Eminently Logical

Don't be too concerned with the originators of Proposition 98. instead, look at what they might deliver.

An even more significant factor in Proposition 98's potential to depress rents is the way the proposition could eliminate Byrne's "political impediments to housing construction."

After World War II, San Francisco imagined itself to be one of the world's great cities. It was zoned to be a grand social, economic, and political metropolis, with tightly packed apartment housing in the Panhandle and the Richmond, around Golden Gate Park, on Potrero Hill, and along Ocean Beach. A half-century ago, in other words, San Franciscans envisioned an urban environmentalist's dream where growth meant denser cities rather than paved-over fields and forests. But over time, the city reversed direction, with downzonings, building moratoria, and reams of largely forgotten ordinances that nonetheless succeeded in restraining infill construction. The effect has been dramatic. After growing vigorously during its first century, San Francisco's total population decreased from 830,000 during the years following World War II to 765,000 in 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the process, the resulting scarcity of housing saw the city transform itself into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy, pushing development out to Central Valley farmland, which had far fewer restrictions on growth. Other Bay Area communities followed suit, enacting growth controls and pushing development further toward the region's periphery.

This didn't happen by accident. San Franciscans replaced what had been a metropolitan vision of the future with one best described as suburban. Rather than being a great city, it would instead be a tranquil place to live. Voters and city officials implemented downzoning after downzoning, creating dozens of rules inhibiting the construction of apartments, offices, and hotels. Today this pile of growth restrictions presents a maze that transforms what might be a few months of the process of building, permitting, and construction in rural communities into a typical half-decade slog in San Francisco.

The owner of a gasoline station can't demolish it and build apartments or anything else on his property unless he proves "comparable automotive goods and services are available at other reasonably accessible locations," according to the civic code. New buildings can't cast shadows on parks and playgrounds, flophouses can't be converted to tourist hotels, hotels can't be built on the waterfront, and new buildings in most parts of the city require parking garages, meaning that in areas zoned for three-story buildings, this sometimes eliminates an entire story of housing. Developers must set aside and subsidize 12 percent of units for lower-income buyers. If they build the subsidized units offsite, the percentage climbs to 17 percent. Downtown office construction is capped thanks to a strict 1986 antigrowth measure designed to prevent "Manhattanization."

Even more damaging than this tangle of rules, however, is the uncertainty that has been built into the development process during recent decades. City rules require that neighbors be notified of any new construction, which they can block at the Planning Commission. If the commission approves development, yet neighbors still want to see it stopped, it can be again be blocked at the Board of Supervisors.

The city is currently considering rules that would permanently block housing and office construction in its southeastern neighborhoods, blocks from downtown, in the name of "preserving" warehousing, auto repair, and other light-industrial-type buildings. This is preposterous from an economic or urban design perspective — blocking development of downtown-accessible housing and office space to preserve room for warehouses is a recipe for recession. Yet it's in keeping with the ethos that guides present-day San Francisco.

It says: "Our best days are behind us. So don't change anything."

Even when well-meaning planners attempt to improve this condition, they fail. Along Octavia Boulevard, site of a torn-down freeway off-ramp, planners have tried to create a dense transit-friendly neighborhood by making it easier to approve apartment projects according to an area-wide plan amenable to neighbors.

Native San Franciscan Bill Lightner liked this idea, and bought two adjoined and defunct auto-body shops once belonging to S&C Ford on Dolores, near Market and Octavia. The property is surrounded by apartment buildings. Lightner planned to build 48 apartments on his site, with the expectation that the much-ballyhooed neighborhood plan would spare him nightmares of delay. The Octavia plan involved years of meetings with planners, neighbors, activist groups, and developers, in hopes of agreeing on restrictions that were, at the very least, predictable.

Not in San Francisco.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who ran for re-election in 2006, came up with the idea of a somewhat duplicative Upper Market Workshop Series and Urban Design Plan consisting of yet another series of community meetings that continues chugging along despite that election being long over. It's uncertain what kind of enforcement powers this additional set of directives will carry. But in San Francisco terms, it's a success just the same.

"Overall, hundreds of people have participated in the process," the plan's Web site boasts. More process. Less housing. Incrementally more expensive citywide rent. In San Francisco, that's a political bonus.

Recently, Lightner was hit with another roadblock in the form of an S.F. Planning Department environmental review report. His abandoned body shops may become part of a yet-to-be-proposed "discontiguous automobile-themed district," meaning the old S&C buildings might be subject to new historical preservation rules.

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