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News + PoliticsOpinionThe mayor's upzoning plans will deeply damage SF's neighborhoods

The mayor’s upzoning plans will deeply damage SF’s neighborhoods

Demolitions, speculations, and displacement are in store if the city moves forward with Breed's approach.


“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”  —Jane Jacobs

“Some who are fortunate to have communities still do fight to keep them, but they have seldom prevailed.  While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can’t afford to lose it, but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost.”  —Jane Jacobs

 “If we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods.” —Harvey Milk

The massive citywide rezoning proposed by the mayor and under consideration at the Planning Commission will have disastrous impacts on San Francisco and directly threatens our neighborhoods.

The state mandated Housing Element of the General Plan calls for removing all density controls on lots in much of the western and central parts of the city, and dramatically increasing heights from between 65 feet to, in some cases, as high as 240 feet. These proposed height increases are concentrated in neighborhood commercial corridors. There are 167 official legacy business in the affected area.

Demolition as part of redevelopment in the Western Addition. Historic photo of the Western Addition during redevelopment, from the SF Library.

The plan appears to be a contemporary version of redevelopment programs. It envisions massive demolitions, without regard to what is being lost in the process. There is no consideration of the loss of a sense of community and an understanding that we are not isolated individuals but part of something larger. 

The proponents have failed to learn from the history of redevelopment programs in San Francisco, particularly in the Western Addition and Fillmore. Thousands of people lost their homes and businesses. A vibrant African American culture was lost and has never recovered. Efforts to bring back what was lost have all failed.

The negative impacts of this upzoning will be felt long before the first new unit is constructed. The adoption of the plan will immediately result in increases in land values. Landlords will be motivated to rid their property of tenants to maximize that value. Renewals of expired commercial leases will likely be threatened, impacting the survival of small and neighborhood businesses. Landlords in residential buildings will have an incentive to keep their buildings unoccupied. 

The Planning Department acknowledges that it has yet to develop plans to protect displaced local and neighborhood businesses. The planners assume that such businesses will be able to relocate to the new buildings. There has been no analysis of the feasibility of such relocations, especially after the passage of years before the new buildings are constructed. How would such businesses survive until they are relocated and how could they be protected from huge rent increases? The history of the Western Addition and South-of-Market redevelopment areas has a clear message: The small businesses do not survive.

There appears to be no real plan to protect vulnerable residential tenants from displacement. The Planning Department acknowledges that current ideas are inadequate and more extensive measures need to be developed. Developing these measures will be of little value after the fact.

This proposal anticipates a substantial increase in population. The Planning Department acknowledges that there is no current analysis or plan to deal with the provision of needed infrastructure for the increased population. There has been no study of the financial feasibility of providing these services, everything from sewer and electrical capacity to the need for parks and open space.

What will be the impact on schools, local businesses as well as the availability of grocery stores, childcare facilities, and playgrounds? The plan is designed to be transit intensive and the new buildings will have little or no parking. Yet, there has been no consideration of either the practicality of or financial feasibility of making the required improvements to the transportation system. 

The assumption of a dramatic increase in population is not supported by recent data. Since the 2020 census, the population of San Francisco has fallen not increased. The 2020 census found 873,965 residents; the census bureau’s estimate as of July 1, 2022 is 808,427, a decline of 7.5 percent. Is there any solid reason to project a significant population increase?

Though the city’s population increased by 38 percent since 1940, the number of housing units increased by 79 percent—and yet, in the early 2020s, the city was experiencing a housing shortage, understandable only because the average housing unit in 1940 held three people, and the average housing unit in 2020 held two.

Although the proposed upzoning is couched in terms of creating housing opportunities for low and moderate-income households, families, seniors, people with disabilities, essential workers, by far the most extensive impact would be to create large amounts of market rate housing, and there is limited evidence to justify such an expansion of market-rate housing.

The state mandated 2023-2030 Regional Housing Needs Assessment Needs Allocation requires San Francisco to approve more than 82,000 units over a period of seven years. Of these, 35,400 units are “affordable housing” units ranging from those affordable to extremely low-income households to those affordable to moderate income households. The cost of building such affordable housing over the next seven years is about $19 billion. 

The bond measure on the March ballot in the amount of $300 million is only 1.5 percent of that. 

The only solution that this up zoning offers is based on the neoliberal theory that markets will solve our problems. This has never worked and won’t work this time.

 The massive rezoning is a blunt instrument applied throughout large swaths of the city without an examination of the differences between neighborhoods and how the impacts would vary from area to area. For example, there are numerous areas with substantial historic resources included in the rezoned areas, yet there are only vague and unconvincing answers as to how those areas can be protected. This issue is being left for future analysis.

San Francisco has about two years before it is required to respond to State demands. A thorough economic analysis of potential impacts should be conducted before any up zoning is adopted. The city should take advantage of that time to develop a carefully crafted program that recognizes our most important values, including the value of community. 

Dennis Antenore is a former member of the SF Planning Commission.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram


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