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UncategorizedWhy SF city planning is such a mess: A...

Why SF city planning is such a mess: A case study

Modest project on Bryant Street sheds light on a long list of planning problems

The CAC Group's mockup of the renovated 340 Bryant shows a site surrounded by freeways
The CAC Group’s mockup of the renovated 340 Bryant shows a site surrounded by freeways

By Tim Redmond

APRIL 14, 2014 – The City Planning Commission is going to hear an item Thursday that sounds pretty mundane. It’s listed on the agenda as “Review of Past Events at the Board of Supervisors, Board of Appeals and Historic Preservation Commission.”

But in that review could be some serious issues that came out of an appeal last week of a building on Bryant Street that is being converted from commercial and industrial space to office use.

Although the Board of Supervisors rejected the appeal April 7, Sup. Jane Kim raised a number of questions that get to the heart of how city planning operates. Among them: Why is the city still using a figure for the number of workers who fit in a typical office space that’s way, way out of date?

Why can’t city planners seem to discover obvious flaws in a project proposal until somebody on the outside forces the issue?

And why isn’t the Planning Department enforcing its own new rules when it comes to pedestrian safety?

“I am embarrassed for the City Planning Department,” Sue Hestor, attorney for the appellant, explained.

Google Maps shows how the site is wrapped up in freeways and on-ramps, not very friendly to pedestrians
Google Maps shows how the site is wrapped up in freeways and on-ramps, not very friendly to pedestrians

The issue – as is often the case in these appeals – was a bit complicated and abstract. The developer says that his project – converting the top three floors of 340 Bryant St. to office use – needs no environmental review, because it comes under the sweeping category of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.

That plan had its own Environmental Impact Report – and now city officials and developers say that any modest-scale project permitted under the plan has already in effect had the legally necessary environmental review.

Hestor, representing San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth, argued that this particular project is so unusual that the existing review doesn’t address the issues adequately – particularly the problem of pedestrian access to a building that’s in essence surrounded by Bay Bridge on-ramps.

“If there is ever a dangerous place in Soma, this is it,” Hestor said. She noted that the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan EIR looked at another set of I-80 on-ramps, but never at this one. She asked that it be sent back to planning for further environmental review.

After she filed the appeal, the developer agreed to install a new crosswalk with a stoplight. But that wasn’t part of the original application, and wasn’t even discussed until the appeal was filed.

“I created the opportunity to have this discussion,” she said. And she wasn’t trying to brag – she was angry.

City planners should have caught the traffic and pedestrian problems the minute the project application arrived, she argued. It shouldn’t have taken a community group spending countless hours filing an appeal to get the obvious safety issues on the agenda. “Why do I have to be the one who brings this up?” Hestor asked. “What the hell do we have a planning staff for?”

Kim asked the planning staff to explain why the traffic and safety issues weren’t discussed at the beginning of the project and weren’t deemed serious enough to mandate environmental review. “We already knew this was not a safe site,” she said.

The response by planning staffer Kansai Uchida was telling.

The Eastern Neighborhoods EIR, he said, already talked about the problems of pedestrian safety and vehicles. In fact, it clearly noted that the plan, which allows a lot more office and dense residential development, would create a situation where more “conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles could occur.”

In other words: We knew when we approved this plan that it might jeopardize pedestrian safety, but we did it anyway, and now it’s too late. Build away.

Of course, some things have changed: The Planning Commission has adopted Vision Zero, the plan to eliminate pedestrian casualties. But planning staffers said that adoption came after this project was approved – so even if it violates the concept of Vision Zero, there’s nothing anyone can do.

Kim suggested – in something of an understatement – that “this brings up serious issues.”

The developer, represented by John Kevlin, an attorney with Reuben, Junius & Rose, said the project sponsor “is doing everything we can.” Putting in a marked crosswalk with a stoplight involves the Planning Department, the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Department of Public Works, and Caltrans, which owns the Bay Bridge right-of-way, he said.

But again: If there had been no appeal, none of this would have come up – and the Planning Department would have allowed a project that even the developer agrees has safety issues to slide right through the process.

Kim had another question for Uchita. The Planning Department estimates that there will be about 165 new workers on the site; that’s based on each worker taking up 276 square feet of space. But that figure is old – modern workplaces have fewer closed offices and the era of the large cubicle is over. Tech firms, particularly, look for open office plans; according to a recent New York Times story, the average space per worker is down to 176 square feet, and in San Francisco it’s probably lower.

So Planning’s estimate of the number of new employees who will have to cross the street to get to work may be off by a factor of almost two. The impact of that goes far beyond this project – the fees developers pay for Muni and housing mitigation are based in large part on the number of new workers their buildings will house. There are millions of dollars at stake in that one planning figure.

Why, Kim asked, is the Department still using ancient data?

Sarah Jones, director of environmental planning, had the answer: The number is in the Department’s published transportation guidelines. Sometime in the next year, she said, there would be discussion of how to “right-size it.”

In other words: This is how we’ve always done it. And by the time we get around to changing the figures, developers will have built dozens of projects using the old standard, and saved themselves millions that could have gone to the city for things like, say, traffic lights and crosswalks on Bryant Street.

