The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:  Omnibus Planning Code Amendments Moving Ahead

Supervisor David Chiu has 344 pages of amendments (“Amendments”) in store for the San Francisco Planning Code. Many of these changes make good sense and will lower the procedural hurdles for transit-oriented development. However, the Amendments include yet another round of revisions to the City’s complex parking regulations. These changes threaten several projects – including those that have been approved or in the pipeline for years – with expensive new approval requirements. Many downtown parking lots would be put out of business with passage of the ordinance, and building owners could be required to remove parking entries to their buildings when making additions or changing uses above a certain size.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to weigh in on these myriad changes on October 20th.


Since 2005, San Francisco has amended its parking rules nine times. Maximum parking limits have replaced minimum parking requirements in many of the dense neighborhoods in the northeast part of the City. In most districts, some minimal amount of residential parking is permitted “by right.” Additional parking-up to an absolute maximum-is allowed with Planning Commission, or in some cases, Zoning Administrator approval.

In C-3 (Downtown) Districts, additional parking is approved as an “exception” as part of Section 309 permit review by the Planning Commission. Section 309 approvals are mandatory for all significant new construction downtown, so the parking exception is handled as part and parcel of applications required of any project. Requesting it doesn’t require separate applications or major fees, nor does it trigger new appeal rights that project opponents can use to stall a project.

With Supervisor Chiu’s Amendments, “as-of-right” parking downtown will double from one space per four dwelling units to one space per two units. However, project sponsors will no longer be able to seek one-to-one parking for family-sized units, and a conditional use (“CU”) will be required to build the parking maximum of three spaces per four units.

Within much of the Van Ness Special Use District, changes in the parking rules are more dramatic. Right now, one-to-one parking is required for residential projects and up to 1.5 spaces per unit are allowed by right. Under the legislation, maximum parking would be limited to one space per two units by right, or three per four units with a CU.

The new CU requirement is consequential. It is among the most expensive entitlements; application fees are just shy of $100,000 for most sizable projects. The CU requirement will also make the approval process more convoluted and political. Unlike most entitlements, which are appealable to the Board of Appeals, a CU appeal goes to the Board of Supervisors.

Because the Amendments lack a grandfather clause, projects that have already been approved but not broken ground could have to go back to the Planning Commission for a new approval and/or reduce the amount of parking they propose. Pipeline projects would be faced with similar new costs and procedural obstacles after months or years of Planning Department review.

We understand that the Planning Department will be recommending a grandfather clause for approved projects downtown. However, to our knowledge, no relief will be recommended for projects on the Van Ness Corridor or pending downtown projects. As the City considers the tenth revision to its parking regulations in less than seven years, it should protect pending and approved projects from sudden changes in the ground rules.


With the adoption of the Downtown Plan in 1985, the City banned permanent surface parking lots downtown. However, existing parking lots were allowed to continue indefinitely. This longstanding provision would be eliminated, meaning that parking lots would be subject to immediate closure or be forced to seek a new conditional use to operate every two years.


Much of San Francisco’s building stock predates the Planning Code and many buildings do not comply with current zoning. For years, the Planning Code has allowed these buildings to be expanded or undergo a change in use, so long as there is no increase in the extent of noncompliance. This clear protection gives property owners certainty that upgrades will not trigger requirements to radically alter their buildings; it directly serves the City’s interest in providing for the adaptive reuse and upgrade of the City’s aging building stock.

The Amendments reverse these clear, effective policies in several areas. For example, on the City’s 30+ protected streets where new parking entrances are limited or prohibited (i.e. transit preferential streets, bike lanes, etc.), the Planning Department “may” require project sponsors to remove or reduce the size of driveways or subbasements when certain additions or changes in use occur. There are, however, no criteria to guide planners in exercising this discretionary power. This is exactly the kind of uncertainty that will both discourage property owners from upgrading their buildings and create the impression-if not the reality-of arbitrariness in the planning process.

In a similar vein, noncomplying signs, which can now remain until the end of their normal life, will have to be removed when the business associated with it ceases operation or moves. Code-complying business signs will have to be removed within 90 days of the business ceasing operation.


Though the Amendments have a number of problems, they do make beneficial changes to the Planning Code. For example, the residential density limit downtown will be eliminated, relieving many projects from a CU requirement. Affordable housing developments downtown will be exempted from the floor-area-ratio limit, again eliminating the need for an expensive CU. As well, the transfer of development rights would be more widely permitted among downtown use districts.


To our knowledge, no formal city notice of the legislation has been given to project sponsors that could be affected by the new parking regulations or to parking lot operators who would be forced to close their businesses. The Planning Department’s concise summary of the legislation and recommended changes will not be available for public review until one week before the Planning Commission hearing. In a City that gives a 30-day notice to every owner and occupant within 150 feet whenever a homeowner wants to expand their kitchen, the limited notice and opportunity for comment on this 344-page proposal comes up wanting. We encourage affected parties to contact the Planning Department, Planning Commission and Supervisor Chiu’s office to express their reservations about the substance of the amendments, as well as the lack of notice to affected parties.


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, 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.

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