What will Geary look like?
by Michael Murphy
As I walked down Geary Boulevard recently, I realized as I looked at the buildings that
not much has changed in the past 50 years.
I started to wonder what someone in 50 years taking the same walk would see. Will it be
the same street lined with the same buildings or will the street by then be lined with
high-rise apartments? For many Richmond District residents, this prospect stirs fears of a
fundamentally changed neighborhood. For others, it offers the best hope of new housing,
opening the area to more families.
On May 23, the SF Board of Supervisors passed Home-SF, an ordinance allowing
construction of apartments of up to six stories in exchange for the builders’
commitment to reserve 30 percent of the dwelling units for affordable
housing. The SF Planning Department estimates that 5,000 sites in the City are potentially
available for these new dwelling units. However, a close reading of the ordinance gives
reason to doubt that it will spark apartment construction.
The drafting of Home-SF began with a rigorous feasibility study by
David Baker Architects and Seifel Consulting, an economics consulting firm. But as
the bill proceeded through a tortuous two-year path to adoption, it became more
complex and restrictive, regulating the distribution of units for a range of low income
levels and requiring two or three-bedroom units for families while retaining many
The ordinary premise of this sort of housing is that builders can make up for reduced
revenues in low-income units by charging market rates for the remaining units. Not
here. Builders cannot offer any units for sale or rent for a price above 80 percent of
market rates. In final form, the gantlet of burdens and restrictions seem likely to cool the
interest of many builders and developers.
The Planning Department has compiled a list of “soft sites” potentially suitable for
development in the Home-SF program, which includes 13 sites along Geary Boulevard in
the Inner Richmond. On my walk, I inspected each of these sites. What I learned was that
it does not always pay to rely on Google Earth. The list makes only three plausible hits.
A remarkable number of sites on Geary are also untouchable – and should be – due to
the presence of dwelling units under rent control. It does not matter if new construction
could create four dwelling units for every rent controlled unit that is demolished.
The Planning Code creates obstacles to development of these sites, which effectively
assures that they will remain exactly as they are 50 years hence unless some means are
found to protect vulnerable tenants.
There are several possible options – off-site relocation, rent subsidies, assured units in
new buildings – but none are simple and none are under discussion now.
Even if Home-SF does not spark a transformation of Geary, it has broached a public
discussion of raising height limits. Up to a point, increased height limits need not change
the character of the street. A walk eight blocks west of 25th Avenue will reveal
three five-story apartments, but you would not notice the height unless you counted the
There are also three six-story apartments in the neighborhood. One, at 4719 Geary Blvd.,
between 11th and 12th avenues, is an unlovely and bulky building
built in 1927, but it has not attracted hostility. In contrast, 300 16th Ave. achieves a
sense of grace and lightness through Art Deco ornamentation, varied colors,
tiled roof, artful portico and a sixth story balcony. The Institute for Aging near Arguello
Boulevard has employed other architectural tricks to mask its rather formidable size and
makes a strong bid for acceptance. The design guidelines now in effect mandate that new
buildings will employ architectural techniques such as those found in these buildings.
The outlook 50 years hence seems on the whole to favor preservationists more than
housing advocates. If so, housing advocates might pay attention to other ways of creating
new housing units compatible with the character of the neighborhood.
Two are promising. State law now envisions an expanded kind of accessory
dwelling unit, transforming the “in-law apartment” into a small but comfortable
home. And a sophisticated method of permitting known as form-based coding has
provided an efficient and predictable way of encouraging small scale housing
construction in several cities.
Michael Murphy is a local author.