Former Planning Commissioner Tapped to Lead Department

The appointment fills the final hole left by multiple recent resignations by planning officials.

Former Planning Commissioner Rich Hillis will take on the role of planning director, Mayor London Breed said Wednesday.

Hillis, who joined the Planning Commission in 2012, stepped down weeks after former director John Rahaim, who oversaw San Francisco’s development boom of the past decade, said he would retire in September.

“Rich recognizes that to address this equity issue, we need more housing in San Francisco for families and people of all income levels, and we need that housing built throughout our entire City,” Breed said in a statement Wednesday. “He shares my vision for streamlining the housing approval process and eliminating red tape so we can make the city more affordable and equitable.”

The appointment is unsurprising not just due to their alignment on housing policy, but Hillis’ past work at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. There, he oversaw development projects like Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island before serving as executive director of the Fort Mason Center.

Former fellow Planning Commissioners Myrna Melgar and Rodney Fong, as well as SPUR and One Treasure Island celebrated Hillis’ newfound role.

“The Planning Commission and the Planning Department face significant and unprecedented challenges, especially around housing affordability, and equity, and the decisions we make today will have impacts for generations to come,” Hillis says.

Hillis’ appointment fills the last remaining vacancy after a wave of planning official departures. Melgar left in January to run for District 7 Supervisor, a position Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee terms out of in 2021. Hillis himself resigned, but to be considered for Planning Director after John Rahaim resigned in September. Land use and real estate attorney Sue Diamond, appointed by Mayor London Breed, replaced Hillis.

Others like Supervisor Hillary Ronen lamented the appointment.

“Like Bloomberg for president, this is a shockingly conservative pick and it’s a sad day for San Francisco,” Ronen tweeted, referencing Breed’s presidential endorsement of Michael Bloomberg. “It is disappointing that the mayor chose a new planning director that has been a reliable vote for developers on the Planning Commission and turned a deaf ear to communities fighting to stay in San Francisco.”

Ronen and her board colleagues did have say in approving Maria Theresa Imperial, who goes by Theresa, to fill the open spot on the Planning Commission on Tuesday. Imperial is the co-founder and executive director of the affordable housing nonprofit Bill Sorro Housing Program, who has repeatedly attested to community concerns in City Hall chambers. Imperial, whose unanimous approval was met with applause at the Board of Supervisors’ regular meeting, will make her first appearance on the Planning Commission on Thursday.

“Of course, I’m completely grateful and deeply honored to receive unanimous vote today from the full Board of Supervisors,” Imperial tells SF Weekly. “I’m looking forward to [sic] working with other Planning Commissioners, too.”

Yee, who appointed Imperial, said the opening was tough to fill with many qualified applicants but that he ultimately wanted someone with a deep community connection to land use policy.

“Theresa brings a community view to the Planning Commission that recognizes that we are not just a city of buildings and boxes but a city of people,” Yee says. “She will listen to all perspectives and ensure that those most marginalized will have open access and transparency to the very complicated community process.”

Imperial had a warm reception at last week’s Rules Committee hearing on her appointment from several anti-displacement groups like South of Market Community Action Network and Council of Community Housing Organizations. Speakers lauded her racial and economic equity approach to development, with Supervisor Hillary Ronen calling her a “champion” of working-class people and communities of color.

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