Commentary – Michael Murphy

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

traditional restrictions.


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.

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