This Week In San Francisco Land Use

Final Members of Historic Preservation Commission Confirmed

At long last, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission has a full membership. Yesterday, the Board of Supervisors confirmed the Mayor’s most recent nominees, James M. Buckley and Andrew Wolfram, for the final two vacancies on the Commission.

James M. Buckley has a Ph.D. in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Buckley worked at the BRIDGE Housing Corporation for twelve years, ultimately becoming its vice-president. In 1998, he left BRIDGE to found his own non-profit housing development organization, Citizens Housing Corporation. Citizens has completed a range of impressive and unique projects since its founding, including the first LEED-certified residential building in Northern California, a reuse of barracks at the Alameda Naval Air Station as transitional units for homeless individuals, and a reuse of the Christian Science Church on Haight Street as apartments for very-low-income seniors. Mr. Buckley has also taught courses at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley.

Andrew Wolfram is a licensed architect and is currently a senior associate at Perkins + Will. His focus has been on the preservation and adaptive reuse of significant historic buildings. He has worked on a number of well-known Bay Area projects, including the Ferry Building renovation, the Presidio Archaeology Center, the UC Berkeley Hearst Memorial Gymnasium renovation, and was the lead designer of the master plan for the Slow Food Nation event at the Civic Center. Mr. Wolfram is also the president of the Northern California chapter of DOCOMOMO US, a national organization dedicated to raising awareness of significant works of modern architecture and design.

The Historic Preservation Commission meets on the first and third Wednesday of every month, at 12:30 p.m. in room 400 of City Hall.

Early Test of Planning Commission’s Approach to Expired Conditional Use Entitlements

On Thursday, June 25, the Planning Commission held an informational hearing on a conditional use authorization that had expired almost one year ago. This was the first expired CU to come before the Commission since it held hearings in February and March of this year regarding entitlement extensions. Those hearings ended with a somewhat unclear decision on CU extensions, stating a Commission policy of exercising “judicious leniency” in reviewing non-Prop M and non-DTR projects that are 100% affordable housing, LEED Gold certified or sponsored by the city. The Commission was silent on extension requests for projects outside those narrow categories.

At the June 25 hearing, the Commission agreed that the project should go forward, since it was clear the project sponsor was actively pursuing the development, by spending money on consultants, upgrading the building and communicating with the Planning Department and, importantly, he was ready to commence construction. It is unclear how the Commission would respond to a project with an expired entitlement that does not have this type of fact pattern.

Several commissioners did note that they liked the idea of bringing entitlement extension requests before the Planning Commission for an informational hearing. Probably the biggest takeaway from the hearing was that the Zoning Administrator indicated that, going forward, he will simply approve an extension and inform the Commission if it has been less than a year since it has passed. If the project is controversial, he may only be willing to approve the extension and inform the Commission within six months after an entitlement expires, and after that time has passed a hearing would be required. All projects, however, will be brought back before the Commission if their entitlements have been expired for around a year or more. Again, these were just statements made by the Zoning Administrator during this Planning Commission hearing. While not official policy, it does give some insight as to how the Planning Department will approach these cases in the future.

City Taking a Closer Look at Vacant Lots

The spotlight has been shined on the issue of vacant lots in the city – especially those where large projects have been approved but the economy has put a halt to any actual development for the foreseeable future. Many are probably already aware of this John King column in Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle, outlining what other cities have done and suggesting greenery be planted in these lots.

The Chronicle ran this article yesterday, surveying a handful of local designers’ visions for beautifying some of these lots.

The city also has some new tools at its disposal to deal with vacant lots. The Board of Supervisors passed the Community Preservation and Blight Reduction Act last fall, giving the Department of Public Works a new enforcement tool to prevent blight in vacant lots. The Act defines “blight” broadly, including (1) properties not kept substantially clean from vegetation or garbage, (2) unpainted buildings or buildings with significant paint peeling, (3) properties with structural deterioration or significant graffiti, and (4) properties with non-common appliances or machinery in its outdoor area. The Act provides an abatement procedure to cure blight, which provides the property owner with notice of the violation, gives them 30 days to complete the cleanup, and authorizes fee charges in the case the violation is not cleaned or repaired. The Department of Public Works has already begun to use this new enforcement tool.

It looks like owners of vacant lots may have to pay more attention to them while they wait out the downturn.

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 leases, purchase and sale agreements, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.