Planning’s Retooled Approach to Residential Projects in RH Districts – The Large Home Program
Last week, the Planning Department unveiled its revamped approach to residential expansions and new ground-up construction in the RH zoning districts: the Large Home Application. The name of the program is derived from the Eastern Neighborhoods’ primary entitlement document, the Large Project Authorization, and the concept is also similar. For most projects in RH districts creating units over a certain threshold, (1) a Planning Commission hearing would be required, and (2) the Commission will have a clear set of design guidelines to apply against the project when considering authorization.
The program would replace the “tantamount to demolition” approach to certain expansions, which can result in oddly constructed units and is often criticized for not accomplishing the purposes of the Planning Code’s restrictions on removing dwelling units.
The threshold that would automatically trigger a Commission hearing is based on the floor-area ratio of the unit/home, and not size. The Planning Department had initially proposed a 3,000 square foot size threshold; this retooled approach is meant to respond to community feedback and Commission direction for a more refined metric. Planning’s proposed per-unit size thresholds, by district:
In short, subject to a few narrow exceptions, if a single family home or any unit in a multifamily building exceeds this FAR, it would automatically trigger a hearing. Planning’s logic makes a lot of sense: owners, sponsors, and architects can know with certainty what size home or unit would automatically trigger a Commission hearing. Unfortunately, the Program will not replace the Discretionary Review process, so uncertainty about timing will still persist for all residential projects. Even if a project is below the Large Home Application FAR threshold, it could still end up at the Planning Commission if a Discretionary Review application is filed.
That being said, Planning staff did explain that many recent residential expansion or new construction projects that ended up on the Discretionary Review calendar would have automatically required a Large Home Application if the program had been in place. And instead of the somewhat vague “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” standard of review on DR, staff is proposing a set of specific criteria to guide the Commission’s decision making.
Those criteria are: (1) high quality architectural design; (2) contextual and compatible with regards to factors such as siting, orientation, massing, and scale; (3) compatible with surrounding unit density; (4) family-friendly amenities; (5) for projects reconfiguring units, quality and family-friendly redesign; and (6) access to and quality of open space for each unit.
Some other interesting details of the proposal:
- It would eliminate Section 317 exemptions from Planning Commission hearings for demolitions of RH-1 homes that are demonstrably not affordable or that are unsound. Soundness and affordability will remain criteria for the Commission to consider, but they would no longer be sufficient in and of themselves to avoid a Commission hearing.
- For multifamily projects that are subject to the program, a minimum unit size of 1,000 square feet is proposed. Staff explained that they are open to other suggestions for maintaining housing equity, and that the idea with this control is to prevent remodels or new construction where one unit is significantly smaller than the others.
- There would be exemptions for minor expansions and some ADUs. Existing units that already exceed the FAR threshold would be allowed a 10% addition before a hearing is triggered. Consistent with San Francisco’s current rules and state law, certain ADUs would also be exempt—specifically ADUs that are 25% of a unit size or 750 square feet, whichever is smaller.
- Section 317 approval criteria for mergers, conversions, and demolitions would stay in place. The Large Home criteria would be an additional set of substantive criteria for Section 317 projects to meet if the FAR threshold is triggered.
Staff is making a presentation at the Planning Commission on June 1. We will continue to follow this proposal as it makes its way through the City approval process.
The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient. Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein. Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP is a full service real estate law firm. We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.