West Side Neighbors, Facing Potentially More and Taller Housing, Ask: “What Happened to Planning in This City?”

Supervisor Katy Tang sallied forth into her own neighborhood last night to pitch a plan for more and taller housing in the city’s traditionally low-rise western neighborhoods.

The measured argument, made to a room of skeptics at the Sunset Rec Center, went something like this: It’s not that bad, we really need more housing, and by the way, if we don’t do this then the state is going to unleash all of your worst nightmares and let them run riot on the neighborhood anyway.

That’s a rough paraphrase, of course.

[jump] The bone of potential contention here is the Planning Department’s Affordable Housing Bonus Program. If made law, the AHBP would allow developers building on any of 30,500 select lots — most of them on the north side, but quite a few along Taraval, Judah, Irving, and Noriega streets — to plop on an additional two stories above existing height limits, as long as they price more units below the market rate. Buildings with 100 percent affordable housing would get three extra stories.

This is in line with the city’s present approach to try to jiu jitsu developer fervor into something that offers relief to those being priced out. Tang has championed the plan since last year, teaming up with planning department brains to sell affected neighborhoods on it. Last time she held one of these meetings in her own district, back in October, she ended up with a near-mutiny on her hands.

Since then, the proposal has been amended several times, most importantly with a proviso that landlords can’t demolish rent-controlled buildings and then cash in on the AHBP’s bonuses by replacing them with “affordable” (but far more expensive) new units. “We’re going to say this at least 17 times: No demolishing rent control,” said Kearstin Dischinger, a city policy planner.

Still, questions from the crowd ranged from guarded to outright hostile: “How can you think this will not change the character of the neighborhood?” “How long until these new heights start to bleed into other blocks?” “Developers still get to build mostly market value, so how will this stop us from being forced out?” “What happened to planning in this city?”

Boosters admit that the program isn’t perfect. Since there’s no rent control for businesses, for example, it’s inevitable that some small neighborhood shops will lose their leases when the landlord decides to demolish and put up taller, more profitable buildings.

But they also warned that the Sunset can’t just stick its head in the sand. “We’re projecting 150,000 new San Franciscans in the next 15 years,” said Director of Citywide Planning Gil Kelley. “Do we want them to be only high-income folks? Or do we want to build homes for your kids, and your kid’s friends, and for teachers, and firefighters?”

While Kelley offered the carrot, Tang was ready with the stick. This program was cooked up as a response to state law, she reminded the crowd. A 2013 Court of Appeals ruling on a housing law that’s been on the books since 1979 clarified that builders already have far greater freedom to build above the city’s zoning restrictions.

Sacramento trumps San Francisco, and unless the city gives the state a locally-grown, alternative path to the taller buildings S.F. wants, developers of the future might decide to risk community ire and just wield state law to plant condo towers wherever they please.

A Planning Commission vote on the proposal is just eight days away, but it looks like there’s still a ways to go getting the natives on board. When Tang asked who supported a potential amendment banning taller development near Ocean Beach, about seven or eight hands went up. When she asked who didn’t support the idea, the same number of hands went up. Then she asked who had more questions, and everyone else raised their hand.

Well, at least they all showed up.

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