What is the DHIC Planning & Land Use (PLU) Committee? Part 2

Dolores Heights is a special neighborhood.  We are able to enjoy views from our streets, street corners and homes.  We benefit from a wide variety of architectural styles and houses that respect our varied topography. And we love our beautiful gardens, seen from the street or in the mid-block open space.  But to preserve and protect our neighborhood’s unique character, and the character of the neighborhoods and commercial districts around us, we engage with policies under review at City Hall and in Sacramento, and pushed by well-funded activist groups, that could speed up demolitions, encourage much larger multi-family structures, greatly increase height limits in some places, and even change all residential zoning in the City to four units per lot (that is, eliminating single family home zoning).   We need to be at the table as policy details are worked out so that our interests can hold their own against everyone who wants a piece of our neighborhood or who have different visions of San Francisco’s future.  So we in the Planning and Land Use Committee are working with the Planning Department and Commission but also allying with other neighborhood organizations in District 8 and across the City (in numbers there is strength!) to take the long view and help shape the changes.

Here are some of the current issues and initiatives.  (Thanks to our friends at the Noe Neighborhood Council for these analyses):

Residential Expansion Threshold (RET)

How much of a house can be removed before it’s considered a demolition?  You might be unpleasantly surprised. That’s because the code that determines whether a project is a demolition (i.e., is “Tantamount to Demolition”) is not adequately applied or enforced.  The City’s Planning Department now is proposing a new “Residential Expansion Threshold”, contending it would further “streamline” the review process.  It’s a shortcut, “one-size-fits-all” approach that could result in 6,000 square-foot structures in RH-2 zoned neighborhoods.  The language is easily manipulated.

Urban Design Guidelines (UDG)

The City’s Planning Department is proposing new “Urban Design Guidelines” (UDG) that, while well-intentioned, are seriously flawed and far from complete.  The current draft allows for a potential myriad of “exceptions,” language that is easily exploited and cedes adequate controls.  Unless rewritten, it stands in direct conflict with the Planning Department’s own Residential Design Guidelines, perhaps the most valuable tool in maintaining the character of our neighborhood.  The draft (UDG) fails to consider structures abutting residential areas, and contemplates “anticipated” structures, at the potential expense of current homes and businesses.  

By-Right Legislation, Senate Bill No. 35, and Threats to Local Oversight

If resurrected, “By-Right” legislation would allow any residential project that complies with local zoning and sets aside a portion of units as affordable to be exempt from local review.  Any wildly conceived behemoth would be automatically approved without any certainty that indeed it would meet housing needs and without any consideration of its impacts on the neighborhood – another threat to local control.

The proponents of Senate Bill No. 35 themselves state, “California has a long tradition of broad local control, and in many areas, local communities are in the best position to judge what makes sense for their residents.”  However, this blanket legislation seeks to “streamline” project approvals by requiring that localities, “…approve projects only on the basis of whether the project complies with the objective SB 35 qualifying criteria and pass design review.”

The bill stands to remove all Discretionary Reviews, including Conditional Use, where neighbors’ objections to proposed building projects are heard and decided by the SF Planning Commission.  It will exempt proposed projects from complying with the Residential Design Guidelines if they just offer to add affordable housing.  It would also allow the demolition of existing homes and construction up to the maximum permitted envelope, so long as one minuscule “accessory dwelling unit” is added that may never be made available as affordable housing!  The developer merely has to record a document limiting use of this second unit.  

IN SUMMARY – These three proposed planning changes tilt the process in favor of developers.  They cede current planning controls and neighborhood input without guaranteeing affordable housing will be built.  And the  “one-size-fits-all” RET opens the door to more demolitions of houses whose character fits with the neighborhood and allow the construction of “big box” monster homes.  To learn more and/or help us educate our neighbors, please write us at info@doloresheights.com.

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