Housing Element Update:  Smart Growth Policies Take A Major Hit

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Center held a forum this week on smart growth over the next 30 years, which provided us with plenty to consider as we look to the future. We all know San Francisco’s population is growing and will continue to grow. Association of Bay Area Government’s Ken Kirkey actually quantified this trend: ABAG has set a target of 65,000 new housing units to be built in the City by 2035. Providing this amount of housing is supposed to be the goal of the 2009 Housing Element update, so does the latest version move us any closer?

Unfortunately, the latest version veers off in the wrong direction. As explained in an earlier update, the Housing Element is part of a city’s General Plan, which is the document that lays the policy groundwork for future land use planning. Originally, the Housing Element included policies that would allow the City to provide housing for the expected influx of new residents in the next 30 years, including:

• Policy 1.3: Continue using community planning to plan for housing growth.
• Policy 1.4: Through community planning processes, establish land use controls that support efficient use of land.
• Policy 1.5: Support new housing projects on sites that are located along major transit lines.
• Policy 10.2: Reduce the need for discretionary review processes such as conditional use approval.

As you can probably guess, none of these policies made it through to the next version. In addition, the following policies were added:

• Ensure growth is accommodated without significantly impacting existing residential neighborhood character.
• Maintain allowable densities in established residential areas at levels which promote compatibility with prevailing neighborhood character.

Let’s start with the elimination of the policies related to community planning. The last decade has seen the City adopt an unprecedented number of new plans, including the Rincon Hill Plan, the Market-Octavia Plan, and the Eastern Neighborhood Plan. These plans are not perfect, but they were visionary in that they very carefully analyzed the need for new housing in the City and carefully (maybe too carefully) planned for that growth. “Community Planning” has its problems. Its’ unfortunate need for across-the-board consensus building means that the development and adoption of a plan can drag out for years. The plans become extraordinarily expensive, stakeholders become frustrated, and it seems like everybody is exhausted at the end of the process. But in each of the cases described above, real, forward-thinking plans were produced, and have already benefited the City’s housing production. What will replace community planning in the future? Neither the draft Housing Element or the Planning Department has said yet. But community planning has worked and should not be discarded by the Housing Element.

The loss of proposed Policy No. 1.5 (support new housing projects on sites that are located along major transit lines) is a significant blow to smart growth and green development. We all know that the right place to put new housing development is along existing major transit lines like Geary Boulevard. This policy recognized this fact. Its removal goes in the wrong direction if the City really is serious about being green.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the elimination of Policy 10.2. San Francisco’s land use decisions have become marathons of process at virtually every level. Whether you are trying to add a third story to your home in the Sunset, or trying to get entitlements for a large new retail development downtown, there’s a very good chance you will be taken on a long, protracted, expensive, difficult, process-driven journey. Virtually any time someone tries to raise their hand and suggest a means of simplifying the process, they are met with howls of protest (see the recently abandoned discretionary review reform). This proposed policy that was specifically intended to allow for a slightly easier permitting process for housing projects over 40 feet in certain limited zoning districts, apparently is meeting a similar fate.

These two new draft policies will certainly be used by many no-growth activists to make developing any level of density in the western part of town (or virtually anyplace else) that much more difficult. At the beginning we saw a Housing Element document with some hopeful signs and the beginnings of a blueprint for a vibrant and growing City. It’s looking more and more like the Housing Element could become just another tool for anti-density, no-growth proponents in San Francisco.

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