Planning Department Process Improvements Plan – More Housing? Quicker Approvals?

As all of us mourn the passing of Mayor Lee, many articles have already been written about his legacy and the progress he made in San Francisco.  One of the items that was pending at the time of his death was the implementation of Executive Directive 17-02, Keeping up the Pace of Housing Production, issued on September 27, 2017, wherein Mayor Lee directed all City Departments to take steps towards process improvements that would increase housing production.  The objective behind Mayor Lee’s Directive is an important one; after the 2007-2012 “…recession, we have added more than 140,000 jobs to San Francisco, but only approved 15,000 housing units.”

The housing crisis is not solely a San Francisco problem, it is a regional issue with every jurisdiction having responsibility to do their part to solve it.  On July 26, 2017, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) adopted Plan Bay Area 2040 (Plan), which provides a long-term regional transportation and land use roadmap for future growth in the Bay Area.  The Plan acknowledges that: “The Bay Area’s housing affordability and neighborhood stability crisis has been decades in the making. Although the housing crisis has many components, its foundation is clear: there simply is not enough housing, whether market-rate or affordable, given the growing number of residents and jobs.”  According to ABAG and MTC estimates, during the first five (5) years for the 2010-2040 period, Bay Area had already added approx. 46% of the anticipated job growth, concurrently to adding only approx. 25% of the estimated housing for the same period.

Mayor Lee’s September 2017 Directive called for approval deadlines, accountability and process improvements for project entitlement and post-approval phases.  The deadlines in the Directive called for an entitlement decision to be made for housing projects (i.e. those with 250 or more net new units, or exclusively residential projects with two (2) or more net new units), within certain deadline based on the level of applicable CEQA environmental review, e.g. projects that are issued a categorical exemption must by finally approved (or disapproved) by the Planning Commission or Planning Department within 9 months.

Consistent with the Directive, on December 1, 2017, Planning Director John Rahaim submitted a plan to the Mayor that outlined proposed process improvements that would implement and accomplish the Directive objectives, which was in part also based on feedback from the Planning Commission from its October 5th and November 16th hearings.  The implementation plan is long and detailed, and provides some quite significant and promising steps that could have a meaningful impact on housing production and the approval processes in San Francisco.

Following are few examples of the types of measures that the Planning Department has recommended, and hopefully will be undertaking.  A full copy of the Planning Department’s plan can be accessed from:  Implementation of the following was proposed to occur within first quarter of 2018:

  • PPA (preliminary project assessment) letters to be converted to abbreviated responses, with shortened 60-day deadline (instead of current 90 days), along with overall efficiency improvements to PPA processes;
  • Creation of a single consolidated “Development Application” form with a master project description, with supplemental forms to be submitted for specific entitlements, such as conditional uses, variances, etc., combined 30-day Planning Department application completeness determination, subsequent 30-day Notice of Planning Department Requirements (NOPDR) issuance, and a 30-day staff review period for project sponsor’s NOPDR response, with immediate commencement of CEQA and current planning review thereafter;
  • Implementation of various CEQA related efficiency and streamlining measures (e.g. re-assessment of criteria that triggers the need for consultant-prepared technical studies, and discontinuance of CEQA exemption certificates and concurrent expansion of exemption checklist applicability);
  • Automatic scheduling of residential projects within the 6, 9, 12, 18 or 22-month deadlines established by the Directive; and
  • Automatic scheduling of DR (Discretionary Review) hearings to occur within 45 days after the end of the 30-day notice period;

Proposed Phase 2 measures that would be implemented during the second half of 2018 would include:

  • Increased capacity for over-the-counter (OTC) approvals, including elimination of the need for Historic Preservation Commission hearings for certain preservation permits and concurrent expansion of the permits that would instead be approved OTC by preservation staff;
  • Streamlining of notice types, periods and mailing radius;
  • Potential elimination of the need for a conditional use authorization (and a hearing) for changes of use from one formula retail use to another formula retail use; and
  • Coordination and launch of an integrated and project tracking system between Planning Department and DBI.

On December 1, 2017, the Planning Department and Building Department also submitted a joint voluntary plan to allow parallel processing for certain housing development applications.  The process is available primarily to less than 240-foot tall new construction projects that have either 50 or more units without any non-residential uses, or 250 or more units with other, non-residential uses.  The parallel process could be a significant time-saver as it would allow commencement of DBI review of a building permit application to occur at the same time as Planning Department’s review, prior to completion of CEQA review.

More information on the parallel plan, issued by Planning Director Rahaim and Building Director Hui can be accessed from:


Authored by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP  Attorney, Tuija Catalano

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.