It will be interesting to see how the planning staff delivers the message to the Commission. Because this one modest appeal of a relatively small project has demonstrated some very large problems in the city planning process. The meeting starts at noon.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. It’s obvious that some pretty stupid decisions were made on this project; such as overlooking how to get officer workers in and out of a building that’s surrounded by freeway access. But those decisions have been made and the permit has already been given. Both the city and the developer should focus their efforts to make building access as safe as possible instead of trying to litigate and obstruct this project.

  2. I will save this article for the inevitable time when you publish an article on how planners are slowing things down and driving up costs. In this case the staff took existing plans (they can’t use non-existing future plans) to review the project and did it relatively quickly-and they did the right thing.. Note that the building has/had people in it already so there is a lot of operating experience with how people access the building and cross the street. And what is wrong with making future changes? If some operating experience at future occupancy levels show that there are issues why not fix them when actual real time data shows what the real problem is? I feel embarrassed for Sue Hestor. Thanks to SF Planning for moving this project along and I hope that this publication does not let itself be tarnished by Sue Hestor comments again.

  3. When you devote your life to destroying the dreams of those who actually want to build something, then you’d better be prepared to take some flak.

    She is probably the most negative NIMBY I have encountered and few people are singly more responsible for the high cost of housing in SF than her.

    The purpose of the Planning department is to get things built and not to get them not built.

  4. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!! There are people on this website posting this I disagree with! Banish them!!

  5. So Sue Hestor raises a couple of very legitimate issues that were ignored or missed by the Planning Department and draws the wrath of the right-wing harpies that lurk on the 48-Hills thread. Worse, they attack who she is and what she does rather than deal with the substance of the article. Oh, and they didn’t forget to throw in some barbs against Campos and Kim.

    Here’s a solution: exile this group to Houston where they can bask in an unregulated nirvana.

  6. I’ve often wondered about the San Francisco City Planning Department.
    I’ve wondered about the size of the staff (almost 200), how the members
    are selected, how many of them are San Francisco residents, their relationships
    with real estate speculators, and why the department is not more attentive to
    its mission as stated on its website: “…fostering exemplary design through
    planning controls; improving our surroundings through environmental analysis;
    preserving our unique heritage; encouraging a broad range of housing and a
    diverse job base…”, a “mission” which they seem to ignore about as often as
    they follow.

  7. In most every locality, if your design meets zoning and code, the building permit is handed to you, over the counter. That’s why we have all these neighborhood studies like the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, here in SF. The time for NIMBY input was during the many years it took to iron them out. Also the fact that any self-entitled renter in an adjacent building can gum up the works and complain just so they can have their 15 mins of power needs to come to an end. If you’ve ever wondered why housing is so expensive here, this is why. The Economist had an excellent article about the subject several weeks ago.

  8. Sue Hestor is probably the most miserable person in all of San Francisco, and that is saying something.
    She has done more to ensure the continuing gentrification of San Franciscos neighborhoods than all of he greediest developers combined.
    The heart of her “concern” is really just a need to insert her opinion on everything planning, because as she puts it : “I created the opportunity to have this discussion” – not the developer proposing the development, not the project sponsor – Sue Hestor!
    I wonder what else Sue feels like she brought into being through her incessant negativity and need for everyone to hear her very important objections?
    Sue is the living embodiment of an anachronism, the last shrill gasp of the harpy baby boomer who claims not only that the sky is falling, but its falling because SHE says its so.
    The sooner that she and napoleon are gone from SF the better

  9. Is any of this news? Jane Kim has been in office since 2010 now, David Campos since 2008, and all of a sudden they are shocked, shocked with business as usual at Planning.

    As for Kim’s legislation, any Supervisor can issue an ongoing request for information to any department for the figures she’s trying to legislate.

    The articles of faith of the housing activist scripture are a sacrosanct higher power–keep coming back, it works!

  10. Similarly, while I agree with the Planning Commission’s approval of 150 Van Ness, I do believe that the Planning Department should have engaged the Montessori school way in advance and worked to mitigate problems. It’s a school, a scarce and needed resource in San Francisco. Also, I’m not sure that I approve with the building’s north wall being built within 5 feet of another structure.

    Regardless, I’m sick and tired of this episodic variance nonsense. It isn’t the ‘wild west’ any longer, but you’d never know by the willfully ignorant people at the Planning Department. What an embarrassment they are to urban planning.

    Somebody follow their bank accounts, emails or phone logs, because nobody is that stupid.

  11. As long as we are on the subject of the Planning Department, let me request that folks take a look at this struggle in my neighborhood where we are trying to stop a real estate speculator from demolishing one of the few remaining Earthquake Shacks in order to build a 5000+ square-foot, single-family monster house: http://www.SaveTheShack.net.

    Take note that in the absence of neighbors just happening to find out about the attempt to demolish this Earthquake Shack, there would have been no public notice about the application by the speculator to demolish the shack. Nor is there any public hearing process. No wonder Planning gets away with so much [add your own four-letter word].

    Feel free to sign the petition on this http://www.SaveTheShack.net website.

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