This Week In San Francisco Land Use

​Meet the New Planning Commissioner

Whether we like it or not, time marches on…and with it, Planning Commissioner Gwyneth Borden has completed her second term on the Commission, and has been appointed by the Mayor to the Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors.  Commissioner Borden was known for providing a practical and personal perspective at the Commission, something that added greatly its debates over the years.  We wish her well in her new role.

In her place, the Mayor has appointed, and the Board of Supervisors has confirmed, Christine Johnson to the Commission.  Commissioner Johnson comes from a strong professional background that straddles the private, non-profit and public sectors.  On the private side, she has worked as a financial analyst, specializing in public finance, consulting Bay Area cities and transportation authorities as well as providing economic analysis for major arena projects in Washington, D.C. and Phoenix.  On the non-profit side, she has served in various positions at local community development corporations and other community organizations.  And on the public side, she has been the chair of the Commission overseeing the former Redevelopment Agency since 2012.  You can find her hefty resume at:  Commissioner Johnson comes to the Planning Commission with significant experience in the financial side of economic development, which should give her a good perspective on the difficulty of doing development in San Francisco.

Planning Commissioner Rodney Fong was also confirmed by the Board of Supervisors for a second term on Tuesday.  We will keep you posted on developments with Kathrin Moore and Bill Sugaya, whose current terms also expire this summer.

2 Henry Adams Goes Down…

The proposed office conversion of the 250,000-square-foot building at 2 Henry Adams Street came to an abrupt halt this week, when the BOS Land Use Committee tabled indefinitely the necessary landmarking legislation.  The building is located in a PDR district, which generally prohibits office use, but allows it without restriction in buildings that are designated City landmarks.  The policy behind the exception is based in historic preservation – in order to provide cash flow to a historic building, use exceptions are provided to allow for higher-rent tenants.  These relaxed historic controls apply to varying degrees in many zoning districts, but no zoning district has a higher threshold than the PDR district – City landmarks are the most important historic resources in the City and require Board of Supervisors approval.

Since 2 Henry Adams is not currently landmarked, it needed to go through that process – the first project in recent years to seek a landmark designation for the express purpose of converting the building to office.  The project seemed to have some momentum with the Historic Preservation Commission recommending the designation, and the subsequent lease of the entire building by tech-giant Pinterest.  But in the end, the surreal proposal came to an abrupt defeat.  Citing concerns with the displacement of 127(!) design/showroom tenants, the Land Use Committee tabled the landmarking legislation indefinitely.

In fact, the 2 Henry Adams project was sailing against some powerful political winds.  The PDR zoning was put into place for the express purpose of protecting space for design/showroom and other industrial tenants from encroaching residential and office development.  In recent weeks, the Planning Commission has expressed concern about exactly these type of industrial building conversions – and in significantly more modest cases.  Keep in mind 2 Henry Adams would have had to get a large office allocation from the Planning Commission even if the landmarking had gone through.  And the icing on top was probably the visual of Pinterest leasing the entire building – and the image of tech displacing tenants, in all contexts, represents potentially the biggest policy concern these days for those on the progressive side of the aisle in the City.

Moving forward, it will likely be very difficult to get an office conversion approved in “PDR-protection” zoning districts such as SLI, SALI, and PDR.  The Planning Commission has even asked the Planning Department to study some tools to prevent PDR-use loss in the Central SoMa plan.  Oh yeah, and the Land Use Committee did pass one related measure:  a conditional use requirement for office conversions in the PDR district that require an economic impact analysis be prepared prior to approval:  Message Received!

Berkeley Joins San Francisco in Ballot Initiative Mayhem

The combination of the 8 Washington vote in November, the Warriors move to Mission Bay, the Prop B vote in June, and the handful of development-unfriendly measures headed to the ballot this November has certainly gotten San Francisco economic-growth proponents in a funk.  But doesn’t it always feel better when you’re not feeling like that alone?  Well, in fact, we’re not alone!  An initiative in Berkeley that just qualified for the ballot would – among other things – reduce height limits in the downtown area.  This isn’t just a downzoning though, it’s essentially a rollback of the Berkeley Downtown Plan that took 6 years to develop between 2005 and 2011, was rescinded once by the City Council after a 9,000-signature petition opposing the plan was drafted, was approved a second time and then ratified by 64% of voters in an advisory ballot initiative.  Add to that the fact that if the current measure passes in November, the only way to change it is with another ballot initiative.  

They say Bay Area land use is a blood sport, and, no doubt, there is a battle raging.

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.