Waterfront Developers' Ship Comes In

Planning Commission gives up most authority over waterfront development

Life just got easier for people who want to open businesses along what is probably the most desirable strip of undeveloped real estate in San Francisco -- the city's 7.5-mile waterfront.

Earlier this month, the Planning Commission approved significant changes to city planning regulations, and those changes greatly simplify the process for developing new "non-maritime" ventures along the Port of San Francisco's waterfront from the Hyde Street Pier to the Bay Bridge. The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the amendments by the end of the year.

Whether the changes will make for quality development of the waterfront is a matter of debate.

Developers have looked at the Embarcadero with heightened interest recently, in large part because the city ended a seven-year moratorium on waterfront construction in June, adopting a new Waterfront Land Use Plan that outlines objectives for bayside development.

Under the old rules, all proposed non-maritime construction projects along the waterfront were automatically subject to public hearings before the city's seven-member Planning Commission. The commission would review traffic, economic impacts, and other factors before deciding whether projects could go forward.

But the Planning Commission has given up that power for most waterfront development. Under an amended planning code adopted on Oct. 16, businesses seeking to locate on the waterfront side of the Embarcadero do not need the Planning Commission's approval, unless the sites they seek to use are zoned to require specific authorization from the planning body.

The highly prized areas from Broadway to the Bay Bridge and from the Hyde Street Pier to Pier 35 are already zoned for commercial use. The changes to the planning code will, therefore, exempt restaurants and other retail businesses looking to locate on these sections of waterfront from Planning Commission processes. (Businesses that wish to locate across the street -- on the less-desirable inland side of the Embarcadero -- still will need the commission's OK.)

City and port planners have created a new design review committee to deal with development of the waterfront area from the Hyde Street Pier to China Basin. The committee is composed of representatives from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission -- a state agency charged with monitoring the development of the bay -- the Mayor's Office, and the Port and Planning commissions. Waterfront planner Alec Bash says the committee will help "bring issues to the forefront sooner, and enable a more consistent response to make a project desirable to the waterfront.

"The process will be simpler because all the agencies involved will be allowed to participate in the design process at the same time."

That committee will be required to hold public hearings on development proposals for the waterfront. But opponents of shoreline development say design standards, while necessary, are not enough to ensure quality development. They worry about the reduced role of the Planning Commission in waterfront development decisions, and fear that environmental, aesthetic, and economic impacts of such development will not be fully considered.

"There should be an opportunity for public input on all major developments, especially on our beautiful waterfront," says Jane Morrison, president of the public interest group San Francisco Tomorrow and a member of the Waterfront Plan advisory board. "The Planning Commission should have maintained control over conditional uses, so that it could conduct public hearings on any major construction proposal that varies from the established requirements such as height limits or character of the area."

City and port planners describe the planning changes as simple streamlining. "We hope this will make the approvals process shorter and clearer," says city planner Inge Horton.

Development watchdogs plan on monitoring the new review process closely, to see what exactly "shorter and clearer" will entail. Jane Morrison says San Francisco Tomorrow intends to attend each of the new committee's meetings.

"We are optimistic that the port will honor the public's wish to preserve open space and open views of the water, and to give priority to projects that need to be on the water," she says. "But we want to know what they're doing -- and we want to be able to comment on what they're doing.

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