by Thomas K. Pendergast
A bill now sitting in the state legislature would take the zoning power to reject taller buildings away from municipalities across California if developers want to put them near public transit stops.
The bill’s opponents fear that, if passed, it would result in more low-income people being pushed out of neighborhoods to make way for luxury apartments, aside from light, air and traffic congestion issues.
But the sponsor of Senate Bill-827, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), says his bill,now sitting in committee and up for debate sometime in April, would make housing more affordable for everyone by expanding the maximum level of floors and density allowable by zoning laws within a half to a quarter of a mile from public transportation lines.
The law would require cities to allow four- to eight-story tall apartment and condominium buildings in residential areas if they are within a half mile of major transit hubs, like a Bay Area Rapid Transit or Caltrain station, or within a quarter mile of “highly used” bus and light rail stops. Almost all of the Richmond and Sunset districts would be de-facto re-zoned under Weiner’s SB-827.
The new height standard would depend on the size of the street. Buildings on narrower streets would be limited to four or five stories, while eight-story structures could go up on larger streets, like Geary Boulevard.
Among those who support the bill, according to the SF Chronicle, are tech executives like Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Logan Green of Lyft.
In San Francisco, push back came from Aaron Peskin at a recent meeting of the SF Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee, when he introduced a resolution to oppose the measure, which will be considered by the board on April 3.
“This is a very, very important piece of legislation,” Peskin said. “This is a piece of state law that, while it may look on its surface to be about zoning regulations in the state of California, if you look at it carefully it disproportionately impacts one city and county, which is the city and county of San Francisco.”
Even though the resolution has no direct legal impact, Peskin said it is importantfor San Francisco to make its position on the bill clear.
“I understand and I acknowledge that supply is part of the issue, and as a supervisor, maintaining the affordable housing that we have is also an issue,” Peskin said. “It’s not any supply. It is an affordable supply for people who live and work in San Francisco.”
Although the impact of the legislation would be felt statewide, the west side of San Francisco falls right in line with other urban communities up and down the state, which suddenly find that their usual zoning prerogatives could be usurped by Sacramento.
“Where the big affect will happen is on the west side and the north side, opening these exclusive neighborhoods to new apartments and the middle class, and lessening gentrification and displacement pressure on the Mission,” said Steven Buss of Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY), a pro-development advocacy group.
Others see the potential impact of the bill as cataclysmic.
Then again, there was Laura Clark, YIMBY’s executive director, who spoke in support of the bill.
“People are desperate because the policies that have been outlined as being so wonderful for affordability are so obviously failing,” Clark said. “We are failing to make San Francisco affordable for the middle class, for lower-income people, for everyone. This bill offers the opportunity to create a genuinely dense, vibrant, affordable city for so many more people.”
Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards told the committee that the City has about 60,000 housing units currently “in the pipeline,” of which 5,875 are now under construction, about 47,000 have had either their individual sites or master plans approved and another 7,200 are included in proposed applications. The current zoning capacity in the City is 67,600 units.
“Nobody mentions this,” Richards said. “Why are we rezoning the City?”
Peskin agrees. “I look at this bill and I’m deeply disturbed because one thing San Francisco learned from is the decisions of displacement,” Peskin said. “This bill … puts us on the precipice, and admittedly so, of getting back into the policy-making of displacement and the ruining of lives.”
Wiener thinks his bill is good for the City.
“San Francisco’s approach to housing policy for the last three decades has already created a displacement crisis because we are not building enough housing at all income levels,” Wiener said. “We can build more housing while also ensuring strong displacement protections.”
Peskin says when the supervisors approve plans that include up-zoning they have an obligation to “recapture value.”
“When the City or a public agency confers benefit on a landlord we have an obligation, a responsibility, to recapture that value for the good of the public,” he said. “What Senate Bill-827 does not do, what Home-SF actually did do, is recapture that value. If we are going to use major transit hubs then we are going to continue to burden our public transit infrastructure. Then, if we are taking a building or a property that right now can be zoned up to 55 feet and we almost double that zoning capacity, this is not a giveaway to developers, this is conferring massive value on property owners and we must recapture that value.”
Again, Wiener disagrees.
“Aaron is simply wrong, since the bill applies local inclusionary zoning requirements– i.e., requiring a certain percentage of new units to be below market rate,” he said. “Because SB-827 will lead to more units overall and because San Francisco’s inclusionary percentage will apply to that higher number, the bill will lead to more affordable units in San Francisco – which is value recapture.”
Libby Benedict of the Lone Mountain Civic Association finds herself in the unprecedented position of being on the same side as Peskin for this issue.
“We understand that Sen. Wiener is trying to disrupt the norm, but this legislation has so many unintended consequences to consider: increased pollution, immense impact on infrastructure, displacement of low-income residents, the assault on neighborhood character, etc.,” Benedict said. “The Manhattanization of San Francisco should not be a foregone conclusion. We encourage you to oppose this measure and let’s work to find solutions that don’t usurp local control and also don’t destroy what makes us unique.”
“If someone believes four-or-five-story apartment buildings represent Manhattan, I’d invite that person to go to Manhattan and see for themselves that that is not the case,” Wiener responded. “We’re talking about small to mid-size apartment buildings – exactly the kind that are all over San Francisco, including the Richmond and Sunset. These buildings are nothing new. We used to allow them and should allow them again.”
But the SF Planning Department is also concerned about tying zoning to transit services, which can change over time.
“The zoning map would be dynamically tied to shifting factors and would require regular monitoring of transit service levels and routes to maintain an updated zoning map. This could mean that zoning could fluctuate substantially over time as service levels increase or decrease,” according to a department analysis.
Weiner said he is working on amendments to clarify the situation.
“We are working on amendments to refine the definition of a major transit corridor, which will address these concerns,” Wiener said.
The department also notes that if a bus route was shifted from one street to another, or lines were truncated or consolidated, it could significantly affect zoning. It could also create push back from jurisdictions or neighborhoods that oppose increased density to suspend already planned transit service enhancements or avoid planning for increased transit service altogether.
“We should not be allocating public resources like scarce public transportation dollars to areas that don’t have housing,” Wiener responded. “As we plan new transit services, we should also be planning for adequate housing. Frankly, this kind of concern points to a fundamental problem with how we have viewed housing – as a burden, and not a benefit.”