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How shortsighted neighborhood activism fuels the city's housing crisis, and pushes the best of San Francisco deeper and deeper into the suburbs

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
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Page 4 of 7

At rest, a car needs three parking spaces on its daily rounds: one at home, one at work, and one in a shopping center. The cost associated with having to eliminate housing units to allow for more parking undermines a developer's economies of scale, and further adds to the cost of each apartment. In smaller buildings the effect can be striking -- adding more parking spaces in areas zoned for three-story buildings or lower can eliminate an entire story of housing.

And the drivers of all those cars want wider city streets and more freeways, often at the expense of even more housing. These demands compete with public transit, the widespread use of which would make it easier for developers to build buildings without parking.

Every time parking wins, housing loses, just as it did in the neighborhood battle over the develop-ment at Fulton and Masonic. Such outcomes are part and parcel of the way San Francisco now makes its planning decisions. Small interests are served, small groups placated, and the city grows in tiny fits and starts that add up to no rational whole.

During 1998, the year much of the wrangling over density at Fulton and Masonic took place, a total of 874 units of housing were added in San Francisco. That year, jobs grew by about 10,000.

That makes no sense.
"The real problem with building housing in San Francisco is that the stakeholders who would want housing to be developed are not particularly active," says Erickson. "The major beneficiaries of additional housing are renters and potential buyers. Potential buyers don't get active and potential renters don't get active. Homeowners have a huge stake ... they tend, as a group, to oppose more housing. They are very organized and very powerful."

San Francisco's status as a largely suburban city -- and the tightly woven patchwork of neighborhood associations that fight to keep it so -- has evolved steadily over the last half-century, as NIMBY associations were forged block by block in the heat of individual housing battles. Typically, a group of neighbors would band together to defeat a project, and win. Thus emboldened, such groups often remained as neighborhood associations, involving themselves in the planning of any future neighborhood development.

"We have what are called 'professional citizens.' You see the same faces at every planning meeting," says John Hirten, who recently stepped down from heading the mayor's Muni task force.

Some of these groups are decades old, dating back to the 1930s. Others were formed just months ago: The Outer Mission Residents Association, in the Crocker Amazon neighborhood, for example, formed last year to oppose a nonprofit apartment building that would have housed 48 old folks.

These associations emerged with San Francisco's various citywide development battles: the 1960s battle against freeways, the backlash against the 1970s redevelopment of the Western Addition, the construction of the Fontana Towers near Fisherman's Wharf, and the development of garish condominium buildings toward the top of Twin Peaks.

"Historically, too often in the past, the city did not do its job in developing housing that was sensitive and fitting with the neighborhoods in which they were built," says Gabriel Metcalf, program director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a nonprofit think tank. "You had bad projects, projects that were out of scale, projects that were ugly. They gave housing a bad name."

With the battles came citywide downzonings, banning whichever type of housing development was thought offensive at the time. The cumulative effect was to severely limit housing of all types.

In 1960, a new general plan was drafted amending the old, 1920s plan, which had set only a few density limits, in the Sea Cliff area, the Sunset, and some of the city's southernmost neighborhoods. The new general plan was still friendly to the idea of citified living, though.

"All of Ocean Beach was zoned for high density and no height limit," says Bob Passmore, who last year retired as the city's zoning administrator after 20 years with the Planning Department. "Potrero Hill was zoned for high densities. Along the Panhandle, Golden Gate Park, all those areas were zoned for high densities."

In 1962 and 1963, neighborhood associations began forming to complain about large apartment buildings being built under the 1960 rules, so planners went to their drawing board again, halving densities allowed in residential districts. In the early 1970s, neighborhood groups in the Inner Sunset and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods began petitioning for lower-density restrictions on housing development there. The political winds clearly favored a clampdown on new housing.

The Planning Department responded to increased neighborhood complaints with a new set of zoning codes, dramatically cutting once again the amount of housing that could be built in the city. The legal density in the Richmond District, for instance, was cut by half.

During the early 1990s, San Francisco neighborhood groups agitated against the construction of smallish apartment buildings in the city's western residential districts. The buildings, dubbed "Richmond Specials," were denounced as tacky, out of character with the neighborhoods they were built in, and, most important, adding undesired population density to these neighborhoods. Once again, the Planning Department began to consider drafting a new general plan in response.

But by then the number of neighborhood groups, and the corresponding number of narrow interests, had grown so great that creating a new general plan to please them all had become a gargantuan task. Thousands of employee hours were spent on the project, but it was eventually abandoned in favor of a seemingly minor change in the city code favoring increased citizen participation in the planning process. Given the unassuming name "Code Section 311," the provision requires that neighbors be advised of any zoning or permit applications impacting their neighborhood, then given a chance to appeal them. While not as dramatic on paper as the earlier downzonings, the provision has had the effect of further paralyzing housing construction, developers and planners say. As part of this neighbor-friendly planning ethic, the Planning Department three years ago organized itself into "Neighborhood Planning Teams" to replace the previous organizational structure, where individual planners were responsible for particular types of zoning problems. Planners are now assigned to specialize in an individual neighborhood, rather than a type of code classifications.

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Matt Smith

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