent time. Here in no particular order are things I found out watching and listening to five different planners working at the information desk.
• None of the planners felt intimidating to me. They were all soft spoken and very polite and seemed to have infinite patience.
• Planners all took as much time as necessary to answer questions.
• Planners knew the building codes and their nuances backward and forward, and if they were not sure of a fine point, they found the code on their computer quickly, or by asking another planner.
• Planners make use of street view maps on their computers so everyone can see clearly adjacent buildings, front setbacks, rear yards, etc.
• It is important to take a number immediately when you walk in the door. There is always a line. Plan to spend at least two hours between waiting and asking questions. There is a garage in the building and if possible, it is best to park in the garage.
• There are planners who deal with historic building issues. On the day I was there, there was a long line waiting to speak to one of these planners.
• Two conversations I found especially interesting to follow. First: A planner reviewed in detail an architect’s plan for a five-floor home in Pacific Heights. After considerable time, he said about the garage, “Now this is interesting. You have a full bathroom in noninhabitable space.” He went on to discuss the code in detail, explaining what could and could not be added to a garage. He mentioned the city’s concern about Airbnb units and illegal apartments being added to space that was not approved living space. Second: A different planner politely asked a young woman with an extensive plan for the remodel of a large home what the handwritten note on page 8 was about. She tried to finesse it, and finally after the planner asked the same question another two times and the young woman didn’t answer, he politely told her: “I know you are lying. I will not approve this plan until you tell me the truth. The truth makes the process go so much faster.” She finally fessed up.
• The planners are knowledgeable, tough, and experienced. No amount of sweet talking or shaking hands with old friends strayed them from their task of explaining city building codes and expecting people to follow them.
• The city Planning Department has an extensive website: sf-planning.org. You may find many of your initial questions about about zoning, height limits, and city codes answered here. If you have a project in mind, it will speed the process along if you have done some initial research online before you visit the planning information desk.
• Check the information desk hours online before you go. The hours vary.
• Most people have a contractor or
architect deal with permit issues. Still an eavesdropping trip to the planning information desk may save you money by helping you understand in advance some of the issues involved in getting a building permit approved in San Francisco.
Think of a trip to the city Planning Department as a special adventure. It won’t cost you anything until you start to build. It may in fact save you time and money at some point down the road. If you are not sure where to begin, please reach out to me. I have a group of contractors and architects with many years of experience I can recommend.