Back To The Future:  South of Market Again the Target of Patchwork Zoning

​Six years after the Eastern Neighborhood rezoning passed, Supervisor Jane Kim seems intent on opening Pandora’s box and restarting the debate that took more than ten years to resolve the first time through.  This week Supervisor Kim introduced legislation that will immediately halt projects impacting existing industrial space in the Central SoMa Plan Area.

The legislation, if enacted, will place a 45 day moratorium on any projects resulting in the loss of PDR space, either through conversion or demolition, in the Central SoMa Plan Area.  Specifically, the area in question is bounded by Market to the north and Townsend to the south, 2nd Street to the east and 6th Street to the west.  Certain exemptions to the moratorium apply, including downtown zoning districts, and projects that had their environmental evaluation applications on file prior to September 1, 2014.  The heart of the proposed moratorium simply states “Neither the Planning Department nor the Planning Commission shall issue an approval or authorization for any change to or replacement of PDR use by a non-PDR use in the proposed Central SoMa Plan Area.”

As market pressure continues to build in San Francisco for available space of any kind for residential, office and other projects, Supervisor Kim steps into the fray to stem the tide that seems inevitable: the slow evolution of South of Market from a former industrial and warehouse district to a high-density, mixed office and residential neighborhood near transit and jobs.  This is a perfect model of “smart growth,” and in fact is necessary in order to fulfill San Francisco’s obligations under the Bay Area Plan – a region-wide plan enacted to create new jobs and housing near public transit in order to ease the environmental impacts from the inevitable growth of the Bay Area over the next 25 years.

The debate over where to put PDR uses was supposed to have ended when the City adopted the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.  Under those rules, significant areas of the City were down-zoned for the express purpose of saving space for PDR businesses.  As many have come to realize, there is almost no legal use of these PDR-zoned buildings other than light industrial activities.  And PDR zones cover large amounts of area in Showplace Square, the Mission, Potrero Hill, and the Central Waterfront.  

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan took a decade or more to finalize.  While many people are not satisfied with how the Eastern Neighborhood plan turned out (including, but not limited to, the property owners whose buildings were down-zoned and are now vacant because of it), there at least seemed to be an understanding that this issue was settled.  Apparently not.

It is expected that the initial 45-day term of the interim moratorium will be extended to be in effect until the Central SoMa Plan passes.  No one should be surprised if PDR protection and replacement measures are incorporated into the ultimate rezoning of Central SoMa – many of the Planning Commissioners have already recommended staff do so in hearings this summer.  These could include restricting the amount of space in a PDR building that can be converted to office (even in a zoning district that principally permits office use) or replacement of PDR space in new projects when they demolish existing PDR buildings.

The emergency ordinance requires the Planning Department submit to the Board of Supervisors “a written report describing the measures taken to alleviate the conditions that led to the adoption of the ordinance.”  This is all supposed to happen within 25 days.  Given that it took the City a decade to get the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan done in the first place, we are not sure what the Planning Department can do in 25 days that wasn’t already studied during that time.

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.